Seneca: Curbing Anger

The Stoic’s Cure for the Most Destructive Emotion

Charles Le Brun, The relation between the human physiognomy and that of the Lion (detail) (source: Wikipedia. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection CC by 4.0)
“We shouldn’t control anger, but destroy it entirely — for what control is there for a thing that’s fundamentally wicked?” — Seneca

In the 1976 film Network, Howard Beale, a long-serving news anchor, decides he’s had enough. He gives an impassioned on-air speech raging against the absurdities and unfairness of life in the late 1970s. It all culminates in an appeal to his viewers to stand at their open windows and yell “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”

Thousands take to their windows to yell into the rain. The network’s ratings go through the roof.

Surfing the web these days is like taking a walk down a street when half its inhabitants are yelling out of the window. Like the fictional network, media makes money from making people mad.

The kangaroo courts of the internet whip up “storms” and frenzies of anger. It’s never felt so good to be angry. You can rage from your armchair, hurl insults, prove you’re right with fervour rather than reason. And anybody who disagrees with you are the reason the world is going to hell.

Debate is unnecessary when you can signal vehemently. The virtue signallers are fast to condemn sinners, to name and shame, to “crush”, “call-out”, “destroy”, “take down” and “shade”.

But can you be “woke” without going wild? Can rage be righteous, or is anger irredeemable?

Seneca believed the latter. There can be no place for anger whatsoever in a civilised world. Why? Because anger was less an emotion than a “temporary madness”, a terrible infliction on people like an illness. Of anger, Seneca wrote:

“No plague has cost the human race more. We see all around us people being killed, poisoned, and sued; we see cities and nations ruined. And besides destroying cities and nations, anger can destroy us individually.”

Seneca (4 BCE — 65 CE) was a Roman aristocrat active as a senator and political advisor under the reigns of Caligula, Claudius and Nero. He is also one of the best known Roman Stoic philosophers along with Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus.

Seneca wrote an essay to his older brother Novatus, who seems to have asked him for advice on controlling his temper. The long essay has since become a Stoic classic, a guide to controlling the most destructive emotion.

Temperatures would have run high in the corridors of Roman power. Seneca was exiled himself by Caligula and summoned back to Rome to be Nero’s tutor and later political advisor.

All three emperors he served under had either violent or suspicious deaths. Caligula and Nero are particularly notorious for their hot-tempered barbarity until their reigns imploded in violence.

Anger is, above all the others, a self-destructive emotion. In our desire to right a slight against us, we often expose ourselves to harm “very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces on the very thing which it crushes.”

Anger is “careless of itself provided it hurts another” and “drags the avenger to ruin with itself.”

Seneca discusses the story of the Greek hero Ajax, depicted here fighting the Trojan Hector. Ajax allowed himself to be driven to a murderous rage. When he considered the consequences of his anger he became depressed and committed suicide. (Engraving by John Flaxman, Ajax and Hector, 1775 (source: Wikimedia))

Anger and Courage

Long before Seneca, Aristotle argued that anger was an aid to the virtue of courage. It was a useful emotion in war, not for generals, but for soldiers. Aristotle likened anger to a weapon that can be used if it is suitably controlled.

To this point, Seneca shows that the barbarians — particularly the Scythians and Germanic tribes — let anger get the best of themselves. The Romans, he suggests, are physically weaker than these unordered bands of warriors, but force guided by reason is better than the unbridled force of anger. “Gladiators, too,” he wrote, “protect themselves by skill, but expose themselves to wounds when they are angry.”

Anger doesn’t assist courage, it takes its place and that is dangerous. Anger is indeed a weapon, but not a weapon that can easily be picked up or laid aside at the leisure of the wielder.

Anger does not “wait to be seized by the hand” it “possesses a man instead of being possessed by him.” Anger is a weapon as dangerous to us as to our enemies.

What use is anger when victory can be achieved by reason? Seneca draws a parallel between the efficient and ordered Roman army and the hunter: “Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills?”

To take the point further, Seneca describes the case of Quintus Fabius Maximus Verrucosus, the Roman general who defeated the formidable Hannibal. When Hannibal invaded and wreaked havoc, Fabius had all the right to be enraged while his homeland was torn apart by Carthaginians.

But the famously cautious general fought a careful war of attrition against Hannibal over a long period of time rather than opting for a direct confrontation. Fabius’s reasoned tactics paid off and the Romans defeated Hannibal and eventually Carthage itself.

Seneca depicted in a double bust with Socrates. Like all the other Stoics, Seneca revered the Greek philosophical martyr. Comparisons have been made between the philosophers who were both executed.

Justice vs. Revenge

Seneca reveals his own very liberal stance on criminal justice by Roman standards. The law, Seneca believed, should not be wrathful in the pursuit of revenge, but be rational in the pursuit of justice.

The law should be wielded by the state as medicine is wielded by the doctor. The approach to criminality should be gentle at first, moving to harsher treatments if the problem persists.

Corrective measures with discretion and not anger “heals under the guise of injury”. By applying pain to mind or body, the judge corrects the dispositions made crooked by vice in the same way spear shafts are burned to straighten them.

This is an extraordinarily progressive attitude to have at a time when criminals were tortured or executed to be made examples of, not to reintegrate them back into society.

Seneca only advocates the death penalty for those who are incurably wicked, and only when it befits the number and seriousness of the crimes they have carried out.

The reasoned judge would “take away the madness” from which the criminal suffers. The death penalty, as Seneca would like to have seen it, would be an act of compassion:

“to you who have so long lived a misery to yourself and to others, we will give the only good thing which remains, that is, death. Why should I be angry with a man just when I am doing him good: sometimes the truest form of compassion is to put a man to death.”

Seneca goes on to describe a hideous tale about Gnaeus Piso, the mercurial governor of Syria in 4 CE. Gnaeus sentenced a soldier to death in a rage and without the due process of trial. When the man’s innocence was proven, those who held the proof were executed with the innocent man. “How clever”, Seneca remarks on this affair, “is anger at inventing reasons for its own frenzy!”

Charles Le Brun, A frightened and an angry face, left and right respectively. (source: Wikimedia courtesy of Wellcome Collection CC by 4.0)

It is bitterly ironic that Seneca himself was sentenced to death a couple of decades after writing his letters on anger. The emperor Nero mistakenly believed that Seneca was taking part in a plot to oust him and demanded Seneca’s suicide. Seneca duly cut his wrists and waited for death in his bath.

Curbing Anger

Seneca lays out a way of curbing anger that is aligned to the Stoic theory of the emotions. “Anger rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings”.

Stoics make a distinction between the feelings and emotions and what they called “passions”. Emotions are felt instinctively and often reactively. Seneca likens these stirrings of emotion to physical sensations. Cold water touching the skin, for example, makes us shiver; or a thrusting finger to the eye makes us blink.

We also have empathy, and others’ emotional states illicit emotional responses in us, similar to the way “we cannot prevent other people’s yawns tempting us to yawn”.

While we cannot prevent the stirrings of feelings like sadness, fear and anger, emotions can at that point be curbed before they warp our reasonable minds to become “passions” (the Stoic definition of “passion” is an emotion that overrides our self-control). “No impulse can take place without the consent of the mind,” Seneca writes.

It is wise to restrain negative emotions as they germinate in our hearts and threaten to bloom in our minds. The Stoics believed that reasoning is acting in accordance with our nature since we as a species are unique in our ability to reason. To let emotion take over — to fly into a rage — is not reasonable and therefore contrary to our nature.

Therefore, writes Seneca,

“the best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition.”

Seneca was perhaps writing from bitter experience. He was an advisor to the emperor Nero, who is notorious for his cruel streak. When Nero persecuted the Christians in 64–66 CE, his executions were horrific even by Roman standards. He covered people with tar to use as human torches and sewed animal skins on others so they could be hunted by packs of dogs.

Charles Le Brun, The relation between the human physiognomy and that of the Lion (detail) (source: Wikipedia. Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection CC by 4.0)

Preventing Anger

Seneca presents a number of ways that anger could be prevented throughout his texts.

1. Good upbringing

To prevent anger, the philosopher has a number of measures. For a start, he ensures that a child’s upbringing is an essential part of curtailing anger. Seneca notes that anger is more frequent among the privileged in society.

If you have an easy life, you become accustomed to things going your way, went they rarely do not, you may explode in a rage, moreover smaller matters become more trying. “A favouring gale”, Seneca writes, “has roused trivial passions.”

Some extraordinary examples are recalled: a rich man from Sybaris who complained that the rose petals he laid on were uncomfortable because they were folded double. “Nothing […] nourishes anger more than excessive and dissatisfied luxury.”

In the modern world, we’ve all witnessed “spoilt” children flying into a rage when they are not given what they demand. We’ve also seen pampered adults explode at seemingly trivial slights to their egos, such as not being recognised — “do you know who I am?!”

Seneca endorses a preventative measure, a good Stoic upbringing that rewards patience and temperance so that instances of anger remain rare. “The mind ought to be hardened by rough treatment, so as not to feel any blow that is too severe.”

2. Education

Education doesn’t stop with maturity. It’s clear though Seneca’s texts that wisdom is essential to stop anger from welling up in the first place.

Those who are educated are less inclined to rage. In the Satyricon, a Roman novel by Petronius Arbiter (who was a contemporary of Seneca at Nero’s court), one of the main characters illustrates the point with a beautiful metaphor:

“The snows cling longer in rough and uncultivated regions, but where the ground has come under the plough, the light frost vanished from its bright expanse even while you are speaking. It’s the same way with anger in human breasts: it chokes an untutored heart, but slips away from a cultivated mind.”

3. Love the Human Race

Seneca expounds a great deal on the vices of Roman society. He paints a depressing picture. Nevertheless, he maintains that people have the potential to be good, and therefore deserve to be loved. Anger, he implies, arises more easily when we have a misanthropic disposition. “To avoid being angry with individuals, you must pardon the whole mass, you must grant forgiveness to the entire human race.”

4. Forget Revenge

Revenge is fetishised in the modern world, movies and video games often feature heroes that seek retribution. Ancient times were not much different, “Revenge and retaliation are words which men use and think to be righteous,” Seneca writes, “yet they do not much differ from wrong-doing.”

Two wrongs don’t make a right, and besides, “revenge is an admission that we have been hurt.” Therefore our best revenge would be to deem our adversary not worth taking revenge upon.

5. Soothe Yourself

Pythagoras calmed himself by playing the lyre. Seneca also mentions that the colour green is gentle on the eyes, so we ought to rest in green spaces when the city or the office gets too much for us.

The philosopher also warns that tiredness and hunger should be avoided. These physical states are fertile ground for the tetchiness and impatience that can escalate into anger.

6. Change your posture

Seneca advises his friend that if anger rises up in him, he should “conceal the symptoms”. The posture, movements and voice should be corrected because “if we allow it to show itself in our outward appearance, it is our monster.”

Not only are you less likely to “infect” those around you by curbing your outward display of anger, you will also calm yourself. This is because, the philosopher argues, “our inward thoughts gradually become influenced by our outward demeanour.”

This ancient tip is backed by modern science: studies have shown that the expression we hold on our faces or the posture we stand in affects our mental state.

7. Avoid quick-tempered people

We slowly come to resemble the people we surround ourselves with. If we are to stay calm, it’s best to avoid erratic people. Anger, as the philosopher points out, is infectious and should be thought of as an illness. We should avoid those who get angry too easily.

Would positive change be possible without anger? Painting: Eugène Delacroix, Liberty Leading the People (source: Wikimedia).

An Engine for Positive Change?

It’s worth noting that both Seneca and his audience are aristocrats, very rich and powerful men (Seneca himself is thought to be the richest man in Rome at one point).

Anger is, of course, an outright terrible condition for men who command armies, run politics and the law courts and literally own a lot of powerless people who are at their mercy.

But what about those who are powerless? For Aristotle, whose view on anger Seneca opposes throughout these texts, anger not only inspires courage but is essential for justice.

There is nothing that can anger us more than injustice and anger is necessary for us to balance the scales. Isn’t anger the very engine of fairness in society?

If a man is never angry, according to Aristotle in his Nicomachean Ethics, “he will not defend himself, and it is considered slavish to tolerate contemptuous treatment of oneself or to watch one’s friends treated contemptuously.’’

Being the most infectious of emotions, anger can galvanise even the most apathetic among us.

Jean-Paul Sartre showed (in his lesser-known work from 1960, Critique of Dialectical Reason) that even a collective as mundane and tenuous as a bus queue can become a force to be reckoned with if the bus is late.

Sartre defined a number of different types of collective. A “series” is a collective that is created by some force or fact acting upon it.

What brings a line of people together at a bus stop is the need for transportation. The people waiting for the bus only have the need for the bus in common in their collectivity.

A genuine group, a “fused” collective, has a purpose that can actually generate change in society. The fused group is one that is brought together with a common goal, such as the revolutionaries that stormed the Bastille, or the Tea Party in Boston. Those revolutionaries came together to correct an injustice.

If a bus was constantly late, the bus queue would start to share their anger at the situation. This shared emotion would drive them to lobby the bus company to resolve the situation. Anger would prove to be useful in that respect, and good for society.

The group could only be fused for as long as an objective remains since the objective is what unifies the people. The anger that the situation caused would dissipate.

Anger is a path to being truly human, since we spend most of our collective existence in inertia, as a kind of bus queue society. For as long as we’re working to resolve a perceived injustice, we are taking an active part in our society.

Run Over by the Truth

Anger has also been the bread and butter for many a creative, from Picasso’s wartime contortions to the angry young writers of punk music. It’s when the quivering hand wields the brush, camera or pen that spontaneity throttles any pretence on the part of good manners.

It is when we are angry that we seek the like-minded. Anger is more easily shared than happiness. Anger shatter’s delusions and cuts to the chase, it’s a direct route to audiences’ raw nerve.

Take a look at Adrian Mitchell’s reading of ‘To Whom it may Concern’ below. The rage is palpable in his clunking couplets, this is surely a poem that snapped the pencil’s lead.

Poet Adrian Mitchell reads “To Whom it May Concern”, his response to the Vietnam War in 1965.

So how then should we think of anger? It could perhaps be divided into two types: individual anger and collective anger.

Seneca is right to call out individual anger. His Stoic remedies are practical ways of ensuring we do not allow our emotions to hurt those around us and ourselves.

But if we perceive the same causes of the stirrings of anger in other people as well as ourselves, we ought to act on it. We ought to seek out the injustices that have raised our ire.

Of course, it could be argued that not all fused collectives are working toward the good of society. Take, for example, the anger that gives rise to nasty forms of racism, nationalism or communism.

These are cases where perceived fairness is either warped or manipulated. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that something is wrong, that there’s a correction that needs to happen.

Whether or not that correction is a real justice or becomes just another injustice is up to us. That’s why we debate, and why individual anger must be curtailed as a rule of sensible debate.

Seneca writes,

“human life is founded on benefits and harmony and is bound together into an alliance for the common help of all, not by terror, but by love towards one another.”

The sentence, though correct in sentiment, was written by a powerful man in a fundamentally unfair society. If we are to live in harmony, anger can be our check against injustice, love can be its bridle.

Thank you for reading.


If you enjoyed this article, you’ll likely enjoy Seneca’s thoughts on time and how to make the most of the time you are given: