"On Anger" by Seneca, the Younger
Anger is a problem affecting every individual, in every aspect of their lives. In his essay "On Anger" Seneca describes the cruel nature and destructive consequences of anger, and suggests some remedial strategies. What did Seneca know about anger? He was a witness to Caligula's torments, a subject of Claudius' purges and a tragic victim of Nero's insecurities.
For Seneca, anger is a natural response to a real or perceived offense, injury, or unjust treatment. It is too often a first impulse. If not controlled, anger will overcome your ability to reason and has the potential to cause great harm to yourself and others.
It is not useful in peace or war. It's hasty, frantic nature and reckless audacity can hinder or obstruct the resolution of any offense or injury. Is anger of any use, if a peaceful resolution can be reached with reason? Let reason take the place of anger!
It is important to note, that some of his solutions are not relevant today. For example, acquiescence to tyrannical abuse - simply to survive - is no longer a requirement in modern democratic societies. Thankfully, the rule of law has replaced the rule of the tyrant.
Anger befouls Reason
Take Action to Purge Anger
Know your weaknesses - know what makes you angry. Avoid being caught up in volatile circumstances that incentivize your anger.
Toughen your resolve, so as not to be hurt by minor blows.
Stay physically and mentally heathy. Be resilient.
Ignore gossip. It will eat away at you.
Use humor to deflect a minor offense, if possible.
Ignore the offense.
Control your composure. Don't let anger cause you to do more harm.
Walk away if you can. It is far easier to stand aloof, than to try to extricate yourself, after anger has taken over.
Take time to cool off. If you cannot dispel your anger, don't let anger dispel your ability to reason.
Consider the offense: was it careless, accidental, intentional or premeditated?
Soothe the passions of the offender, if possible.
For Seneca, it is less important how an injury is struck; it is more important how an injury is endured. There is only one thing that will bring us peace: to agree to forgive one another. The world will be a better place, if:
we heal an injury, rather than avenge it.
we keep busy with our own affairs, rather than plotting to harm another.
we are satisfied with what we have, rather than envy what another has.
we make ourselves beloved while we live, and missed when we die.
we practice humanity, rather than be a danger to anyone.
Let no injury or insult move you to anger.
Anger with an equal is uncertain, with a superior is folly, with an inferior is contemptible.
Redemption for Offenders
Seneca considered it unjust to be angry with vices that all men share...we are all bad men (at least potentially). He accepted the premise that we are not born wise, but acquire wisdom with age and experience. But, due to the circumstances of life (2000 years ago) there were very few wise men and many sinners.
For Seneca, 'humankind' is obligated to work cooperatively...to love society. Unfortunately, anger stirs up disagreement and creates alienation and hostility. Anger that causes injury to any man, causes harm to your 'fellow citizen' and injury to society. Injury that is intentional is wrong. It renounces human feelings.
Punishment for any crime was intended to correct behaviour for the future, instead of punishing for the past: to make a better 'man'. Seneca references Plato's view of punishment: to punish not for their sin, but that they may sin no more. The judicial process allowed for both sides to be heard and required an adjournment to give time for mature deliberation of the proceedings.
Where possible 'gentle persuasion' (education, chastisements and warnings) can be used to change behaviour: to have offenders reject their vices and adopt virtuous behaviour. A pardon is possible if the offender is remorseful, not mentally afflicted, deemed capable of reintegrating into society, and where the victim is not negatively impacted by his release.
Clearly unpopular today, corporal punishment - administered without anger - was legitimate to the Stoics, when 'gentle persuasion' was ineffective. As a last resource, capital punishment could be used as a deterrent to others: a service to the state when the offender is incapable of - or opposed to - rehabilitation. Seneca was adamant that this too should be administered without anger.
Without anger, Seneca believed that society could put an end to crime by fairly administering justice to 'bad men' and amending their lives. Seneca was convinced that justice was ill served by angry men: that magistrates must have the 'countenance of a judge'.
Reason seeks a just decision...anger only seeks to appear just.
Marcus Aurelius believed that it was important to be understanding and forgiving of anyone who has caused offence. It was a stoic characteristic he cherished in others and practised himself. This sentiment is evident in his morning prayer.
Generally speaking, the Stoics believed that most people erred because they did not know right from wrong. But more importantly, they believed that many of these people could be corrected and still contribute to society.