Seneca's Cure for Anger

"Seneca's Anger Explorer" is an exercise to explore our anger, and this exercise, "Seneca's Cure for Anger", is aimed at healing it. This exercise also includes a question from Marcus Aurelius as he practiced a version of this exercise.

Marcus Aurelius - Med 2-1 Discipline of Action Anger Lucius Seneca

Exercise Tag
Free yourself from your rage
Steps in this Think-Exercise
Seneca writes, "Let us put ourselves in the place of the man with whom we are angry." How can you put yourself into the position of the person with whom you are angry?
"The best cure for anger is waiting, to allow the first ardor to abate and to let the darkness that clouds the reason either subside or be less dense. Of the offences which were driving you headlong, some an hour will abate, to say nothing of a day, though the postponment will accomplish nothing else, it will be evidence that judgment now rules instead of anger." The revenge that you are envisioning against the man or woman with whom you are angry -- how can you postpone it?
If the source of your anger is someone who himself or herself is angry, are they responsible for their actions -- or sick & weak with the passion of anger? If the latter, how can you blame them? As Seneca writes, "Why do you tolerate the delirium of a sick man, the ravings of a lunatic, or the wanton blows of a child? Because, of course, they seem not to know what they are doing. What difference does it make what weakness it is that makes a person irresponsible?"
"Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit with the lyre... certain songs are a soothing balm that brings it relaxation," writes Seneca. What song can you listen to that will ease your spirit?
Does the person who is acting aggressive, treacherous, meddling, share with you, as Marcus Aurelius writes, "the same mind, the same fragment of divinity"?
If you act out of anger in this situation, what will it do to your reputation for strength?
Are people who act badly part of nature and life? Writes Seneca, "Make up your mind that there are many things which you must bear. Is any one surprised that he is cold in winter? That he is sick at sea? That he is jolted about on the highroad? The mind will meet bravely everything for which it has been prepared... Some one, perhaps, has offered you an insult; was it any greater than the one Diogenes, the Stoic philosopher, suffered, who at the very time he was discoursing upon anger was spat upon by a shameless youth? Yet he bore this calmly and wisely... Let us not cause fear to any man, nor danger; let us scorn losses, wrongs, abuse, and taunts, and let us endure with heroic mind our short-lived ills. While we are looking back, straightway death will be upon us."

Doctrines Pertaining to This Exercise

Discipline of Action

Each of the three disciplines - assent, desire and action, concerns itself with a realm of knowledge or 'science'. The Discipline of Assent is associated with the science of logic. Logic is the tool we use to interrogate our impressions about the world and to formulate correct ones. The Discipline of Desire is associated with Physics, since Physics is an exploration of the laws of Nature - laws which dictate behavior in the world around us that occurs independent of our will and control. The ancient Stoic philosophers associated the Discipline of Action with Ethics - the science - in Greek epistime - of how to act and interact with the world, and Virtue, which Stoic philosophers defined as the techne or knowlege of the correct way to live.

The French historian of philosophy Pierre Hadot describes the Discipline of Action as "all the acts and movements which respond to the requirements of integral human nature... the faculty of growth, of sensation, and of reason." Hadot argues persuasively that the chief ethical cause for the Stoic Marcus Aurelius, for example, is serving the invisible city of reasoning beings that make up the world. This is defined as the virtue of dikaisoyne or 'justice'. %p The following passage from Marcus Aurelius highlights his goal, "Impassivity (ataraxia) with regard to the events, [Discipline of Desire] brought about by the exterior cause. Justice (dikaiosyne) in the actions brought about by the cause that is within you. In other words, let your impulse to act and your action have as their goal the service of the human community, because that, for you, is in conformity with your nature" (IX, 31).

Justice is one of four classical virtues (again, knowledge about the correct way to live and act, thus at the heart of the Discipline of Action) found already in Plato and later alive in the Stoic tradition. The other threecardinal virtues are sophia (wisdom/truth), agothos (strength/courage) and eusebes (piety/temperance).

Stoic written exercises associated with action tend to look like the Marcus Aurelius passage cited above. The exercise reminds the practicioner of the virtue of justice, the importance of acting for the good of the human community. Other times, Discipline of Action exercises trigger reflections on all four virtues. For example, Marcus Aurelius writes, "And how is he [man] to do this [live correctly]? By having principles to govern his impulses and actions. What are these principles? Those of good and evil - the belief that nothing is good for a human being which does not make him just, self-controlled, brave, and free: and nothing evil which does not make him the opposite of those." (VIII, 1).

All three disciplines are ultimately connected. By reflecting on our impressions and logic, we can more clearly determine how we ought to act. Explains Hadot, "The discipline of action, like the other disciplines in the domains in which they are exercised, will therefore begin by imposing the norms of reason and reflection upon human activity." Hadot cites Marcus' Meditation from Book XII, 20: "In the first place, nothing at random, and nothing that is not related to some goal. Second: do not relate your actions to anything other than a goal which may serve the human community." Hadot concludes, "The vice which is opposed to the discipline of action is thus frivolity (eikaiotes). It is the opposite to that seriousness or gravity with which all human actions should be accomplished. This human frivolity or lack of reflection does not know how to submit to the discipline of action; it is the agitation of a jumping jack, a puppet or a top."

What about when stuff goes wrong?

The Stoics recognize that our actions will not always lead to the outcomes that we hope for. On the one hand - and many Stoic Penknife exercises deal with this question - the challenge afforded by failures, setbacks, disappointments, surprises, is an opportunity for growth. On other hand, they are an opportunity to practice the Discipline of Desire. Writes Hadot, "The Stoics do not only say, 'I don't know whether my action will succeed.' Rather, they also say, 'Since I don't know in advance what the results of my actions will be, and what Destiny has in store for me, I have to make such-and-such a decision in accordance with probability and rational estimate, without any absolute certainty that I am making the right choice or doing the right thing." He later, once again, quotes Marcus Aurelius, who writes, "People can perfectly well prevent me from carrying out such-and-such an action. Thanks, however to action 'with a reserve clause' and to 'turning obstacles upside down', there can be no obstacle to my intention, nor to my disposition. For my thought can 'turn upside down' everything that presents an obstacle to my action, and transform the obstacle into an object toward which my impulse to act ought preferably to tend. That which impeded action thus becomes profitable to action, and that which blocked the road allows me to advance along the road" (V, 20, 2).