Anger, Mercy, Revenge

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Anger, Mercy, Revenge

Anger, Mercy, Revenge


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-74841-2

Contents

Seneca and His World...........................................................................viiOn Anger  TRANSLATED BY ROBERT A. KASTERTranslator's Introduction......................................................................3On Anger.......................................................................................14Notes..........................................................................................97On Clemency  TRANSLATED BY ROBERT A. KASTERTranslator's Introduction......................................................................133On Clemency....................................................................................146Notes..........................................................................................180The Pumpkinification of Claudius the God  TRANSLATED BY MARTHA C. NUSSBAUMTranslator's Introduction......................................................................197The Pumpkinification of Claudius the God.......................................................215Index..........................................................................................237

Chapter One

Introduction

ROBERT A. KASTER

The Treatise

Sometime near the middle of the first century CE, Seneca's brotherAnnaeus Novatus asked him to "prescribe a way of soothing anger"(1.1.1). That, at any rate, is Seneca's claim in the first sentence of OnAnger. Writing—or purporting to write—in response to such a requestwas a long-established convention of polite letters, and it wouldbe understood that the "you" whom Seneca addresses throughout thetreatise represents a broad group of people beyond Novatus himself.Also conventional is the form that Seneca gave his response, a combinationof theory and therapy in which the latter presupposes theformer. Within the Stoic tradition that Seneca followed, the greatphilosopher Chrysippus (ca. 280–207 BCE) had written on the passionsin four books that similarly presented his understanding ofwhat the passions were before giving advice on how to cure them;and not quite one hundred years before Seneca took up the topicof anger, Cicero had done the like in the Tusculan Disputations—the only discussion of the passions in classical Latin more extensivethan Seneca's—when he explained and assuaged grief in particular(Book 3) and the passions more generally (Book 4).

The idea that our affective responses to life might require "therapy"will not seem odd in our own therapy-conscious culture, norwas it unique to the Stoics in antiquity: for example, the EpicureanPhilodemus, in the first century BCE, included a therapeutic sectionin his own On Anger, and Plutarch, an adherent of Plato, wrote OnControlling Anger two generations after Seneca. But the Stoics tookup the topic with special urgency, because alone among all ancientphilosophical sects they believed (for reasons we will consider below)that the passions as we commonly know them are an evil perse. For the Stoics, the only sure therapy for the passions is theireradication. Following this doctrine, and focusing on anger becauseof its especially dreadful effects, Seneca divides his three books almostexactly in half: in Book 1 and the first half of Book 2 he definesanger in orthodox Stoic terms, defends that conception of angeragainst objections, and analyzes the sequence of perceptions andjudgments that constitute the passion; he then turns toanger's therapy in the rest of Book 2 and all of Book 3. We can takea similar line, addressing first the theory and then the therapy inthe two sections following. At the end we can briefly consider Seneca'sconception of his audience and the way he speaks in trying toheal them.

The Theory

Stoicism treats the passions as central to ethics in a way and to adegree unparalleled in other ancient philosophical systems: onewould not go too far to say that thoroughly understanding Stoicviews on the passions requires thoroughly understanding Stoic viewson being human. Fortunately, we do not need to attempt that thoroughunderstanding for the purposes at hand, because Seneca's OnAnger is itself far from being a thorough Stoic account of the passions.Because Seneca is concerned less with the theory for its ownsake than with the therapy based upon it, he gives only as much ofthe former as he considers necessary for the latter. We can followsuit, first sketching some general principles in fairly broad strokesbefore concentrating on the points that Seneca treats as essential.

To start, let's consider the normative human beings who representthe Stoic ideal, the people understood to live the best humanlife: the wise. If such people happened to exist (and they are, at best,extraordinarily rare), they would live exactly as nature—which is tosay, the providential god who orders the universe—equipped themto live: hence the Stoic doctrine that the best human life is the life"according to nature." Two elements of that natural equipment areespecially important in themselves and in their bearing on the passions.The first is an innate impulse that we would probably call the"survival instinct" and that the Stoics called "appropriation" (oikeiosis):from earliest childhood we naturally regard ourselves as properobjects of our own concern, and that concern impels us to seek whatpromotes our health and well-being. Second, and most importantof all nature's endowments, there is the capacity for reason that maturehuman beings, alone of all animals, have in common with thegods. To a significant degree, the best human life simply consistsin combining these two elements of our natural makeup, using ourreason to seek what is good for ourselves.

But the matter is not as simple as that formulation makes it seem,because—here the brushstrokes must be especially broad—most ofus have great difficulty recognizing that what is good for us is not justwhat is good for us as living creatures (the "creature comforts"), butwhat is good for us specifically as human beings with the special capacitieshumans have. Just because of those capacities, the only thingthat is truly good and choiceworthy in itself is virtue, and virtue isnothing other than the mind's sure and consistent exercise of reason(conversely, the only thing that is truly evil in itself is vice, which isnothing other than the failure of reason). If our minds always conformedto this good, all our judgments would be valid and all ourbeliefs would be true, consistent, and mutually supporting: we wouldhave not merely beliefs but knowledge. A rational mind of that sort,consistently making its sure judgments and right choices, acts "accordingto nature," and that action just is the final good, which just isvirtue: traits like courage or temperance or loyalty that are called virtuesare just the capacities of the rational mind to make right choicesin particular circumstances. And because these are the actions of ourown minds, they are always under our own control. As the Stoics putit, they are always "up to us"—in fact, they are the only things thatare always "up to us." Hence, the only thing that is truly and alwaysgood in itself is also the only thing that is truly and always up to us;and the same is true of the only thing that is truly evil in itself. Allother things external to our minds' movements—health and sickness,wealth and poverty, love and loss—are, strictly speaking, indifferent:they have no necessary bearing on the best human life. To be sure, wecan appropriately prefer health to sickness and do what we reasonablycan to acquire what we prefer. But we must never mistake whatwe prefer for what is good in itself, or seek what we prefer as thoughit were an end in itself.

That the unique good is also uniquely in our control isfundamentally good news, and in that respect Stoicism is fundamentallyoptimistic. But for virtually all of us there is, as I have noted,a difficulty: because our intellectual development is incomplete, andbecause that development tends to be debased or misdirected by ourupbringing and by broader cultural influences, we almost certainlywill misidentify external objects as genuine goods or evils, and wewill therefore make choices—at least very regularly, and in most casesalmost always—unmindful of what is truly good. In that respect Stoicismis fundamentally pessimistic.

To put the matter in more specific terms that also bring us directlyto the subject of the passions, we can consider the followingsyllogism:

A: When a good for me is present, it is appropriate for my mind
to expand (Stoic terminology for what we call "elation" or
"delight").

B: A thing of the sort n is a good for me.

C: A thing of the sort n is now present.

Conclusion: It is now appropriate for my mind to expand.

In the Stoic view, this conclusion is false when any thing other thanvirtue is present, because premise B is true only when the predicate "isa good for me" has "virtue" as its subject. We, however, very likely takethat premise to be valid for any number of things—money, sex, power,prestige, and the like—that are commonly but falsely accounted asgoods. As a consequence, we assent to conclusions that are false, andour minds expand irrationally and excessively in the presence of falsegoods. Such is our common experience of vibrant happiness, and inStoic terms that experience is simply founded on error: it is nothingbut the action of a mind modified in the direction of unreason. Andwhat is true of delight is also true of all other common passions thatwe experience in response to the presence or prospect of false goodsor false evils: they are all the consequence of assenting to impressionsfrom which we should instead withhold our assent. Further, becauseproperly giving or withholding assent is "up to us" as rational creatures,our passions are not just deformations of reason; they are voluntarydeformations. In short, we are morally responsible for our commonpassions and any actions we perform when in their grip, and our commonpassions testify to how often we fail to measure up to that responsibility.That is why Stoicism famously seeks to rid us of all thepassions that shape our daily lives: the shape is warped, the passionsthemselves nothing but wrong judgments made one after the other.

This brings us to anger, which Seneca—following Stoictradition—defined as a strong desire for revenge when you judgethat you have been unjustly harmed ("wronged"). Here is Seneca'smost complete statement of how the passion works (2.4.1):

There's [an] initial involuntary movement—a preparation for the passion, as it were, and a kind of threatening signal; there's a second movement accompanied by an expression of will not yet stubbornly resolved, to the effect that "I should be avenged, since I've been harmed" or "this man should be punished, since he's committed a crime"; the third movement's already out of control, it desires vengeance not if it's appropriate but come what may, having overthrown reason.

The "movements" that Seneca speaks of are movements of the mind,and it is important to note that only one of them is under our control.As Seneca has explained just previously (2.2.1–3.5), the initialmovement—a mental "blow" or "jolt" (ictus)—provides the firstintimation that something has happened to cause a change in ourpsychic and physical state. We experience it involuntarily—Senecacompares it, for example, to shivering when splashed with cold water,or to blushing—and it is in fact both involuntary and an ineradicablepart of our natural makeup; it is therefore experienced even by someoneof perfect reason, the wise man. The second movement thenattaches an apparent cause to the initial, involuntary "blow," perceivingit as "a wrong" (rather than, say, "a splash of cold water"), andconceives an action appropriate to that cause (taking revenge, ratherthan grabbing a towel): it is at this stage that the crucial granting orwithholding of assent occurs. If we grant assent, we experience thethird movement—anger proper—which has "overthrown reason": atthis stage, our mind has been wholly modified in the direction ofvice, and its movement is no more under our control than was thefirst "jolt." Indeed, at one point Seneca, again following a long Stoictradition, compares the movement to hurling oneself off a cliff.

Clearly, then, it is crucial to get right that second, voluntarymovement, when "someone has reckoned he was harmed [and] wantsto take revenge" but is still capable of withholding assent because his"mind [is] still obedient to reason" (2.3.4). Equally clearly, getting thatmovement right means getting right the thought that is involved: "Ishould be avenged, since I've been harmed." If we unpack that thoughtand express it as a syllogism, it should look something like this:

A: Seeking what is good for me is appropriate.

B: Revenge for being wronged is a good for me.

C: I have just been wronged.

Conclusion: It is appropriate that I now seek revenge.

The thought labeled "conclusion" here corresponds to the impressionthat gives anger its driving impulse: if I assent to that impression—ifI commit myself to its truth—I will seek revenge, irresistibly, as Senecasays. Withholding assent therefore should first of all depend onrecognizing as false one or more of the premises on which the conclusionrests—propositions A, B, and C—and these, quite clearly, arethemselves a rather diverse lot. Proposition C corresponds to anothersort of impression, an evaluative perception (not just "I have beenhurt" but "I have been hurt unjustly = wronged") arising from somefresh event. Propositions A and B, by contrast, are plainly not freshimpressions but settled beliefs, convictions acquired long before therelevant event. They are also, plainly, different sorts of belief. PropositionA is in fact a true belief, arising from the self-"appropriation"already noted as part of our human makeup: it might even be calleda "natural belief." Proposition B, by contrast, is clearly a product ofculture, and in Stoic terms it is dead wrong, twice over: it forgets thatonly virtue is "according to nature" and thus can be labeled "a goodfor me," and it transfers the label instead to an act of unreasoningpayback that mistakes the nature of just punishment. Withholdingassent, therefore, should leave proposition A unshaken but dependeither on recognizing that the cultural belief (B) is false, or on recognizingthat the fresh impression (C) is unfounded, unreliable, orpossibly both. Accordingly, when Seneca tries to cure us of our vulnerabilityto anger, his therapy should proceed by attacking the sameelements; optimally, it should succeed in destroying the false belief.Whether and how his therapy does these things are the questions towhich we can now turn.

The Therapy

Midway through Book 2, Seneca signals that we have completedthe theoretical part of the discussion—on "the questions angerraises"—and are about to begin our therapy: "Let's move on to itscures" (2.18.1). He first defines "two main aims: that we not fall intoanger, and that we not do wrong while angry," and these aims areimmediately glossed as "resist[ing] anger" and "restrain[ing] anger"(ibid.); the second aim at once strikes something of a forebodingnote, insofar as its description suggests—accurately, as we shall see—that here the aim is really not so much cure, in the sense of reversinga diseased condition, as damage control. Then, in the balance of thebook, Seneca offers advice on ways to avoid anger (we will considerthe nature of the advice below).

Continues...



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