Inspired by my recent post on frustration, I decided to have a look at Seneca’s “On Anger”. I’m always a tad nervous about reading philosophy books, especially old ones (and this one is, literally, ancient). The reason for this is that they tend to be practically illegible and suffocatingly stuffy, requiring much more energy and concentration to read than I like to invest in any activity. “On Anger” was, however, described by Alain de Botton as being surprisingly fresh and easy to read, so I was hopeful. Fortunately, I was not disappointed; I read the free kindle edition (translated to English, of course), and found it to be an altogether enjoyable experience. I don’t know whether this is because Seneca himself had an unusually accessible and modern style of writing, or whether the translator was an uncommonly good one. Either way, the essays weren’t crammed full of ambiguous archaisms and strange words that haven’t been in use since the early 18th century, and I was able to focus my attention entirely on analyzing and understanding Seneca’s arguments. It is my intention now to pass these on, as best as I can, because what he has to say is really quite insightful. “On Anger” strikes me as one of those books that everyone should read, but that very few people do. I’m thinking I’ll divide this little project into two separate posts, one on Seneca’s musings on the nature of anger, the second on his thoughts regarding how to deal with it. I will, of course, start with the former.
Seneca describes anger as a passion and a vice. He contrasts passion with reason – the former being emotive, the latter intellectual, and holds reason up as one of mankind’s greatest assets. He then sets out to establish, once and for all, just how bad anger truly is. The way in which he does this makes for rather interesting reading, as he illustrates a lot of his points with anecdotes about various historical figures (such as Alexander the Great). But it is of course his arguments that are the most important.
He addresses precisely those questions I’ve written down in the title – how bad anger really is, what it is that makes it bad, and also whether or not there might be any good to it. He begins by pointing out that anger is the most troublesome of all passions, stating that many “wise men” have referred to it as “a short madness”. He then points out the severity of its results, claiming that it has caused “slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations”, and generally describing it as one of the worst plagues to have infected the human race. It is after this that he asks whether anger might have some use, and whether it is a natural thing. He says that while humans are naturally kind and gentle, anger is by nature a destructive and hateful thing. While some may scoff at this and say that humans seem more predisposed to corruption and selfishness than anything else, modern-day scientists have established that people who are physically and mentally healthy are naturally emphatic. Anger, therefore, goes directly against human nature. He then asks, but isn’t it sometimes good for people to become angry with each other, so that people learn when they have done something wrong? Shouldn’t I become angry with my friend, and shout at him, if I see him doing something cruel? Otherwise he’d just continue doing it. Seneca agrees that people need to be taught a lesson every once in a while, but states that anger is the wrong way of going about it – it should be done in a reasoned manner. A person affected by vice, he says, should be corrected in the way we might correct a crooked tool – by bending it back into shape. Anger would sooner have us break the tool than mend it.
After this, Seneca moves on to a pretty big point, namely whether or not anger does have a use. He admits that it “rouses the spirit”, and states that it can fuel certain virtues (such as courage). Sitting here, in my aunt’s kitchen, I’ve just noticed a magnet on her fridge with the words “folks who have no vices have very few virtues” – exactly the issue in question here. In response to this, Seneca reminds us that it is far more difficult to control our passions then it is for us to suppress them completely. He says that reason cannot stand up to passion – an even temper is necessary for her to operate properly. His point being, that while anger may well be useful, it’s a double-edged sword even at the best of times. Once we allow anger to take over, we are in its control. So even if our anger might make us braver, or push us to act when otherwise we might’ve held back, it’s like handing over the reigns to a madman in the hopes that he’ll do what’s necessary. It’s a chancy thing to do, and arguably it’s better to be a little less virtuous and a little less active than to be a slave to our passions. He goes on to state that anger is definitely not useful in itself, and that a genuine virtue shouldn’t need the assistance of a vice. He disagrees with Aristotle, who claimed that anger was necessary and should be controlled like a soldier, stating once again that it can’t be controlled – real anger takes over the mind completely, leaving no room for reason. He makes it clear that anger is never necessary – all those things we normally associate with anger can be done (often better) using reason. There’s nothing to be gained from being angry – it’s a vice, nothing more, and as such we should strive to do away with it as best we can.