Seneca and Anger

I’d like to add my favorite underappreciated philosopher to the list (as has been done here and here): Seneca. Seneca’s very underappreciation has become a source of his newly found appreciation (as was discussed in a Times Literary Supplement piece a few months back), and so maybe I’ll soon be wrong to list him as underappreciated since he has been drawing some critical interest of late. Brad Inwood has a nice book out on Seneca for example. Until this recent uptick Seneca was largely grouped with being one of the important Stoics, but even in this context he was given less attention than Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Chrysippus. His plays were widely panned and his pandering support of Nero, praising him for his compassion and kindly nature long after this obviously wasn’t the case, also didn’t help his cause. But these are all being reevaluated and we’re finding Seneca to be a more nuanced thinker and philosopher than most have given him credit for being. Seneca was extremely influential among early modern philosophers. Spinoza owned copies of Seneca’s letters and essays in his personal library (along with the works of Lucretius and Cicero). Seneca’s influence waned with the rise of post-critical philosophy—not a coincidence I’d argue—and the recent upsurge of interest in Seneca can be dated to the attempts of philosophers such as Foucault to draw upon the resources of precritical philosophy in order to gain a fuller understanding of the self and its relationship reason, passion, and ethics.

But we would be too hasty if we quickly grouped Seneca in the Aristotelian camp and used him as a basis for rejecting Kantian views of ethics. In Seneca’s essay “On Anger,” for instance, Seneca reads much like Kant and unlike Aristotle. Seneca accepts Aristotle’s definition of anger as largely his own—namely, it is ‘the burning desire to pay back pain,’ and it is something ‘that wild animals are incapable of.’ However, when Aristotle allows for anger as something that is needful when kept under control, adding that ‘no fight can be won without it,’ Seneca categorically rejects Aristotle’s position as false. ‘If it [anger] listens to reason and follows where led, it is no longer anger, the hallmark of which is willful disobedience.’ So even if Aristotle is right that anger becomes directed towards an opponent in a fight and provides greater resolve as a result, for Seneca it is no longer anger if it is led by reason. There appears then for Seneca to be no room for cohabitation of passions such as anger and reason, much as when Kant says that ‘the inclinations themselves, as sources of needs, are so far from having an absolute worth, so as to make one wish to have them, that it must instead be the universal wish of every rational being to be altogether free from them.’ And yet what differentiates Seneca from Kant is that for Seneca the manner in which one determines what is best does not simply involve relegating passions such as anger to the side and placing oneself under the dictates and imperatives of reason; rather, much of Seneca’s essay is spent providing a number of techniques one is to employ and perfect as one feels one’s anger rising, or how to deflect the simmering anger one perceives in another such that it doesn’t grow out of control. Seneca does not discount reason or judgment. Far from it, and in fact judgment is a crucial part of what he sees as the ‘greatest remedy for anger,’ which he claims ‘is delay,’ for in delaying you allow judgments to form that may allow you to overcome the anger. Thus judgment is important for Seneca as it is for Kant. The difference, and this is a difference that makes Seneca’s thought especially relevant today, is the basis upon which we understand these judgments. Is it, as Kant would have it, judgments all the way down, down to the synthetic apriori judgments of the understanding, or is this capacity to judge itself a contingent part of a larger process, and a process that is irreducible to judgment? Seneca, it seems to me, argues for the latter position, and hence his thought is relevant to a number of contemporary debates, especially speculative realism. Short as this might be, that’s why I’d vote for Seneca as an underappreciated philosopher.

6 thoughts on “Seneca and Anger

  1. Pingback: another vote for “most underrated” « Object-Oriented Philosophy

  2. The analysis is great. In fact, I am trying to lay my hands on Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire, that incidentally talks about this stoic thinker in an emotional vein!! the pathological uncontrol-ability of anger, or something very much like that. I remember reading the review some months back. The problem being the book itself is not easily available.

    • If you’re interested in Education at all Nussbaum has an awesome booked called Cultivating Humanity, where she uses Seneca and many other stoic philosophers to help justify the need for Socratic inquiry in liberal arts education.

  3. Kant actually read a lot of Stoics, Tim. His idea of duty is not that far out (maybe while reading Seneca, you could also read Kant directly, instead of badmouthing him in a good object-orientated tradition). This idea that good old Greeks were all about “happiness” and “virtue” while Kant is all about strict and formal duty no matter what is your usual misreading of Kant. Needless to say, it is just that, a misreading.


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