“An objection: ‘Are you telling me that a good man doesn’t become angry if he sees his father being murdered, his mother raped?’ No, he will not become angry, but he’ll be their champion and defender. Why are you afraid that a proper sense of devotion won’t goad him sufficiently, even without anger? … A good man will follow up his obligations undisturbed and undeterred, and in doing the things worthy of a good man he will do nothing unworthy of a man.” — Seneca, On Anger
I believe this quote to be one of the hardest from Stoicism.
Imagining your father being killed or your mother raped, and still be calm? Come on!
But Seneca never says anything about doing nothing, to the contrary, he says that in such a situation you’ll be their champion and defender, but you will do so while being undisturbed and undeterred. If you think about it, you’d even do a better job. I imagine a Samurai, calm and deep as the ocean, you can’t fight well if you have a war going on inside yourself.
According to Seneca, what the Stoics seek to discover is: how the mind may always pursue a steady and favorable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy.
He also claims that someone who practices stoicism: must, whether he wills or not, necessarily be attended by constant cheerfulness and a joy that is deep and issues from deep within, since he finds delight in his own resources, and desires no joys greater than his inner joys.
It seems like the Stoics attend to life with a mild life-drunkenness, like Harry Potter when he drinks the Felix Felicis potion. But seriously, who doesn’t want to live like that? With luck on his side, his own luck? Of course, everybody wants it, but to attain it? That’s the matter. That is the matter.
You cannot be a practicing Stoic only at times when everything is going rosy, in fact, stoicism is best practiced when things don’t go according to plan. Such as when you get angry.
You cannot be cheerful and joyful while at the same time being angry. Anger, being a negative emotion, and not exactly a helpful one either, should be vanquished, according to the Stoics.
But, isn’t anger sometimes helpful? You might be thinking.
Like, for example, say when a person is frustrated with his or her situation in life, and, due to the intolerable frustration, he or she becomes infuriated. Can’t stand it anymore. And so she takes action to change his situation, which is a wonderful thing, of course, to change one’s life through the power of will.
However, I believe we cannot call this emotion anger, I’d rather call it past-due courage.
Because once such an action is taken, the perceived angry emotion immediately morphs into courage. There’s a difference as well in that the action usually is helpful and forward-bending. You leave a relationship you know you had to leave years ago, or a job, to give an example.
The passage quoted at the beginning of the article, On Anger, from Seneca, is mistranslated. The Latin version uses the word “Ira”, which is better translated in English as wrath. Massimo Pigliucci describes this problem whole in this article.
This is important because there is a huge difference between anger and wrath. Wrath, as defined by Merriam Webster is: strong vengeful anger or indignation.
One perfect example of this type of wrath is the story of Medea and Jason. Jason leaves Medea for the daughter of King Creon. Medea, hateful and vengeful because of Jason’s betrayal, kills her own two sons she had with Jason as well as King Creon and his daughter (Jason’s wife) losing absolutely everything in the process.
The logic in her mind being justice: “he betrayed me, he deserves punishment” and so she gives him the ultimate punishment, ruining her entire life in the process.
What do you make of this?
Be careful with your wrath, it will make you lose more than anything you could possibly win if you act on it.
A thing worth noting, is the practice of Stoicism, let’s remember, tells you that your mind should always pursue a steady and favorable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its conditions with joy.
Do you think Medea’s mind was joyful after her retribution? Hardly so.
What about justice? Were Medea’s actions just? I think not. Killing her own two kids on the claim of vengeance?
When wrath takes over the mind, it doesn’t let you think about anything other than destruction. You see, wrath is a bad inspiration for your actions.
“The greatest remedy for anger is delay.” — Seneca
You cannot achieve tranquility while being angry, even less so while being enraged. Once anger takes control, all rationality goes out the window. You cannot be stoic while at the same time losing your rationality.
“Reason, will never enlist the aid of reckless unbridled impulses over which it has no authority.” — Seneca
If your goal is Stoic tranquility, you’ll choose to remain cool, no matter what.
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