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- Publication Date: May 6, 2013
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- Language: English
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Of Anger (Annotated) (Dialogues of Seneca Book 4) Kindle Edition
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“Some of the wisest of men have in called anger a short madness: for as there are distinct symptoms which mark madmen, such as a bold and menacing air, a gloomy brow, a stern face, a hurried walk, restless hands, changed color, quick and strongly-drawn breathing, so these same symptoms are seen in men under the spell of anger.” ----------- Aristotle said the virtuous man should get angry on the right occasion. This is the commonly held view of modern society as it was for most people in the ancient world. Seneca challenges this opinion, considering anger as a kind of madness and urging us never to surrender ourselves to this most despicable vice.
“The difference between anger and irascibility is evident: it is the same as that between a drunken man and a drunkard; between a frightened man and a coward. It is possible for an angry man not to be irascible ; an irascible man may sometimes not be angry.” --------- Seneca displays subtle insight here – most of us get angry on occasion as most of us can occasionally get drunk; for the irascible person, anger is, so to speak, part of their system the way alcohol is part of a drunkard’s system.
“Mankind is born for mutual assistance, anger for mutual ruin: the former loves society, the latter estrangement. The one loves to do good, the other to do harm ; the one to help even strangers, the other to attack even its dearest friends.” ---------- Greco-Roman philosophers, especially Epicureans and Stoics, placed the highest value on a life lived in accordance with nature. And by Seneca’s reckoning, when we are at our best and in most accord with nature, we are social, genial, warm and kind, the exact opposite of being angry.
“Man's nature is not, therefore, desirous of inflicting punishment; neither, therefore, is anger in accordance with man's nature, because that is desirous of inflicting punishment. . . . Punishment, therefore, does not accord with a good man: wherefore anger does not do so either, because punishment and anger accord one with another. If a good man takes no pleasure in punishment, he will also take no pleasure in that state of mind to which punishment gives pleasure: consequently anger is not natural to man." ---------- There is a word for taking pleasure in punishing or inflicting suffering on others: sadism. Seneca reasons a sadist is unnatural and twisted. Years ago I’ve had the misfortune of being around a sadistic boss. A more warped, nasty, and, yes, angry specimen of humanity I have never encountered.
“May it not be that, although anger be not natural, it may be right to adopt it, because it often proves useful? It rouses the spirit and excites it; and courage does nothing grand in war without it, unless its flame be supplied from this source; this is the goad which stirs up bold men and sends them to encounter perils. Some therefore consider it to be best to control anger, not to banish it utterly.” ---------- The common view and also Aristotle’s line of thinking is anger serves a very positive, utilitarian purpose; matter of fact, when in battle or face-to-face with threat, rousing anger can save our lives. Seneca counters this argument by noting how once we give in to anger, anger is unable to check itself and can spiral us down a deep, dark destructive hole, causing ruin not only to others but also to ourselves.
“Gladiators, too, protect themselves by skill, but expose themselves to wounds when they are angry. Moreover, of what use is anger, when the same end can be arrived at by reason?” --------- To further bolster his objection to rousing anger to our benefit, Seneca provides many examples of how anger is actually counterproductive. One of his telling observations: “Anger, therefore, is not useful even in wars or battles: for it is prone to rashness, and while trying to bring others into danger, does not guard itself against danger.”
“But anger can be put to flight by wise maxims; for it is a voluntary defect of the mind, and not one of those things which are evolved by the conditions of human life, and which, therefore, may happen even to the wisest of us.” --------- Seneca’s advice on effectively dealing with our own anger is vivid and illuminating. He delves into the psychology of how we get angry and why we get angry. One major dilemma: we have an overly optimistic and inaccurate mental picture of other people and the world around us.
Does all this sound intriguing? Take my word for it here, this is one intriguing. probing and thought-provoking essay. If you would like to better understand what it means to follow the path of philosophy, you will not encounter a better guide than Seneca.