Senecan's Philosophy on Anger
The ultimate infantile collision. We cannot find the remote control or the keys, the road is blocked, the restaurant full - and so we slam doors, deracinate plants and howl.
1. The philosopher held it to be a kind of madness:
There is no swifter way to insanity. Many [angry people
] . . . call down death on their children, poverty on themselves, ruin on their home, denying that they are angry, just as the mad deny their insanity. Enemies to their closest friends . . . heedless of the law . . . they do everything by force . . . the greatest of ills has seized them, one that surpasses all other vices.
2. In calmer moments, the angry may apoligize and explain that they were overwhelmed by a power stronger than their reason. 'They', their rational selves, did not mean the insults and regret the shouting; 'they' lost control to darker forces within. The angry hereby appeal to a predominant view of the mind in which the reasoning faculty, the seat of the true self, is depicted as occasionally assualted by passionate feelings which reason neither identifies with nor can be held responsible for:
This account runs directly counter to Seneca's view of the mind, according to which anger results not from an uncontrolable eruption of the passions, but from a basic (and correctable) error of reasoning. Reason does not always govern our actions, he conceded: if we are sprinkled with cold water, our body gives us no choice but to shiver; if fingers are flicked over our eyes, we have to blink. But anger does not belong in the category of involuntary physical movement, it can only break out on the back of certain rationally held ideas; if we can only change the ideas, we will change our propensity to anger.
3. And in the Senecan view what makes us angry are
dangerously optimistic notions about what the world and other people are like.
4. How badly we react to frustration is critically determined by what we think of as normal.
We may be frustrated that it is raining, but our familiarity with showers means we are unlikely ever to respond to one with anger. Our frustrations are tempered by what we understand we can expect from the world, by our experience of what is normal to hope for. We aren't overwhelmed by anger whenever we are denied an object we desire, only when we believe ourselves entitled to obtain it. Our greatest furies spring from events which violate our sense of the ground rules of existence.
5. With money,
one could of expected to lead a very comfortable life in Ancient Rome. Many of Seneca's friends had large house in the capital and villas in the countryside. There were baths, colonnaded gardens, fountains, mosaics, frescos and glided couches. There were retinues of slaves to prepare the food, look after the children and tend the garden.
6. Nevertheless, there seemed an unusual level of rage among the privledged.
'Prosperity fosters bad tempers,' wrote Seneca, after observing his wealthy friends ranting around him because life had not turned out as they hoped.
Seneca knew of a wealthy man, Vedius Pollio,a friend of the Emporor Augustus, whose slave once dropped a tray of crystal glasses during a party. Vedius hated the sound of breaking glass and grew so furious that he ordered the slave to be thrown into a pool of lampreys.
7. Such rages are never beyond explanation.
Vedius Pollio was angry for an identifiable reason: because he believed in a world in which glasses do not get broken at parties. We shout when we can't find the remote control because of an implicit belief in a world in which remote controls do not get mislaid. Rage is caused by a conviction, almost comic in its optimistic origins (however tragic in its effects), that a given frustration has not been written into the contract of life.
8. We should be more careful.
Seneca tried to adjust the scale of our expectations so that we would not bellow so loudly when these were dashed:
When dinner comes a few minutes late:
What need is there to kick the table over? To smash the goblets? To bang yourself against columns?
When there's a buzzing sound:
Why should a fly infuriate you which no one has taken enough trouble to drive off, or a dog which gets in your way, or a key dropped by a careless servant?
When something disturbs the calm of the dining room
Why go and fetch a whip in the middle of dinner, just because the slaves are talking?
We Must reconcile ourselves to the necessary imperfectibility of existence:
-Is it surprising that the wicked should do wicked deeds, or unprecedented that your enemy should harm or your friend annoy you, that your son should fall into error or your servant misbehave?
WE WILL CEASE TO BE SO ANGRY ONCE WE CEASE TO BE SO HOPEFUL.