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.

32 thoughts on “Seneca on anger: the Medea

  1. Paul Braterman

    Seneca commends forgiveness. What does this mean? I know what it is to forgive a debt, but in what sense can I or should I forgive, for example, a child abuser or a self-seeking and successful warmonger?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Massimo Post author

    Paul,

    in the sense that you remind yourself that they did what they did because they couldn’t see that that was wrong. They are fundamentally flawed human beings. So it is our duty to stop them from doing bad things, but hating them on top of that is misguided.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Paul Braterman

    So the “initial involuntary movement” would have the function of motivating appropriate and proportionate action, but the second movement, wherein the unwisdom lies, is to allow the initial emotional response to give rise to the wish to harm as an end on itself?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Plutarch

    Wonderful article. Re: Forgiveness, Massimo I’m wondering if you’ve read David Konstans before Forgiveness. He argues that the Greek conception of Forgiveness did not include any sense of expecting someone to morally reform their character (as we tend to think in our more casual meaning of the word today.) For ancient Greco Roman philosophy forgiveness meant, Konstans argued, just choosing not to pursue vengeance rather than granting someone absolution. Your account of Stoic forgiveness seems to dovetail with Konstans, so I was wondering if that was a coincidence or deliberate agreement.

    Re Paul: on this view of forgiveness you aren’t expecting the child abuser or warmonger to be a different person, you’re just deciding not to actively ponder and pursue vengeance against them. Sort of like how in Greek ‘apology’ as in Platos apology is not a modern apology, it’s just a defense speech. Not an admission of guilt and saying I will reform my character. It’s just denying wrong doing. Similarly, at least if I understand Konstans properly, forgiveness for greco Roman’s, and hence Stoics, just means not pursuing or considering active vengeance. In more casual English it’s like ‘forgetting’ the moral offense of the wrongdoer, except for the fact you still remember they did it.

    Anyway it’s always a pleasure to see Medea dissected by a Stoic. Thanks Massimo!

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  5. Massimo Post author

    Right, the second movement is where the failure of judgments comes in. By the time one has arrived at the third movement, anger is out of control and nothing else can be done by reason.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Plutarch

    That way of looking at amathia makes sense to me! Thanks Massimo. You’d probably like Konstans work. I’d love to see you break it down. Though sadly, he doesn’t focus on Stoicism per se… That said he’s a friendly guy whose generous with his time and so he might support you breaking it down for this blog! Anyway, I can dream. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  7. leonids

    “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.”

    Popular culture’s wrongheaded promotion of anger as a virtue, e.g., “the angry voter,” has dangerous consequences.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Alan Rutkowski

    Recognizing that a child abuser is a flawed human being and therefore not a legitimate target of anger sounds like a denial of free will. But couldn’t the same thing be said of the person given to anger?

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  9. Massimo Post author

    Alan,

    I don’t see why bring in free will. The child abuser has made choices (unless he was suffering from a brain pathology, which is a different case), and so is responsible for them. The Stoic point is that he made those choices not because he is evil, but because he is suffering from un-wisdom. If so, pity, rather than hatred, is the right response.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Thomas Lasch

    Very informative. Some things seem “worthy” of anger or resentment. And it is these things that are the most poisonous of all to the one who is angry. For anger means irrationality and unhappiness. First in the angry one, then in the response to the actions or words of the angry one. It is an escalating double helix of sorts and can carry on generation after generation of hatred and evil. Note: Palestinian Arabs vs. Israelis….

    Liked by 1 person

  11. labnut

    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.

    This habit, that of carefully entertaining a second person point of view and an impartial third person point of view, is, I think, key to understanding moral problems.

    The first step is to place oneself, as nearly as possible, in the mind of the person that provoked the anger. In their own mind their action is justified. Can we understand why they think this? Can we understand the background, context and their motivations without using condemnatory language? Can we see perhaps how we contributed to the problem?

    The second step is to imagine a dialogue with a wise, uninvolved third party. Explain your perspective and then explain the second party perspective. Now how would the wise, uninvolved third party advise you?

    The third step is to remind oneself that we are the source of our anger. That we make ourselves angry by the way in which we interpret events. We disable anger by reinterpreting the events using the tools of second party and third party perspectives.

    However these tools are crucially dependent on learning to respect and value other people’s perspectives. It is a deep sense of otherness which we need to grasp. Our local Bantu culture captures this sense of otherness quite beautifully in the concept of ‘Ubuntu’, which, simplistically, can be translated as ‘I am because you are’.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. labnut

    he made those choices not because he is evil

    Evil is the capacity to knowingly make choices which are deeply harmful to others, in the absence of a compelling motivation that broader society can recognise and condone.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. labnut

    Careful, you are making evil a relative concept…

    Did I just detect a mischievous sense of humour in your reply?

    I was giving a secular argument for a secular audience. I could of course make the theistic argument but you are well known for failing to appreciate such arguments 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Chuchu

    Thank you for the article, Massimo. A beautiful Picture of Maria Callas! 🙂

    However, there’s something missing in both the article and the comments here. Well Paul touched a little on it but I think maybe from a different perspective. That is how is a wrong doer prevented from doing the same thing in the future?

    So if Medea didn’t allow anger to take over her mind, and did indeed forgive Jason, how would Jason learn the lesson, as what he clearly also did wrong here?

    I understand how Jason behaved was not within Medea’s control. However, if she did the “turn the other cheek” thing, wouldn’t Jason feel there was nothing wrong, at least no consequence to what he did?

    I can not count the number of women in history who had to hold their anger and “look the other way”, while their husbands were having affairs. Henry VIII ‘s first wife, the Spanish Catherine, was forced to do so, and what happened? Henry VIII got involved with Anne Boleyn, and then made himself the head of the English church in order to get a divorce. During the process, thousands of people died. This consequently let to Catherine’s daughter, bloody Mary, to burn so many protestants.

    While Medea indeed did horrible things, driven by anger, can we please not forget the man who wronged in the first place. How can one gaurentee Jason would not do the same thing to his Greek princess?by then it will be a princess’ rage the entire nation may need to suffer!

    The way I see it, at least Jason would now think again before treating another woman so horribly.

    Medea had so frequently quoted in Stoic articles as an example of the vice anger, and most of the people who write these articles are men. However, what about Jason? He was indeed unjust to Medea. Why has no Stoic writer had written about “xxx on lust – the Jason “?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Massimo Post author

    Chuchu,

    actually, as I say in the article, Seneca is sympathetic toward Medea. The reason Stoics write more about her than Jason is because they think that anger is one of the most dangerous of human emotions. They also unequivocally condemn both lust and betrayal, in both men and women (I’ll soon write about this in my ongoing series on the book on Seneca and the family).

    As for preventing Jason from doing it again, I’m afraid that’s outside of Medea’s control. She can, of course, stand up to him, but it seems like murdering her own children is definitely taking things a bit too far, no?

    Also, the Stoics advocated restraining or exiling, even executing, people who did bad things. But Jason has committed no crime, he has been unvirtuous.

    Liked by 3 people

  16. Chuchu

    Haha 😂 it has been no more than an hour, I can already look back at my first post and read the anger flowing between the lines!

    Thank you Massimo, and I look forward to more of your writings on family!

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Thomas Lasch

    Jason’s actions are reprehensible, to be sure, But as an example of irrational evil it’s hard to top murdering your own children. That is why the extreme example of Medea is so commonly used.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. labnut

    Chuchu, to generalise:
    Every relationship is characterised by a web of mutual expectations that may vary from strong to weak. They can be placed in three categories according to their importance to the parties:

    1) Core expectations. These are critical expectations. Failure to meet these expectations results in breakdown of the relationship. Infidelity is a common example.
    2) Negotiable expectations. These are important expectations whose outcome can be settled through responsible and sincere negotiation.
    3) Disposable expectations. These are expectations that can be abandoned because they are unattainable or not vital.

    It is confusion over these expectations that plagues most relationships. Commonly people punish their partner for failing to meet their expectations and attempt to coerce their partner into meeting their expectations. Or they may use emotional blackmail and anger in order to coerce their partner.

    It is a waste of time that creates endless relationship pain. One should instead form a very clear idea of what are core, negotiable and disposable expectations. If core expectations are not met then get out because the relationship is unworkable. Negotiate on the rest and what cannot be realised relegate to the category of disposable expectations and then learn to live with it. But never coerce or punish. Abandon failed expectations that have been placed in the disposable category. Failure to abandon them causes so much resentment that ultimately the relationship fails.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Chuchu

    Labnut,

    First of all, what a name. =)

    Your analysis comes from someone who has a very rational mind. That’s great!

    However, when it comes to attraction and love between two human beings that aren’t parent and child or siblings, many of the most rational people would make crazy decisions.

    Imagine if you were Medea and Jason’s relationship consular, do you really think they’d listen to you explaining the 3 expectations and why it’s irrational to punish the partner for not meeting the expectations?

    My best friend was in a very toxic relationship, she used to tell me constantly:”I know what’s the right thing to do, I really need to leave him, it’s toxic to be fighting and crying every week for 3 years!”

    Many people are like this, they know what’s the most rational thing to do but they just can’t do it. Philosophies such as Stoicism would of course help with situations like this, but not when they are already deeply affected by passion. I remember giving my friend a Buddhist book when she finally ended her relationship. She said to me (in Chinese) something along the lines of “water afar can’t put off the fire nearby”, meaning philosophy was not going to solve her heart break that was happening right then.

    This is drifting away from the “anger is evil” subject here. My point is that what you’ve written is great for someone who isn’t experiencing relationship wrecks, or someone who had healed from a bad relationship, but not for someone like Medea who was, angry. =)

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  20. Massimo Post author

    Chuchu,

    “but not for someone like Medea who was, angry.”

    That’s why the Stoics insisted that one has to trained herself not to get angry. If you don’t train, then anger will take over, and Medea happens…

    Liked by 3 people

  21. Max Bini

    Great article. Two points I would question: The assumption that the Medea is written after De Ira (47-50) – the tragedies fit better as written during Seneca’s exile – and that Seneca is more sympathetic to Medea than Euripides was – Seneca lays responsibility upon the individual not upon the gods or fate as the Greeks did – recall the closing line “Know that wherever you go, there are no gods.”

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  22. labnut

    Chuchu,

    First of all, what a name
    Part of my early life was spent in a laboratory. Since then my motto has always been ‘make measurements, not assumptions‘.
    I take it that Chuchu is the familiar form of your Chinese name.

    I read your blog. My heart goes out to you. I admire your strength.

    from someone who has a very rational mind
    Thank you 🙂

    many of the most rational people would make crazy decisions
    Actually most would, including myself.
    It is important to understand that we are bound together in a vast web of invisible and mostly unspoken expectations. These expectations are terribly important because they make society work. Consequently failure of expectations is painfully disappointing. Making these expectations visible so that they can be analysed is an important way of dealing with them.

    To build on what Massimo said. There is a three step process:
    1) Feel. Admit to your emotions. Honour them and own them. Now resolve to put them aside so that you can
    2) Think and understand, then
    3) Act. This can be as simple as an internal decision to move on with your life and leave the harmful emotions behind.

    As Massimo points, out, it takes training to achieve this. Though we differ in that I believe we must first feel it and then deal with it. Massimo, I think, aims to suppress the emotions in the first place. I do find that with training this tends to happen in any case.

    The heart of Stoicism is, I believe, inserting the step, thinking and understanding, between the steps of feeling and acting, giving it greater prominence. This emphasis on internal reflection buys time, allowing emotions to subside and opportunity to gain perspective. It is attaining proper perspective which is key.

    Liked by 1 person

  23. labnut

    Massimo,
    That’s why the Stoics insisted that one has to trained herself not to get angry.

    Agreed. But how should one go about training oneself? What tools or methodologies can one use?

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  24. Massimo Post author

    Max,

    thanks for your comment. Regarding the chronology, I defer to the expert consensus cited in the paper. Which, of course, could be wrong.

    As for Seneca’s sympathy, I think this is in comparison with Euripides’ treatment of the same character. Having sympathy for a character does not mean, of course, that one condones her actions. Indeed, that is a large point of Stoic practice: condemn (and stop, if possible) the actions, but pity the person who does them.

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  25. Massimo Post author

    labnut,

    you are correct in your description of the aim of Stoicism, but:

    “we differ in that I believe we must first feel it and then deal with it. Massimo, I think, aims to suppress the emotions in the first place.”

    Not exactly. The pre-emotion (of anger, in this case) cannot be stopped, it is not humanly possible. What we can stop is the cognitively mature emotion, step 2. Also, of course, remember that Stoics aim at suppressing negative cognitive emotions, not all emotions. We nurture, for instance, joy, love, friendship, etc.

    Liked by 3 people

  26. Massimo Post author

    Zeke,

    comments have always been limited to the most recent posts. The comment window remains open for five days. That’s to avoid dragging discussion on forever, and limiting somewhat my job as moderator.

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