Seneca’s Passion – Managing Anger


And so, finally, I shall set out to fulfill my earlier promise to write a post on Seneca’s suggestions regarding how to overcome this particularly destructive emotion. By the way, if you were unconvinced by my previous post explaining his arguments showing the negativity of anger, please leave a comment explaining your objections or counter arguments. Philosophy is to a very great extent about discussion, and if there is no such discussion there is very little growth and development. Anyway, if you were convinced, and want to know how the man thought we might do away with anger, this post should give you a decent summary. It is not, however, exhaustive (I try to keep my posts relatively short, so few of them are), and I urge you to read the book if you’re interested in the topic. As said before, it’s quite easy to read compared to most classical texts.

One of Seneca’s first pieces of advice is related to the distinction between simple, manageable tasks and big, complicated ones. He states that if a person applies him or herself solely to undertakings that are – to him or her – of the former kind, said person will be able to avoid frustration and, consequently, anger. Often, he says, when people take on greater challenges, they convince themselves that they’ll be easier than they are and become angry when this turns out not to be the case. This does not, however, mean that people shouldn’t do anything strenuous, it just means that they shouldn’t ever overreach, and that if they do they should strive to be aware of the fact that they are doing so at all times. It’s about understanding one’s weaknesses and maintaining a realistic attitude towards one’s work. Realism features strongly in his advice, as you’ll have seen in the far more basic post I wrote earlier.

He also talks about conditioning. Seneca firmly believed that if people allowed their bodies and minds to become soft and pampered they would be far more prone to irritability. This makes sense; a person who is used to hardship and misfortune will be far more capable of dealing with a bit of bad luck than someone who is used to luxury. A man who lives on the street won’t mind too much if his jacket gets a bit dirty, whereas a wealthy businessman may well throw a tantrum if someone happens to stain his tie. So Seneca thought that we should avoid becoming too soft, striving to form a thicker skin.

He also stated that, since we find it so difficult to suppress anger once it gets a hold of us, we should avoid situations that will make us angry. We should surround ourselves with mild-mannered and agreeable people and avoid their volatile and pugnacious counterparts, so that we won’t constantly end up in arguments and aren’t being insulted all the time. There’s a problem with this argument. First of all, it’s not really fair to people who happen to be of a slightly passionate or argumentative disposition to say that we should shun them – surely instead we should help them, rather than selfishly retreating into a little social bubble. Also, if people were to follow this advice, most married couples would have to file for divorce. The biggest problem, however, is that it seems to go directly against his prior advice on conditioning. And after all, if our defense against anger is so flimsy that we can never allow ourselves to be in the company of someone who might disagree with us, then surely the problem hasn’t actually been dealt with. Nevertheless, his main point is sound – it’s better to avoid a struggle altogether.

Seneca then goes on to suggest that we exercise self-awareness. If you’re naturally irritable, stay away from high stress situations as much as possible. He also says that, as with a disease, it’s better to deal with a passion (which can in some ways be seen as a disease of the mind or emotions) when it’s in its infancy. We should try to suppress our anger when we feel the first stirrings of it, acting as quickly as possible. Also, in order to avoid becoming angry, he suggests that people should learn what angers them specifically. Everybody’s different, and we’re all annoyed more or less by different things. Some hate being mollycoddled, others quite like it; some hate being corrected, others simply see it as an opportunity for growth. In short, know what your Achilles heel is, so that you can protect it better.

He follows this with my personal favourite: “There are many ways in which anger may be checked; most things may be turned into a jest.” If someone insults you, how much better you’ll look if you reply with some witty remark than if you punch the offender. If you bump your head, how much more likable you’ll seem if you laugh rather than wasting your breath on cursing the inanimate object that caused the injury. With a little effort, virtually any insult or misfortune can be turned into a joke. I think this is probably Seneca’s best piece of advice. You don’t necessarily need to make a clever joke of some sort – laughter alone can do wonders do defuse a tense situation, and as with most things, practice does make perfect.

Seneca then covers two topics I can relate to quite well; exaggeration and concealment. He argues that most people make themselves angry by inventing wrongs or exaggerating things. I did this embarrassingly often when I was younger, being something of a tantrum child, and I know it isn’t necessary. His point about concealment is interesting. He claims that when a person fails to quash their anger, they should try to hide it. His argument is that while this is difficult and may feel to some like a kind of cowardice, it’ll mean that the emotion won’t take complete control of you. Being of a shy disposition I often do this instinctively, and I can say with authority that it does work. It’s fully possible to do, and after a while the anger tends to fade away. Time is the best remedy for any passionate emotion. There is of course the problem of internalization to be taken into consideration, but there are ways of safely venting anger (exercise, scream therapy, reflection, etc.).

I hope you feel you’ve gotten something out of this, and wish you a good day!



One response »

  1. Pingback: Thought Ripples: Living with Anger | Two Voices, One Song

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