Anger is a common and potentially destructive emotion that turns many a human life into a living hell. It’s hard to imagine a truly wise person like the Dalai Lama ever losing his temper. By a careful meditation, we can learn to control our anger and maybe even banish it entirely from our lives.

The philosopher Aristotle discusses anger at great length. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he says that a good-tempered person can sometimes get angry, but only as he ought to. Such a person, he continues, might get angry too soon or not enough, yet still be praised for being good-tempered. It is only if he deviates more markedly from the mean with respect to anger that he becomes blameworthy, either ‘irascible’ at one extreme or ‘lacking in spirit’ at the other.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle … anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle defines anger as an impulse, accompanied by pain, to a conspicuous revenge for a conspicuous slight that has been directed either at the person himself or at his friends. He adds that the pain of anger can be accompanied by pleasure arising from the expectation of revenge. I’m not so sure. Even if anger does contain a part of pleasure, this a very thin kind of pleasure, akin to whatever ‘pleasure’ I might derive from saying “if you ruin my day, I’ll ruin yours” or “look how big I think I am”.

A person, says Aristotle, can be slighted out of one of three things: contempt, spite, and insolence. In either case, the slight betrays the offender’s feelings that the slighted person is obviously of no importance. The slighted person may or may not get angry but is more likely to do so if he is in distress—for example, in poverty or in love—or if he feels insecure about the subject of the slight or about himself in general.

On the other hand, he is less likely to get angry if the slight is involuntary, unintentional, or itself provoked by anger, or if the offender apologies or humbles himself before him and behaves like his inferior. Even dogs, says Aristotle, do not bite sitting people. The slighted person is also less likely to get angry if the offender has done him more kindnesses than he has returned, or obviously respects him, or is feared or admired by him.

Once provoked, anger can be quelled by the feeling that the slight is deserved, by the passage of time, by the exaction of revenge, by the suffering of the offender, or by being redirected onto a third person. Thus, although angrier at Ergophilius than Callisthenes, the people acquitted Ergophilius because they had already condemned Callisthenes to death. Writing two thousand years before the birth of psychoanalysis, Aristotle seems to have put his finger on the ego defence of displacement, with the people’s anger for Ergophilius ‘displaced’ onto Callisthenes.

There is a clear sense in which Aristotle is correct in speaking of such a thing as right or proper anger. Anger can serve a number of useful, even vital, functions. It can put an end to a bodily, emotional, or social threat, or, failing that, it can mobilize mental and physical resources for defensive or restitutive action. If judiciously exercised, it can enable a person to signal high social status, compete for rank and position, ensure that contracts and promises are fulfilled, and even inspire positive feelings such as respect and sympathy. A person who is able to exercise anger judiciously is likely to feel better about himself, more in control, more optimistic, and more prone to the sort of risk taking that promotes successful outcomes.

On the other hand, anger, and especially unconstrained anger, can lead to poor perspective and judgement, impulsive and destructive behaviour, and loss of standing and goodwill. So, it appears that the sort of anger that is justified, strategic, and adaptive ought to be distinguished from a second type of anger (let us call it ‘rage’) that is uncalled for, unprocessed, irrational, indiscriminate, and uncontrolled. The function of rage is simply to protect a threatened ego, replacing or masking one kind of pain with another.

But even right or proportionate anger is unhelpful in so far as it is anger, which is both painful and harmful, and harmful because it involves a loss of perspective and judgement. Here’s an example. Anger, and especially rage, strengthens correspondence bias, that is, the tendency to attribute observed behaviours to dispositional (or personality-related) factors rather than situational factors. For instance, if I forget to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because I have been busy and suddenly felt very tired (situational factors); but if Emma forgets to do the dishes, I am under the impression that this is because she is lazy or irresponsible or maybe even vindictive (dispositional factors).

More fundamentally, anger reinforces the illusion that people exercise a high degree of free will, whereas in actual fact most of a person’s actions and the brain activity that they correspond to are determined by past events and the cumulative effects of those past events on that person’s patterns of thinking and behaving. Emma is Emma because she is Emma, and, at least in the short-term, there is precious little that she can do about that. It follows that the only person who can truly deserve our anger is the one who acted freely, that is, the one who spited us freely and therefore probably rightly! Anger is a vicious circle: it arises from poor perspective and makes it much poorer still.

This does not mean that anger is never justified, as a display of anger—even if undeserved—can still serve a benevolent strategic purpose, as when we pretend to get angry at a child for the benefit of shaping his or her character. But if all that is ever required is a calculated display of anger, then true anger that involves real pain is entirely superfluous, its presence serving merely to betray… a certain lack of understanding.

The world is as it is and always has been: raging against it is hardly going to make anything better. And it is by truly and permanently understanding this that we can banish real, painful, and destructive anger from our lives. But this, of course, assumes that we can accept the world for what it is.


The protagonist of the British sitcom Keeping Up Appearances is the social-climbing snob Hyacinth Bucket—or ‘Bouquet’, as she insists it be pronounced. To give the impression that she employs domestic staff, she famously answers her beloved pearl-white slim line telephone with, ‘The Bouquet residence; the lady of the house speaking.’ The very middle-middle class Hyacinth spends most of her efforts trying to impress others in the hope of passing off as posh, while looking down on anyone who does not meet her approval. And this is the simple recipe for five seasons of very British comedy.

It is sometimes said that the word ‘snob’ originates from the Latin sine nobilitate (‘without nobility’), used in abbreviated form—s.nob—on lists of names by Cambridge colleges, passenger ships etc. to distinguish between titled and non-titled individuals. In fact, ‘snob’ was first recorded in the late 18th century as a term for a shoemaker or his apprentice, though it is true that Cambridge students came to apply it to those outside the university. By the early 19th century, ‘snob’ had come to mean something like ‘a person who lacks breeding’, and then, as social structures became more fluid, ‘a social climber’.

Today, a snob is someone who:

  • Accords exaggerated importance to one or more superficial traits such as wealth, social status, beauty, or academic credentials,
  • Perceives people with those traits to be of higher human worth,
  • Lays claim to those traits for him- or her-self, often unduly, and
  • Denigrates those who lack those traits.

So there are three main aspects to snobbery: exaggerating the importance of certain traits, laying claim to those traits, and, last but not least, denigrating those who lack them. “I’m not a snob,” said Simon Le Bon, in jest: “Ask anybody. Well, anybody who matters.”

Snobbery is not simply a matter of discernment, however expensive or refined our tastes may be: a so-called wine ‘snob’, who enjoys and even insists on good wine, may or may not be an actual snob, depending on the degree of his or her prejudice (from the Latin praeiudicium, ‘prior judgement’). Speaking of wine, some young sommeliers, immersed as they are in the world of wine, can come to place undue value on wine knowledge, to the point of deprecating their own patrons—a phenomenon that has been referred to as ‘sommelier syndrome’.

Aside from its obvious unpleasantness to others, snobbery tends to undermine the snob, his achievements, and the interests and institutions that he represents. The Conservative Member of Parliament Jacob Rees-Mogg did himself, his party, and the U.K. parliament no favours when he compared people who did not go to private school or Oxford or Cambridge to ‘potted plants’.

Snobbery betrays rigidity of thinking and therefore poor judgement, as with those British aristocrats who, despite their expensive educations, admired Hitler’s autocratic style of government. The snob pigeonholes people according to superficial criteria such as their birth, their profession, or, especially in England, the way they speak, and, on that basis, either regards or disregards them. Like the wine lover who will only drink certain labels, the snob often passes over real value, quality, or originality. As company, he is an endless bore, constantly detracting from the rich texture of life and quite unable to marvel at anything except through himself.

Closely related to snobbery, and presenting some of the same pitfalls, is ‘inverse snobbery’. Inverse snobbery is the disdain for those same traits that the snob might hold in high regard, combined with admiration, whether real or feigned, for the popular, the ordinary, and the commonplace—and not just with the aim of winning an election. Inverse snobbery can be understood, in large part, as an ego defense against the status claims of others; and it is possible, indeed common, to be both a snob and an inverse snob.

But what about snobbery itself? Like inverse snobbery, snobbery can be interpreted as a symptom of social insecurity. Social insecurity may be rooted in childhood experiences, especially feelings of shame at being different, or an early sense of privilege or entitlement that cannot later be realized. Or it may be the simple result of rapid social change. With Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the ebbing of power from traditional, cultured elites has led, on all sides, to a surge in both snobbery and inverse snobbery.

In a similar vein, some snobbery may represent a reaction to an increasingly egalitarian society, reflecting a deeply ingrained human instinct that some people are better than others, that these people are more fit to rule, and that their rule tends to yield better outcomes—though, of course, one need not be a snob to share that instinct. In that much, snobbery can serve as a mechanism of class surveillance and control, as can, paradoxically, inverse snobbery, serving to entrench social hierarchies.

Finally, at an extreme, snobbery may be a manifestation of narcissistic personality disorder or broader psychopathy … which points to its antidote, namely, empathy—including towards the snob.

Snobbery, said Joseph Epstein, ‘is the desire for what divides men and the inability to value what unites them.’


In 1909, the psychologist Edward Titchener translated the German Einfühlung (‘feeling into’) into English as ‘empathy’. Empathy can be defined as a person’s ability to recognize and share the emotions of another person, fictional character, or sentient being. It involves, first, seeing someone else’s situation from his perspective, and, second, sharing his emotions, including, if any, his distress.

For me to share in someone else’s perspective, I must do more than merely put myself into his position. Instead, I must imagine myself as him, and, more than that, imagine myself as him in the particular situation in which he finds himself. I cannot empathize with an abstract or detached feeling. To empathize with a particular person, I need to have at least some knowledge of who he is and what he is doing or trying to do. As John Steinbeck wrote, ‘It means very little to know that a million Chinese are starving unless you know one Chinese who is starving.’

Empathy is often confused with pity, sympathy, and compassion, which are each reactions to the plight of others. Pity is a feeling of discomfort at the distress of one or more sentient beings, and often has paternalistic or condescending overtones. Implicit in the notion of pity is that its object does not deserve its plight, and, moreover, is unable to prevent, reverse, or overturn it. Pity is less engaged than empathy, sympathy, or compassion, amounting to little more than a conscious acknowledgement of the plight of its object.

Sympathy (‘fellow feeling’, ‘community of feeling’) is a feeling of care and concern for someone, often someone close, accompanied by a wish to see him better off or happier. Compared to pity, sympathy implies a greater sense of shared similarities together with a more profound personal engagement. However, sympathy, unlike empathy, does not involve a shared perspective or shared emotions, and while the facial expressions of sympathy do convey caring and concern, they do not convey shared distress. Sympathy and empathy often lead to each other, but not in all cases. For instance, it is possible to sympathize with such things as hedgehogs and ladybirds, but not, strictly speaking, to empathize with them. Conversely, psychopaths with absolutely no sympathy for their victims can nonetheless make use of empathy to snare or torture them. Sympathy should also be distinguished from benevolence, which is a much more detached and impartial attitude.

Compassion (‘suffering with’) is more engaged than simple empathy, and is associated with an active desire to alleviate the suffering of its object. With empathy, I share your emotions; with compassion I not only share your emotions but also elevate them into a universal and transcending experience. Compassion, which builds upon empathy, is one of the main motivators of altruism.