Back to philosophy page

Seneca:
To Novatus on Anger (excerpts)

Book I, Chapter 5

[I. 5. 1] Hitherto we have inquired what anger is, whether it belongs to any other creature than man, how it differs from irascibility, and in how many aspects it appears; let us now inquire whether anger is in accordance with nature; whether it is expedient and ought, therefore, in some measure to be kept.

[I. 5. 2] Whether it is in accordance with nature will become clear if we turn our eyes to man. What is more gentle than he while he is in a right state of mind? But what is more cruel than anger? What is more loving to others than man? What more hostile than anger? Man is born for mutual help; anger for mutual destruction. The one desires union, the other disunion; the one to help, the other to harm; one would succour even strangers, the other attack its best beloved; the one is ready even to expend himself for the good of others, the other to plunge into peril only if it can drag others along. Who, therefore, has less knowledge of the ways of Nature than the man who would ascribe to her best and most finished work this cruel and deadly vice? Anger, as I have said, is bent on punishment, and that such a desire should find a harbour in man's most peaceful breast accords least of all with his nature. For human life is founded on kindness and concord, and is bound into an alliance for common help, not by terror, but by mutual love.

Book I, Chapter 6

[I. 6. 1] "What then; " you say; "is not correction sometimes necessary?" Of course it is; but with discretion, not with anger. For it will not hurt, but will heal under the guise of hurting. As we apply the flame to certain spearshafts when they are crooked in order to straighten them, and compress them by driving in wedges, not to crush them, but to take out their kinks, so through pain applied to body and mind we reform the natures of men that are distorted by vice.

[I. 6. 2] Manifestly, a physician, in the case of slight disorders, tries at first not to make much change in his patient's daily habits; he lays down a regimen for food, drink, and exercise, and tries to improve his health only through a change in the ordering of his life. His next concern is to see that the amount is conducive to health. If the first amount and regimen fail to bring relief, he orders a reduction and lops off some things. If still there is no response, he prohibits food and disburdens the body by fasting. If these milder measures are unavailing he opens a vein, and then, if the limbs by continuing to be attached to the body are doing it harm and spreading the disease, he lays violent hands on them. No treatment seems harsh if its result is salutary.

[I. 6. 3] Similarly, it becomes a guardian of the law, the ruler of the state, to heal human nature by the use of words, and these of the milder sort, as long as he can, to the end that he may persuade a man to do what he ought to do, and win over his heart to a desire for the honourable and the just, and implant in his mind hatred of vice and esteem of virtue. Let him pass next to harsher language, in which he will still aim at admonition and reproof. Lastly, let him resort to punishment, yet still making it light and not irrevocable. Extreme punishment let him appoint only to extreme crime, so that no man will lose his life unless it is to the benefit even of the loser to lose it.

[I. 6. 4] In only one particular will he differ from the physician. For while the one supplies to the patients to whom he has been unable to give the boon of life an easy exit from it, the other forcibly expels the condemned from life, covered with disgrace and public ignominy, not because he takes pleasure in the punishment of any one -- for the wise man is far from such inhuman ferocity -- but that they may prove a warning to all, and, since they were unwilling to be useful while alive, that in death at any rate they may be of service to the state. Man's nature, then, does not crave vengeance; neither, therefore, does anger accord with man's nature, because anger craves vengeance.

[I. 6. 5] And I may adduce here the argument of Plato -- for what harm is there in using the arguments of others, so far as they are our own? "The good man," he says, "does no injury." Punishment injures; therefore punishment is not consistent with good, nor, for the same reason, is anger, since punishment is consistent with anger. If the good man rejoices not in punishment, neither will he rejoice in that mood which takes pleasure in punishment; therefore anger is contrary to nature.

Book I, Chapter 7

[I. 7. 1] Although anger be contrary to nature, may it not be right to adopt it, because it has often been useful? It rouses and incites the spirit, and without it bravery performs no splendid deed in war -- unless it supplies the flame, unless it acts as a goad to spur on brave men and send them into danger. Therefore some think that the best course is to control anger, not to banish it, and by removing its excesses to confine it within beneficial bounds, keeping, however, that part without which, action will be inert and the mind's force and energy broken.

[I. 7.2] In the first place, it is easier to exclude harmful passions than to rule them, and to deny them admittance than, after they have been admitted, to control them; for when they have established themselves in possession, they are stronger than their ruler and do not permit themselves to be restrained or reduced.

[I. 7. 3] In the second place, Reason herself, to whom the reins of power have been entrusted, remains mistress only so long as she is kept apart from the passions: if once she mingles with them and is contaminated, she becomes unable to hold back those whom she might have cleared from her path. For when once the mind has been aroused and shaken, it becomes the slave of the disturbing agent.

[I. 7. 4] There are certain things which at the start are under our control, but later hurry us away by their violence and leave us no retreat. As a victim hurled from the precipice has no control of his body, and, once cast off, can neither stop nor stay, but, speeding on irrevocably, is cut off from all reconsideration and repentance and cannot now avoid arriving at the goal toward which he might once have avoided starting, so with the mind -- if it plunges into anger, love, or the other passions, it has no power to check its impetus; its very weight and the downward tendency of vice needs must hurry it on, and drive it to the bottom.

Book I, Chapter 8

[I. 8. 1] The best course is to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger. For if it begins to lead us astray, the return to the safe path is difficult, since, if once we admit the emotion and by our own free will grant it any authority, reason becomes of no avail; after that it will do, not whatever you let it, but whatever it chooses.

[I. 8. 2] The enemy, I repeat, must be stopped at the very frontier; for if he has passed it, and advanced within the city gates, he will not respect any bounds set by his captives. For the mind is not a member apart, nor does it view the passions merely objectively, thus forbidding them to advance farther than they ought, but it is itself transformed into the passion and is, therefore, unable to recover its former useful and saving power when this has once been betrayed and weakened.

[I. 8. 3] For, as I said before, these two do not dwell separate and distinct, but passion and reason are only the transformation of the mind toward the better or the worse. How, then, will the reason, after it has surrendered to anger, rise again, assailed and crushed as it is by vice? Or how shall it free itself from the motley combination in which a blending of all the worse qualities makes them supreme?

[I. 8. 4] "But," says someone, "there are those who control themselves even in anger." You mean, then, that they do none of the things that anger dictates, or only some of them? If they do none, it is evident that anger is not essential to the transactions oflife, and yet you were advocating it on the ground that it is something stronger than reason.

[I. 8. 5] I ask, in fine, is anger more powerful or weaker than reason? If it is more powerful, how will reason be able to set limitations upon it, since, ordinarily, it is only the less powerful thing that submits? If it is weaker, then reason without it is sufficient in itself for the accomplishment of our tasks, and requires no help from a thing less powerful.

[I. 8. 6] Yet you say, "There are those who, even though angry, remain true to themselves and are self-controlled." But when are they so? Only when anger gradually vanishes and departs of its own accord, not when it is at white heat; then it is the more powerful of the two.

[I. 8. 7] "What then?" you say; "do not men sometimes even in the midst of anger allow those whom they hate to get out safe and sound and refrain from doing them injury? " They do; but when? When passion has beaten back passion, and either fear or greed has obtained its end. Then there is peace, not wrought through the good offices of reason, but through a treacherous and evil agreement between the passions.

Book I, Chapter 9

[I. 9. 1] Again, anger embodies nothing useful, nor does it kindle the mind to warlike deeds; for virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the help of vice. Whenever there is need of violent effort, the mind does not become angry, but it gathers itself together and is aroused or relaxed according to its estimate of the need; just as when engines of war hurl forth their arrows, it is the operator who controls the tension with which they are hurled.

[I. 9. 2] "Anger," says Aristotle, "is necessary, and no battle can be won without it -- unless it fills the mind and fires the soul; it must serve, however, not as a leader, but as the common soldier. But this is not true. For if it listens to reason and follows where reason leads, it is no longer anger, of which the chief characteristic is wilfulness. If, however, it resists and is not submissive when ordered, but is carried away by its own caprice and fury, it will be an instrument of the mind as useless as is the soldier who disregards the signal for retreat.

[I. 9. 3] If, therefore, anger suffers any limitation to be imposed upon it, it must be called by some other name -- it has ceased to be anger; for I understand this to be unbridled and ungovernable. If it suffers no limitation, it is a baneful thing and is not to be counted as a helpful agent. Thus either anger is not anger or it is useless.

[I. 9. 4] For the man who exacts punishment, not because he desires punishment for its own sake, but because it is right to inflict it, ought not to be counted as an angry man. The useful soldier will be one who knows how to obey orders; the passions are as bad subordinates they are leaders.

Book I, Chapter 10

[I. 10. 1] Consequently, reason will never call to its help blind and violent impulses over which it will itself have no control, which it can never crush save by setting against them equally powerful and similar impulses, as fear against anger, anger against sloth, greed against fear.

[I. 10. 2] May virtue be spared the calamity of having reason ever flee for help to vice! It is impossible for the mind to find here a sure repose; shattered and storm-tossed it must ever be if it depends upon its worst qualities to save it, if it cannot be brave without being angry, if it cannot be industrious without being greedy, if it cannot be quiet without being afraid -- such is the tyranny under which that man must live who surrenders to the bondage of any passion. Is it not a shame to degrade the virtues into dependence upon the vices?

[I. 10. 3] Again, reason ceases to have power if it has no power apart from passion, and so gets to be on the same level with passion and like unto it. For what difference is there, if passion without reason is a thing as unguided as reason without passion is ineffective? Both are on the same level, if one cannot exist without the other. Yet who would maintain that passion is on a level with reason?

[I. 10. 4] "Passion," someone says, "is useful, provided that it be moderate. No, only by its nature can it be useful. If, however, it will not submit to authority and reason, the only result of its moderation will be that the less there is of it, the less harm it will do. Consequently moderate passion is nothing else than a moderate evil.


Book I, Chapter 12

[I. 12. 1] "What then?" you ask; "will the good man not be angry if his father is murdered, his mother outraged before his eyes? "No, he will not be angry, but he will avenge them, will protect them. Why, moreover, are you afraid that filial affection, even without anger, may not prove a sufficiently strong incentive for him? Or you might as well say: "What then? if a good man should see his father or his son under the knife, will he not weep, will he not faint?" But this is the way we see women act whenever they are upset by the slightest suggestion of danger.

[I. 12. 2] The good man will perform his duties undisturbed and unafraid; and he will in such a way do all that is worthy of a good man as to do nothing that is unworthy of a man. My father is being murdered -- I will defend him; he is slain -- I will avenge him, not because I grieve, but because it is my duty. "Good men are made angry by the injuries of those they love."

[I. 12. 3] When you say this, Theophrastus, you seek to make more heroic doctrine unpopular -- you turn from the judge to the bystanders. Because each individual grows angry when such a mishap comes to those he loves, you think that men will judge that what they do is the right thing to be done; for as a rule every man decides that that is a justifiable passion which he acknowledges as his own.

[I. 12. 4] But they act in the same way if they are not well supplied with hot water, if a glass goblet is broken, if a shoe gets splashed with mud. Such anger comes, not from affection, but from a weakness -- the kind we see in children, who will shed no more tears over lost parents than over lost toys.

[I. 12. 5] To feel anger on behalf of loved ones is the mark of a weak mind, not of a loyal one. For a man to stand forth as the defender of parents, children, friends, and fellow-citizens, led merely by his sense of duty, acting voluntarily, using judgement, using foresight, moved neither by impulse nor by fury -- this is noble and becoming. Now no passion is more eager for revenge than anger, and for that very reason is unfit to take it; being unduly ardent and frenzied, as most lusts are, it blocks its own progress to the goal toward which it hastens, Therefore it has never been of advantage either in peace or in war; for it makes peace seem like war, and amid the clash of arms it forgets that the War-god shows no favour and, failing to control itself, it passes into the control of another.

[I. 12. 6] Again, it does not follow that the vices are to be adopted for use from the fact that they have sometimes been to some extent profitable. For a fever may bring relief in certain kinds of sickness, and yet it does not follow from this that it is not better to be altogether free from fever. A method of cure that makes good health dependent upon disease must be regarded with detestation. In like manner anger, like poison, a fall, or a shipwreck, even if it has sometimes proved an unexpected good, ought not for that reason to be adjudged wholesome; for ofttimes poisons have saved life.

Book I, Chapter 13

[I. 13. 1] Again, if any quality is worth having, the more of it there is, the better and the more desirable it becomes. If justice is a good, no one will say that it becomes a greater good after something has been withdrawn from it; if bravery is a good, no one will desire it to be in any measure reduced.

[I. 13. 2] Consequently, also, the greater anger is, the better it is; for who would oppose the augmentation of any good? And yet, it is not profitable that anger should be increased; therefore, that anger should exist either. That is not a good which by increase becomes an evil

[I. 13. 3] "Anger is profitable," it is said, "because it makes men more warlike." By that reasoning, so is drunkenness too; for it makes men forward and bold, and many have been better at the sword because they were the worse for drink. By the same reasoning you must also say that lunacy and madness are essential to strength, since frenzy often makes men more powerful.

[I.13.4] But tell me, does not fear, in the opposite way, sometimes make a man bold, and does not the terror of death arouse even errant cowards to fight? But anger, drunkenness, fear, and the like, are base and fleeting incitements and do not give arms to virtue, which never needs the help of vice; they do, however, assist somewhat the mind that is otherwise slack and cowardly.

[I. 13. 5] No man is ever made braver through anger, except the one who would never have been brave without anger. It comes, then, not as a help to virtue, but as a substitute for it. And is it not true that if anger were a good, it would come naturally to those who are the most perfect? But the fact is, children, old men, and the sick are most prone to anger, and weakness of any sort is by nature captious.

Book I, Chapter 5

[I. 14. 1] "It is impossible", says Theophrastus, "for a good man not to be angry with bad men." According to this, the better a man is, the more irascible he will be; on the contrary, be sure that none is more peaceable, more free from passion, and less given to hate.

[I. 14. 2] Indeed, what reason has he for hating wrong-doers, since it is error that drives them to such mistakes? But no man of sense will hate the erring; otherwise he will hate himself. Let him reflect how many times he offends against morality, how many of his acts stand in need of pardon; then he will be angry with himself also. For no just judge will pronounce one sort of judgement in his own case and a different one in the case of others.

[I. 14. 3] No one will be found, I say, who is able to acquit himself, and any man who calls himself innocent is thinking more of witnesses than conscience. How much more human to manifest toward wrong-doers a kind and fatherly spirit, not hunting them down but calling them back! If a man has lost his way and is roaming across our fields, it is better to put him upon the right path than to drive him out.

Book I, Chapter 15

[I. 15. 1] And so the man who does wrong ought to be set right both by admonition and by force, by measures both gentle and harsh, and we should try to make him a better man for his own sake, as well as for the sake of others, stinting, not our reproof, but our anger. For what physician will show anger toward a patient? "But," you say, "they are incapable of being reformed, there is nothing pliable in them, nothing that gives room for fair hope." Then let them be removed from human society if they are bound to make worse all that they touch, and let them, in the only way this is possible, cease to be evil -- but let this be done without hatred.

[I. 15. 2] For what reason have I for hating a man to whom I am offering the greatest service when I save him from himself? Does a man hate the members of his own body when he uses the knife upon them? There is no anger there, but the pitying desire to heal. Mad dogs we knock on the head; the fierce and savage ox we slay; sickly sheep we put to the knife to keep them from infecting the flock; unnatural progeny we destroy; we drown even children who at birth are weakly and abnormal. Yet it is not anger but reason that separates the harmful from the sound.

[I. 15. 3] For the one who administers punishment nothing is so unfitting as anger, since punishment is all the better able to work reform if it is bestowed with judgement. This is the reason Socrates says to his slave: "I would beat you if I were not angry." The slave's reproof he postponed to a more rational moment; at the time it was himself he reproved. Will there be any one, pray, who has passion under control, when even Socrates did not dare to trust himself to anger?


Book I, Chapter 17

[I. 17. 1] Aristotle says that certain passions, if one makes a proper use of them, serve as arms. And this would be true if, like the implements of war, they could be put on and laid aside at the pleasure of the user. But these "arms" which Aristotle would grant to virtue fight under their own orders; they await no man's gesture and are not possessed, but possess.

[I. 17. 2] Nature has given to us an adequate equipment in reason; we need no other implements. This is the weapon she has bestowed; it is strong, enduring, obedient, not double-edged or capable of being turned against its owner. Reason is all-sufficient in itself, serving not merely for counsel, but for action as well. What, really, is more foolish than that reason should seek protection from anger -- that which is steadfast from that which is wavering, that which is trustworthy from that which is untrustworthy, that which is well from that which is sick?

[I. 17. 3] Even in matters of action, in which alone the help of anger seems necessary, is it not true that reason, if left to itself, has far more power? For reason, having decided upon the necessity of some action, persists in her purpose, since she herself can discover no better thing to put in her place; therefore her determinations, once made, stand.

[I. 17. 4] But anger is often forced back by pity; for it has no enduring strength, but is a delusive inflation, violent at the outset. It is like the winds that rise from off the earth; generated from streams and marshes they have vehemence, but do not last.

[I. 17. 5] So anger begins with a mighty rush, then breaks down from untimely exhaustion, and though all its thoughts had been concerned with cruelty and unheard-of forms of torture, yet when the time is ripe for purnishment it has already become crippled and weak. Passion quickly falls, reason is balanced.

[I. 17. 6] But even if anger persists, it will often happen that having taken the blood of two or three victims it will cease to slay, although there there more who deserve to die. Its first blows are fierce; so serpents when they first crawl from their lair are charged with venom, but their fangs are harmless after they have been drained by repeated biting.

[I. 17. 7] Consequently, not all who have sinned alike are punished alike, and often he who has committed the smaller sin receives the greater punishment, because he was subjected to anger when it was fresh. And anger is altogether unbalanced; it now rushes farther than it should, now halts sooner than it ought. For it indulges its own impulses, is capricious in judgement, refuses to listen to evidence, grants no opportunity for defence, maintains whatever position it has seized, and is never willing to surrender its judgement even if it is wrong.


Book II, Chapter 1

[II.1.1] My first book, Novatus, had a more bountiful theme; for easy is the descent into the downward course of vice. Now we must come to narrower matters; for the question is whether anger originates from choice or from impulse, that is, whether it is aroused of its own accord, or whether, like much else that goes on within us, it does not arise without our knowledge.

[II. 1. 2] But the discussion must be lowered to the consideration of these things in order that it may afterwards rise to the other, loftier, themes. For in our bodies, too, there comes first the system of bones, sinews, and joints, which form the framework of the whole and are vital parts, yet are by no means fair to look upon; next the parts on which all the comeliness of face and appearance depend, and after all these, when the body is now complete, there is added last that which above all else captivates the eye, the colour.

[II. 1. 3] There can be no doubt that anger is aroused by the direct impression of an injury; but the question is whether it follows immediately upon the impression and springs up without assistance from the mind, or whether it is aroused only with the assent of the mind. Our opinion is that it ventures nothing by itself, but acts only with the approval of the mind. For to form the impression of having received an injury and to long to avenge it, and then to couple together the two propositions that one ought not to have been wronged and that one ought to be avenged -- this is not a mere impulse of the mind acting without our volition. The one is a single mental process, the other a complex one composed of several elements; the mind has grasped something, has become indignant, has condemned the act, and now tries to avenge it. These processes are impossible unless the mind has given assent to the impressions that moved it.

To proceed to page 2, click here.