On Wrath

In 2017, I reflected on the four cardinal virtues, exploring them one per season through the year. Practicing virtue was an exercise in saying yes. But as I gradually realized, in order to do this, I also needed to decide where I should say ‘no’. And so, by the end of the year, I started thinking about sin, and the role of that concept in leading us towards the good life. Sin is a precious concept, acknowledging that not all our instincts and appetites are good. There are things we do, whether as individuals or collectively, that we should resist and condemn. But what this is may not always be transparent, and therefore, we must cultivate discernment. So, this year, from the first of January till Easter, I will consider the seven deadly sins – Sloth, Pride, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath, Envy – as an inherited typology supporting the practice of prudence, and share my reflections on this blog every thirteen days, in the form of a free-flowing meditation.

Late on Tuesday, I found myself looking at Facebook. A friend had shared an article on a new proposal from our immigration minister, to give white South African farmers exposed to violence at home a fast-track to an Australian visa. The same minister had previously opposed increasing visa numbers because of the burden on Australia’s welfare system and the risk to Australia’s jobs. At 11h30, I shared the piece on Facebook with a flaming quote: “For a moment, I thought that our present government had something against refugees, and I felt ethically challenged. But as it turns out, I was wrong this whole time – they’ve got nothing against refugees, just brown people. Now that’s a government I can proudly stand behind!” At 1am, I still couldn’t sleep – I was excited by my act of righteous boldness, curious to see reactions, ready to go and overthrow the government. What happened in the end? Nothing more than a few likes and comments – I deprived myself of time I could have used more productively, literally burning it in the fires of wrath.

My first long piece of writing explored wrath: it was a verse tragedy called The Sirens about the death of Patroclus and the wrath of Achilles. The Illiad is the a cornerstone of the Western canon. Achilles, Greece’s foremost warrior, incensed by some internal slight with another general, is overtaken by wrath and refuses to fight. His lover Patroclus goes in his stead and is killed on the battlefield ,shifting Achilles wrath against the Trojans. The version I wrote opens and closes with Achilles’ mother, the sea-goddess Thetis, and her choir of sirens, calling her son to rejoin her in the shapeless ocean. At the beginning, Achilles, tired of the war, dreams of dissolving back into the maternal waters with his lover. The guile of Greek generals sends Patroclus to the battlefield – he’s not the son of a Goddess, and could only stand on equal footing with demi-God Achilles through the glory of heroic battle. The death of Patroclus prompts a change in Achilles: the only way that he now can unite with his lover is by rejecting murky death by water, and instead, join him on the funreal pyre of heroes.

Wrath is the fiery twin of depression. It is a form of moral perfectionism, an allergy to the corrupt world. It is a mask of strength hiding internal weakness. It is not a last resort resistance to evil, but violence let loose. Wrath is possession: alienated freedom. And so wrath is always a form of self-destruction. Every time we give in to wrath, we reproduce on a small scale the actsof a suicide bomber.

But wait – I hear you say – is not God himself wrathful? Here may be the crux of it. In wrath, all human doubt and frailty vanishes. We know what is right, and if we just let the powers of wrath take possession of our bodies and souls, we feel that we could bring order to the world. Is this not a sacrifice worth making? So wrath is ultimate temptation, inviting us to be like God: the most harmful and seductive form of hybris.