Dealing with Anger

“The outcome of great anger is madness. Hence we should avoid anger, not to keep things in moderation, but to preserve our sanity.” – Seneca, Letter 18.15

Even though my understanding of Latin has faded into a dark cloudy dullness, perhaps the translator (A.A. Long) of the former quote would have better served the general reader if he were to use the word ‘extreme’ rather than great. Anger in and of itself can be a good thing. It can motivate us to take positive and constructive action against an injustice; whereas ‘highly intense’ anger can bring about d/anger and self-defeating behaviour, including negative stress on the body that may lead to sickness and confusion.

For me, anger often means that something needs to be addressed in the here and now. As in a smoke detector that reminds one to take action. Should it be an actual grease fire on the kitchen stove, additional anger will do little to mitigate the problem; in fact, sustained anger may lead to frustration, which in turn can impede on clear thinking, thus reduce reaction time and awareness of options.

Due to the precarious nature of anger, and how it can bring about unnecessary harm in all sorts of circumstances, it would be prudent to take proactive steps to better equip ourselves in managing anger in general. Even if we are relatively even-minded in most situations to date, it is still a good idea to learn how to orient ourselves around those who have anger issues, be it our boss, colleagues or subordinates.

Here’s a stabilizing thought by Seneca that can help to scale back the intensity of anger: “Nothing is serious if one takes it lightly, nothing needs to be annoying, provided that one doesn’t add one’s own annoyance to it.” (Seneca, Letter 123.1) In other words, tame your body to remain calm and refuse to add fuel to the fire. These two acts alone can help to bring immense relief to the fiery nature of anger and keep us from spinning out of control.

Once we are able to comprehend the nature of the vice (viciousness) at hand, then we are better able to choose the appropriate virtue (life skill) to restore equanimity. Fighting fire with fire destroys. As Stoics let us fight the good fight instead: “Observe how much fiercer virtue is in confronting perils than cruelty in imposing them.” (Seneca, Letter 24.5)


About Philosopher Muse

An explorer of volition and soul, a song under a night sky and a dream that forever yearns to be.
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7 Responses to Dealing with Anger

  1. “Anger is weakness” is the first of my 6 main mantras. As you note, it acts on us, implying that something needs to be done immediately. If we take a minute to step back and let the emotions fizzle out a bit, we may find the immediacy is simply an overreaction. Seneca’s tendency toward humor and lightheartedness illustrate his ability to step back.

    • Anger as weakness seems to have a Stoic ring to it. In fact, Seneca says that all “emotions are feeble at first; then they arouse themselves and gather strength as they advance.” (Seneca, Letter 116.3)

      By taking a step back to allow the emotional charge (distortion) to subside can be recognized as taking immediate action, after all, it’s much ‘easier to refuse them entry than to drive them out’ once they have taken root and brought about shortsightedness; namely, a lapse in good reasoning or a distortion of judgement.

      Humor and lightheartedness may play a part in stepping back but I am not confident that they are Seneca’s primary means of dealing with the ill effect of extreme emotions considering the emphasis he places on exercising virtue. Neither humor or lightheartedness, or any similar attitude, are strictly virtues; however, I believe they can operate as complementary mindsets, as precepts point out particular functions in view to universal principles. My reasoning process stems in part from Seneca’s own line of thought:

      “The only difference between the principles of philosophy and precepts is the generality of the former and specificity of the latter. They are both prescriptive, the one universally and the other at the level of particulars.” – Seneca, Letter 94.31

      “Virtue consists partly of learning and partly of practice. You have to learn, and you have to consolidate your lessons by action. In which case, not only are the doctrines [established principles] of philosophy helpful but so also are the precepts, which keep our emotions in check, as if by force of law, and rule them out of order.” – Seneca, Letter 94.47

      • Most of my mantras are taken from Stoic principles. Seneca was definitely the progenitor of my “Anger is Weakness” saying. And yes, being proactive is generally much better than being reactive. Thanks for the insight.

  2. Terveen Gill says:

    Wonderfully written. Anger is indeed a part of every human, the reasons for it could be none or many. I like how you’ve given anger a positive and negative side. It has its shades and depending on when, how, and where it’s applied, the outcomes could be encouraging or devastating.
    ““Nothing is serious if one takes it lightly, nothing needs to be annoying, provided that one doesn’t add one’s own annoyance to it.” – Correct! 🙂

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