October 22, 2003

Seneca on anger

Can philosophy help human beings in overcoming the conflicts that cause us to suffer so much pain? Anger is one such emotion in public and private lives, where it largely takes the form of the desire to repay past suffering caused by others. The task for a therapeutic philosophy would be to help us deal with anger.

What advice do Stoics like Seneca offer us? How can a Stoic therapeutic philosophy help us?

Sencea regarded anger as a form of madness. He describes this emotion as follows. He says that it is:

"...wholly violent and has its being in an onrush of resentment, raging with a most inhuman lust for weapons, blood, and punishment, giving no thought to itself if only it can hurt another, hurling itself upon the very point of the dagger, and eager for revenge though it may drag down the avenger along with it....it is equally devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent and diligent in whatever it begins, closed to reason and counsel, excited by trifling causes, unfit to discern the right and true-the very counterpart of a ruin that is shattered in pieces where it overwhelms."

So what can be done about this form of madness? Can we control it through it reason and so limit its destructiveness? Aristotle thought so since he held that a life of virtue was one built on moderating the passions. That is pretty much my own view, even though I adopt a more psychoanalytic approach of anger and revenge having their roots in the unconscious.

Seneca argues against this approach. Anger is more properly viewed as an enemy of a life based on reason. He says that:

".. ..The enemy, I repeat, must be stopped at the very frontier; for if he has passed it, and advanced within the city-gates, he will not respect any bounds set by his captives."

Here we have a familar picture: reason is the opposite of the passions. We cannot, says Sencea, allow reason to mingle with, and be contaminated by, the passions. Hence he argues against the usefulness of anger.

Seneca says that "there is nothing useful in anger, nor does it kindle the mind to warlike deeds; for virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the help of vice.

Secondly, reason will never call to its help blind and violent impulses over which it will itself have no control, which it can never crush save by setting against them equally powerful and similar impulses, as fear against anger, anger against sloth, greed against fear.

Seneca, then deals with an objection that states that against the enemy anger is necessary. Anger, in other words is necessary for politics and warfare. Seneca responds:

"...what use is anger when the same end may be accomplished by reason? Anger is not expedient even in battle or in war; for it is prone to rashness, and while it seeks to bring about danger, does not guard against it."

And so it goes on. There is no need for something as base and destructive as anger. Reason rules and the passions are extirpated.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at October 22, 2003 02:21 PM | TrackBack

But what's so great about being reasonable? Being angry can be so much more fun, especially when you "win."

This non-Christian wonders if the path of reconciliation taught by Jesus bests Seneca's approach. Stoicism is great when you want to be reasonable, but ultimately a community/other-based approach is more fulfilling.

Posted by: chutney on October 24, 2003 02:39 AM

And aren't we always emoting when we're thinking / thinking when we're emoting, anyway? Didn't the likes of Nietzsche and Freud remind us that our reason inevitably moves in sympathy with drivers often hidden below our conscious reach?

Posted by: Rob Schaap on October 26, 2003 01:05 PM

Can someone explain me what Seneca's philosophy was on anger? i have to write a report about it and i dont really have a clue what his philosophy was about. Please help me.

Posted by: Tobias on February 28, 2005 05:47 AM

The best place to start is the entry of Stoicism in the Standford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

This resource is also useful

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson on February 28, 2005 06:28 PM
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