St. Isaiah the Solitary, On Guarding the Intellect, Twenty-Seven Texts
1. There is among the passions an anger of the intellect, and this anger is in accordance with nature. Without anger a man cannot attain purity; he has to feel angry with all that is sown in him by the enemy. When Job felt this anger he reviled his enemies, calling them “dishonorable men of no repute, lacking everything good, whom I would not consider fit to love with the dogs that guard my flocks.” He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.
Amidst the usual emphasis on stilling the passions, it’s rather striking that the very first words of the Philokalia are on a good passion. The general view expressed, that the passions are unnatural and residues of sin, is mollified right away, by a good passion.
One might think that this “anger of the intellect” is against untruth or unrighteousness or such things. And, in a sense, so it is. But this is a paradoxical reversal. Normally anger is about self-assertion, whether it is defensive or offensive anger, it is about protecting or advancing the self over and against others. But notice that St. Isaiah’s conclusion is that the acquisition of this anger requires the uprooting of self-will. So it is a strange anger, an anger which is not about advancing the self but about defeating the self, or a particular part of it.
Indeed, if ordinary anger is about the assertion of the self, this is an anger which is turned against ordinary anger. It is the anger of frustration and dislike for all that within us is “sown by the enemy.” All the spiritual decay and sordidness of our hearts, is here to be angered at. St. Isaiah is telling us that the one thing we must not attempt to make peace with is our own lack of peace! We must not be complacent with our own deficiencies and sinfulness, but instead we must, at least, be angry at them. Even if we are impotent to change them or our efforts are frustrated, we must at least not rest.
This anger at our own shortcomings is also a sort of hunger for God, I think. The same frustration with our own brokenness and the things in us we want to change, but cannot, is a hunger for the God who can change them and us. In other words, the one disquietude we should have is a yearning for God; the one rest and contentment we should not have is to rest and be content with the absence of God.
And this is a natural anger, which is not only the statement that it is not part of our fallen nature, but that it is functional. It is a sort of natural tendency in us to restore our equilibrium, an equilibrium which our fallen nature has lost. There is within us a sort of “restoring force” which pushes us back to our center, back to God. And that restoring force is here seen to be a species of anger, that is, of passionate and powerful disquietude with our lack of proper equilibrium.
St. Isaiah also offers here a bit of spiritual exegesis, a suggestion for how we might read imprecatory passages of Scripture. The great and holy Job was angry at his friends, says Isaiah, and this was the natural good sort of anger. But this must mean that Job was angry at “what was sown within him by the enemy.” The point is that what his friends said to him was a sowing in him of doubt and discord, and with which he was angry, and rightly so. Job was right to maintain his integrity, and those who tried to impugn him were wrong in doing so, and Job was rightly bothered by what had been sown in him, and rightly angry at it.
Indeed, the reference from Job 30 here is about Job’s being made an object of ridicule, and with the self-focus of St. Isaiah’s context, it is ultimately that Job is losing confidence in himself (or a part of him is) and he is angry with that part, sown in him by the words of his friends.
The broader sense here is the very common one that imprecatory scriptures can be read as imprecatory towards our own misdeeds, of course, a theme that is very common among spiritual writers.
Index of Comments on the Philokalia