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.”
Let 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.
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.