Homeric Anger Revisited
By putting together into one sentence of his fragments of three sentences of mine that occur on pages 1, 133, and 138 of my work, by lifting those fragments out of their contexts, and by inserting a “because” between two fragments that are actually five pages apart, Cairns has cast me as his foil, the “cultural determinist.”
By the words “constructed / construction / constructionism,” Cairns is designating phenomena that are subject to local determination by a specific culture. After saying that all aspects of “an emotional scenario” are “subject to construction and interpretation in terms which may be specific to a specific culture,” he then states that “fundamental and substantial” aspects of emotions are “not determined by culture but rather depend on biological factors,” whereupon he states that the antithesis (which he has just made) between biological and cultural aspects is false because each depends on the other. I appreciate that this formulation represents an effort to describe a complex situation in complex terms and to avoid oversimplification, but it also makes any arguing against his view difficult at best, since he at least appears to have taken every possible position and its opposite. At a minimum, Cairns’ argument against a hard and fast opposition between biological and cultural determining factors in human emotions should have mitigated the opposition that he exhibits to those whom he considers “cultural determinists” in the study of emotion, since he himself validates the possibility that “all aspects” of emotion can be culture-specific. A fortiori, even if his notion of cultural determinism is not the same as the notion of it held by those whom he argues against, if all aspects of an emotion can be culture-specific, it would be completely valid as a research methodology to assume nothing about the biological factors that (as he believes) constrain a culture’s representation of an emotion.  Those factors become part of a complex cultural system and must be interpreted as cultural in any case (compare my remarks above about phonological systems).
This definition is tailored to the notion that anger as an evolved emotion must have a socially beneficial “design,” must function as a biologically appropriate adaptation for the perpetuation of the social group, but Cairns is using semantically loaded technical terms here in ways that may not be transparent. First there is the description of anger as “an affective reaction liable to evade rational control,” which uses terminology from the neurobiological and psychological description of some emotions as reflex-like reactions that are not subject to the higher and evolutionarily newer cognitive powers of the brain—I do not think that Cairns literally wants to retroject the concept of rationality into the pleistocene epoch, which is the time frame for the evolutionary processes that evolutionary psychology strives to uncover. Second is the phrase “those who possess a recognized disposition to be angry,” in which the word “disposition” designates a genetic phenomenon that is not shared by all members of the species because it is an inborn potential that is only expressed in some members of the biological class due to individual circumstances—this would be a qualifiedly universal trait. Then there is the “adaptiveness” clause. This provides the justification for the development of the trait in question in evolutionary terms. In this case, the explanation is that the person with the disposition to anger enforces cooperation, a process which is, presumably, an ESS, an “evolutionarily stable strategy” that promotes the well-being of the species. In sum, what Cairns is reporting as the form of anger that evolved in the pleistocene is a reflex-like response to breaches of social cooperation that is not a universally-inherited genetic trait but that some people have a disposition to, and this form of anger evolved genetically because it worked in a positive biological sense, as an enforcer of social cooperation for the well-being of the species.
The fact that the expression of many emotions has an integral physiological component does not of itself prove that this or any other particular form of anger must be genetic.
Here is what Noam Chomsky, who has called evolutionary psychology “a philosophy of mind with a little bit of science thrown in,” has said about adaptiveness arguments:
A discipline that is never at a loss for an explanation does not carry conviction, whether those explanations are mutually contradictory or not;  such explanations are “stories” in several senses of the term, in that they are easy to produce and multiply. P. E. Griffiths, who has provided a detailed, sympathetic, but still substantively critical treatment of evolutionary psychology, has this to say about the way that adaptiveness stories mislead about the scientific value of the conclusions of evolutionary psychology with respect to human emotion:
An important current debate on the evolution of language takes on these disciplinary problems of evolutionary psychology, namely the debate between one set of thinkers like Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch, on the one hand, who hypothesize that human language evolved as an exaptation, a kind of secondary or indirect consequence of other adaptations,  as against another set of thinkers like Pinker and Jackendoff, who defend an evolutionary-psychological view that it is a “complex adaptation for communication which evolved piecemeal.”  To work towards a resolution of the question, Hauser, Chomsky, and Fitch propose a multi-disciplinary research program that features “the comparative method, which uses empirical data from living species to draw detailed inferences about extinct ancestors” and involves “testable hypotheses” and “much less of the adaptive storytelling and phylogenetic speculation that has traditionally characterized the field.” 
I find the remarks impugning my motives and inventing pretensions for me uncollegial and unjustified, but, more importantly, I believe strongly that Cairns misrepresents what I wrote.
To characterize the contrast between modern English and ancient Greek terms for emotion that I was drawing in this discussion as an “antithesis” (a word that Cairns uses twice in the space of two sentences) between modern and ancient conceptions of emotions and as “an unreflective definition of a modernity that has to be the polar opposite of antiquity if cultural determinist assumptions are to be maintained” is not an accurate description of the complex distinction I was trying to articulate. The contrast I drew is on two levels, 1) between a worldview that distinguishes inner and outer selves (our own) and one that does not make that distinction (the Homeric one), and 2) between a notion of emotions in which the social aspect is secondary while the individual aspect is primary.  Our antonyms for anger [delight, happiness] as against the Greek one [friendship] are the example that I was trying to explain, as against one in which, since there is no outer life as opposed to an inner one in Homeric consciousness, the social aspect of emotion is its only aspect. No part of the contrast I was making can validly be described as a “polar” opposition or an antithesis. A person reading Cairns’ critique of my work without looking at my words would certainly believe that I had completely denied the social aspect of emotions in modern life, whereas I did no such thing. As for his intimation that I claimed to “discover” something unique about Ancient Greek, my goal was only to make sense of what I was reading. I made no such pretentious claim.
As before, the criticism is not based on an interpretation of the word’s actual attestations, on the analysis of the data, but on theoretical grounds only, and it concerns the result of the analysis, irrespective of how it was arrived at. My definition was based on the thematic and dictional contexts in which mênis is threatened and the consequences when it is incurred, exercised, and finally stilled, not a theoretical agenda. To say that it is “not warrant[ed]” without pointing at attestations in which it does not apply is to argue by authority, not reason. Furthermore, there is a fundamental error in Cairns’ theoretical critique. He has confused an external historical approach to the evolution of a culture’s concepts with a systematic approach to the way those concepts function within a given culture. No character in the Homeric poems could or would or does express the notion that the behavior of the gods is modeled on the behavior of the heroic humans. To state the obvious, the opposite is the case: the cosmic is prior to the social, and the gods are models, though in no simple-minded way, because irrespective of the history of the culture, within the cultural system the gods are on the top of the cosmic hierarchy and were generated before humans. What is at stake is a worldview represented and embedded in a poetic tradition, not in “reality.” If we should wish to extend the same question to the “real” world in which Epic thrived, the Homeric poetic tradition evolved over generations in the context of a similarly evolving social and cultural system, but Xenophanes’ (deviant) consciousness of the principle of anthropomorphism did not exactly “catch on” in Ancient Greece.  Furthermore, we are not dealing with one religion among others that is the object of belief by some and not others. What is at stake here is a worldview shared by a group of diverse but interconnected and historically related city-states. A culture’s worldview is a paper bag that is hard to fight one’s way out of in the absence of competing options. From within either the Homeric poetic system or the moving target of its exterior “reality,” the notion that the divine ethical and social structures are based on those of humans makes no sense—if it did, those systems would be destroyed by such an idea. My point is that the semantic and mythological analysis in my work was from within the Homeric as well as the Hesiodic tradition and their poetic systems. It makes no sense to object, as Cairns does, that it does not take account of the fact that the pantheon was constructed as a projection of human attributes on the divine. That process has to be a prehistoric one whose mechanism was only discernible from outside the system, since the pantheon of gods is extant in Proto-Indo-European, before the invention of the wheel, millennia before the text of Homer. On the contrary, it is worthwhile and productive to consider how Indo-European traditions about epic heroes actually evolved from myths about divinities, in the opposite direction of the one that Cairns argues for, as in the three-volume work of Georges Dumézil entitled Mythe et épopée, because there is a sense in which the internal sequence is true even from an external point of view. 
There is no demonstration in Cairns’ article of any these statements, only assertions of them and the citation (five times in the paragraph whose sentences Pelling cites) of Hjalmar Frisk’s 1946 article on the concept of μῆνις.  At one point, Cairns credits me, as cited above, for “recognizing the continuity of divine and human values” even though in his own discussion of this issue (31–32) he cites Beck’s article in the Lexikon des frühgriechischen Epos s.v. μηνίω and does not mention my work examining the attestations of the derivatives of mênis and showing the intimate relationship between those derivatives and the noun itself. So the statements of Cairns that Pelling quotes are not in fact Cairns’ own contribution to the study of the word, since they are not fundamentally different from my own as well as others’ conclusions. What then, motivates his statement that they constitute an improvement on my work?  What is missing from Pelling’s two quotations of Cairns are the words that immediately precede the second one, which are “I hazard a guess that it is the gravity and intensity…,” as though Cairns himself was actually the first to believe that these qualities distinguish mênis from other words for anger. To my mind, they only account for part of the difference, since Cairns does not explain in what the gravity and intensity consist. That is what my work does in concrete detail, and that is the basis on which I attributed cosmic dimensions to the word. So the only sense in which Cairns might be construed as improving on my work is in rejecting, on what I believe are mistaken theoretical grounds, what I demonstrated by working with the word’s attestations in context. I believe that what motivates Pelling’s view is not any significant improvement over Watkins’ or my own work, but the consistently negative stand that Cairns takes towards my work and by extension Watkins’. Such rhetoric is often more readily taken as true than constructive and creative engagement with one’s predecessors.
In this connection, the title of his paper is relevant: “Ethics, ethology, terminology: Iliadic anger and the cross-cultural study of emotion.” Aside from its unexpected use of the word “ethology” instead of sociobiology or evolutionary psychology, Cairns also avoids the word and the discipline that one would suppose to be most obviously concerned with “the cross-cultural study of emotion,” namely cultural anthropology. Only once does he cite the work of anthropologists on emotion, in a footnote on the “antithesis” he attributes to me between modern and ancient concepts of emotion, in which he cites works of Michelle Rosaldo and Catherine Lutz as the “pedigree in contemporary ethnology” for the (false) antithesis.  In studying anger in cultures other than one’s own, why not look to cultural anthropology or ethnology for helpful methodologies, theories, cross-cultural parallels, universals — in short, a collection of data and ideas with which to understand the problem? In effect, Cairns has made me a straw man for cultural determinism on emotions, and it appears to him as though I am therefore also a front man for anthropological perspectives on the subject, which are assumed to be the same. My work makes no mention of cultural determinism, and his ellipsis of the whole field of anthropology because of its false attribution to my views is a serious flaw in Cairns’ approach. The focus of Lutz’s work is “cultural discourse on emotion,”  and the work of Rosaldo does not take an extreme view of the social or the cultural aspect of human emotions—she insists, in fact, on their bodily aspects.  If Clifford Geertz believed that “passions are as cultural as the devices [of politics],” Edmund Leach considered that idea “complete rubbish,” and Lévi-Strauss said that if emotions do not, on a conscious level, either block or accelerate understanding, they belong to biology, not les sciences humaines (which includes anthropology).  Classicists should know that there is a quantity of captivating, pertinent, and enlightening debate in anthropology on all the open questions in the study of emotions that are mentioned in Cairns’ paper and much more, along with enlightening comparative evidence of a great variety of ways to conceive of, describe, experience, and translate them. All these pursuits are central to the work of classics scholars.