Russell ShawSt. Thomas Aquinas and angry American voters

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Americans, a goodly number of them anyway, are angry. Opinion polls and both parties' primaries are evidence of that. But will this anger be put to good use or  squandered? At the moment, squandering appears the better bet.

A passage I stumbled across while reading around in Josef Pieper's wonderful little book The Four Cardinal Virtues got me thinking about these matters. Pieper, a philosopher of note in his own right, was a brilliant expositor of St. Thomas Aquinas whose deeply Thomistic virtue book is a masterpiece.

Still, someone might reasonably ask what does the 13th century Angelic Doctor can possibly have to say to 21st century America? Judge for yourself. Here's the passage from Pieper, in a chapter on the cardinal virtue of temperance, that caught my attention:

"The combination of the intemperateness of lustfulness with the lazy inertia incapable of generating anger is the sign of complete and virtually hopeless degeneration. It appears whenever a caste, a people, or a whole civilization is ripe for its decline and fall."

No sober observer of today's America can seriously ignore deny the presence of  intemperate lustfulness in a broad swath of popular culture. But how about the anger of the people who've given vociferous support to some of our presidential candidates? Is their wrathful discontent a kind of blessing in disguise-a bulwark against the decline and fall of which Pieper warns?

Following Aquinas, Pieper leaves no doubt that intemperate anger is as bad a thing as intemperate sexual passion. Yet "anger is 'good,'" he writes, "if in accordance with the order of reason, it is brought into service for the true goals of man" among them the righting of wrongs and the elimination of injustices.

But aren't righting wrongs and remedying injustices just what the anger of the anger candidates' supporters want? Underlying their disgust with "the establishment" and "the system" is well-founded disgust with a political system  that has become visibly dysfunctional and an economy in which a handful of lucky CEOs are rewarded with multi-million-dollar compensation packages even as debate rages over a proposed $15 hourly minimum wage.

If you think that the anger widely felt in the face of these disturbing circumstances has the potential of becoming, with proper guidance, an engine driving reform, you may reasonably find that anger encouraging. In which case I regret to tell you that the chances of reform happening are not good.

There are several reasons for that. Among them is the fact that the anger candidates haven't gone beyond tapping into a preexisting reservoir of public wrath in order to win support, without offering practical reform proposals that they would pursue if elected. Add the fact that it's now somewhere between highly probable and certain that the presidential campaign of 2016 will be an unusually ugly affair of mutual defamation and personal insult aimed at stoking still more anger without directing it to any positive result. The result: whoever wins will enter the Oval Office facing an ugly ocean of resentment in the country and in Congress-anger, yes, but anger of a destructive, unfruitful kind-making our recent years of stalemate look like a golden age of political comity and creative dialogue. 

Josef Pieper joins St. Thomas in naming the forms of intemperate anger as blind wrath, bitterness of spirit and resentment bent on revenge. If that is where America is headed, instead of celebrating anger in the service of noble goals, we need to pray. Pray what? That's obvious: God help the United States.

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