Home      Back to Trinity 6





an essay in the Sunday Times reprinted in

The Seven Deadly Sins

W. H. Auden

William Morrow and Co. New York, 1961.



Like all the sins except pride, anger is a perversion, caused by pride, of something in our nature which in itself is innocent, necessary to our existence and good.   Thus, while everyone is proud in the same way, each of us is angry or lustful or envious in his own way. 


Natural, or innocent, anger is the necessary reaction of a creature when its survival is threatened by the attack of another creature and it cannot save itself (or its offspring) by flight.  Such anger, accompanied by physiological changes, like increased secretion of adrenalin, inhibits fear so that the attacked creature is able to resist the threat to its extinction.  In the case of young creatures that are not yet capable of looking after themselves, anger is a necessary emotion when their needs are neglected: a hungry baby does right to scream.  Natural anger is a reflex reaction, not a voluntary one; it is a response to a real situation of threat and danger, and as soon as the threat is removed, the anger subsides.  No animal lets the sun go down upon its wrath.  Moreover, Lorentz has shown that, in fights between the social animals, when, by adopting a submissive posture, the weaker puts itself at the mercy of the stronger, this inhibits further aggression by the latter. 


Anger, even when it is sinful, has one virtue; it overcomes sloth.  Anybody, like a schoolmaster, a stage director or an orchestral conductor, whose business it is to teach others to do something, knows that, on occasions, the quickest perhaps the only way to get those under him to do their best is to make them angry. 


Anger as a sin is either futile (the situation in which one finds oneself cannot or should not be changed, but must be accepted) or unnecessary (the situation could be mastered as well or better without it).  Man is potentially capable of the sin of anger because he is endowed with memory the experience of an event persists and with the faculty of symbolization (to him, no object or event is simply itself).  He becomes actually guilty of anger because he is first of all guilty of the sin of pride, of which anger is one of many possible manifestations. 


Because every human being sees the world from a unique perspective, he can, and does, choose to regard himself as its centre.  The sin of anger is one of our reactions to any threat, not to our existence, but to our fancy that our existence is more important than the existence of anybody or anything else.  None of us wishes to be omnipotent, because the desires of each are limited.  We are glad that other things and people exist with their own ways of behaving life would be very dull if they didn't so long as they do not thwart our own.  Similarly, we do not want others to conform with our wishes because they must life would be very lonely if they did but because they choose to; we want DEVOTED slaves. 


The British middle-class culture in which I grew up strongly discouraged overt physical expression of anger; it was far more permissive, for example, towards gluttony, lust and avarice.  In consequence, I cannot now remember 'losing' my temper so that I was beside myself and hardly knew what I was doing.  Since childhood, at least, I have never physically assaulted anyone, thrown things or chewed the carpet.  (I do, now and again, slam doors.) Nor have I often seen other people do these things.  In considering anger, therefore, most of my facts are derived from introspection and may not be valid for others, or from literature, in which truth has to be subordinated to dramatic effect.  No fits of temper in real life are quite as interesting as those of Lear, Coriolanus or Timon. 

In my own case I must leave the psychological explanation to professionals - my anger is more easily aroused by things and impersonal events than by other people.  I don't, I believe, really expect others to do what I wish and am seldom angry when they don't; on the other hand I do expect God or Fate to oblige me.  I do not mind losing at cards if the other players are more skilful than I, but, if I cannot help losing because I have been dealt a poor hand, I get furious.  If traffic lights fail to change obligingly to red when I wish to cross the road, I am angry; if I enter a restaurant and it is crowded, I am angry.  My anger, that is to say, is most easily aroused by a situation which is (a) not to my liking, (b) one I know I cannot change, and (c) one for which I can hold no human individual responsible. 


Change of Nature


This last condition is the most decisive.  I like others to be on time and hate to be kept waiting, but if someone deliberately keeps me waiting because, say, he is annoyed with me or wishes to impress me with his importance, I am far less angry than I am if I know him to be unpunctual by nature.  In the first case, I feel I must be partly responsible if I had behaved otherwise in the past, he would not have kept me waiting; and I feel hopeful perhaps I can act in the future in such a way that our relationship will change and he will be punctual next time.  In the second case, I know that it is in his nature to be late for others, irrespective of their relationship, so that, in order to be on time, he would have to become another person. 


My fantastic expectation that fate will do as I wish goes so far that my immediate reaction to an unexpected event, even a pleasant surprise, is anger.  Among the British middle class, repressed physical violence found its permitted substitute in verbal aggression, and the more physically pacific the cultural subgroup (academic and clerical circles, for instance), the more savage the tongue one thinks of the families in Miss Compton-Burnett's novels, or of Professor Housman jotting down deadly remarks for future use. 


Compared with physical aggression, verbal aggression has one virtue; it does not require the presence of its victim.  To say nasty things about someone behind his back is at least preferable to saying them to his face.  On the other hand, for intelligent and talented persons, it has two great moral dangers.  First, verbal malice, if witty, wins the speaker social approval.  (Why is it that kind remarks are very seldom as funny as unkind?)  Secondly, since, in verbal malice, the ill-will of the heart is associated with the innocent play of the imagination, a malicious person can forget that he feels ill-will in a way that a physically aggressive person cannot.  His audience, however, is not so easily deceived.  Two people may make almost the same remark; one, we feel immediately, is being only playful, the other has a compulsive wish to denigrate others. 




Simone Weil has described how, when she was suffering from acute migraine, she felt a desire to strike others on the same spot where she felt the pain herself.  Most acts of cruelty, surely, are of this kind.  We wish to make others suffer because we are impotent to relieve our own sufferings (which need not, of course, be physical).  Any threat to our self-importance is enough to create a lifelong resentment, and most of us, probably, cherish a great deal more resentment than we are normally aware of.  I like to fancy myself as a kind-hearted person who hates cruelty.  And why shouldn't I be kind?  I was loved as a child, I have never suffered a serious injury either from another individual or from society, and I enjoy good health.  Yet, now and again, I meet a man or a woman who arouses in me the desire to ill-treat them.  They are always perfectly harmless people, physically unattractive (I can detect no element of sexual sadism in my feelings) and helpless.  It is, I realize with shame, their helplessness which excites my ill-will.  Here is someone who, whatever I did to him or her, would not fight back, an ideal victim, therefore, upon whom to vent all my resentments, real or imagined, against life. 


If it were really possible for suffering to be transferred like a coin from one person to another, there might be circumstances in which it was morally permissible; and if, however mistakenly, we believed that it was possible, acts of cruelty might occasionally be excusable.  The proof that we do not believe such a transfer to be possible is that, when we attempt it, we are unsatisfied unless the suffering we inflict upon others is at least a little greater than the suffering that has been inflicted upon ourselves. 


The transferability-of-suffering fallacy underlies the doctrine of retributive punishment, and there is so little evidence that the threat of punishment the threat of public exposure is another matter is an effective deterrent to crime, or that its infliction self-inflicted penance is again another matter has a reformatory effect, that it is impossible to take any other theory of punishment seriously.  By punishment, I mean, of course, the deliberate infliction of physical or mental suffering beyond what the safety of others requires.  There will probably always be persons who, whether they like it or not, have to be quarantined, some, perhaps, for the rest of their lives. 


'Righteous Anger'


The anger felt by the authorities which makes them eager to punish is of the same discreditable kind which one can sometimes observe among parents and dog-owners, an anger at the lack of respect for his betters which the criminal has shown by daring to commit his crime.  His real offence in the eyes of the authorities is not that he has done something wrong but that he has done something which THEY have forbidden. 


'Righteous anger' is a dubious term.  Does it mean anything more than that there are occasions when the sin of anger is a lesser evil than cowardice or sloth?  I know that a certain state of affairs or the behaviour of a certain person is morally evil and I know what should be done to put an end to it; but, without getting angry, I cannot summon up the energy and the courage to take action. 


Righteous anger can effectively resist and destroy evil, but the more one relies upon it as a source of energy, the less energy and attention one can give to the good which is to replace the evil once it has been removed.  That is why, though there may have been some just wars, there has been no just peace.  Nor is it only the vanquished who suffer; I have known more than one passionate anti-Nazi who went to pieces once Hitler had been destroyed.  Without Hitler to hate, their lives had no raison d'etre. 


'One should hate the sin and love the sinner.'  Is this possible?  The evil actions which I might be said to hate are those which I cannot imagine myself committing.  When I read of the deeds of a Hoess or an Eichmann, from whom I have not personally suffered, though I certainly do not love them, their minds are too unintelligible to hate.  On the other hand, when I do something of which I am ashamed, I hate myself, not what I have done; if I had hated it, I should not have done it. 


I wish the clergy today I am thinking of the Anglican Church because She is the one I know best would not avoid, as they seem to, explaining to us what the Church means by Hell and the Wrath of God.  The public is left with the impression, either that She no longer believes in them or that She holds a doctrine which is a moral monstrosity no decent person could believe. 


Theological definitions are necessarily analogical, but it is singularly unfortunate that the analogies for Hell which the Church has used in the past should have been drawn from Criminal Law.  Criminal laws are imposed laws - they come into being because some people are not what they should be, and the purpose of the law is to compel them by force and fear to behave.  A law can always be broken and it is ineffective unless the authorities have the power to detect and punish, and the resolution to act at once. 


To think of God's laws as imposed leads to absurdities.  Thus, the popular conception of what the Church means by Hell could not unfairly be described as follows.  God is an omniscient policeman who is not only aware of every sin we have committed but also of every sin we are going to commit.  But for seventy years or so He does nothing, but lets every human being commit any sin he chooses.  Then, suddenly, He makes an arrest and, in the majority of cases, the sinner is sentenced to eternal torture. 


Souls in Hell


Such a picture is not without its appeal; none of us likes to see his enemies, righteous or unrighteous, flourishing on earth like a green bay tree.  But it cannot be called Christian.  Some tender-minded souls have accepted the analogy but tried to give eternity a time limit: in the end, they say, the Devil and damned will be converted.  But this is really no better.  God created the world; He was not brought in later to make it a good one.  If His love could ever be coercive and affect the human will without its co-operation, then a failure to exercise it from the first moment would make Him directly responsible for all the evil and suffering in the world.


If God created the world, then the laws of the spiritual life are as much laws of our nature as the laws of physics and physiology, which we can defy but not break.  If I jump out of the window or drink too much I cannot be said to break the law of gravity or a biochemical law, nor can I speak of my broken leg or my hangover as a punishment inflicted by an angry Nature.  As Wittgenstein said: 'Ethics does not treat of the world.  Ethics must be a condition of the world like logic.'  To speak of the Wrath of God cannot mean that God is Himself angry.  It is the unpleasant experience of a creature, created to love and be happy, when he defies the laws of his spiritual nature.  To believe in Hell as a possibility is to believe that God cannot or will not ever compel us to love and be happy.  The analogy which occurs to me is with neurosis.  (This, of course, is misleading too because, in these days, many people imagine that, if they can call their behaviour neurotic, they have no moral responsibility for it).  A neurotic, an alcoholic, let us say, is not happy; on the contrary, he suffers terribly, yet no one can relieve his suffering without his consent and this he so often withholds.  He insists on suffering because his ego cannot bear the pain of facing reality and the diminution of self-importance which a cure would involve. 


If there are any souls in Hell, it is not because they have been sent there, but because Hell is where they insist upon being.