Timeless wisdom on controlling anger in personal life and politics from the Roman Stoic philosopher and statesman Seneca
In his essay “On Anger” (De Ira), the Roman Stoic thinker Seneca (c. 4 BC–65 AD) argues that anger is the most destructive passion: “No plague has cost the human race more dear.” This was proved by his own life, which he barely preserved under one wrathful emperor, Caligula, and lost under a second, Nero. This splendid new translation of essential selections from “On Anger,” presented with an enlightening introduction and the original Latin on facing pages, offers readers a timeless guide to avoiding and managing anger. It vividly illustrates why the emotion is so dangerous and why controlling it would bring vast benefits to individuals and society.
Drawing on his great arsenal of rhetoric, including historical examples (especially from Caligula’s horrific reign), anecdotes, quips, and soaring flights of eloquence, Seneca builds his case against anger with mounting intensity. Like a fire-and-brimstone preacher, he paints a grim picture of the moral perils to which anger exposes us, tracing nearly all the world’s evils to this one toxic source. But he then uplifts us with a beatific vision of the alternate path, a path of forgiveness and compassion that resonates with Christian and Buddhist ethics.
Seneca’s thoughts on anger have never been more relevant than today, when uncivil discourse has increasingly infected public debate. Whether seeking personal growth or political renewal, readers will find, in Seneca’s wisdom, a valuable antidote to the ills of an angry age.
About the Author
James Romm is the editor and translator of Seneca’s How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life (Princeton) and the author of Dying Every Day: Seneca at the Court of Nero (Knopf). He has written for the New York Review of Books and the Wall Street Journal, among other publications. He is the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College and lives in Barrytown, New York.
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HOW TO KEEP YOUR COOL
Seneca frames his essay "On Anger" as a letter to his older brother Novatus, a man who, like Seneca himself, had gone into politics and had become a senator. (Novatus would later change his name to Gallio after being adopted by a wealthy patron of that name, and he appears as Gallio in the biblical book of Acts as the Roman governor of Greece who dealt with the apostle Paul in Corinth). The single addressee is only a fiction, however, for the essay is really directed at Seneca's fellow elite Romans and can be applied even more widely today.
You urged me, Novatus, to write about the way in which anger can be softened, and I think you are right to be most frightened of this emotion, the ugliest and most savage of all emotions. The others have some measure of peace and quiet in them, but this one rages, in turmoil and furious movement — with an eagerness hardly human — for pain, weapons, blood, and torture, until it harms others while discarding its own good. It rushes to arms and greedily seeks a vengeance that will only drag the avenger down with it. Some wise men have called anger a brief madness; in equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred up by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what's just and true; it resembles nothing so much as a collapsing building that breaks apart upon that which it crushes.
But to understand that those in the grips of anger are not sane, look at how they present themselves. For just as madness shows clear signs — a brash and threatening expression, an unhappy face, a wrinkled forehead, an agitated gait, nervous hands, changed skin color, rapid and heavy breathing — just so, angry people display the same signs: their eyes burn and flash, their whole face reddens with blood that boils up from their innermost organs, their lips tremble, their teeth clench, their hair bristles and stands on end, their breath becomes labored and gasping; cracking knuckles in twisting limbs, sighs and groans and speech broken off by unintelligible noises, hands smashed together, feet pounding the earth, body agitated all over and "brandishing anger's mighty threats," an aspect foul to look on and disgusting as the afflicted contort themselves and grow swollen. You'd be hard put to say which is the better word for this fault: "hateful" or "monstrous."
Other things can be hidden away and nurtured in secret, but anger announces itself and comes out onto the face; the greater its degree, the more openly it seethes. Don't you see how all animals, as soon as they have reared up to inflict harm, send forth signals ahead of the attack? How their entire bodies abandon their accustomed calm appearance and whet the edge of their wildness? Boars foam at the mouth, sharpening their tusks by rubbing; bulls toss their horns in the empty air, scattering sand with their hooves; lions roar, prodded snakes puff up their necks, and the faces of rabid dogs become a woeful sight. No animal is so fearsome, so noxious in nature that the onset of new savagery does not show itself as soon as anger has entered in.
Of course, I'm aware that other emotions are also hard to hide, and that lust, and fear, and bravery too give signs of their presence and can be perceived. Indeed, there's no intense arousal that enters us without altering our expressions in some way. Then what's the difference? This: while other feelings stand out, this one towers.
(1.2) But if you truly want to examine its effects, the damages it causes, I say that no plague has done more harm to humankind. You'll see slaughters, poisons, mutual mudslinging of litigants, wreckage of cities, extinctions of whole races, lives of leading men sold at public auction, torches touched to buildings, flames not contained within walls but, held by an enemy host, gleaming over vast spans of territory. Look at the foundation stones of the noblest cities, now barely visible: anger toppled them. Look at the wastelands that stretch empty for many miles, without an inhabitant: anger stripped them clean. Look at leaders preserved in memory as examples of evil fate: anger stabbed this one in his own bed, struck that one down amid the sacred rites of the table, mangled another as the courts and the crowded forum watched; ordered one to offer his blood to his son's parricide, another to bare his royal neck to a slave's hand, another to split his limbs apart on the cross. And these are only the tortures of individuals; what if, looking past those whom anger has scorched one by one, you could glimpse assemblies hacked by the sword, mobs cut to pieces by soldiers sent against them, whole peoples condemned to die through indiscriminate slaughter?
There is a gap in the transmitted Latin text following the above sentence. As we know from other sources, in the missing text Seneca defined anger as a desire to punish a real or perceived wrong. That definition will be important in his later discussion of how anger can be prevented or moderated.
(1.7) But, one might ask, even if anger is unnatural, shouldn't we adopt it because it's useful? After all, it lifts and gives spur to the spirits, and courage achieves no great military feat without it — that is, if its fire is not lit underneath us and its goad does not provoke the bold and send them into perils. Thus some men think it valuable to moderate anger rather than set it aside, to force it to conform to a healthy measure and restrain its overflows, to hold on to that part without which action grows weak and the force and energy of the mind is dissipated. First, however, it's easier to shut out harmful things than to govern them, easier to deny them entry than to moderate them once they have entered. Once they've established residence, they become more powerful than their overseer and do not accept retrenchment or abatement. That is why Reason itself, to which the reins are entrusted, stays potent only so long as it's kept apart from the passions; if it mingles and pollutes itself with them, it can no longer restrain that which it formerly could have rebuffed. Once shaken and overthrown, the mind becomes a slave to that which drives it. In some cases, though the onset of things is in our control, that which follows drags us along by its momentum and allows us no step backward. Just as bodies in freefall have no power over themselves and cannot resist or slow their descent, but the unstoppable downrush cuts off every thought and regret, and they cannot help arriving at a place where they once could have not arrived — so the mind, if it launches itself into anger, or love, or the other emotions, has no chance to check its impetus; its own gravity, and the sloping nature of the vices, naturally seizes it and pulls it down to the bottom.
(1.8) It is best to repel instantly the first prickings of anger, to stamp out its very seedlings, to take pains not to be drawn in. For once it has knocked us off course, the return to health and safety is difficult; no space is left for Reason once passion has been ushered in and given jurisdiction. From that point on it will do what it wants, not what you allow. No, the foe must be fended off at the farthest borders (as it were); once it has entered and made its way through your gates, it takes its prisoners and grants no terms. The mind is no longer a thing set apart, watching the passions from a distance to stop them from going further than they should. The mind itself, now weakened and betrayed to the enemy, is changed into a passion and cannot recover its helpful and healthful power.
(1.12) "What then?" someone says. "Does a good man not get angry? Even if he watches his father get killed or his mother raped?" He won't get angry, but he'll avenge them or he'll protect them. Why are you afraid that duty alone, without anger's help, will be too little motivation for him? But say this, in the same way: "What's that? When he beholds his father or son cut to pieces, won't the good man weep? Won't his mind desert him?" ... The good man will carry out his duties, without fear or turmoil; he'll act in a manner worthy of a good man, such that he'll do nothing unworthy of a man. My father is being killed; I'll defend him. He has been killed; I'll avenge him — but because it's right, not because I'm grieved. ... To get angry on behalf of one's kin is the mark of a weak mind, not a loyal one. It is this that is noble and worthy: for a defender to act on behalf of parents, children, and friends with his duty leading him on — willingly, judiciously and with foresight, not driven and raging.
There is no emotion more eager for vengeance than anger, and for that very reason, none less suited to the taking of vengeance. Over-hasty and heedless like every greedy desire, it blocks itself on the way to where it is rushing.
(1.15) To someone doling out punishment, nothing is less suitable than anger. A penalty is more useful for correction when the judgment imposing it is more sound. Thus it was that Socrates said to his slave, "I would beat you if I weren't angry." He postponed punishment of the slave to a saner moment; at that time, he reproached himself. So whose passions can ever be kept moderate, when even Socrates did not dare surrender to anger?
(1.20) And we must not even suppose that anger contributes in any way to greatness. That's not greatness but mere swelling, just as a disease, in bodies distended by an excess of unhealthy fluid, is not "growth" but a noxious overflow. Everyone who's transported beyond mortal thinking by aninsane mind believes he's breathing in something elevated and sublime. But there's nothing firm underneath; things that grow without foundations are likely to slide into ruin. Anger has nothing on which it can lean; it arises from nothing steady or durable. ... "What then? Don't words that seem to have come from a great mind issue forth from angry people?" No, rather, from those who don't know what true greatness is, just like that dread and hateful expression "Let them hate, so long as they fear." ... Do you think that was spoken by a great spirit? You're wrong; that was not greatness but monstrosity.
There is no reason to trust the words of angry people, which make loud and menacing noise despite the great timidity of the mind that lies beneath. There is no reason to regard as true that phrase found in the works of Livy, a most learned author: "A man of great more than good nature." Those things can't be separated. Either his nature was good as well or it wasn't great, since I know greatness of soul to be something unshakable, solid to the core, just, and firm from the bottom up, such that it can't exist in evil natures. Sure, terrible and turbulent and lethal things can exist, but they won't have greatness, the foundation of which is strength and goodness. They will give the illusion of greatness with their speech, their effort and all their external show; they will shout out something that you might think belongs to a great mind — like Caligula: angered at the sky because its clamor interrupted the pantomimes (which he was more eagerly mimicking than watching!), and because his revels were terrorized by thunderbolts (entirely too poorly aimed!), he summoned Jupiter to battle; and when there was no letup, he declaimed that famous line of Homer's: "You throw me, or I'll throw you." What madness that was! Either he thought he couldn't be harmed even by Jupiter himself or he thought that he could harm even Jupiter. I imagine that his utterance added to the impetus of the minds of those who conspired to kill him,for it seemed the height of forbearance to put up with a man who couldn't put up with Jupiter.
(1.21) Thus there's nothing great or noble in anger, not even when it seems brash and scornful of both men and gods. Or, if it seems that anger does bring forth greatness of mind in anyone, then so would extravagance, for it likes to be held up by ivory, dressed in purples, and covered in gold; to move lands from place to place, dam up oceans, turn rivers into waterfalls, build forests in the air. Then, greed too would seem to come from a great mind, for it lies down on heaps of gold and silver, tends fields that are called "provinces," holds estates under single managers that stretch out farther than what consuls get assigned. Lust would seem to come from a great mind, since it swims across straits, castrates whole crowds of boys, goes under a husband's sword with no regard for death. ... All these things, no matter how far they go, how far they extend themselves, are really small, base, and lowly. Virtue alone is elevated and lofty. Nothing is great unless it's also at peace.
Having dealt up to now with anger in the abstract — its definition and qualities — Seneca turns, in the second half of his treatise, toward a pragmatic discussion of how to stop anger from getting hold of us, and how to manage it once it does. He begins with advice to parents on how to raise children so as to produce adults who are not prone to anger.
(2.18) Since we have explored the questions that result from anger, let's move on to its remedies. These are two, I believe: not falling into an angry state and, once there, not doing wrong. Just as, in the care of the body, some therapies deal with maintaining health and others with restoring it, so we ought to use one method to fend off anger, another to suppress it. First, as to how to avoid it, we'll look at certain teachings that concern the whole of human life, dividing them up into "raising of children" and "what comes after."
Child-rearing demands the greatest effort, for that effort will return a very great benefit; it's easy to mold minds that are still pliable. But ills that have taken root in us are retrenched only with difficulty.
(2.21) A very great benefit, I say, will come from raising children in a healthy way. But it's a difficult program, since we must make an effort neither to nurture anger in them nor to blunt their natural impulses. Careful observation is needed, for that which must be supported and that which must be suppressed are nurtured by similar things, and being similar, they can easily fool you even as you monitor them. The spirit flourishes when it is given license and shrinks under servitude; it shoots up if it is given praise and encouraged to value itself highly. But license and praise also give rise to arrogance and an angry temperament. We must steer a middle course, pulling back on the reins at one moment, applying the goad the next. Let children's spirits encounter nothing lowly or slavish. Let them never beg for things in the manner of a suppliant, and if they do, let them not gain anything by it. Rather let gifts be made on the basis of their circumstances, the things they have already done, and the good things they promise to do in the future.
In contests with their peers, let's not allow children to be defeated, nor to grow angry; let's see that they are close acquaintances of those with whom they contend, so that they get accustomed to wanting to win rather than to hurt. Whenever they win and do something worthy of praise, let's allow them to hold their heads high but not to become boastful, for exultation follows rejoicing, and after exultation comes inflated ego and too great a sense of self-worth. We will give them a certain amount of leisure, but we won't untether them for idleness and laziness, and we'll keep them far from the influence of the pleasures, for nothing will make adults more prone to anger than a soft and cloying upbringing. Thus the more an only child is indulged, or the more that's permitted to an orphaned ward, the more corrupt the mind becomes. The one who was never denied anything, whose tears a worried mother wiped away, for whose sake a babysitter got the blame, will have no resources against shocks to the system. Don't you see how a greater wrathfulness accompanies a greater fortune? It's clear in the case of the rich, the nobility, and office holders that whenever something light and empty arises in the mind, it gathers momentum like a ship with a favorable breeze. Prosperity nurtures the angry temperament, when a crowd of yes-men whispers in arrogant ears, "Can he talk that way to you? You're not taking the measure of your full stature; you sell yourself short," and other things that even healthy minds, built on strong foundations from the start, have scarcely resisted.
Let childhood be kept far away from flattery; let it hear the truth. Let it feel fear now and then, respect always, and let it learn to rise before elders. Let it not obtain anything by getting angry; what's refused to the whiner should be freely given to the child who keeps silent. Let him keep his parents' wealth in view but not in use. Let him be upbraided for any falsehoods. It will be important too that he be given teachers and attendants who are calm, since everything gentle attaches itself to what lies adjacent and grows to resemble those things; the characters of young adults thereafter recall those of their nurses and sitters.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "How To Keep Your Cool"
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Table of Contents
De Ira / How to Keep Your Cool, 1,
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“How to Keep Your Cool presents one of Seneca’s most timely essays in an attractive format that is sure to appeal to readers. James Romm’s excellent translation is more readable than any other.”A. A. Long, author of Epictetus: A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life