Seneca on anger: part II

angerLet us continue our three-part examination of Seneca’s essay On Anger with what he writes in book II (my commentary on book I is here). Seneca addresses again his friend Novatus, who apparently has what we today would call anger management issues, by saying: “There is no doubt that anger is roused by the appearance of an injury being done: but the question before us is, whether anger straightway follows the appearance, and springs up without assistance from the mind, or whether it is roused with the sympathy of the mind … anger can venture upon nothing by itself, without the approval of mind.” (II.1) This is Seneca’s version of Epictetus’ famous warning concerning “impressions,” and his discipline of assent: we should always examine our first impression of a given situation, gain what modern psychologists call cognitive distance, and then decide whether our initial assessment was correct or not — most of the time, according to the Stoics, the answer will be in the negative.

At II.2 Seneca makes a distinction that still confuses both critics and practitioners of Stoicism today: “if [anger] springs up against our will, it never will yield to reason: because all the motions which take place without our volition are beyond our control and unavoidable, such as shivering when cold water is poured over us … [but] anger can be put to flight by wise maxims; for it is a voluntary defect of the mind, and not one of those things which are evolved by the conditions of human life, and which, therefore, may happen even to the wisest of us.”

We cannot control instinctive reactions, like shivering when exposed to cold water. But we can control “passions,” to use Stoic terminology, that are subject to the scrutiny of reason, if we only take the time to do so.

Indeed, at II.3 Seneca even gives a precise definition of a passion, which makes clear why it doesn’t map onto our modern concept of emotion, and helps explaining why it is not the case that Stoics seek to suppress emotions (they do seek to suppress or control passions, though): “A passion, therefore, consists not in being affected by the sights which are presented to us, but in giving way to our feelings and following up these chance promptings.” Passions, that is, are cognitively mediated negative emotions.

It follows that “Anger must not merely move, but break out of bounds, being an impulse: now, no impulse can take place without the consent of the mind: for it cannot be that we should deal with revenge and punishment without the mind being cognizant of them. … The first confusion of a man’s mind when struck by what seems an injury is no more anger than the apparent injury itself: it is the subsequent mad rush, which not only receives the impression of the apparent injury, but acts upon it as true, that is anger, being an exciting of the mind to revenge, which proceeds from choice and deliberate resolve.”

III.8 presents a sharp rebuke of common attitudes in human society: “Among those whom you see in the garb of peace there is no peace: for a small profit any one of them will attempt the ruin of another: no one can gain anything save by another’s loss. They hate the fortunate and despise the unfortunate … they live as though they were in a school of gladiators, fighting with the same people with whom they live: it is like a society of wild beasts, save that beasts are tame with one another, and refrain from biting their own species, whereas men tear one another, and gorge themselves upon one another.” Sounds like a pretty good description of modern greed, I guess not much has changed in the intervening 2,000 years, which of course is why Stoicism is still so very relevant today.

II.10, however, shows Seneca’s inclination to be forgiving to the human lot, and reminds me of the generally accepted Stoic doctrine of cosmopolitanism: “Among the other misfortunes of humanity is this, that men’s intellects are confused, and they not only cannot help going wrong, but love to go wrong. To avoid being angry with individuals, you must pardon the whole mass, you must grant forgiveness to the entire human race.”

I also like a lot this bit of commentary about the human condition: “What room is there for anger? Everything ought either to move us to tears or to laughter.”

At II.12 Seneca warns his friend that there is a trade-off between anger and virtue: you can have one or the other, but not both: “You must remove anger from your mind before you can take virtue into the same, because vices and virtues cannot combine, and none can at the same time be both an angry man and a good man, any more than he can be both sick and well.”

II.14 shows Seneca the shrewd observer of human psychology. Just like Epictetus will later tell his students that it is okay to show outward distress for a friend’s loss, while inwardly reminding ourselves that death is a fact of nature, so Seneca writes: “Anger, then, must never become a habit with us, but we may sometimes affect to be angry when we wish to rouse up the dull minds of those whom we address, just as we rouse up horses who are slow at starting with goads and firebrands. We must sometimes apply fear to persons upon whom reason makes no impression: yet to be angry is of no more use than to grieve or to be afraid.” This may sound a bit elitist, or Machiavellian, even, but I do think he’s got a point.

At II.21 we are told that anger is particularly common among the rich and powerful, because they are used to have things going their way, and they consequently become arrogant. Being at the court of Nero, he should know: “Do you not observe how a man’s anger becomes more violent as he rises in station? This shows itself especially in those who are rich and noble, or in great place, when the favoring gale has roused all the most empty and trivial passions of their minds.”

Family upbringing is important in aiding young men deal with their anger: “Once, a boy who was brought up in Plato’s house went home to his parents, and, on seeing his father shouting with passion, said, ‘I never saw anyone at Plato’s house act like that.'” From which we also discover that apparently Plato was in the habit of raising kids!

II.22: “The cause of anger is the belief that we are injured; this belief, therefore, should not be lightly entertained. … We should always allow some time to elapse, for time discloses the truth.” In essence, again, fight anger with cognitive distancing: take a break from a situation that is arousing your anger, and once you calm down reflect on just how important the issue was, and on what the best course of action to deal with it really is.

It is particularly silly to get angry at things: “We are angry, either with those who can, or with those who cannot do us an injury. To the latter class belong some inanimate things, such as a book, which we often throw away when it is written in letters too small for us to read, or tear up when it is full of mistakes, or clothes which we destroy because we do not like them. How foolish to be angry with such things as these, which neither deserve nor feel our anger!” (II.26)

Also, never mistreat your dog (or any other animal)! “As it is the act of a madman to be angry with inanimate objects, so also is it to be angry with dumb animals, which can do us no wrong because they are not able to form a purpose; and we cannot call anything a wrong unless it be done intentionally.”

A bit of mea culpa, as the Christians would say, isn’t out of order either: “Someone will be said to have spoken ill of you: think whether you did not first speak ill of him: think of how many persons you have yourself spoken ill. … We have other men’s vices before our eyes, and our own behind our backs.” (II.28)

Practically speaking, “the greatest remedy for anger is delay: beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it: if it delays, it will come to an end.” (II.29)

More sage advice of moderation comes at II.30: “Some offenses we ourselves witness: in these cases let us examine the disposition and purpose of the offender. Perhaps he is a child; let us pardon his youth, he knows not whether he is doing wrong: or he is a father; he has either rendered such great services, as to have won the right even to wrong us — or perhaps this very act which offends us is his chief merit: or a woman; well, she made a mistake.” (Okay, okay, not just women can “make mistakes.”)

Moreover: “Suppose that it is a disease or a misfortune; it will take less effect upon you if you bear it quietly … Is it a good man who has wronged you? Do not believe it: is it a bad one? Do not be surprised at this; he will pay to someone else the penalty which he owes to you — indeed, by his sin he has already punished himself.” Notice the last bit here, the idea that people who do bad things automatically suffer from them, because their virtue is affected, and they will have to live with whatever wrong they have done.

II.31 also offers some sound analysis based in human psychology: “Men think some things unjust because they ought not to suffer them, and some because they did not expect to suffer them: we think what is unexpected is beneath our deserts. … This is why we are irritated at the smallest trifles in our own domestic affairs.”

And I love this pearl: “Fabius was wont to say that the most shameful excuse a general could make was ‘I did not think.’ I think it the most shameful excuse that a man can make. Think of everything, expect everything.”

II.32 is about the strange, from a Stoic perspective, concept of revenge: “Revenge and retaliation are words which men use and even think to be righteous, yet they do not greatly differ from wrong-doing …Someone who did not know Marcus Cato struck him in the public bath in his ignorance, for who would knowingly have done him an injury? Afterwards when he was apologizing, Cato replied, ‘I do not remember being struck.’ … The most contemptuous form of revenge is not to deem one’s adversary worth taking vengeance upon.”

During the recent US Presidential elections we’ve often heard the phrase “when they go low we go high” (which, admittedly, didn’t work out too well for the candidate who uttered it). Here is the Stoic version from two millennia ago: “If anyone is angry with you, meet his anger by returning benefits for it: a quarrel which is only taken up on one side falls to the ground: it takes two men to fight. But suppose that there is an angry struggle on both sides, even then, he is the better man who first gives way; the winner is the real loser.” (II.34)

II.35 uses an interesting analogy to explain why anger is not a good weapon to respond to injury: “Does anyone wish to strike his enemy so hard, as to leave his own hand in the wound, and not to be able, to recover his balance after the blow? Yet such a weapon is anger: it is scarcely possible to draw it back.”

At II.36 Seneca explains why anger is a form of madness, which we would be wise to recoil from: “Ajax was driven mad by anger, and driven to suicide by madness. Men, frantic with rage, call upon heaven to slay their children, to reduce themselves to poverty, and to ruin their houses, and yet declare that they are not either angry or insane. … Other passions gain a footing in the mind by slow degrees: anger’s conquest is sudden and complete, and, moreover, it makes all other passions subservient to itself. It conquers the warmest love: men have thrust swords through the bodies of those whom they loved, and have slain those in whose arms they have lain.” Let those words be a warning to us all.


11 thoughts on “Seneca on anger: part II

  1. labnut

    Very nice essay.

    But the American Psychological Association says this:

    Anger can be a good thing. It can give you a way to express negative feelings, for example, or motivate you to find solutions to problems. But excessive anger can cause problems.


    Anger is a normal, usually healthy emotion we all experience. But when anger gets out of hand, it can cause problems

    I think it is fair to say this is the prevailing attitude and that is the problem. Our culture regards anger(and its variants such as outrage or indignation) as a ‘normal, usually healthy emotion we all experience.

    The experience of anger and the expression of anger is not only condoned, it has been normalised. Why is this so when it is so evidently dangerous? Why has this happened despite the clear opposition to anger of major belief systems?

    Is it possible that the growth of rampant individualism has as its natural concomitant, anger? Perhaps the growing needs of individualism creates more friction because the needs of individuals tend to conflict more with each other. This friction then results in more anger. Add to this the strong narcissism that has become evident in the last 50 years and we have a flammable mixture. Narcissists pay less attention to the feelings of others, are less likely to understand the behaviour of others and thus more likely to respond to breaches of trust, expectations and boundaries with anger.


  2. Massimo Post author


    Yes, I looked at the APA site. Of course they also have a lot about anger management, somthry recognize it’s a problem. Seneca would have said that the best way to manage anger is to nip it in the bud.

    Also, of course, just because something is normal or natural it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing. Violence is a natural component of human existence, but we are trying to get over it…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. labnut

    Also, of course, just because something is normal or natural it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

    There is a growing tendency to conflate appetite(broadly construed) with values. The whole point of virtue ethics is to make reason, and not appetite, the arbiter of values.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. labnut

    But how do we make reason the arbiter of values? I suggest, contra to Becker, that we can ground virtue ethics in trust. Trust is the most foundational requirement for an advanced society(i.e. human society) to work. Virtue ethics is our highest means of establishing and maintaining trust. We have evolved expressive faces and eyes as means of reading and establishing trust. We developed theory of mind as a means of reading trustworthiness. But the practice of virtue ethics is our primary means of establishing and maintaining trustworthiness.


  5. Massimo Post author


    Trust is fundamental, for all the reasons you mention. Not sure that it is mutually exclusive with, or more fundamental than, reason though. After all, one has to have some reason to engage in virtue ethics, and a general trust about the pro-socialitity of human behavior seems like a good reason.


  6. labnut

    To clarify, reason is our most fundamental and defining tool. But what guides our use of reason? The virtues. But the virtues themselves need a rational basis. You and Becker argued that maximisation of agency was that basis. I, and many others, are uncomfortable what what seems a cold and selfish calculus. I instead propose that maximisation of trust is the natural foundation of the virtues. I think this can be supported by rigorous argument and has the great advantages of 1) intuitive appeal, 2) it is readily understandable 3) it returns the other to their rightful place on the centre stage of our consciousness. As you know, I am severely critical of Stoicism for this reason and I think your replies have done nothing to address my criticism. The very idea of maximisation of agency seems to be nothing more than an extreme manifestation of the self-directedness of Stoicism. It is thoroughly in keeping with modern Western cultural drives and I think it is thoroughly wrong.

    You want to make Stoicism relevant in the modern world. I support your goal but to be relevant Stoicism needs to be given a strong sense of other-directedness which it really does lack, despite your protests. . Founding the virtues on trust will help in this. Founding them on agency will work against this.


  7. Massimo Post author


    I actually don’t endorse Becker’s rethinking of virtue as maximization of agency. I think it’s an interesting perspective, but it seems to me to fall short of what is needed.

    I do, however, endorse the Stoic original argument that reason leads to virtue (not trust, which can only be conditional). If human nature is that of a social animal capable of reason, then it follows that “living according to nature” means to apply reason to social living. And that means practicing the virtues, which for the Stoics are the cardinal components of a good life.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. labnut

    …the Stoic original argument that reason leads to virtue…[by] apply[ing] reason to social living

    I hope I’ve paraphrased you correctly.

    This is the part I have trouble grasping. How exactly do we derive the virtues from reason and social living? Our use of reason has derived several ethical systems that are very different. It seems almost a matter of taste which one we choose and I fail to see how reason can settle the matter. Our style of social living also strongly affects the outcome.

    On the other hand I argue that all social systems everywhere are underpinned by the foundational requirement of trust. This is the one given because without trust the social order cannot work. Consequently as we evolved our social order we also evolved the mechanisms of trust that underpin the social order. Thus we evolved expressive faces, eyes and voices that serve as the mechanisms for evaluating trustworthiness. We evolved remarkably sensitive observational skills to detect trustworthiness. We evolved behavioural patterns that denoted trustworthiness and over time we have come to call them the virtues. Because they evolved with us as we evolved our social order, the virtues have become a deeply embedded, pre-rational part of our nature. Betrayal of trust is one of our most painful emotional experiences, as every person with an unfaithful partner has discovered. Betrayal of trust through fabrication, misrepresentation and dishonesty is universally despised. We despise plagiarism. The list goes on and on.

    You say trust can only be conditional but that is not so. We have to take part in society and so we must grant trust in the wish, belief and hope that it won’t be betrayed. Thus when it is betrayed it is severely sanctioned. A lovely example of that is the way the courts punish perjury. You are correct in that trust is inherently reciprocal, giving the self and the other equal weight. When trust is reciprocated we form our strongest, most durable bonds.

    When we accept trust as the foundation of ethics we embrace the other person as a person of equal importance since trust requires reciprocity. The South African philosophy of Ubuntu expresses this beautifully when it says ‘I am because of you’.


  9. Massimo Post author


    You make good points, but I’m afraid this is one of those things we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    First, the Stoics give a very compelling reason for our the virtues are derived from the idea of living in accordance to nature. Cicero gives a good summary of it in book III of De Finibus, on which I have commented on this blog.

    Second, no, trust has to be provisional. Which is not to say that it isn’t a crucial component of social living. But one has to be able to, say, withdraw trust in a fellow human being if the guy is about to stab you in the back; or in a government, if it is about to turn into a tyranny. In my mind there is no such thing as an unconditional anything, when it comes to human relationships.

    So trust is crucial to ethics, but it cannot be foundational.


  10. labnut

    but I’m afraid this is one of those things we’ll have to agree to disagree.

    and it is not about the main topic, anger, so I need to let go for that reason as well. But this is important and I hope we get another opportunity to explore the issue more carefully.

    Cicero gives a good summary of it in book III of De Finibus

    I will dust off my copy and consult him.

    Second, no, trust has to be provisional.

    You are basing your argument on the possibility of individual cases of failure of trust. Yes, that happens all the time, but, in total, we unconditionally invest trust in society by the simple fact of being a functioning member of society and I rest my argument on this fact. Society, in total, rewards our trust far more than it fails our trust and we derive huge benefits from this.

    I look forward to another opportunity to explore what I think is an important line of thought.


  11. labnut

    You asked in PFN for book review suggestions. This is my suggestion:

    The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, by Matt Ridley

    I think it fits in nicely with your background in biology, your expertise in evolution and your interests in ethics.

    Liked by 1 person

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