Thursday, April 27, 2023

The Collapse C: De Ira

15 May 20XX+1

My Dear Lucilius:

I was chatting away with Young Xerxes as I was laying out the garden on the ground today. I found him a little angry today as I spoke with him. This is atypical of our discussions, so I probed a bit further.

I am fond of the boy Lucilius, fond of him and thus of Statiera more than I had anticipated finding myself. It has been such a long time since I have had younger family around that I had almost forgotten what interacting with them was like. Probably a hazard of old bachelors and old widowers I suspect: we become so used to being alone as the younger generation lives their lives. Part of it is natural: for better or worse, we want to leave them to themselves to live their own lives out untrammeled by our mistakes. Perhaps unfortunately in our haste to leave them on their own, we occasionally forget we have wisdom to bring to bear as well.

He was unwilling to precisely identify the source of his anger – at least to me – and I have learned through a lifetime of listening and giving advice that probing the source of the anger can sometimes shut down all avenues of conversation entirely. I ascertained it was not at Statiera (and by extension, not at Pompeia Paulina) and not at his own living situation (which, to be fair, he has been surprisingly vague about in our acquaintance). It was just...something. Something about life, and perhaps the way that it has turned out.

The anger of young men. Something you and I may be more familiar with than we care to admit.

In response – after the stream of words had dwindled to a trickle – I hesitantly suggested a different view, based on my own namesake, Lucius Annaeus Seneca.

You will recall (Will you recall? I tended to just spit these things out randomly in conversations; I have no idea what stuck) that the original Seneca wrote a three part essay on anger. It figured largely into the Stoic frame of thinking which is itself interesting to me: I suppose dwelling in a time of mass democracy where the crowd could just as easily turn against you or being subject to the rule of dictators and tyrants can do that to a person.

Seneca starts by comparing the fact that wild beasts can exhibit rage, but only man has been granted wisdom, foresight, diligence and reflection (so why not use them, of course). He addresses the fact that anger can inspire things like bravery or courage, but that it can just as easily go awry and like any weapon, becomes indiscriminate in harming all around us, friends and foe alike: “Again, anger embodies nothing useful, nor does it kindle the mind to warlike deeds; for virtue, being self-sufficient, never needs the help of vice”. Standing against wrong: “And so the man who does wrong ought to be set right both by admonition and force, by measures gentle and harsh, and we should try to make him a better man for his own sake as well as for the sake of others, stinting, not our reproof, but our anger.”

“Anger”, he says, “has this great fault – it refuses to be ruled. It is enraged against truth itself if this is shown to be contrary to its desire” and “Anger aims at nothing splendid or beautiful”. The result: “But sorrow is the companion of anger, and all anger comes round to this as the result of either remorse or defeat”.

Seneca has an accurate view of human society, one that is frighteningly accurate to the way things were:

“But why recount all the different types? Whenever you see the forum with its thronging multitude, and the polling-places filled with all the gathered concourse, and the great Circus where the largest part of the populace displays itself, you may be sure that just as many vices are gathered there as there are men. Among those whom you see in civilian garb there is no peace; for a slight reward any one of them can be led to compass the destruction of another; no one makes gain save by another’s loss; the prosperous they hate, the unprosperous they despise; superiors they loathe, and to inferiors are loathsome; they are goaded on by opposite desires; the desire for the sake of some little pleasure or plunder to see the whole world lost. They live as though they were in a gladiatorial school – those with whom they eat, they likewise fight. It is a community of wild beasts, only that beasts are gentle toward each other and refrain from tearing their own kind, while men glut themselves with rending one another. They differ from dumb the dumb animals in this alone – that animals grow gentle towards those who feed them, while men in their madness prey upon the very persons by whom they are nurtured.”

To be fair, I had to dig out my Seneca to read this section; Young Xerxes just sat in silence.

The cure, suggests Seneca? To not be angry by realizing the state of man: “The wise man will not have anger towards sinners. Do you ask why? Because he knows that no one is born wise but becomes so, knows that only the fewest of every age turn out wise, because he has fully grasped the conditions of human life, and no sensible man becomes angry with nature”. Anger, he suggests, comes from an impression of injury – remove the impression of injury and we remove the source of anger, not only of great events, but of “trifling and paltry incidents” (and who among us was not angry at the order that was missing pickles on our hamburger or the coffee that was incorrect at one time?). And often our anger comes not from things we expect, but from things we failed to anticipate – so accept everything and nothing becomes unexpected.

How? Refrain from anger, delay the onset of reacting to our anger, ignore or at least feign ignorance to those acts which could make us angry. Avoid people that make you angry, if you are able – “It will, therefore, be a man’s duty to avoid all those who he knows will provoke his anger”. Fight back with the unexpected reaction: “Does a man get angry? Do you on the contrary challenge him with kindness”.

Seneca closes out his third book on the subject – written largely of historical examples – with the following:

“Let us be freed from this evil, let us clear it from our minds and tear it up by the roots, for if there should linger the smallest traces, it will grow again; and let us not try to regulate our anger, but be rid of it altogether – for what regulation can there be of any evil thing? Moreover, we can do it, if only we shall make the effort”.

Young Xerxes listened to me ramble on, mostly in silence – the sort of response that philosophers and old men are used to at some point, the response of an audience which is either confused, uncaring, or processing the information. It becomes hard to parse at some point. We talked a bit more in general about Seneca and his life, and then he headed off to his next destination. He may have looked thoughtful, although I have learned to assume nothing.

I carried on with my garden planning on the soil and on paper until the afternoon, when Pompeia Paulina appeared with a thermos of tea and – of all things – shortbread cookies, the sort you cannot get anymore. She insisted I take a break, and who would argue with such cookies and company available?

This was, apparently, her way of saying thank you. Whatever the issue was, he had left my house and gone to theirs, where he and Statiera had a long conversation (of apparently unknown subject matter); when they returned, she commented that he seemed at peace in a way she had not seen in some time. He mentioned that he and I had talked about anger.

I have no idea what the initial nature of the issue was and I suppose at this point it remains unknown and perhaps unknowable, except by a random chance. What does matter – what hopefully will matter – is that the next time Young Xerxes is confronted by anger, he has a tool kit to deal with it.

So much wisdom in the ancients, Lucilius. How much we have forgotten to our detriment.

Your Obedient Servant, Seneca


  1. Nylon126:37 AM

    Aye, avoid those who make you angry, at work there was always one person who harped/complained about EVERYTHING, kept contact to a minimum with that person. So much of Social Media causes anger also, blogs like here are an oasis of sanity in a screeching world where up is down, wet is dry and stupid is smart according to some people. Excellent post TB.

    1. Nylon12 - It was (sadly) not all that long ago that I realized that the more I avoided people and things that sought to disturb my peace (actively or passively), the happier and less stressed I was. And while Social Media can be great at connecting individuals and sharing adventures, it is too often used (in 140 characters) to lob weapons and rile people up.

      And thanks. Hopefully this place provides some sort of relief in a world that is seemingly gone mad.

  2. Anonymous9:01 AM

    P Paulina brings me tea and shortbread, WIN! It’s managing others anger, that’s the challenge.

    Good insight on the benefits of anger though.

    Congratulations on a ‘C’entury post of this tale TB.

    1. FnB - It is a challenge to manage other's anger, and I think that is the point of Seneca's (the actual Seneca, not my character) point: we cannot. We can only control our own anger and either try to help others see what acidic and destructive nature of anger, or avoid them as much as possibly.

      Thanks for the congratulations - to be fair, my numbering may be off so I am not quite sure if this "is" 100, but we shall act as if it is.

  3. From his writings, it sounds as though the ancient Seneca had a profound understanding of human nature. It also seems that human nature has not evolved over the millennia. Anger is very much a common feature of our modern society. I like to think that at some point in the past, Christianity had a maturing affect on large portions of humanity, but sadly, it didn't have a lasting effect. I do know one thing, and that is that angry people are easy to manipulate.

    1. Leigh, I hesitate to add any recommendations to anyone's already burdened schedule, but I would heartily recommend both Seneca's On Morals (the set I am currently reading) as well as his Letters from a Stoic (fortunately, he is still a fairly common author and hopefully available at libraries). Seneca, like Cicero who was a sort of Stoic "fellow traveler", has been compared to a preacher that understands doctrine well but does not always follow it - Stoicism emphasizes being content with one's circumstances and not specifically pursuing wealthy where both Seneca and Cicero were fabulously wealthy, or not enabling bad rulers and bad government, where Seneca was advisor of Nero well beyond his "good" period into his tyranny.

      It says something that even after all these years, I can read Seneca and his observations remain as true and powerful as they were 2000 years ago - the outer circumstances have changed, but we as a species and moral beings have not.

      Anger is very much a part of our current culture and I would argue, is now something that is actively encouraged. It often feels that we are not taught to control our anger but rather to engage it in all sorts of ways - or, as you point out, allow it to be harnessed by those who benefit from it. The difficulty, of course, is that ultimately it always breaks every levy and reaches out like a flood to destroy everything.

      I do not envy our future.


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