This semester in my Principles of Ethics class I’ve been incorporating some new readings, including several works by the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca. A lot of his stuff is not only insightful but also practically beneficial, not to mention beautifully written. His essay “On Anger” is an excellent case in point. Personally, I think he goes too far in suggesting that all anger should be avoided, but I think we all can agree that much, if not most, human anger is counter-productive. And we all would benefit from improving in the area of anger management, especially in these days of division and rancor. Below I have highlighted some of Seneca’s thoughts on the subject which you may find helpful. (All quotes below are from the Oxford edition of Seneca’s Dialogues and Essays, translated by John Davie.)
Why Anger Should be Avoided
- Anger inflicts harm on oneself: anger makes one a prisoner of one’s own passion. It is more painful to surrender to anger than to resist it: “every sense of grievance grows to self-torture” (32). “The anger I feel is more likely to do me harm than any wrong you may do me” (40).
- It is a sign of greatness to be resistant to all disturbances: “a lofty mind, always composed and established in a peaceful location, suppresses all that produces anger, and so is moderate, well-ordered, and earns respect; none of these things will you find in an angry man” (23).
- Anger turns men into savages: Gaius Caesar and many other leaders have allowed their anger to the most extreme cruelties, which extends even to fury on entire nations. Anger begets “every sort of evil, fire and sword. Trampling shame underfoot, it defiles men’s hands with murder . . . and leaves no place free from crime” (50).
Anger is Susceptible to our Control
- Many others have pardoned worse sins than you’ve suffered: People have forgiven criminal offenses, so “should I not pardon laziness, carelessness, or chattering?” (39). Even Harpagus controlled his anger when he was forced to eat his own sons, which the Persian king had killed, cooked, and served to him.
- You are able to tolerate other forms of irresponsibility, such as “a sick man’s lunatic behavior, a madman’s crazed words, or children’s petulant blows. . . . What difference does it make what fault it is that makes a person behave irresponsibly?” (40).
Guidelines for Avoiding Anger
- Take note of the things that provoke you: “It is an advantage to know one’s illness and to destroy its strength before it has scope to grow” (27).
- Use humor as a defense: “Let most affronts be turned into amusement and jest.”
- Resist the tendency to suspicion and exaggeration: “Very many men manufacture complaints, either by suspecting what is untrue or by exaggerating the unimportant. Anger often comes to us, but more often we come to it” (28).
- Put yourself in others’ shoes: Usually anger results from an “unjustified estimate of our own worth” and “an unwillingness to put up with treatment we would happily inflict on others” (28).
- Remember that everyone does foolish things: “Even the wisest men do wrong.” “No one is so ripe in judgment that his self-possession is not driven by misfortune into some heated action” (39). “All of us are inconsiderate and imprudent, all unreliable, dissatisfied, ambitious—why disguise with euphemism this sore that infects us all? All of us are corrupt.” (40).
- Remember your mortality: Resisting anger will make you more lovable. Better to “spend the brief span we have left in rest and peace” (50). Anyway, the one who offended you will die one day, whether or not you burn with anger toward him. “Soon we will spit out this little spirit. In the meantime, while we have breath, while we are among our fellow men, let us behave as men should; let us not be a cause of fear or danger to anyone; . . . and let us tolerate with a great mind our short-lived misfortunes” (52).