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Seneca on the Difficulty of Defining Anger and a Simple Remedy


The philosopher wrote a lengthy treatise on anger, its motives and consequences and some ideas to avoid living with its costs.

For the Stoic philosophers, anger, like all passions, must be understood so that it can be contained and so that it destroys neither the desire to do good nor the will to live a righteous life. Among his writings, Seneca wrote a treatise called On Anger (De Ira), to exemplify through reason and practical example the irascible character and all the evil it produces around – and especially against – oneself.

In his treatise, Seneca introduces multiple definitions of anger. Anger is not an idea but a feeling (a passion, to use the terminology of the Stoics) and it comes in many forms. Anger can be, for example, caused by the impotence produced in ordinary people when they observe the wrongdoings of their rulers. “The weakest of men are often angry with the most powerful; so you may be sure that anger is not a desire to punish him when they cannot hope to do so.” Which is to say that anger is motivated by what we would today call impotence. In many cases the desire for punishment turns into a desire for revenge, which encourages the feeling still more.

Seneca problematized the definition of anger for Aristotle, who affirmed that anger “is the desire to return a suffering.” Human beings are not always aware of the suffering that we cause, nor are we good judges when wronged ourselves. Unlike animals which become irritated and attack others which they can then eat before returning to their normal occupations, human anger persists, even long after the original insult was committed.

Three men look at an aquarium full of undersea creatures.

In the same vein, although the philosopher believes that anger is part of the nature of some temperaments (which might be disputed by modern psychology), he finds it useless. When we’re attacked, physically or verbally, Seneca says that we can respond “angrily” but without internalizing the rancor, in defending ourselves, but not with an outburst equal in anger to the size of the offense. This is because the pursuit of justice, at least from this perspective, doesn’t follow emotions but facts and we can’t seek justice for a crime committed against us from the same angry henchmen. Allowing the passions to exceed us, and to take control of the mind, will not change the past. Along those same lines, though outrage is displayed in the desire for justice, it ought “not be thought that anger gives something to the greatness of spirit. It’s not, in fact, that greatness, but merely a swelling.”

Well, now that we have diagnosed the disease, what’s the remedy proposed by Seneca? In fact, two are very simple: “don’t fall into anger and don’t diminish ourselves during the aftermath.” From here, Seneca goes on to write about the education of children and how their character should be strengthened through the imposition of limits from the time they are very small, so that they do not grow up assuming that tantrums take on the character of arguments, and such that all of these things don’t cloud their spirits.

Seneca’s final recommendations are on the harmful consequences that anger has on those who already suffer, for they begin fretting over what they consider unfair grievances and end up angry over every small thing. They forget that what are “rebukes for one, could just the same be rebukes to any of us.” And this is such that “from here to there, the confusion will transport you, and in endlessly re-appearing new reasons, your anger will be perpetuated: miserable, when will you love? oh how precious the time you waste on an evil thing.”

Image Credit: Kevin Horan

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