On Anger - How to cure it

Jul 29 / 2018 Comments
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Anger is a destructive emotion that only brings ruin and nothing good.

Below are many excerpts of the book "On Anger" written by Seneca two thousand years ago, to remind us of the need to work towards taming this emotion that can take over us if we don't pay attention to it.


It appears to me that you are right in feeling a special fear of this passion (anger), which is above all others hideous and wild … [it] consists wholly in action and the impulse of grief, raging with an utterly inhuman lust for arms, blood and tortures, careless of itself provided it hurts another, rushing upon the very point of the sword, and greedy for revenge even when it drags the avenger to ruin with itself. … Anger [is] a short madness: for it is equally devoid of self control, regardless of decorum, forgetful of kinship, obstinately engrossed in whatever it begins to do, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trifling causes, awkward at perceiving what is true and just, and very like a falling rock which breaks itself to pieces upon the very thing which it crushes.

Anger is not an impulsive, instinctive reaction. It is, rather, the cognitive assent that such initial reactions to the offending action or words are in fact justified. Anger, that is, is best understood as a form of judgment, either implicit or explicit, that we apply to externals and to our initial, instinctive reaction to such externals. We do not have control over our initial reaction, but we do have control over the subsequent cognitive judgment.

Mankind is born for mutual assistance; anger for mutual ruin: the former loves society, the latter loves estrangement.

‘What, then? Is not correction sometimes necessary?’ Of course, it is; but with discretion, not with anger; for it does not injure, but heals under the guise of injury.

The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger, to resist its very beginnings, and to take care not to be betrayed into it: for if once it begins to carry us away, it is hard to get back again into a healthy condition.” And moreover “of what use is anger, when the same end can be arrived at by reason? Do you suppose that a hunter is angry with the beasts he kills? Yet he meets them when they attack him, and follows them when they flee from him, all of which is managed by reason without anger. … Anger, therefore, is not useful even in wars or battles: for it is prone to rashness, and while trying to bring others into danger, does not guard itself against danger. The most trustworthy virtue is that which long and carefully considers itself, controls itself, and slowly and deliberately brings itself to the front.

‘Anger is useful,’ says our adversary, ‘because it makes men more ready to fight.’ According to that mode of reasoning, then, drunkenness also is a good thing, for it makes men insolent and daring, and many use their weapons better when the worse for liquor. … No man becomes braver through anger, except one who without anger would not have been brave at all: anger does not, therefore, come to assist courage, but to take its place.

Indeed, what reason has he for hating sinners, since it is error that leads them into such crimes? Now it does not become a sensible man to hate the erring. … How much more philanthropic (in the sense of loving others) it is to deal with the erring in a gentle and fatherly spirit, and to call them into the right course instead of hunting them down? When a man is wandering about our fields because he has lost his way, it is better to place him on the right path than to drive him away.

Anger may indeed be a weapon, but one that is too dangerous and unpredictable to be trusted.

Reason gives each side time to plead; moreover, she herself demands adjournment, that she may have sufficient scope for the discovery of the truth; whereas anger is in a hurry: reason wishes to give a right decision; anger wishes its decision to be thought right. … The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry man.

Among the other misfortunes of humanity is this, that men’s intellects are confused, and they not only cannot help going wrong but love to go wrong. To avoid being angry with individuals, you must pardon the whole mass, you must grant forgiveness to the entire human race.

You must remove anger from your mind before you can take virtue into the same, because vices and virtues cannot combine, and none can at the same time be both an angry man and a good man, any more than he can be both sick and well.

Anger, then, must never become a habit with us, but we may sometimes affect to be angry when we wish to rouse up the dull minds of those whom we address, just as we rouse up horses who are slow at starting with goads and firebrands. We must sometimes apply fear to persons upon whom reason makes no impression: yet to be angry is of no more use than to grieve or to be afraid.

It is particularly silly to get angry at things: “We are angry, either with those who can, or with those who cannot do us an injury. To the latter class belong some inanimate things, such as a book, which we often throw away when it is written in letters too small for us to read, or tear up when it is full of mistakes, or clothes which we destroy because we do not like them. How foolish to be angry with such things as these, which neither deserve nor feel our anger!”

Also, never mistreat your dog (or any other animal)! “As it is the act of a madman to be angry with inanimate objects, so also is it to be angry with dumb animals, which can do us no wrong because they are not able to form a purpose; and we cannot call anything a wrong unless it be done intentionally.”

Someone will be said to have spoken ill of you: think whether you did not first speak ill of him: think of how many persons you have yourself spoken ill. … We have other men’s vices before our eyes, and our own behind our backs.

The greatest remedy for anger is delay: beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it: if it delays, it will come to an end.

Suppose that it is a disease or a misfortune; it will take less effect upon you if you bear it quietly … Is it a good man who has wronged you? Do not believe he has. Is it a bad man? Do not be surprised at this; he will pay to someone else the penalty which he owes to you — indeed, by his sin he has already punished himself. Notice the last bit here, the idea that people who do bad things automatically suffer from them, because their virtue is affected, and they will have to live with whatever wrong they have done, but it is not up to us to do them wrong or to attempt to gain revenge.

Revenge and retaliation are words which men use and even think to be righteous, yet they do not greatly differ from wrong-doing …Someone who did not know Marcus Cato struck him in the public bath in his ignorance, for who would knowingly have done him an injury? Afterwards, when he was apologizing, Cato replied, ‘I do not remember being struck.’ … The most contemptuous form of revenge is not to deem one’s adversary worth taking vengeance upon.

If anyone is angry with you, meet his anger by returning benefits for it: a quarrel which is only taken up on one side falls to the ground: it takes two men to fight. But suppose that there is an angry struggle on both sides, even then, he is the better man who first gives way; the winner is the real loser.

Does anyone wish to strike his enemy so hard, as to leave his own hand in the wound, and not to be able, to recover his balance after the blow? Yet such a weapon is anger: it is scarcely possible to draw it back.

The eager and self-destructive violence of anger does not grow up by slow degrees, but reaches its full height as soon as it begins. Nor does it, like other vices, merely disturb men’s minds, but it takes them away, and torments them till they are incapable of restraining themselves and eager for the common ruin of all men, nor does it rage merely against its object, but against every obstacle which it encounters on its way. … Other vices affect our judgment, anger affects our sanity: others come in mild attacks and grow unnoticed, but men’s minds plunge abruptly into anger. … Its intensity is in no way regulated by its origin: for it rises to the greatest heights from the most trivial beginnings.

We shall succeed in avoiding anger, if from time to time we lay before our minds all the vices connected with anger, and estimate it at its real value: it must be prosecuted before us and convicted: its evils must be thoroughly investigated and exposed.

Anger is incompatible with love. Anger pays a penalty at the same moment that it exacts one: it forswears human feelings. The latter urge us to love, anger urges us to hatred: the latter bid us do men good, anger bids us do them harm. … How far more glorious is it to throw back all wrongs and insults from oneself, like one wearing the armor of proof against all weapons, for revenge is an admission that we have been hurt.

We should live with the quietest and easiest-tempered persons, not with anxious or with sullen ones: for our own habits are copied from those with whom we associate, and just as some bodily diseases are communicated by touch, so also the mind transfers its vices to its neighbors … Virtues do the same thing in the opposite direction and improve all those with whom they are brought in contact.

A large part of mankind manufacture their own grievances either by entertaining unfounded suspicions/assumptions or by exaggerating trifles … an overweening conceit of our own importance makes us prone to anger, and we are quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure should be done to ourselves. What to do, then? Delay is the best remedy for it, because it allows its first glow to subside, and gives time for the cloud which darkens the mind either to disperse or at any rate to become less dense.

Let us conceal anger's symptoms, and as far as possible keep it secret and hidden. It will give us great trouble to do this, for it is eager to burst forth, to kindle our eyes and to transform our face; but if we allow it to show itself in our outward appearance, it is our master. … Let us replace all its symptoms by their opposites; let us make our countenance more composed than usual, our voice milder, our step slower. Our inward thoughts gradually become influenced by our outward demeanor.

Another approach to control anger at other people’s behavior is going through a checklist regarding the person that is (allegedly) offending us: “Is this his first offense? Think how long he has been acceptable. Has he often done wrong, and in many other cases? Then let us continue to bear what we have borne so long. Is he a friend? Then he did not intend to do it. Is he an enemy? Then in doing it he did his duty. … Whatever he may be, let us say to ourselves on his behalf, that even the wisest of men are often in fault, that no one is so alert that his carefulness never betrays itself, that no one is of so ripe a judgment that his serious mind cannot be goaded by circumstances into some hotheaded action, that, in fine [at last], no one, however much he may fear to give offense, can help doing so even while he tries to avoid it.

We all are hasty and careless, we all are untrustworthy, dissatisfied, and ambitious. … Every one of us therefore will find in his own breast the vice which he blames in another. … Let us therefore be more gentle one to another: we are bad men, living among bad men: there is only one thing which can afford us peace, and that is to agree to forgive one another.

Revenge takes up much time, and throws itself in the way of many injuries while it is smarting under one. We all retain our anger longer than we feel our hurt. … Would anyone think himself to be in his perfect mind if he were to return kicks to a mule or bites to a dog ? … If animals are protected from your anger by their want of reason, you ought to treat all foolish men in the like manner.

No man is satisfied with his own lot if he fixes his attention on that of another: and this leads to our being angry, because somebody precedes us, though we forget of how many we take precedence, and that when a man envies few people, he must be followed in the background by a huge crowd of people who envy him. … Do you ask, what is your greatest fault? It is, that you keep your accounts wrongly: you set a high value upon what you give, and a low one upon what you receive.

Why should we, as though we were born to live forever, waste our tiny span of life in declaring anger against any one? Why should days, which we might spend in honorable enjoyment, be misapplied in grieving and torturing others? Life is a matter which does not admit of waste, and we have no spare time to throw away. Instead of acting thus, why do you not rather draw together what there is of your short life, and keep it peaceful for others and for yourself? Why do you not rather make yourself beloved by everyone while you live, and regretted by everyone when you die?

The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: ‘What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?’ Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat. What can be more admirable than this fashion of discussing the whole of the day’s events? How sweet is the sleep which follows this self-examination? How calm, how sound, and careless is it when our spirit has either received praise or reprimand, and when our secret inquisitor and censor has made his report about our morals? I make use of this privilege, and daily plead my cause before myself: when the lamp is taken out of my sight, and my wife, who knows my habit, has ceased to talk, I pass the whole day in review before myself, and repeat all that I have said and done: I conceal nothing from myself, and omit nothing: for why should I be afraid of any of my shortcomings, when it is in my power to say, ‘I pardon you this time: see that you never do that anymore? In that dispute you spoke too contentiously: do not for the future argue with ignorant people: those who have never been taught are unwilling to learn. You reprimanded that man with more freedom than you ought, and consequently you have offended him instead of amending his ways: in dealing with other cases of the kind, you should look carefully, not only to the truth of what you say, but also whether the person to whom you speak can bear to be told the truth.’ A good man delights in receiving advice: all the worst men are the most impatient of guidance.


And finally: Change your body to change your mind; deliberately slow down your steps, lower the tone of your voice, impose to your body the demeanor of a calm person.

Wishing you a happy life, totally devoid of Anger :)

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