Seneca: To Novatus on Anger (excerpt, part 2)

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Book II, Chapter 2

[II. 2. 1] "But," you ask, "what is the purpose of such an inquiry?" I answer, in order that we may know what anger is; for if it arises against our will, it will never succumb to reason. For all sensations that do not result from our own volition are uncontrolled and unavoidable, as, for example, shivering when we are dashed with cold water and recoilment from certain contacts; bad news makes the hair stand on end, vile language causes a blush to spread, and when one looks down from a precipice, dizziness follows. Because none of these things lies within our control, no reasoning can keep them from happening.

[II. 2. 2] But anger may be routed at our behest; for it is a weakness of the mind that is subject to the will, not one of those things that result from some condition of the general lot of man and therefore befall even the wisest, among which must be placed foremost that mental shock which affects us after we have formed the impression of a wrong committed.

[II. 2. 3] This steals upon us even from the sight of plays upon the stage and from reading of happenings of long ago. How often we seem to grow angry with Clodius for banishing Cicero, with Antony for killing him! Who is not aroused against the arms which Marius took up, against the proscription which Sulla used? Who is not incensed against Theodotus and Achillas, and the child himself who dared an unchildish crime?

[II. 2. 4] Singing sometimes stirs us, and quickened rhythm, and the well-known blare of the War-god's trumpets; our minds are perturbed by a shocking picture and by the melancholy sight of punishment even when it is entirely just.

[II. 2. 5] In the same way we smile when others smile, we are saddened by a throng of mourners, and are thrown into a ferment by the struggles of others. Such sensations, however, are no more anger than that is sorrow which furrows the brow at sight of a mimic shipwreck, no more anger than that is fear which thrills our minds when we read how Hannibal after Cannae beset the walls of Rome, but they are all emotions of a mind that would prefer not to be so affected; they are not passions, but the beginnings that are preliminary to passions.

[II. 2. 6] So, too, the warrior in the midst of peace, wearing now his civilian dress, will prick up his ears at the blast of a trumpet, and army horses are made restive by the clatter of arms. It is said that Alexander, when Xenophantus played the flute, reached for his weapons.

Book II, Chapter 3

[II. 3. 1] None of these things which move the mind through the agency of chance should be called passions; the mind suffers them, so to speak, rather than causes them. Passion, consequently, does not consist in being moved by the impressions that are presented to the mind, but in surrendering to these and following up such a chance prompting.

[II. 3. 2] For if any one supposes that pallor, falling tears, prurient itching or deep-drawn sigh, a sudden brightening of the eyes, and the like, are an evidence of passion and a manifestation of the mind, he is mistaken and fails to understand that these are disturbances of the body.

[II. 3. 3] And so very often even the bravest man turns pale while he fits on his arms, the knees of the boldest soldier often tremble a little when the battle-signal is given, the mighty commander has his heart in his throat before the battle-lines clash, and while the most eloquent orator is getting ready to speak, his extremities become rigid.

[II. 3. 4] Anger must not only be aroused but it must rush forth, for it is an active impulse; but an active impulse never comes without the consent of the will, for it is impossible for a man to aim at revenge and punishment without the cognizance of his mind. A man thinks himself injured, wishes to take vengeance, but dissuaded by some consideration immediately calms down. This I do not call anger, this prompting of the mind which is submissive to reason; anger is that which overleaps reason and sweeps it away.

[II. 3. 5] Therefore that primary disturbance of the mind which is excited by the impression of injury is no more anger than the impression of injury is itself anger; the active impulse consequent upon it, which has not only admitted the impression of injury but also approved it, is really anger -- the tumult of a mind proceeding to revenge by choice and determination. There can never be any doubt that as fear involves flight, anger involves assault; consider, therefore, whether you believe that anything can either be assailed or avoided without the mind's assent.

Book II, Chapter 4

[II. 4. 1] That you may know, further, how the passions begin, grow, and run riot, I may say that the first prompting is involuntary, a preparation for passion, as it were, and a sort of menace; the next is combined with an act of volition, although not an unruly one, which assumes that it is right for me to avenge myself because I have been injured, or that it is right for the other person to be punished because he has committed a crime; the third prompting is now beyond control, in that it wishes to take vengeance, not if it is right to do so, but whether or no, and has utterly vanquished reason.

[II. 4. 2] We can no more avoid by the use of reason that first shock which the mind experiences than we can avoid those effects mentioned before which the body experiences -- the temptation to yawn when another yawns, and winking when fingers are suddenly pointed toward the eyes. Such impulses cannot be overcome by reason, although perchance practice and constant watchfulness will weaken them. Different is that prompting which is born of the judgement, is banished by the judgement.


Book II, Chapter 6

[II. 6. 1] "If," some one argues, "virtue is well disposed toward what is honourable, it is her duty to feel anger toward what is base." What if he should say that virtue must be both low and great? And yet this is what he does say -- he would have her be both exalted and debased, since joy on account of a right action is splendid and glorious, while anger on account of another's sin is mean and narrow-minded.

[II. 6. 2] And virtue will never be guilty of simulating vice in the act of redressing it; anger in itself she considers reprehensible, for it is in no way better, often even worse, than those shortcomings which provoke anger. The distinctive and natural property of virtue is to rejoice and be glad; it no more comports with her dignity to be angry than to be sad. But sorrow is the companion of anger, and all anger comes round to this as the result either of remorse or of defeat.

[II. 6. 3] Besides, if it is the part of a wise man to be angry at sin, the greater this is the more angry will he be, and he will be angry often; it follows that the wise man will not only become angry, but will be prone to anger. But if we believe that neither great anger nor frequent anger has a place in the mind of a wise man, is there any reason why we should not free him from this passion altogether?

[II. 6. 4] No limit, surely, can be set if the degree of his anger is to be determined by each man's deed. For either he will be unjust if he has equal anger toward unequal delinquencies, or he will be habitually angry if he blazes up every time crimes give him warrant.

Book II, Chapter 7

[II. 7. 1] And what is more unworthy of the wise man than that his passion should depend upon the wickedness of others? Shall great Socrates lose the power to carry back home the same look he had brought from home? But if the wise man is to be angered by base deeds, if he is to be perturbed and saddened by crimes, surely nothing is more woeful than the wise man's lot; his whole life will be passed in anger and in grief.

[II. 7. 2] For what moment will there be when he will not see something to disapprove of? Every time he leaves his house, he will have to walk among criminals and misers and spendthrifts and profligates -- men who are happy in being such. Nowhere will he turn his eyes without finding something to move them to indignation. He will give out if he forces himself to be angry every time occasion requires.

[II. 7. 3] All these thousands hurrying to the forum at break of day -- how base their cases, and how much baser are their advocates! One assails his father's will, which it were more fitting that he respect; another arraigns his mother at the bar; another comes as an informer of the very crime in which he is more openly the culprit; the judge, too, is chosen who will condemn the same deeds that he himself has committed, and the crowd, misled by the fine voice of a pleader, shows favour to a wicked cause.


Book II, Chapter 12

[II. 12. 1] "Wickedness," it is said, "must be eliminated from the scheme of nature, if you would eliminate anger; neither, however, is possible." In the first place, one can avoid being cold although in the scheme of nature it is winter, and one can avoid being hot although the hot months are here. A man may either be protected against the inclemency of the season by a favourable place of residence, or he may by physical endurance subdue the sensation of both heat and cold.

[II. 12. 2] In the second place, reverse this statement: A man must banish virtue from his heart before he can admit wrath, since vices do not consort with virtues, and a man can no more be both angry and good at the same time than he can be sick and well.

[II. 12. 3] "But it is not possible," you say, "to banish anger altogether from the heart, nor does the nature of man permit it." Yet nothing is so hard and difficult that it cannot be conquered by the human intellect and be brought through persistent study into intimate acquaintance, and there are no passions so fierce and self-willed that they cannot be subjugated by discipline.

[II. 12. 4] Whatever command the mind gives to itself holds its ground. Some have reached the point of never smiling, some have cut themselves off from wine, others from sexual pleasure, others from every kind of drink; another, satisfied by short sleep, prolongs his waking hours unwearied; some have learned to run on very small and slanting ropes, to carry huge burdens that are scarcely within the compass of hu man strength, to dive to unmeasured depths and to endure the sea without any drawing of breath. There are a thousand other instances to show that persistence surmounts every obstacle and that nothing is really difficult which the mind enjoins itself to endure.

[II. 12. 5] The men I mentioned a little while ago had either no reward for their unflagging zeal or none worthy of it -- for what glory does he attain who has trained himself to walk a tight rope, to carry a huge load upon his shoulders, to withhold his eyes from sleep, to penetrate to the bottom of the sea? -- and yet by effort they attained the end for which they worked although the remuneration was not great. Shall we, then, not summon ourselves to endurance when so great a reward awaits us -- the unbroken calm of the happy soul? How great a blessing to escape anger, the greatest of all ills, and along with it madness, ferocity, cruelty, rage, and the other passions that attend anger!


Book II, Chapter 13

[II. 13. 1] It is not for us to seek a defence for ourselves and an excuse for such indulgence by saying that it is either expedient or unavoidable; for what vice, pray, has ever lacked its defender? It is not for you to say that anger cannot be eradicated; the ills from which we suffer are curable, and since we are born to do right, nature herself helps us if we desire to be improved. Nor, as some think, is the path to the virtues steep and rough they are reached by a level road.

[II. 13. 2] It is no idle tale that I come to tell you. The road to the happy life is an easy one; do but enter on it -- with good auspices and the good help of the gods themselves! It is far harder to do what you are now doing. What is more reposeful than peace of mind, what more toilsome than anger? What is more disengaged than mercy, what more busy than cruelty? Chastity keeps holiday, while lust is always occupied. In short, the maintenance of all the virtues is easy, but it is costly to cultivate the vices.

[II. 13. 3] Anger must be dislodged -- even those who say that it ought to be reduced admit this in part; let us be rid of it altogether, it can do us no good. Without it we shall more easily and more justly abolish crimes, punish the wicked, and set them upon the better path. The wise man will accomplish his whole duty without the assistance of anything evil, and he will associate with himself nothing which needs to be controlled with anxious care.

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