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Anger—what is it good for?

Martha Nussbaum thinks we shouldn’t lose our tempers. Good luck with that, says Julian Baggini

Anger and Forgiveness: Resentment, Generosity, Justice

by Martha Nussbaum (Oxford University Press, £16.99)

When a philosopher writes a book with five abstract nouns in a six-word title, you might justly fear a laboured tome of desiccating logical analysis. When the author is Martha Nussbaum, however, you can be reassured. Nussbaum is one of the most productive and insightful thinkers of her generation, though strangely undervalued in the UK. She combines a philosopher’s demand for conceptual clarity and rigorous thinking with a novelist’s interest in narrative, art and literature. The result is an impressive body of work spanning the overlapping territories of politics, ethics and the emotions.

Her latest work examines the significance of anger and forgiveness in the intimate and political spheres, as well as in the “middle realm” between them in which we interact with each other as colleagues, acquaintances and fellow citizens. It belongs to a genre entirely of its own, a kind of highbrow political-, social- and self-improvement.

Its core thesis is summed up in her opening discussion of Aeschylus’ Oresteia trilogy. In its final part, The Eumenides, Athena brings the bloody cycle of vengeance to an end by establishing a court, judge and jury. This allows reasoned law to take the place of the Furies, the ancient goddesses of revenge, who are nonetheless invited to take their place in the city. Nussbaum says that many understand the play “to be a recognition that the legal system must incorporate the dark vindictive passions and honour them.” However, when the Furies accept Athena’s offer they do so with “a gentle temper” and change their name to the “Kindly Ones” (Eumenides). Anger and revenge are not reintegrated, they are transformed.

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In Prospect’s September issue: Paul Johnson argues that there is no getting away from the fact our economic prospects have got worse post-Brexit. Paul Wallace attempts to outline how the government will try and deal with that situation, while Nicolas Véron suggests that The City of London will decline outside the European Union. On a brighter note, Clive James explores what we can learn from the television show Mad Men. Also in this issue: Patience Wheatcroft, the Conservative peer, suggests that Brexit might not be a done deal with a rebellion in the Lords possible. Thomas Chatterton Williams explores the work and Beyoncé and argues that black artists are failing to say anything profound and James Dyson outlines how he would rule the world.