Ancient Ethics

September 28, 2006

An Evaluation of Seneca's On Anger

As Seneca asserts and as I too believe, the virtuous person will never feel anger. In Book I, sections 7-9, Seneca refutes the claim that anger can be used virtuously. Various other philosophers, such as Aristotle, who claims that "Anger is needful; no fight ban be won without it, without its filling the mind and kindling the enthusiasm…", and Theophrastus, believe that anger is a necessary vice—or that it perhaps is not a vice at all. Philosophers of this mindset would contend that anger can be used as a slave in accomplishing what one needs done, but always under the whip of reason. While anger can make one stronger or keener to fight, as Seneca points out, it is almost impossible to control anger. He believes that using anger to fight battles, among other things, is akin to using drunkenness or madness, both of which make one keener to fight, in battle. Anger, which by nature is willfully disobedient, is not able to be governed by reason, Seneca writes, or else it would not be able to call itself anger. Seneca knows how difficult, if not impossible, it is to keep emotions such as anger in check. I would compare anger to a fire—once the flame of anger has been kindled enough, it is almost impossible to control or extinguish without gargantuan effort, since in the end fire is unpredictable. Anger, among most other emotions, rarely listens to reason; in fact, emotion often seems to skew reason. For example, love makes one think that nothing is more important than being with the object of one's affections, thus causing hardship in other areas of life and causing poor decisions one would not normally make if one were not in love. Anger, an emotion itself, causes one to think that nothing is more important than avenging the wrong done to oneself or one's friends, not because of any sense of duty or devotion, and is therefore is a selfish emotion.

Expanding upon Seneca's quote that "it is best… to resist the very germs of anger and take care not to succumb," anger could also be treated as a disease. It is uncontrollable, as a illness is, because, like a rock rolling down a hill, once anger (or any emotion) gains momentum, it is difficult to stop. In a way, even emotions follow the law of inertia. When a person begins to cry or laugh, it is difficult to end, thus showing that anger should be eliminated at its very first signs—or, ideally, not even begun. Very rarely is it desirable to be just a little sick, and sickness is often preventable (at least with today's medicine). Reason could be compared to the medicine, or perhaps more aptly a vaccine that prevents anger from ever manifesting itself.

The next claim Seneca makes is that a virtuous person will not become angry at the murder of his father and the ravishing of his mother, but instead will avenge them because of devotion. While anger does give one strength, as Seneca himself acknowledges, it is ill fitted to carry out any complex plans, as anger doesn't listen to reason. Emotions such as anger and fear, both of which can in some cases "aid" in battle, are unreliable and therefore should not be used as allies, since no one can be completely sure when these emotions will arise and for how long they will help. In my opinion, it is not worth the momentary strength and frenzy to use anger if one does not know when the anger will arise or subside—and Seneca rightly points out that anger abandons rational thought, while perhaps momentarily gaining strength, in the end gives up true power—reasonable thought. It is much wiser to use reason and a sense of duty in order to win battles. Reason is controlled, like a well-bred war horse, while anger, although fierce, is unpredictable, and to use it would be like preferring to use a wild mustang to ride during battle. Anger is only useful to those who would not be courageous otherwise, like how a wild mustang would be useful only to those who would not know how to use a trained horse anyway.

Seneca writes that it is just to give punishment to those who have erred, but that anger and hate should have nothing to do with the reasons for punishment. He implores the reader to remember that they, too, have erred. This is much like the biblical saying, as uttered by Jesus as a crowd was about to stone an adulteress, that he who is without sin could cast the first stone—meaning that everybody has erred at one point in his life and he should have some forgiveness for those who have done similar. If one cannot forgive others for their wrongdoings, why should one forgive one's self? If a person does forgive oneself, but lets his anger fall on others, he has become a hypocrite, but if a person does not forgive himself, allowing his anger to fall upon himself, then he is miserable and wretched, not even wanting to be his own self. If anger is taken out of this equation, one is able to forgive others, while also attending to duty, as well one is able to forgive one's self.

Seneca acknowledges, in Book II, section 1, that some feelings and sensations are involuntary, such as shivering when one is splashed with cold water, or blushing when one is flattered, but asserts that anger is absolutely voluntary. The Stoics believe that it is not just to judge these sorts of involuntary, human quirks. I believe that anger has to do with a mindset that can be altered. By changing one's responses to wrongs and injustices, one can change the more common reaction of anger to the more virtuous reaction of duty. As long as one thinks of duty first, there is no need for anger, which only brings grief and distress to the mind, while duty and virtue, as said by the Stoics, brings happiness (I am of the opinion that this is true as long as one has even a little bit of conscience). In Book II, section 2, Seneca says that even during plays or reading about past events, some feel anger. In my mind, this proves that anger is an unnecessary emotion. What evil can one right about battles past and cities already destroyed? Some may say that this is "righteous anger," and may goad others to try to correct those wrongs committed. With Seneca's reasoning, there is no such thing as "righteous anger"—what is believed to be "righteous anger" is merely selfishness. A sense of duty should be enough, and is often more productive than blind "righteous" anger, in order to rectify the past. And what of anger at events in plays? There is nothing anyone who is in his right mind can do about what transpires on the stage, except perhaps boil in his anger, as duty does not dictate that there ought to be something done about these injustices written into a play. Thus, anger is utterly useless in this situation and should be eliminated, lest the anger be taken out on someone undeserving, as clearly it is impossible to take the anger out on the unjust action or character on stage.

In Book II, section 6, the passage starts by clarifying that some philosophers believe that virtue will look upon good with happiness and will look upon evil with anger. Anger, as Seneca has already determined, is a vice, much like fear and madness; one of the reasons why is it being that anger gives courage to one who is not already courageous—a cheap shortcut, in my mind. It is much more admirable, as well as wiser, to train one's self to always be brave, than to rely upon an unpredictable emotion, namely anger, to provide that valor. Another good point that Seneca makes, is that if anger is to be invoked in the virtuous by evil deeds by others, then that virtuous person will be angry and miserable his whole life because there are thieves, murderers and the like everywhere; this is much like those feel compelled to sadness for tragic events in the word, and are, as a result, always miserable (since tragedy is everywhere, and even if there is no tragedy in their present world, there are always books and plays to look to for this tragedy)—and when these types of people try not to feel saddened by tragedy, they feel guilt at not being "compassionate" enough. This is much like a trap, once one has been lured into one of these mindsets, and it is near impossible to dig one's self out of the metaphorical hole of emotions without feeling more guilt and confusion. A quote by Seneca in Book II, section 9 sums this up very nicely: "The wise man will never cease to be angry once he starts." This statement is dependant on the thought that the virtuous man will feel anger at injustice.

Seneca then goes back to forgiveness of evil in Book II, section 10. He states that "you would be better to hold, instead, that no one should be angry at error." This harkens back to his argument that everyone has erred at one point and therefore should be more forgiving of others' ignorance. Seneca compares anger at people who err to anger to one who cannot hear because of their deafness and I might compare it to anger as one who cannot write a paper for a class because he has never been taught English. It is better to eliminate anger altogether than to risk being angry as someone for a foolish reason—and Seneca would probably say that no reason is good enough to make one angry. To be forgiving of errors of yourself and others, is in effect recognizing the human condition. Since everything is relative in societies, proven by the fact that morals in some societies are different, in some cases radically (i.e. In ancient Rome it was acceptable for high ranking officials, even if they are married, to take on a male lover, while in today's American society, that would be looked upon with extreme disgust by most), it would stand to reason that among individuals, even in one society, things are relative. Perhaps I would consider a person to be erring if their morals were different from mine, just as it is possible that the person I considered in error believes that it is I who is in fact erring. If one does not keep this in mind, he himself is blind, not considering other people's points of view, and thus gives himself over to anger more readily.

During section 10 of Book II, again, Seneca uses an apt example as to why anger, especially when misdirected, is harmful. He uses the analogy of a ship's captain: if a ship begins to leak, would it suit the captain better to get angry at the sailors or even the boat itself or would it be better to forgo the anger and merely deal with the situation? The answer seems rather obvious; rather than waste time and energy railing at the sailors, or cursing his ill-built ship, the wise captain would work to close the leaks. This captain is a prime example of Seneca's notion of "duty." Much like the son who avenges his father not out of anger, but out of devotion, the captain fixes the ship, not because of anger at the ship (this itself does not make much sense), but because it is his job and duty. On reflection, anger would most likely hinder both the son and the captain. The son may make an error in judgment in his rage and strike down the wrong person, whereas if he had thought out his plans rationally, without anger, he would have much better chances of tracking his father's attacker and avenging his father's death. If the captain were to become angry, he would take the chance of being too consumed by his anger to make the repairs correctly, or even might be too angry to even attempt the repairs—in addition, he would doubtlessly lose some of the respect from his sailors if he were to blame them solely for the damages.

In the last passage we had to read, Book II, section 28, Seneca again reminds us that no one is blameless and that we are all human. Even if a person claims he has done no wrong, he is fooling himself, for everyone, everyone being human, has committed some error. Perhaps not at the specific moment that person utters that he has done nothing wrong, but sometime in said person's lifetime, he has. Thus, one of the best ways to stay in line with duty and not let anger take hold is to remind one's self "I too have done this myself."