Sunday, June 3, 2018

Seneca on Anger in Public Life

Nero and Seneca, by Eduardo Barrón (1904)
In De Ira (On Anger), Seneca explains the Stoic view of anger and offers therapeutic advise. The work is addressed to Seneca’s brother Novatus, a non-philosophical man whose concerns are mainly related to military strength and success, the safety and dignity of one’s family and home, and the dignity and greatness of soul.

In her essay, “Seneca on Anger in Public Life” (Chapter 11, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics), Martha Nussbaum analyzes the structure of De Ira and Seneca’s therapeutic arguments on anger. Nussbaum notes that “Seneca's central line of argument to Novatus has three parts: an account of anger that shows it to be non-natural and non-necessary, an artifact of judgment; an argument that anger is not necessary or even useful as a motivation for correct conduct; an argument from excess, showing No­vatus that the angry person is prone to violence and cruelty. In other words, Seneca does not rely on showing that the beliefs of the angry person about the importance of injury are false; and, as we shall see, the desire not to confront the interlocutor openly on this point is a source of considerable complexity in the argument.”

Nussbaum’s essay incorporates a number of excerpts from De Ira which serve to exemplify Seneca’s position on anger. Here’s a passage in which Seneca identifies anger as an alien being which is unlike a human:
Whether or not it is according to nature will be evident, if we examine the human being. What is gentler than the human being, when he is in a right state of mind? But what is more cruel than anger? What is more loving to others than the human being? What more hostile than anger? The human being is born for mutual aid, anger for destruction; the one wants to join together, the other to rend asunder, the one to help, the other to harm, the one to come to the aid even of strangers, the other to attack even those nearest and dearest; the one is ready to spend himself for the well-being of others, the other to plunge into danger, so long as it can drag others along. (1.5.2) 
In another passage, Seneca has emperor Augustus Caesar delivering a Stoic speech when he finds out that a slave is about to be killed because he has broken a single crystal goblet:
Do you order men to be snatched away from a banquet and tortured with new forms of punishment? If your goblet is broken, will the bowels of a human being be torn apart ? Are you so arrogant that you will order a man to be led to death in the presence of Caesar? (3.40.4) 
In the following passage, Seneca argues that a wise man is bound to feel angry at the attitude of a typical angry person who resorts to aggression and injustice:
The wise person will never cease to be angry, if he once begins: for every­ thing is full of crime and vice. Much more is done than can be cured by restraint. People compete in a huge contest of wickedness. Every day there is more lust for crime, and less shame. Casting aside all thought for what is better and more just, their lust now hurls itself wherever it wants. Nor are crimes even hidden any longer: they are before our very eyes, and wicked­ ness has such public status and such strength in the hearts of all that innocence is not so much rare as non-existent. (2.9) 
Seneca reminds Novatus that he should never forget that he capable of the same kinds of failures of which he tends to accuse others:
“If we want to be fair judges of all things, let us persuade ourselves of this first: that none of us is without fault. For it is from this point above all that anger arises: 'I did nothing wrong,' and 'I did nothing.' No, rather, you don't admit to anything." (2.28)
Seneca practiced what he preached. When things became bad in the Roman Empire under Emperor Nero, Seneca became part of the political resistance, and got involved in the conspiracy of Piso. The conspiracy failed and when he was accused of treason, Seneca did not try to extricate himself by supplicating the emperor for mercy. He wrote a polite and firm letter to Nero explaining his position, and then to avoid the humiliation of a public execution, he opened his own veins. But he was an old man and the flow of blood in his body was slow—when he saw that it was taking him too much time to die, he promptly got back to work, calling his scribes and dictating to them his last thoughts.

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