The reasons and remedies for anger

It is hard to find a person who never becomes angry. And it’s common for us to experience its pitfalls, even if we hold it to be a valid feeling to have at times. One person who thought that we should never become angry was the Roman philosopher Seneca whose book On Anger offers many insights into this all-too-human emotion. To understand why Seneca holds anger to be a useless emotion, we need to understand his and indeed the Stoic view of the ideal life which is constituted by joy and tranquility. 

Seneca said: “To rejoice and be glad is the proper and natural function of virtue: it is as much beneath her dignity to be angry, as to mourn:” Furthermore, “a lofty mind, always placid and dwelling in a serene atmosphere, restraining within itself all the impulses from which anger springs, is modest, commands respect, and remains calm and collected.” From this point of view, our aim in life is to attain tranquility and peace of mind and to remain in that state always. Anger by its very nature destroys that state of mind. So, logically if we truly want to attain the goal of inner-peace, we would do well to try to relinquish our anger.

The other reason why Seneca shunned anger was because according to him anger is not even useful. When we are angry our judgement is clouded, our reason dimmed, and this means that we can do really stupid things that we later regret. Some people, Aristotle included, would say that sometimes anger is called for and can be useful if done so in moderation. But Seneca believed that even in the extreme case of war, it has no real use: “for it is prone to rashness, and while trying to bring others into danger, does not guard itself against danger.”

I’m personally not sure whether anger has a use from time to time. I’ll let the reader make that call. But what seems pretty clear to me is that most of the time, most of us get angry for no legitimate reason and our anger is toxic to ourselves and others. For this reason, what we need to concentrate on most is how to deal with our anger. 

The first thing then is to look at what causes anger. For Seneca, there are essentially two main causes of anger: ignorance and arrogance. If something happens that angers us, it is our ignorance of why it happened or why someone did something that angers us. When we just focus on the effect on ourselves and don’t look into the external causes, then this ignorance can bring out a lot of rage. On the other hand, a person’s arrogance can be equally infuriating. They might be obsessed with always being right, always being the best looking, always being the best and if someone comes along and undermines that by being more clever, good-looking or whatever, then this person will get angry.

Another cause, which we can probably relate to ignorance, is to overvalue trivial things. This means that we place a lot of importance on things that in the grand scheme of things are not that important. So, when these things don’t turn out how we want them to, we become angry. Seneca believed that the clearest example of this was with money. For him, money was a trivial thing and if someone placed too much value on it, they would be bound to be troubled by anger every time they lost some money.

Along with understanding the causes of anger, there are some tips of Seneca’s that can aid us in dealing with our anger, which again are twofold: preventing anger from arising in the first place and preventing wrongdoing if we have failed to quench our anger. The best approach is to avoid getting angry in the first place: “The enemy, I repeat, must be met and driven back at the outermost frontier-line:” But this is hard to do, so there are some things that can help us.

One thing is that we should avoid suspicion and mistrust. In fact, Seneca held that it was better to be deceived by others than to mistrust them on partial evidence because we would inflict more harm on ourselves. We should also resist the inquisitiveness to dig into the gossip around us to discover what was said. Instead, we should let time reveal what is most real.

We also have to constantly remember that no one is perfect, ourselves included. That way, when someone wrongs us, we can have empathy towards them because we have been in their shoes. Whether someone harms us knowingly or unknowingly, we can also give them the benefit of the doubt that they didn’t do it for the sole purpose of inflicting pain on us but had another end in mind, such as being funny.

Another thing that can help is time. Give ourselves time to let the anger subside instead of acting on it. During this time we can also contemplate the negative impacts of anger which can help us see the danger of staying angry.

In order to constantly become more and more peaceful and less and less angry, each day we should reflect on our actions, for “Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat.” In doing so, we should also be conscious of our own mortality and focus on acting humanely with whatever time we have left in life. Along with this we should meditate on “wholesome maxims” and make every effort for our mind and actions to align with those words of wisdom.

Whether or not one agrees with Seneca that anger is never a useful emotion, it is hard to disagree that most of the time it is a destructive emotion that we need to learn to deal with. By reflecting on his advice and trying to put it into practice in our lives each day, we can make slow and steady progress in becoming a better version of ourselves, a better partner, parent, colleague or friend to others.

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