Seneca On Anger

The single most destructive emotion is anger. The great stoic Seneca said it is a ” brief insanity”. In his essay “On Anger” he says ,” No plague has cost the human race more.We see all around us people being killed, poisoned, and sued; we see cities and nations ruined. And besides destroying cities and nations, anger can destroy us individually. We live in a world, after all, in which there is much to be angry about.” He suggest unless we can learn to control anger, we will be perpetually angry.He says being angry is a waste of precious time.”

Some may suggest that anger has its uses, that it gets them motivated. Seneca rejects this claim. He says its true that sometimes anger is useful but it doesn’t follow that we should welcome anger in our lives. Sometimes people benefit from being in a shipwreck and yet who in their right mind would increase their chances of being shipwrecked. Seneca was not keen on employing any impulses over which the reason did not have authority.

Seneca is not suggesting that a person who sees his father killed and his mother raped that he should not feel angry. He says he should punish the wrongdoers and protect his parents but to the extent possible he should remain calm as he does so. He is more likely to do better job of protecting and punishing if he avoids getting angry.

More generally Seneca suggest when someone wrongs us they should be corrected ” by admonition and also by force , gently and also roughly.” Such corrections should not be made in anger; since we are not punishing them as retribution for what they have done but for their own good, so they do not do it again. He is suggesting the punishment should be ” an expression not of anger but caution.”

Seneca offers advice on how to avoid getting angry. He says do not believe the worst about others and their motivations; just because things did not turn out the way we expected then to does not mean others did us injustice. In some cases the person who we are angry at may have helped us, in which case we are angry because he did not do more to help us. He advise against becoming overly sensitive by coddling ourselves. If we corrupt ourselves with pleasure nothing will seem bearable and the reason things will seem unbearable is not because they are hard but because we are soft. Seneca therefore recommends that we never get too comfortable. If we harden ourselves we are less likely to be disturbed and get angry. He says we should also keep in mind that the things that angers us generally don’t do us any real harm; they are instead mere annoyances. By allowing ourselves to get angry over little things, we take what might have been a barely noticeable disruption of our day and transform it into tranquility shattering state of agitation. Furthermore, as Seneca observes, ‘ our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us.”  What fools we are, therefore, when we allow our tranquility to be disrupted by minor things.Seneca also says we should remind ourselves that our behaviour also anger other people: ‘We are bad men living among bad men, and only one thing can calm us – we must agree to go easy on one another.” He also suggests that when we are angry we should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger ,says Seneca, will have dissipated.

If we are unable to control our anger and lash out at someone then we should apologize. This will instantly repair the social damage our outburst may have caused. It will have calming effect on us and it can help us become a better person; by admitting our mistakes, we lessen the chance that we will make the same mistake again in the future.

Everyone occasionally gets angry, but there are some people who are angry pretty much all the time. They are easily provoked to anger with minor or no provocation. Such cases Seneca would tell us are tragic. Not only do they not realize that life is too short to be angry all the time but they torment those around them.  Why not instead, Seneca asks, ” makes yourself a person to be loved by all while you live and missed when you have made your departure?” Why experience anti-joy when you have the power to experience joy?


A Guide to the Good Life  by William B. Irvine

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