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Is Will Smith experiencing ‘staircase wit’ after slapping Chris Rock?

Unthinkable: Oscars incident provides teachable moment on ‘l’esprit de l’escalier’

Will Smith’s Oscar night act of violence has by now been picked apart by a legion of armchair psychologists. Which is fine. But let’s hear from an armchair philosopher, I hear you say.

Yes, hot takes on anger management are all well and good but what do centuries-old intellectuals have to say on the matter?

Seneca saw fury as a form of temporary madness. Epictetus likened rage to self-slavery. However, if Smith is looking for a crash course in Ancient Greek wisdom - and in the medium he loves best – he can just watch Young Plato, the award-winning Irish documentary on a Belfast primary school that is trying to encourage young boys to stop using their fists to settle disputes. (The film should be mandatory viewing for the Donegal and Armagh senior football teams too after their televised post-match brawl in Letterkenny just hours before the Oscars.)

As mentioned previously in this column, the documentary centres on school principal Kevin McArevey, whose motto "Think, think, respond!" is a neat summary of a wide corpus of Greek and Latin scholarship.


The Greeks and Romans "did not encourage anger", American philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes. "Although they still got angry a lot…, for the most part they saw anger as disease and as weakness, and they viewed the angry person as infantile (or, in their terms, feminine), rather than powerful (and, in their terms, male). Getting that insight is half the battle."

Probably the best-known contemporary philosopher on the subject, Nussbaum says in her book Anger and Forgiveness that, in contrast to the ancients, “many people in modern American society continue to think anger is good, powerful and manly”.

One of the “commonplace” claims that she seeks to disprove is that “anger is necessary (when one is wronged) to the protection of dignity and self-respect”. There is a mistaken assumption that rage can either undo or mitigate the original offence. What’s more, she argues, anger is generally motivated not by a sense of justice – as the angry would have you believe – but rather by egotism and an unhealthy fixation with status.

Perfect reply

There is one philosopher, however, who stands out for special mention on the Slapgate case: Denis Diderot, the 18th-century French Enlightenment thinker, who coined the phrase l'esprit de l'escalier, or staircase wit. This captures the predicament of thinking of the perfect reply to an insult or verbal joust too late in proceedings – on the staircase, as it were, after parting company.

L’esprit de l’escalier may seem like a form of failure – we can all relate to the frustration of not being able to find the right words in certain circumstances. But any regret one might have about not being able to say something smart in the heat of the moment is surely minor compared to the inevitable regret from striking out in anger.

Diderot himself conveyed no sense of shame in his original essay referencing the phenomenon. He simply described being left speechless by a dinner guest because, he explained, “a sensitive man, such as myself, overwhelmed by the argument levelled against him, becomes confused and [can only think clearly again when he] finds himself at the bottom of the stairs”.

Experiencing l’esprit de l’escalier is so described as very human. Not only should you expect to miss the opportunity to say something smart when challenged viscerally but you can bank on a certain degree of brain freeze. So Diderot tells us.

Needless to say, Smith could have chosen the path of staircase wit – by holding his tongue and staying in his seat until he had his thoughts together. (Think, think, respond!) Would so delaying have shown strength or weakness on his part?

Teachable moment

If Slapgate contains a teachable moment it is this: As the red mist descends, it is okay to be speechless. We praise the quick-witted but the slow-witted may embody more wisdom and moral fibre.

Should one wish to extract a second moral from the episode – and I know what you're thinking: Hasn't The Irish Times milked this enough? – Smith's apology on Monday evening was pretty much a textbook example of how to do it. By textbook, I'm referencing here fellow screen celebrity Michael Schur, the creator of The Good Place whose recently published How to be Perfect: The Correct Answer to Every Moral Question contains an entire chapter on apologising.

Mainly, he explains how not to apologise, citing the “classic disingenuous apology move” of saying “I’m sorry if you were offended”. This “of course is less an apology than an accusation. That’s saying both ‘I did nothing wrong’ and ‘You’re so dumb you thought I did something wrong and got upset, so I’m sorry you’re so dumb’.”

Don't expect an apology to be easy, Schur counsels. "Doing something wrong hurts. It stinks. It's embarrassing. But apologising can hurt more and stink more and be more embarrassing."

In summary, he says: “Apologies don’t undo whatever bad thing we did, but when they’re sincere and honestly delivered, they can help heal a wound. They won’t do anything, however, if we’re defensive, hedging, or disingenuous – if what we offer is not actually a sincere plea for forgiveness.”

Leave high society

Here Smith has one up on Diderot. The French writer was a close friend of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. They shared ideas and long walks together and when Diderot was jailed in 1749 for his revolutionary zeal he was visited almost daily in the prison dungeons of Paris by his literary pal.

But when Rousseau opted to leave high society for the relative backwater of Geneva – the cinematic equivalent of quitting Hollywood for art house movies – Diderot couldn’t resist teasing him about his hermitical tastes. When his old friend got wind of the barbs, Diderot tried to make amends.

“I ask your forgiveness for what I say to you about the solitude in which you live,” he declared. Immediately, he undid the effort by signing off: “Adieu, Citizen! Although a Hermit makes for a very peculiar Citizen.”

Rousseau was vindicated by his decision to move out of Paris – he later wrote his most influential works including The Social Contract – but Diderot’s botched apology ended their friendship.

Ask a sage:

Question: How do I control my temper?

Seneca replies: “A person will cease from anger and be more moderate if he knows that every day he has to come before himself as judge.”