by David Fideler
The Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote that anger was the worst and most damaging emotion. He also explained how to improve the world without its negative energy.
In our time, when it’s fashionable for people to vent their every outrage on Twitter or other social media platforms, some people might find it to be shocking that the Stoic philosopher Seneca believed that extreme anger was never justified, because nothing good ever comes from it. Seneca (4 B.C.–65 A.D.) described anger as the worst and most damaging emotion, “a temporary form of insanity,” and he must have been the leading expert on anger during his time. His lengthy book On Anger describes how anger comes into being and how to cure it, and he certainly knew what he was talking about. If you look at the articles about anger management on the American Psychological Association website, about ninety-five percent of the approaches described can be found in Seneca’s work.
Aristotle had said that a moderate amount of anger was desirable, because of the way anger encourages soldiers to fight, and the way it can energize human action. But Seneca skillfully demolished this view by pointing out that real anger is a vice that can never be moderated. The other thing is that anger undermines our rationality, and thus our ability to function as authentic human beings. But Seneca’s ultimate takedown of the idea that anger could enhance the performance of soldiers came in the form of a question: If anger can help soldiers to fight more effectively, he asked, why don’t we also get them drunk, so they will swing their weapons around more fiercely? Case closed, at least in my opinion.
Seneca (left) fully realized that our world is full of terrible injustices and inhumane events that take place daily. But in one respect, we are somewhat less fortunate today than Seneca was because of the time in which we live. Today the global news media has made it a lucrative industry to bring every possible outrage into our homes and minds every time we turn on a screen or open a newspaper.
Since bad behavior is plentiful and inevitable, Seneca took the reasonable view that a wise person should never get angry at any of the events we are assaulted with or hear about on a daily basis. Seneca thought the world to be good overall, due to human kindness and generosity, and human reason. But, as he noted, so many bad things happen that, if every bad behavior made us angry, we would need to be angry each moment of every day. That, of course, would be unlivable.
For Seneca, the alternative approach was to be reasonable and practical. Realistically, he said, we must expect the world to be full of people with terrible character traits. But the way to improve the world is not through the harmful energy of anger, but through the use of reason.
For a Stoic, the proper way to look at the world would be like a doctor, expecting to meet a host of diseased patients every day. As Seneca writes,
A wise person is mentally calm and balanced when facing error, and not an enemy of wrongdoers, but one who helps others to heal. Each day, he leaves his home with this thought in mind: “Today I will meet many addicted to wine, many overcome by lust, many who lack gratitude, many enslaved by greed, and many bewitched by the false promises of ambition.” But all these conditions he will treat with kindness, as a doctor treats his own patients. (On Anger 2.10.7)
The other way to look at the world is from the rational and level-headed perspective of a judge, presiding over a court of law, who is sometimes forced to punish those who have done wrong. Seneca stresses that a judge should never punish a wrongdoer out of anger, but out of hope that the punishment will encourage the offender to become a better person in the future. A judge who punished someone out of anger would be as dangerous, and just as undesirable, as an armed soldier, swaggering while drunk.
Even though we live two-thousand years after Seneca, he provides us with a good, realistic model for social change, because he shows how we can improve the world by relying upon reason alone. Extreme anger will not increase justice or make the world a better place; it will only make the world more miserable, and more out of control. Anger, in the Stoic view, can only increase human suffering.