Seneca’s advice on how to handle anger

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Stone of Hope Washington, D.C.

Seneca was a Roman philosopher and tutor to boy Nero. Then Nero grew up and ordered Seneca to kill himself.

What did Seneca do to piss Nero off? Maybe nothing. Nero wasn’t the most stable guy around.


Mad can mean angry, and it can mean crazy.


Why was Seneca so chill about his death sentence? Perhaps his book On Anger gives us some clues.

Seneca writes that anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation.

Anger wants to punish someone for real or imagined harm. This wish for vengeance is a desire to inflict pain – even taking pleasure in someone else’s pain. Or as Seneca succinctly puts it, anger is “aroused assault.”


Anger is not your friend.


The cause of anger, then, is the belief that we’ve been wronged. But maybe anger can be ally, a motivation to fight for justice.

Seneca disagrees, however. We want more of what’s good and less of what’s bad. Do we want more love in the world? Do we want more anger in the world?

Yes, anger can spur us to action. So can drunkenness. That doesn’t make it a good motivation. Besides, we don’t become brave by getting angry unless we’re cowardly to start with. If we need anger to feel courageous then there’s a deeper problem we need to address.


Reason is anger’s antidote.


There’s greatness in remaining unprovoked. And vice can’t assist virtue. Moreover, it’s difficult to control anger. Passion can overpower reason, so it’s better not to open the door to anger in the first place.

If we let intense emotions override reason, the only defense reason has is to pit one vice against another – anger against sluggishness, fear against anger, desire against fear. It’s a downward spiral.

But a good person can’t help feel angry in the face of injustice, right? Seneca takes this objection to its logical conclusion: the more inclined to anger and the more intensely angry someone is, the more decent that person must be. The world is full of so many injustices that a wrathful disposition must be the mark of greatness.


Reason leads to wisdom.


Yet, wrathfulness doesn’t come to mind when we think of a wise person. He cites Socrates as an example. Modern examples are Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.

When we think of a wise person, we think of someone who is calm is the face of evil. Seneca asks us to imagine a ship in a storm. One sailor becomes angry at the sea, the wind, the ship, and his fellow sailors. Another sailor calmly but resolutely grabs a bucket and starts bailing water. Which sailor is going to save lives?

In the same way, he advises us not to hate evildoers. No one’s perfect, so hating evildoers means you must hate yourself. Besides, we don’t feel angry at people who are physically ill. So why should we be angry with people who are emotionally ill?


Chill out.


Instead, Seneca advocates for calm reason. Reason grants all parties a hearing and thinks it over, while anger is in a hurry and only listens to one side of the story.

Reason seeks fairness but anger seeks only the appearance of fairness.

Reason remains focused on the issue, but anger gets distracted with its wild imagination.

At its worst, anger is angry with the truth itself.

But a fair judge understands that no one is without fault, and that the greatest source of indignation is the attitude that says, “I did nothing wrong.” This adds arrogance and defiance to our anger.

Further, indignation is based on pettiness and an exaggerated self-opinion.

Besides, admitting we feel despised means admitting we feel inferior. Instead of lashing out, however, that’s an opportunity for self-reflection.


Anger management.


What are we to do about anger? Seneca advises self-awareness as the first step. Anger begins with a physical sensation, a jolt or tensing muscles. Learn to recognize it the moment it happens.

This physical reaction is involuntary, so we can’t stop it. But we can stop what comes next – the thought, “I’ve been harmed. You should be punished for it.”

Once we assent to this thought, however, it’s already too late. We’ve cast reason out and let anger in.

This is where deliberation comes in. The greatest cure for anger, Seneca tells us, is delay. By recognizing the beginnings of anger at the first physical sign we can prepare ourselves for the automatic thoughts about harm and revenge. And then we can stop, take a step back, and think it over.


Go slow and get real.


Don’t even try forgiveness at first. We’re not ready for it at this stage. And don’t try to uproot anger all at once – it’s roots are too strong. Instead, pluck away at anger bit by bit.

Next, examine these roots. Anger stems from a sense of unfairness.

Sometimes anger is stirred up because our hopes and expectations weren’t realized. But often our expectations and desires are unrealistic, or even wrong.

The Stoic focus on virtue, particularly the recognition that external events are not up to us, is central.

Admitting to our ignorance and arrogance can dissipate anger. And avoiding people or situations that we know make us angry can prevent anger in the first place.

Even if the situation really is unfair and offensive, we must remind ourselves to always expect to encounter offensive things. The world is full of offensive things, and if we expect to encounter offensive things then we’re less likely to be taken by surprise – and better able to step back and deliberate.


What if someone is mad at you?


Deliberation also helps when someone else is angry with you. Trying to speak in a soothing voice will only make the other person more angry. Scolding them is even worse. But calmly giving their anger some space is more likely to diffuse it.

But if we really want revenge, realize that openly regarding the offender as not worth the time and effort that extracting vengeance would take could be the greatest insult for the offender.

Even then we’d be succumbing to anger, however, albeit in a passive-aggressive way. Seneca says a better approach is to match someone’s anger with kindness.

Conflict subsides when one person leaves it behind. There’s no boxing match with only one boxer.

Finally, realize that the desire for vengeance is really about pain. If the offender is weaker than us then we should give that person a break. If the offender is stronger than us then we should give ourselves a break.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

5 thoughts on “Seneca’s advice on how to handle anger”

  1. I take my anger out on my house. I do my best cleaning when I am angry ;). Its beneficial on many levels.
    1. My house gets very clean
    2. I don’t take out my anger on the person who has made me this way
    3. Cleaning gives me a chance to calm down
    4. I’m at peace when my house is clean

    Like

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