Anger is a major concern for Stoics, and their attitude about it is often misunderstood, just like more broadly their take on emotions in general is. The contrast here is with the Aristotelians, who claimed that virtue lies in navigating the middle course between extremes. Concerning anger, they thought that the virtuous compromise is good temper, which lies between the unvirtuous poles of irascibility (too much anger) and lack of spirit (too little anger). As we shall see, for the Stoics there is no such thing as a good degree of anger, but it doesn’t mean that one has to be passive in the face of injustice. I will present three posts on this topic, corresponding to books I, II and III by Seneca.
So, beginning with book I, it opens in the form of a letter to Seneca’s friend, Novatus, who apparently inquired about how anger could best be soothed. Seneca immediately makes clear that Novatus is right to worry:
“It appears to me that you are right in feeling especial fear of this passion, which is above all others hideous and wild … [it] consists wholly in action and the impulse of grief, raging with an utterly inhuman lust for arms, blood and tortures, careless of itself provided it hurts another, rushing upon the very point of the sword, and greedy for revenge even when it drags the avenger to ruin with itself. … Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.”
At I.2 Seneca lists the kinds of evil that derive from anger, and it’s not a pretty list at all: “No plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame.”
At I.3 Seneca tells us that his definition of anger is essentially the same as Aristotle’s, a desire to repay suffering. But then he deals the first blow to his rival when he says that he is fundamentally mistaken about the natural philosophy (i.e., the science) of anger: “When he speaks of beasts being angry he means that they are excited, roused up: for indeed they know no more how to be angry than they know how to pardon.”
This, I think, is a crucial point. Anger, for the Stoics, is not an impulsive, instinctive reaction. It is, rather, the cognitive assent that such initial reactions to the offending action or words are in fact justified. Anger, that is, is best understood as a form of judgment, either implicit or explicit, that we apply to externals and to our initial, instinctive reaction to such externals. We do not have control over our initial reaction, but we do have control over the subsequent cognitive judgment.
At I.4 Seneca distinguishes between anger and irascibility: “What anger is has been sufficiently explained. The difference between it and irascibility is evident: it is the same as that between a drunken man and a drunkard; between a frightened man and a coward.” It is both possible, he explains, for an angry man not to be irascible, and for an irascible man sometimes not to be angry.
I.5 inquires whether anger is “according to nature,” the golden standard of Stoic philosophy of action. If something is according to nature, all is good; if not, then we should learn to avoid it. In order to proceed, Seneca has to remind Novatus of what, exactly, he is talking about, while at the same time delivering his verdict: “Mankind is born for mutual assistance, anger for mutual ruin: the former loves society, the latter estrangement.” Anger, that is, is contrary to nature. We need to pause here and reflect what exactly this means, because the obvious objection is that it is, on the contrary, very natural indeed to get angry when one feels he has been injured, physically or verbally.
Human nature, for the Stoics, is that of a social animal capable of reason. It follows that to “live according to nature” means to apply one’s reason to social living. Anger is unreasonable, and it damages society, hence it is “unnatural” in the Stoic sense.
But surely we ought to do something when a wrong has been done! Yes, and this is how Seneca puts it at I.6: “‘What, then? Is not correction sometimes necessary?’ Of course it is; but with discretion, not with anger; for it does not injure, but heals under the guise of injury.” Again, this is a profound point. Let me demonstrate by means of an example: what is the point of prison? According to some it is, at least in part, to punish people who have committed offenses, that is, it’s about revenge. But the most advanced prison systems in the world — usually to be found in Scandinavian countries — are based on the entirely different axiom that the point of prison is to reform the criminal, to improve him morally, and to eventually allow him to rejoin the broader society from which he is currently excluded so to prevent a recurring offense. That, I think, is perfectly in accordance to what Seneca is saying here: being angry at someone only adds further damage to the situation, while “discretion” allows healing and at the same time recognizes that there has been an injustice.
Next, Seneca takes up the oft-mentioned objection that anger may not be a great thing, but sometimes it is “necessary” to respond to injustice, so long as it is kept within bounds. But: “in the first place, it is easier to banish dangerous passions than to rule them. … In the next place, Reason herself, who holds the reins, is only strong while she remains apart from the passions. … [and] there are certain things [like anger] whose beginnings lie in our own power, but which, when developed, drag us along by their own force and leave us no retreat.”
That is why (I.8) “the best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition.” And moreover, (I.11) “of what use is anger, when the same end can be arrived at by reason? Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills? Yet he meets them when they attack him, and follows them when they flee from him, all of which is managed by reason without anger. … Anger, therefore, is not useful even in wars or battles: for it is prone to rashness, and while trying to bring others into danger, does not guard itself against danger. The most trustworthy virtue is that which long and carefully considers itself, controls itself, and slowly and deliberately brings itself to the front.”
I.12 returns to the theme that anger is not necessary in order to do the right thing: “‘What, then,’ asks our adversary, ‘is a good man not to be angry if he sees his father murdered or his mother outraged?’ No, he will not be angry, but will avenge them, or protect them. Why do you fear that filial piety will not prove a sufficient spur to him even without anger?” This, to me, is a very interesting passage, as it clearly draws the distinction between negative or unhealthy passions (pathē) and positive or healthy ones (eupatheiai), while simultaneously making the point that the Stoics were not trying to suppress (all of the) passions, a common misunderstanding of Stoic doctrine.
Another counter of the alleged usefulness of anger comes at I.13: “‘Anger is useful,’ says our adversary, ‘because it makes men more ready to fight.’ According to that mode of reasoning, then, drunkenness also is a good thing, for it makes men insolent and daring, and many use their weapons better when the worse for liquor. … No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not therefore come to assist courage, but to take its place.” I think the second part of this quote is both beautiful and right on the nose, so to speak.
At I.14 we see the compassionate side of Stoicism, another of those aspects of our philosophy that is grossly under appreciated: “Indeed, what reason has he for hating sinners, since it is error that leads them into such crimes? Now it does not become a sensible man to hate the erring. … How much more philanthropic [in the sense of loving humanity] it is to deal with the erring in a gentle and fatherly spirit, and to call them into the right course instead of hunting them down? When a man is wandering about our fields because he has lost his way, it is better to place him on the right path than to drive him away.” This, honestly, blows my mind. And notice, of course, the similarities with Christian concepts of piety and forgiveness.
In I.17 Seneca comes back to his main target: “Aristotle says that ‘certain passions, if one makes a proper use of them, act as arms’: which would be true if, like weapons of war, they could be taken up or laid aside at the pleasure of their wielder. These arms, which Aristotle assigns to virtue, fight of their own accord, do not wait to be seized by the hand, and possess a man instead of being possessed by him.” Anger may indeed be a weapon, but one that is too dangerous and unpredictable to be trusted.
Finally, at I.18-19 Seneca again beautifully draws the contrast between reason and anger: “Reason gives each side time to plead; moreover, she herself demands adjournment, that she may have sufficient scope for the discovery of the truth; whereas anger is in a hurry: reason wishes to give a just decision; anger wishes its decision to be thought just. … The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry man.”