Seneca on anger: part III

Athena stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon in anger

Athena stops Achilles from killing Agamemnon in anger

I’m going to wrap up my extended commentary of Seneca’s pivotal essay, On Anger, which is one of the most important Stoic texts you’ll ever read. Not to mention one of the most useful. (Part I is here; part II here.)

Book III opens up with Seneca telling his friend Novatus that it is now time to turn to the practical issue of how to drive anger away: “This may sometimes be done openly and without concealment, when we are only suffering from a slight attack of this mischief, and at other times it must be done secretly, when our anger is excessively hot, and when every obstacle thrown in its way increases it and makes it blaze higher.”

He continues: “The eager and self-destructive violence of anger does not grow up by slow degrees, but reaches its full height as soon as it begins. Nor does it, like other vices, merely disturb men’s minds, but it takes them away, and torments them till they are incapable of restraining themselves and eager for the common ruin of all men, nor does it rage merely against its object, but against every obstacle which it encounters on its way. … Other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but men’s minds plunge abruptly into anger. … Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.”

Not only is Seneca here giving what I think is a correct psychological description of anger, but it should be very clear now why the Stoics thought that anger is particularly pernicious among the negative passions (pathē), and consequently why they wrote so much about it.

And Seneca isn’t worried just about the effect of anger on individuals, but on entire people: “Ambassadors are outraged, the law of nations violated, and an unnatural madness seizes the state. Without allowing time for the general excitement to subside, fleets are straightway launched and laden with a hastily enrolled soldiery.”

This is a crucial point for two reasons: first, the obvious one that the Stoics concerned themselves with both the welfare of the individual and with that of society at large. Indeed, the two were not seen as distinct or opposite, as in our dichotomy of altruism and selfishness. Since living according to nature means to apply reason to social life, for the Stoics a person’s problem was society’s problem, and vice versa. Second, it is clear from this passage that when they talked about anger, the Stoics didn’t refer to the sudden rush of adrenaline we experience in certain situations, and which we cannot avoid or control. Rather, they focused on the (implicit or explicit) cognitive judgment that follows such rush and that tells us “yes, there is a good reason why I’m angry.” The outrage of ambassadors is a mental state that is prolonged over time, far outlasting the initial hormonal burst. (On this construal of the passions as cognitive judgments, and the idea that the Stoics got the basics of human psychology right, see this essay.)

After having warned his friend that no one should feel safe from anger (III.5), as it may strike even the gentlest soul, Seneca suggests engaging in a reflective preemptive meditation of sorts: “We shall succeed in avoiding anger, if from time to time we lay before our minds all the vices connected with anger, and estimate it at its real value: it must be prosecuted before us and convicted: its evils must be thoroughly investigated and exposed.”

Anger is incompatible with love, he warns: “anger pays a penalty at the same moment that it exacts one: it forswears human feelings. The latter urge us to love, anger urges us to hatred: the latter bid us do men good, anger bids us do them harm. … How far more glorious is it to throw back all wrongs and insults from oneself, like one wearing armor of proof against all weapons, for revenge is an admission that we have been hurt.” Which dovetails nicely with the Stoic treatment of insults.

III.8 makes the interesting suggestion that anger (or, conversely, serenity) may be infective, and so that we should choose our company carefully: “we should live with the quietest and easiest-tempered persons, not with anxious or with sullen ones: for our own habits are copied from those with whom we associate, and just as some bodily diseases are communicated by touch, so also the mind transfers its vices to its neighbors … Virtues do the same thing in the opposite direction, and improve all those with whom they are brought in contact.” (For more on choosing one’s company, see this essay on Epictetus.)

And here is an example of cognitive modification of our behavior, from the end of III.8: “Whenever a controversy seems likely to be longer or more keenly disputed than usual, let us check its first beginnings, before it gathers strength. A dispute nourishes itself as it proceeds, and takes hold of those who plunge too deeply into it: it is easier to stand aloof than to extricate oneself from a struggle.” Boy, have I found this to be true in my own experience, repeatedly!

More practical advice at III.9: “Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit by playing upon the lyre … Green is good for wearied eyes, and some colors are grateful to weak sight, while the brightness of others is painful to it … and we ought no less to avoid bodily weariness; for it exhausts all that is quiet and gentle in us, and rouses bitterness. … Hunger also and thirst should be avoided for the same reason; they exasperate and irritate men’s minds: it is an old saying that ‘a weary man is quarrelsome.'”

Another time tested approach to diffuse anger is humor, particularly the self deprecating variety: “There are many ways in which anger may be checked; most things may be turned into jest. It is said that Socrates when he was given a box on the ear, merely said that it was a pity a man could not tell when he ought to wear his helmet out walking.” (III.11)

Some people actually actively seek ways to anger themselves: “A large part of mankind manufacture their own grievances either by entertaining unfounded suspicions or by exaggerating trifles … an overweening conceit of our own importance makes us prone to anger, and we are quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure should be done to ourselves.” (III.12) What to do, then? “Delay is the best remedy for it, because it allows its first glow to subside, and gives time for the cloud which darkens the mind either to disperse or at any rate to become less dense.”

At III.13 Seneca even advises us to trick our own mind into letting go of anger by changing our posture, movement, and voice: “Let us conceal its symptoms, and as far as possible keep it secret and hidden. It will give us great trouble to do this, for it is eager to burst forth, to kindle our eyes and to transform our face; but if we allow it to show itself in our outward appearance, it is our master. … Let us replace all its symptoms by their opposites; let us make our countenance more composed than usual, our voice milder, our step slower. Our inward thoughts gradually become influenced by our outward demeanor.”

Several following sections of book III shift from a concern with regular folks to one for kings, whose anger can obviously have far dire consequences for far larger numbers of people. I will skip many of the quotations in that part of On Anger, though they should be mandatory reading for world leaders today. Still, the interested reader will enjoy section III.19 in particular, entirely devoted to Julius Caesar (who, of course, was the archenemy of Cato the Younger, one of the major Stoic role models, frequently mentioned by Seneca).

Throughout those sections, Seneca discusses in details both examples of powerful people prone to anger (Caesar) and of others who resisted it, and then uses the latter as models for our own behavior: “Let everyone, then, say to himself, whenever he is provoked, Am I more powerful than Philip [of Macedonia, Alexander’s grandfather]? Yet he allowed a man to curse him with impunity. Have I more authority in my own house than the Emperor Augustus [Octavian, Caesar’s adoptive son] possessed throughout the world? Yet he was satisfied with leaving the society of his maligner.” (III.24)

Another approach to control anger at other people’s behavior is going through a checklist regarding the person that is (allegedly) offending us: “Is this his first offense? Think how long he has been acceptable. Has he often done wrong, and in many other cases? Then let us continue to bear what we have borne so long. Is he a friend? Then he did not intend to do it. Is he an enemy? Then in doing it he did his duty. … Whatever he may be, let us say to ourselves on his behalf, that even the wisest of men are often in fault, that no one is so alert that his carefulness never betrays itself, that no one is of so ripe a judgment that his serious mind cannot be goaded by circumstances into some hotheaded action, that, in fine [at last], no one, however much he may fear to give offense, can help doing so even while he tries to avoid it.” This I find truly mind blowing in its magnanimity toward other human beings, as well as in the tight logic displayed by these short phrases.

And it isn’t out of place to look a bit in the mirror as well: “Let us look back upon our own youth, and think how often we then were too slothful in our duty, too impudent in our speech, too intemperate in our cups.” (III.25) Moreover: “We all are hasty and careless, we all are untrustworthy, dissatisfied, and ambitious. … Every one of us therefore will find in his own breast the vice which he blames in another. … Let us therefore be more gentle one to another: we are bad men, living among bad men: there is only one thing which can afford us peace, and that is to agree to forgive one another.” (III.26)

At III.27 Seneca also warns us that revenge comes with its costs: “Revenge takes up much time, and throws itself in the way of many injuries while it is smarting under one. We all retain our anger longer than we feel our hurt. … Would anyone think himself to be in his perfect mind if he were to return kicks to a mule or bites to a dog ? … If animals are protected from your anger by their want of reason, you ought to treat all foolish men in the like manner.”

At III.31 he turns toward another source of anger and resentment: envy. “No man is satisfied with his own lot if he fixes his attention on that of another: and this leads to our being angry even with the gods, because somebody precedes us, though we forget of how many we take precedence, and that when a man envies few people, he must be followed in the background by a huge crowd of people who envy him. … Do you ask, what is your greatest fault? It is, that you keep your accounts wrongly: you set a high value upon what you give, and a low one upon what you receive.” The latter bit is one of many, many gems one can gather from this wonderful book by Seneca.

At III.39 he begins to explain to his friend Novatus how to deal with other people’s anger, the next logical step after one has mastered his own: “You should not attempt to allay the first burst of anger by words: it is deaf and frantic. … The best treatment in the first stage of illness is rest.” And of course one thing we all know not to do is to tell someone who is angry to just calm down. It only makes things worse: “To reprove a man when he is angry is to add to his anger by being angry oneself.” (III.40)

Ultimately, argues Seneca, anger is a waste of precious time: ““Why should we, as though we were born to live forever, waste our tiny span of life in declaring anger against any one? Why should days, which we might spend in honorable enjoyment, be misapplied in grieving and torturing others? Life is a matter which does not admit of waste, and we have no spare time to throw away.” (III.42) And: “Instead of acting thus, why do you not rather draw together what there is of your short life, and keep it peaceful for others and for yourself? Why do you not rather make yourself beloved by everyone while you live, and regretted by everyone when you die?” (III.43) And finally: “Let us keep our tempers in spite of losses, wrongs, abuse or sarcasm, and let us endure with magnanimity our shortlived troubles: while we are considering what is due to ourselves, as the saying is, and worrying ourselves, death will be upon us.” (III.43)

It has been a long essay already, but there are two more very practical things I’d like to add. First, let me backtrack a bit, to III.36, where we find a famous explanation of one of the crucial Stoic techniques, the evening meditation. I have done it now for close to three years, with immense benefit of both insight and calm. I transcribe and highlight the full bit from Seneca because it is well worth considering it carefully:

The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.’ A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.

And finally, here is my bullet list of Seneca’s practical guide to anger management:

* Engage in preemptive meditation

* Check anger as soon as you feel its symptoms, don’t wait, or it will get out of control

* Associate with serene people, avoid irritable or angry ones

* Play a musical instrument, or purposefully engage in whatever activity relaxes your mind

* Seek environments with pleasing, not irritating, colors

* Don’t engage in discussions when you are tired

* Don’t engage in discussions when you are thirsty or hungry

* Deploy self deprecating humor

* Engage in cognitive distancing, what Seneca calls “delaying” your response

* Change your body to change your mind: deliberately slow down your steps, lower the tone of your voice, impose to your body the demeanor of a calm person


5 thoughts on “Seneca on anger: part III

  1. Ted Petrocci

    This is indeed a wonderful essay full of valuable bits of wise and practical strategies. I am so often delighted to see the elements of CBT techniques that we use daily in practice. Reminds me of a realization I’ve had over the years; the human condition has changed little, the conditions we live in, much.
    Thank you.
    Ted Petrocci

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Shane Sullivan

    “Revenge takes up much time, and throws itself in the way of many injuries while it is smarting under one. We all retain our anger longer than we feel our hurt.”

    This quote really resonates with me, as I have a history of holding grudges. I like to remember the aphorism, very popular in the program: Spite is like taking rat poison and expecting the other person to die.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.