Seneca on anger: the Medea

Callas-Medea

Medea played by Maria Callas in the homonimous movie by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1969)

Medea is one of those perennially fascinating characters of Greco-Roman lore: a “barbarian” (i.e., non-Greek) who falls in love with the argonaut Jason, helps him steal the fabled golden fleece by betraying her father and killing her brother — on condition that Jason later marry her. Once back to safety, Jason decides that it is proper for him to marry a Greek princess, Glauce, the daughter of the king of Corinth. Blinded by furor at the betrayal, Medea kills Glauce, her father Creon, and then the two children she had had with Jason, in what she thought was “just” punishment for her former lover.

The classical tale is told by Euripides, who first produced it in 431 BCE. But Seneca rewrote the story (full text here), in a version that is both more sympathetic to the title character, and that is used to teach a dramatic lesson about Stoic precepts, especially concerned with the pathos (unhealthy emotion) of anger. I came across a fascinating paper by Rodrigo Sebastián Braicovich, published in the Journal of Ancient Philosophy in 2017, which analyzes Seneca’s Medea in light of the same author’s systematic treatment of anger in De Ira (which I have covered in three installments here).

Braicovich begins by suggesting that Medea is the fulfilment of a promise made by Seneca in De Ira, where he says:

“It’s necessary to prove [anger’s] disgusting and bestial character and to make you see how monstrous it is for one human being to rage against another, and how violently anger attacks, dealing destruction at the cost of its own destruction and seeking to sink those whom it can drown only if it drowns with them. … We’ll succeed in avoiding anger if we promptly lay out before us all of anger’s vices and form a sound estimation of it. It must be arraigned before us and condemned; its evils must be searched out and made plain; it must be set side by side with the worst vices, so the sort of thing it is becomes clear.” (III.3.2, III.5.3)

In other words, the Medea, according to Braicovich, is a didactic account of the content of De Ira, an example of philosophy explicated by way of drama. Braicovich presents a handy list of the basic elements of anger according to Seneca, which can guide us in reading both De Ira and Medea. The list includes:

(i) unlike other pathos, anger expresses itself in a multiplicity of guises;

(ii) anger attacks anything in sight, once it has been deprived of its original target;

(iii) a person under the spell of anger acts diametrically opposite to the way of the sage, with great emotional fluctuations;

(iv) the angry person is willing to sacrifice his own life or well being in the name of revenge, or what he perceives as “justice”;

(v) the angry person’s understanding of what counts as just reparation is entirely disproportionate to the original offense;

(vi) once unleashed, anger is not responsive to reason, and it cannot be controlled;

(vii) anger can be restrained, often temporarily, only by another passion.

Interestingly, Braicovich maintains that what we should be paying special attention while reading Seneca’s Medea is not so much the obvious, i.e., what Medea does, but the unstated: what she fails to do because she cannot bring herself to do it. Specifically, she is not able to let go of her hatred, to forgive Jason for his betrayal, to adopt Stoic indifference to the failure of another human being, which, after all, is not under her control, and should therefore not affect her eudaimonia.

An important point to highlight is that, contra to what the Chorus itself hints at in the play, Medea is actually not mad at all. Rather, her conclusion that the just way to avenge herself lies in killing the queen and her own two children is the result of careful reasoning she has with herself in a monologue, reasoning that includes two premises: (i) an injury has been committed; and (ii) revenge must be obtained. This is in accordance to the Stoic theory of psychology, according to which emotions are partly cognitive in nature, and the pathos are, therefore, the result of bad reasoning. (See the book by Margaret Graver on emotions in Stoicism; and also modern findings from cognitive science, in agreement with the basic Stoic notion.)

Medea does not want irrational revenge, she wants revenge that is informed by justice, proportioned to the crime committed by Jason (in her mind). This, according to Braicovich, makes the Medea more a play about justice, revenge, and punishment, than about irrationality and emotions:

“That her criteria of what constitutes due reparation is completely disproportionate is, incidentally, what Seneca intends to stress: angry people are — among other things — terrible judges of the actual relevance and consequences of (what they perceive) as injuries or injustices. … Medea is not unresponsive to every reason, she is just unresponsive to right-reason.” (p. 112)

In De Ira, Seneca describes precisely this unresponsiveness of anger to reason, by way of a three-step analysis:

“To make plain how passions begin or grow or get carried away: there’s the initial involuntary movement — a preparation for the passion, as it were, and a kind of threatening signal; there’s a second movement accompanied by an expression of will not stubbornly resolved, to the effect that ‘I should be avenged, since I’ve been harmed’ or ‘this man should be punished, since he’s committed a crime.’ The third movement’s already out of control, it desires vengeance not if it’s appropriate but come what may, having overthrown reason. We cannot avoid that first mental jolt with reason’s help […]. That second movement, which is born from deliberation, is eradicated by deliberation.” (II.4.1)

(Incidentally, I recommend, if one is so inclined, to read Braicovich’s full paper, particularly the citations from Seneca, which are given first in the original, beautiful Latin, then translated into English in footnotes.)

Braicovich points out that Seneca is able to do in the Medea something he could not quite achieve in De Ira: bring up, in dramatic fashion, the distance separating what anger actually is (to the reasonable external observer) and what the angry person (mistakenly) thinks it is. Not only Medea doesn’t think that what she is doing is irrational, she thinks it is moral!

The paper also discusses Seneca’s response to Aristotle, who famously argued that a bit of anger is a good thing, now and then. (See my take here.) There are, fundamentally, two classes of reasons why Seneca thinks the Aristotelian analysis fails: (i) anger is inadvisable on practical grounds, because the angry person ends up doing things that will likely injure herself or her loved ones (obviously, in the case of Medea); and (ii) anger is an illegitimate, because unjust, response to an offense, and therefore inadmissible on ethical grounds.

If not anger, then what? Seneca says we should replace that destructive emotion with a range of alternatives, which include: indifference, forgiveness, and repaying aggression with friendship (note that these are in order of increased commitment on the part of the injured party, and so more and more difficult to implement).

Braicovich rightly observes that Seneca’s deeper message is not just that anger is destructive for the individual, it undermines the very basis of a society based on reasoned discourse. In his time as in modern ones, it is politicians who often react in anger, or — worse, cynically exploit the anger of the masses — and create dangerous situations that easily bring about injustice, if not outright war.

But, a reasonable objection might go, isn’t Seneca approach dangerously close to letting people get away with an injustice? Aren’t indifference, forgiveness, and friendship to the offender ways in which we forgo the right to just redress? Not at all. One of the virtues of Stoicism is justice, but guided by reason. As the Roman writer eloquently put it:

“An objection: ‘Are you telling me that a good man doesn’t become angry if he sees his father being murdered, his mother raped?’ No, he will not become angry, but he’ll be their champion and defender. Why are you afraid that a proper sense of devotion won’t goad him sufficiently, even without anger? … A good man will follow up his obligations undisturbed and undeterred, and in doing the things worthy of a good man he will do nothing unworthy of a man.” (III.12.5-6)

And this ought to be a fortiori true in the case of a just state.

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Categories: Psychology, Seneca, other, Uncategorized

32 replies

  1. labnut,

    “how should one go about training oneself? What tools or methodologies can one use?”

    I covered that in my three-part commentary on De Ira:
    https://howtobeastoic.wordpress.com/tag/on-anger/

    The techniques proposed by Seneca are remarkably similar to those listed on the APA site under anger management:
    https://www.apa.org/topics/anger/control.aspx

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Labnut,

    Yes I think it’s absolutely crucial that we should think about things such as expectations when we are rational. Frequent practices are so important, so we can catch ourselves before giving assent to passion.

    This maybe disappointing but Chuchu is actually what I thought “choo choo” should look like if it was spelt by a Chinese person – a short version of a long story, haha 😂

    Thank you for reading my blog. I should actually write an update. Stoicism has helped me immensely to overcome obstacles in life, just like how it has helped many others I’m sure. However, I must say that Massimo has provided me with a much more modern understanding of it, and having discussions with other keen learners have made me understand the concepts much better. Thanks to all!! 🙏

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