Seneca on anger (and us)

I think about public anger as generally a modern phenomenon, perhaps since back the American revolution or more possibly the French. We have to remember that Rome during Seneca’s time had conquered a good portion of the world and they didn’t do it because they loved travel. They had bloodlust. 

What they didn’t have is anger, Seneca argues. At least the good Romans didn’t succumb to those irrational forces.   

Seneca tells us why in his three book treatise On Anger: 

"But," argues he, "against our enemies anger is necessary." In no case is it less necessary; since our attacks ought not to be disorderly, but regulated and under control. What, indeed, is it except anger, so ruinous to itself, that overthrows barbarians, who have so much more bodily strength than we, and are so much better able to endure fatigue? 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? Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills? Yet he meets them when they attack him, and follows them when they flee from him, all of which is managed by reason without anger.

Seneca equates anger with a lack of rationality or discipline. Once that indiscipline enters into people, it’s very hard to control.

Next, if you choose to view its results and the mischief that it does, no plague has cost the human race more dear: you will see slaughterings and poisonings, accusations and counter-accusations, sacking of cities, ruin of whole peoples, the persons of princes sold into slavery by auction, torches applied to roofs, and fires not merely confined within city-walls but making whole tracts of country glow with hostile flame. See the foundations of the most celebrated cities hardly now to be discerned; they were ruined by anger. See deserts extending for many miles without an inhabitant: they have been desolated by anger. 

As I said before, the surprising aspect of reading Seneca is he describes his world as so similar to ours. Perhaps it is confirmation bias, but when we talk about all things Roman the conversation eventually seeks out a US equivalent to some ancient fact. How much can we translate Seneca’s worries of anger in his time to the modern context? 

We have anger issues in the United States. In fact, anger and vengeance has defined our relationship with the 21st century. As the wounds slowly heal, and the wars slowly fade away, it may manifest itself in other ways. Which direction will it go? 

From Seneca: 

Some therefore consider it to be best to control anger, not to banish it utterly, but to cut off its extravagances, and force it to keep within useful bounds, so as to retain that part of it without which action will become languid and all strength and activity of mind will die away

In the first place, it is easier to banish dangerous passions than to rule them; it is easier not to admit them than to keep them in order when admitted; for when they have established themselves in possession of the mind they are more powerful than the lawful ruler, and will in no wise permit themselves to be weakened or abridged. In the next place, Reason herself, who holds the reins, is only strong while she remains apart from the passions; if she mixes and befouls herself with them she becomes no longer able to restrain those whom she might once have cleared out of her path; for the mind, when once excited and shaken up, goes whither the passions drive it.