Review: Seneca On Anger

The essay On Anger is addressed to Seneca’s older brother, Gallio. Although it is divided into three books, the text is effectively divided into two parts. The work defines and explains anger within the context of Stoic philosophy, and offers therapeutic advice on how to prevent and control anger.

The first part (I-II, xvii) deals with theoretical issues, while the second part (II,xviii – final) offers therapeutic advice. It begins with a preamble on the horrors of anger, followed by its definitions. It continues with questions such as whether anger is natural, whether it can be tempered, whether it is involuntary, and whether it can be completely erased.

No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not therefore come to assist courage, but to take its place… Every weakling is naturally prone to complaint.” (I,xiii)

Nothing becomes one who inflicts punishment less than anger, because the punishment has all the more power to work reformation if the sentence be pronounced with deliberate judgment. This is why Socrates said to the slave, “I would strike you, were I not angry.” He put off the correction of the slave to a calmer season; at the moment, he corrected himself. Who can boast that he has his passions under control, when Socrates did not dare to trust himself to his anger?” (I,xv)

The second part (Book II, xviii onwards) begins with advice on how to avoid anger and how this can be taught to children and adults. Then followed by several pieces of advice on how anger can be postponed or extinguished, and many real cases are given of cases to be imitated or avoided. The work draws to a close with some tips on how to calm others, followed by a summary of the work

Other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but men’s minds plunge abruptly into anger. There is no passion that is more frantic, more destructive to its own self; it is arrogant if successful, and frantic if it fails. Even when defeated it does not grow weary, but if chance places its foe beyond its reach, it turns its teeth against itself. Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.” (III, i)

While you are angry, you ought not to be allowed to do anything. “Why?” do you ask? Because when you are angry there is nothing that you do not wish to be allowed to do. (III, xii)

In On Anger Seneca defends the thesis – contrary to that of other ancient philosophers, such as Aristotle – that anger is always harmful. According to the Roman, a great man should never be angry, and when it is not possible to repress anger, he should try to calm down as soon as possible.

The depth of thought, the liveliness of style, and the rich examples provided by Seneca to confirm his theses make the reading of On Anger extremely satisfying. 

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