When we talked about each other’s feelings yesterday in class and tried to analyze these emotions to see what exactly it was that we were feeling and why, what seemed so bad, and where the feeling came from, some of us mentioned anger — anger at the situation, at the perpetrators, feeling so pissed off that someone could do this, that their friends had suffered; shame and impatience with themselves for how they had looked at the world before and how they could not stop the events from affecting them; shock or disgust that someone could hate others so much that they’d even die just to kill the other; concern about the growing hatred on all sides. This made me think of a book that I got to know when translating it into German some years ago, Seneca’s treatise On Anger.
As a Stoic, he believes that we humans were born for sociability, for supporting and benefiting each other, all other humans, not just our buddies or family or nation. Anger, he thinks, is the most extreme inversion of our nature, and so he writes a long book explaining why anger is so bad and what we can do to rid ourselves of it and maintain our humanity. The passage below is based on the end of that book, blending ideas of my own with those of the Roman philosopher.
We should free ourselves from that foul and hostile passion that has nothing good about it. It is pure evil. Once it has trampled our sense of compassion underfoot, there is slaughter, scattered limbs of children, everything full of crime and horror. Let’s relieve ourselves from this evil, all of us, tear it out by the roots. We must destroy it entirely, heal it with love and understanding. And we can if we make a real effort.
One thing that will help a lot is contemplating that we are all bound to die very soon anyway. We are not born to live forever. Why waste that little time we have on seeking the annihilation of another human being? While we crave for revenge, we lose valuable days that could be spent on something worthwhile. Why do we rush into battle? Why do we create conflicts for ourselves? Why do we forget how weak we are and take on vast feuds, blowing ourselves up for a hollow idea, rising up to squash another when we’re so easily crushed ourselves? Why do we get in an uproar and throw our lives into confusion, divided against ourselves, the ones we should be friends with? Our fate stands right above our heads, entering in our account the days as they perish. For now, while we breathe and are among our fellow humans, let’s cherish and practice what makes us human. Let’s cause no one fear or peril just because we got angry; let’s show we’re not to be provoked into rage or hatred by losses and injuries; let’s bear the hardships that come our way and heal them with greatness of mind and our humanity. We turn and look around and, lo, there’s death at our elbow.
– by Jula Wildberger
Adapted from L. Annaeus Seneca. Anger. Mercy. Revenge. Trans. Robert A. Kaster and Martha Craven Nussbaum. Chicago; London: Chicago University Press, 2010. De ira 3.41-43.
Available online at AUP Library here
Some really good discussion of anger in the face of inhuman cruelty by a very careful reader of Seneca’s in Martha C. Nussbaum. Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2013, here.