An excerpt from
Anger, Mercy, Revenge
Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Translated by Robert A. Kaster and Martha C. Nussbaum
To Novatus on Anger: Book 1
Book 3 of the Dialogues
1 You’ve pressed me, Novatus, to prescribe a way of soothing anger: from this I infer that you’ve rightly come to fear this passion, especially and above all, as foul and frenzied. All other passions have something calm and quiet about them; this one consists entirely in aroused assault. Raging with an inhuman desire to inflict pain in combat and shed blood in punishment, it cares nothing for itself provided it can harm the other: it throws itself upon the very weapons raised against it, hungry for a vengeance that will bring down
the avenger too. (2) Accordingly, some wise men have said that anger is a brief Madness: for it’s no less lacking in self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of personal ties, unrelentingly intent on its goal, shut off from rational deliberation, stirred for no substantial reason, unsuited to discerning what’s fair and true, just like a collapsing building that’s reduced to rubble even as it crushes what it falls upon. (3) Moreover, you can tell that the people whom anger seizes aren’t sane by considering their very demeanor. As madmen exhibit specific symptoms—a bold and threatening expression, a knitted brow, a fierce set of the features, a quickened step, restless hands, a changed complexion, frequent, very forceful sighing—so do angry people show the same symptoms: (4) their eyes blaze and flicker, their faces flush deeply as the blood surges up from the depths of the heart, their lips quiver and their teeth grind, their hair bristles and stands on end, their breathing is forced and ragged, their joints crack as they’re wrenched, they groan and bellow, their speech is inarticulate and halting, they repeatedly clap their hands together and stamp the ground, their entire bodies are aroused as they “act out anger’s massive menace,” they have the repellent and terrifying features of people who are deformed and bloated—it would be hard to say whether the vice is more abhorrent or disfiguring. (5) All other passions you can hide away and nurse in secret, but anger thrusts itself forward and becomes visible in your features, seething all the more plainly the greater it grows. Surely you’re familiar with the way all animals behave, how they give off telltale signs once they’ve been roused to do harm, as their entire bodies pass out of their customary, calm condition and exaggerate their natural ferocity. (6) Boars foam at the mouth and grind their tusks to sharpen them, bulls toss their horns about in the empty air and scatter the sand with their stamping hoofs, lions roar, snakes make their necks flare when they’re provoked, rabid dogs glower: no animal is naturally so terrifying and dangerous but that its ferocity increases visibly once anger has assailed it. (7) Of course I’m not unaware that the rest of the passions, too, are difficult to hide, that lust and fear and recklessness signal their presence and can be recognized in advance. Any unusually forceful disturbance inevitably causes a stir in one’s expression. What’s the diff erence, then? Other passions are visible, but anger makes itself obvious.
2 With regard now to its damaging eff ects: no pestilence has been more costly for the human race. Butchery and poisoning, suits and countersuits, cities destroyed, entire nations wiped out, leading citizens sold on the auction block, dwellings put to the torch, then the blaze, unchecked by the city walls, turning vast tracts of land bright with the attacking flame. (2) Consider the cities of vast renown whose foundation stones can now hardly be made out: anger cast these cities down. Consider the wastelands, deserted, without an inhabitant for many miles: anger emptied them. Consider the many leaders known to history as examples of grim destiny: anger ran one through in his bed, struck another dead (sacrilege!) at the dinner table, tore another limb from limb in full view of the crowded forum, the very bosom of the law. It caused one man to shed his blood as his son’s victim, another to expose his royal throat to a slave’s armed hand, another to splay his limbs on the cross. (3) And I’m still talking about punishments visited on individuals; now set aside those whom blazing anger assailed one man at a time and consider whole assemblies mowed down, the common folk butchered when an army was loosed upon them, whole peoples condemned to die in promiscuous slaughter * * * ? (3a) Anger turns everything from what is best and most righteous to the opposite. It causes whoever has come into its clutches to forget his duty: make a father angry, he’s an enemy; make a son angry, he’s a parricide. Anger makes a mother a stepmother, a fellow-citizen a foreign enemy, a king a tyrant. (Martin of Braga, On Anger 2) (3b) Anger is the desire to take vengeance for a wrong or, as Posidonius says, the desire to punish the person by whom you reckon you were unjustly harmed. Some have defined it this way: anger is the arousal of the mind to harm the person who has either harmed oneself or wished to do so. (Lactantius, On the Anger of God 17.13) (4) * * * as though they’re failing to show concern for us or disdaining our authority. Why else does the crowd become angry with gladiators, and so unfairly that it thinks it an offence that they’re not glad to die? The crowd judges that it’s being treated with contempt, and it changes—in its looks and gestures and passion—from spectator to opponent. (5) Whatever that sort of thing is, it’s not anger but quasi-anger, like that of children who want to pummel the ground if they’ve fallen and often don’t even know why they’re angry: they just are, without a reason and without being wronged—yet not without a certain impression of being wronged, and not without some desire for payback. Accordingly, they beguile themselves with make-believe blows and are appeased when people beg their pardon with a tearful pretense: their grievance, which is not true grievance, is removed by a vengeance that is not true vengeance.
3 An objection: “we become angry, often, not with people who have harmed us but with those who intend to harm us: from this it’s clear that anger is not the product of a wrong.” It’s true that we become angry with those who intend to harm us, but they harm us by that very intention: one who intends to commit a wrong is already committing it. (2) Another objection: “it’s clear that anger is not a desire for payback, because the very weakest people are often angry at the most powerful: they don’t desire a payback they have no hope of achieving.” In the first place, I said that it’s the desire for exacting a payback, not the capacity to do so; and people desire even things they cannot achieve. In the second place, no one is so lowly that he cannot conceive a hope of making even the loftiest pay: we are all quite capable when it comes to doing harm. (3) Aristotle’s defi nition is not very different from ours: he says that anger is the strong desire to return pain for pain. (The difference between his definition and ours cannot be explained briefly.) Against both definitions it’s objected that wild animals become angry, but without the provocation of being wronged and not for the sake of payback or causing another pain; even if such is the effect of their behavior, it’s not their aim. (4) But it must be said that wild animals—and all creatures save the human being—are without anger: though anger is reason’s enemy, it comes into being only where reason resides. Wild animals have impulses—frenzy, ferocity, aggression—but they no more have anger than they have luxury, even though they’re less self-controlled than humans when it comes to certain pleasures. (5) There’s no reason to believe the person who says: The boar forgets to grow angry, the hind, to trust in flight, the bear to attack hardy herds. By “grow angry” he means “be stirred up,” “be goaded”; they no more know how to “grow angry” than they know how to “forgive.” (6) Animals incapable of speech lack human passions, though they have certain impulses that resemble passions. Were that not the case, if they knew love and hate, they would also know friendship and animosity, disagreement and harmony. And though some traces of these things exist even in animals, they’re the proper possession—for good and ill alike—of human hearts. (7) Only the human being has been allotted practical wisdom, foresight, scrupulousness, deliberation: animals are barred not only from human virtues, but also from human vices. Their entire constitution, inside and out, is unlike the human: their ruling principle is differently fashioned. Just as they have a voice— but one that is inarticulate and confused and incapable of forming words—and just as they have a tongue—but one that is strictly constrained and not free to perform varied movements—so also that ruling principle is coarse and unrefined. Accordingly, it grasps the visible presentations of things that provoke its impulsive behavior, but in murky and confused form. (8) Consequently, animals’ attacks and alarms are vigorous, but they’re not fear and anxiety and sadness and anger; merely certain states similar to those passions. For that reason they quickly pass away and are transformed into their opposites: animals that have just been in a rage and a panic now graze quietly; restful sleep follows immediately on bellowing stampedes.
4 What anger is has been sufficiently explained, and how it differs from “wrathfulness” is plain: the same way that being “drunk” differs from being “a drunkard,” and being “afraid” differs from being “fearful.” Someone who is “angry” might not be “wrathful”; someone who is “wrathful” might sometimes not be “angry.” (2) All the other categories that distinguish different kinds of anger with a differentiated terminology in Greek lack their own labels in Latin, and so I’ll pass them by—though it’s true that we use the terms amarus [bitter] and acerbus [harsh], as also stomachosus [testy] and rabiosus [frenzied] and clamosus [ranting] and difficilis [difficult] and asper [prickly], which are all diff erent forms of anger; you can also include among these morosus [peevish], a hypersensitive sort of wrathfulness. (3) Indeed, there are certain forms of anger that simmer down short of shouting, some that are both frequent and diffi cult to shake, some that are savagely physical and not very verbal, some that are let loose in a torrent of bitter abuse and curses; some forms don’t go beyond complaining and sulking, some are deep and weighty and inward-turning. There are a thousand other varieties of this polymorphous evil.
5 So far we’ve considered what anger is, whether it befalls any animal save a human, how it diff ers from wrathfulness, and how many types there are. Now let’s consider whether anger is in accord with nature, and whether it’s useful and thus should be retained to some degree. (2) Whether it is in accord with nature will be evident if we consider the human person closely. What is milder, when its mental condition is not warped? What, on the other hand, is crueler than anger? What is more inclined to love others than a human? What is more hostile than anger? The human is born to give and receive assistance—anger, to destroy. The one wants to form associations, the other, to secede; the one wants to be of benefit, the other, to do harm; the one wants to aid even strangers, the other, to assault even the nearest and dearest. Human beings are prepared even to sacrifice themselves for the sake of others’ advantage; anger is prepared to plunge into danger, provided it drags the other down. (3) Does anyone, then, show greater ignorance of the nature of things than the person who ascribes this bestial, destructive vice to nature’s best and most polished creation? Anger (as I said) is hungry for payback; the presence of this lust in a human being’s utterly peaceful breast in no way accords with nature. Human life is constituted by the harmonious exchange of benefits, and is held fast in a pact of mutual assistance not by fear but by mutual affection.
6 An objection: “Surely scolding is sometimes needed, no?” Of course! But reasoned scolding, without anger; for the point is not to do harm, but to heal under the guise of harming. For just as we heat some twisted metal shafts to straighten them, and use wedges to apply pressure not to shatter them but to remove the warp, so we straighten out people’s characters with physical pain and mental distress once they’ve been warped by vice. (2) To be sure, a physician, when faced with mild disorders, at first tries a slight modification of the daily regimen: he imposes some order on food, drink, and exercise and thereby tries to build up the person’s health simply by making his way of life coherent. The next thing is to let moderation do some good. If moderation and order do no good, the physician prunes some elements of the regimen away; if the patient still doesn’t respond, the physician forbids him food and tries to unburden his body with fasting. If these gentler measures get nowhere, he has recourse to bleeding and—if limbs do harm by spreading the disease through their attachment to the body—amputation. No treatment that has a healthful outcome is deemed harsh. (3) In the same way it’s appropriate that a person who administers the laws and guides a civil community should seek to heal people’s characters with words for as long as he can, and rather gentle words at that, to urge the proper course of action and instill in their minds a desire for what is honorable and fair, so that they will hate vice and value virtue. At the next stage he should adopt a more severe way of speaking, but one that still only warns and reproves. Finally, he should have recourse to penalties, of a sort that are still fairly mild and not irrevocable: he should impose the worst penalties on the worst crimes, on the principle that no one should die save in a case where death is a favor even to the one who is dying. (4) In this one respect will he differ from physicians: whereas they provide an easy escape to those on whom they cannot bestow life, he compels the condemned to depart from life scorned and covered in disgrace, not because he takes pleasure in any man’s punishment—such inhuman bestiality is far removed from the wise—but so that it might be a lesson to all, as the commonwealth benefits from the death of those who didn’t wish to benefit it while alive. A human being’s nature, then, doesn’t seek payback; it follows that anger itself is not in accord with nature, since it does seek payback. (5) I shall also adduce an argument from Plato—what harm can it do to use others’ belongings, when they overlap with what is our own?—who says, “A good man causes no harm.” Payback harms: therefore, payback doesn’t suit a good man, and for the same reason neither does anger, to which payback is suited. If a good man takes no delight in payback, neither will he take any delight in the passion that finds pleasure in payback. Anger, therefore, is not natural.
7 “Isn’t it possible that we ought to take on anger as an ally, even though it’s not natural, because it has often been useful? It raises our spirits and spurs us on; without it courage accomplishes nothing splendid in warfare: it needs that flame set to the kindling, that goad to stir the bold and send them into harm’s way. That’s the reason some people think it best to control anger, not do away with it, and to reduce it to a healthy mean by stripping away the excess while retaining the element that prevents action from turning feeble and the mind’s vivid energy from being sapped.” (2) In the first place, it’s easier to keep harmful agents out and not admit them than to direct and control them once they’ve been admitted; for when they’ve taken up tenancy they’re more powerful than the one who would rule them, and they tolerate no cutbacks or diminution. (3) In the second place, reason itself, which is entrusted with the reins, is in control only so long as it’s kept separate from the passions; once it has mingled with them and become polluted, it cannot keep them in check, though it could have kept them out. Thought, once it has been shaken and dislodged from its proper footing, becomes a slave of the thing that shoves it along. (4) Certain things are within our control at first, whereas the subsequent stages carry us along with a force all their own and leave us no way back. People who have jumped off a cliff retain no independent judgment and cannot offer resistance or slow the descent of their bodies in freefall: that irrevocable leap strips away all deliberation and regret, and they cannot help but arrive at an outcome they would have been free to reject at the outset. Just so, once the mind has submitted to anger, love, and the other passions, it’s not allowed to check its onrush: its own weight and the downward-tending nature of vices must—must—carry it along and drive it down to the depths.
8 The best course is to reject straightway the initial prickings of anger, to fight against its first sparks, and to struggle not to succumb to it. Once it has begun to carry us off course it’s difficult to sail back to safety, since not a jot of reason remains once the passion has been let in and some sovereign right has been granted to it by our own will: it will thereafter do not what you allow but what it wants. (2) The enemy—I stress this point—must be held at bay on the first frontier; when it has entered and made its way through the gates, it accepts no limits from those it has taken captive. Indeed, the mind is not sequestered, keeping a watch for the passions as things external and apart, so that it can keep them from going farther than they ought. Rather, the mind itself turns into the passion: that is why it cannot summon back its useful, healthy vigor once it has been betrayed and weakened. (3) Reason and passion, as I said, don’t have separate and distinct dwelling places but are the mind’s transformation to a better and worse condition. How then will a reason that has been seized and overwhelmed by vices resurrect itself once it has yielded to anger? Or how will it free itself from a murky state in which the admixture of baser elements predominates? (4) An objection: “But some people control themselves when they’re angry.” Is it the case, then, that they do nothing that anger dictates, or something? If nothing, then clearly anger is not needed for getting things done—the reason that you were summoning its assistance, as though it had some capacity more robust than reason. (5) Next, I put this question: is anger more powerful than reason, or weaker? If stronger, how will reason be able to set a limit on it, since as a rule only weaker entities are obedient? If weaker, then reason is sufficient in itself to get things done, without anger, and doesn’t look for the weaker party’s aid. (6) “But some people, when they’re angry, behave consistently and control themselves.” When? When anger is already at the vanishing point and is withdrawing of its own accord, not when it’s actually on the boil; for then it’s stronger. (7) “But surely sometimes, even in anger, people let off those whom they hate, unhurt and untouched, and restrain themselves from doing harm.” They do: when? When one passion has collided with another and either fear or desire has had its way. Anger then has been stilled not through reason’s favor, but through the passions’ wicked, treacherous entente.
9 Furthermore, anger has nothing useful about it and doesn’t stir the mind to warlike deeds. Virtue should never be assisted by vice, but is sufficient in itself. Whenever there’s need of aggressive action, virtue doesn’t grow angry but rises up and is stirred only so much as it reckons necessary, then grows calm, just as missiles let fly by catapults are in the control of the artillerymen who calibrate the catapults’ torque. (2) Aristotle says: “Anger is necessary, nor can any struggle be carried to victory without it: it must fill the mind and kindle the spirit, but it must be employed as a foot soldier, not the general.” That’s wrong: if it listens to reason and follows where it leads, it’s no longer anger, which has defiance as its defining trait; but if it fights against reason, is not still when ordered, and is carried forward by ferocious desire, it’s as useless as the mind’s servant as a soldier who ignores the signal for retreat. (3) Hence, if it allows itself to be limited, it should be called by some other name: it has ceased to be anger, which I take to be unbridled and untamed. If on the other hand it doesn’t tolerate a limit, it’s destructive and shouldn’t be counted among the auxiliaries. Thus it either is not anger or is useless. (4) For if someone exacts a penalty, not because he’s eager to punish but because it’s the right thing, he shouldn’t be counted among the angry. A useful soldier will know how to act in accordance with the strategy; passions, for their part, are equally bad as soldier and as generals.
10 Accordingly, reason will never add imprudent and violent impulses to its armory: over these reason itself has no authority, and it could never restrain them without setting similar counter-impulses against them, like fear against anger, anger against sluggishness, desire against fear. (2) May virtue be far removed from this evil, that reason should ever take refuge in vice! A mind in this state—protected by its own failings, unable to be brave except when angry, or energetic except when desirous, or quiet except when afraid—can find no reliable
tranquility but is necessarily shaken and tossed about: a mind that becomes a slave to some passion must exist as though in a tyrant’s realm. Isn’t it shameful to make virtues depend upon the patronage of vices? (3) Furthermore, reason ceases to be capable of anything if it’s capable of nothing without passion; it begins to be passion’s twin, its match. What difference does it make if passion without reason is as ill-considered as reason without passion is impotent? The two are equal where one cannot exist without the other. Yet who could stand to equate passion with reason? (4) An assertion: “Passion is useful if and only if it’s moderate.” No: if and only if it’s useful by nature. But if it shrugs off reason’s commands, it will achieve by its “moderation” only this: the less there is of it, the less harm it will do. A moderate passion is simply a moderate evil.
11 An assertion: “But when faced by the enemy we need anger.” Nowhere do we need it less: that’s when our aggressive actions must be controlled and obedient to commands, not given free play. For example: what does in the barbarians, who are physically so much sturdier and inured to toil, except anger, which is its own worst enemy? Gladiators too—their skill protects them, anger leaves them exposed. (2) Furthermore, what need is there of anger, when reason gains the same end? Do you suppose that a hunter feels anger toward wild beasts? Yet he both faces them as they approach and pursues them as they flee, and reason accomplishes all of this, without anger. When so many thousands of Cimbri and Teutoni poured over the Alps, what destroyed them—so utterly that their people back home learned the news only by rumor, since not even a messenger escaped—what destroyed them if not the fact they had anger instead of virtue? And just as anger sometimes has been known to provide momentum and lay low the things in its path, so it has more often been selfdestructive. (3) Is there anything more spirited than the Germans? Anything keener on the attack? Anything more eager for the arms of war that they know from birth, that nurture and sustain them, that they have as their sole passion, turning their backs on all else? Anything tougher when it comes to enduring harsh conditions, thanks to the fact that they mostly leave their bodies uncovered and take no shelter from their unendingly freezing climate? (4) Yet Spaniards and Gauls and men of Asia and Syria (virtually women when it comes to war) cut them down, before one of our legions is even in sight, when their inclination to anger—and nothing else—makes them easy prey. Imagine adding reason and discipline to those bodies and minds that have not known pampering, luxury, wealth: to say the least, we will certainly have to revive our old Roman ways! (5) How else did Fabius restore our dominion’s shaken forces than by knowing how to take his time and drag things out and delay, all things that angry people don’t know how to do? Our dominion would have been lost had Fabius dared to do all that anger urged: he took thought for our common fortunes and—having judged our strength to be such that any loss meant total loss—he set aside his sense of grievance and desire for revenge and focused solely on expedient opportunities. He vanquished his anger before he vanquished Hannibal. (6) What about Scipio? Didn’t he leave behind Hannibal, the Carthaginian army, all the things that should have roused his anger, and carry the war into Africa, taking his time in a way that made his enemies think it evidence of selfindulgent sloth? (7) What about the second Scipio? Didn’t he keep Numantia under siege a very long time, regarding with equanimity this spur to resentment—his own and the commonwealth’s at once—that Numantia was taking longer to vanquish than Carthage had? While shutting the enemy in with his siege works he drove them to fall on their own swords. (8) So you can see that anger is not expedient even in battles and wars: it’s given to rashness, and its desire to bring others into peril makes it careless of its own. The virtue that’s most reliable has looked guardedly about a good long time, has exercised self-control, and has advanced slowly toward a determinate goal.