De Ira (On Anger)


Seneca's Works / Monday, April 2nd, 2018
L Annaei Senecae philosophi 1643 page 1 De Ira.png
From the 1643 edition, published by Francesco Baba

De Ira (On Anger) is a Latin work by Seneca (4 BC–65 AD). The work defines and explains anger within the context of Stoic philosophy, and offers therapeutic advice on how to prevent and control anger.

Background

It is not clear to scholars who wrote the first work on the subject of passions or emotions (the terms are thought interchangeable), but while Xenocrates (396/5–314/3 BCE) and Aristotle (384–322 BCE) were students at Plato’s Academy, a discussion on emotions took place which provided likely the impetus for all later work on the subject.

The Stoic Posidonius of Apamea (1st-century BCE) is considered the main source for Seneca. Other influences may have included works On Passions by the Stoic philosophers Zeno of Citium, Chrysippus, Aristo of Chios, Herillus, Antipater of Tarsus, Hecato of Rhodes, and Sotion. Similar works had been written in the Peripatetic tradition by Aristotle, Theophrastus, and Andronicus of Rhodes; likewise works by Xenocrates (a Platonist), and by Philodemus (an Epicurean).

Dating

The exact date of the writing of the work is unknown, apart from an earliest date (terminum post quem), deduced from repeated references by Seneca to the episodic anger of Caligula, who died 24 January 41 AD. Seneca refers to his brother by his native name, Novatus, rather than his adoptive one, Gallio, which he bore by 52/53 AD, suggesting the work may date from the mid 40s AD.

Book III begins with its own introduction on the horrors of anger, and can be read on its own, which has led to suggestions that it was devised either as a later appendix to the work, or that it was a separate treatise in its own right.

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Title and contents

Ira is defined as anger, wrath, rage, ire, passion, indignation – primarily, to be angry (see Lewis & Short in reference).

De Ira consists of three books. It is part of Seneca’s series of Dialogi (dialogues). The essay is addressed to Seneca’s elder brother, Lucius Annaeus Novatus. The works first sentence reads:

You have asked me Novatus to write on how anger can be mitigated

Although split into three books, De Ira is effectively divided into two parts. The first part (I–II.17) deals with theoretical questions, whereas the second part (II.18–III end) offers therapeutic advice. The first part begins with a preamble on the horrors of anger, followed by definitions of anger. It continues with questions such as whether anger is natural, whether it can be moderate, whether it is involuntary, and whether it can be erased altogether.

The second part (Book II.18 onwards) begins with advice on how the avoidance of bad temper can be taught to both children and adults. This is followed by numerous snippets of advice on how anger can be forestalled or extinguished, and many anecdotes are given of examples to be imitated or avoided. The work concludes with a few tips on mollifying other people, followed by Seneca’s summing-up.

Themes

De Ira is written within the context of Stoicism, which sought to guide people out of a life enslaved to the vices, to the freedom of a life characterised by virtue. De Ira posits this as achievable by the development of an understanding of how to control the passions (Greek: pathê), anger being classified as a passion, and to make these subject to reason.

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As a Stoic, Seneca believed the relationship of the passions to reason are that the passions arise in a rational mind as a result of a mis-perceiving or misunderstanding of reality. Inwood describes this as when the mind makes “errors about the values of things”, R Bett as caused by “defective belief” (c.f. Bett p. 546). Seneca denied the assertion of Plato and Aristotle who previously considered the passions to arise from roots within the irrational part of the soul.

Seneca states that his therapy has two main aims: one is that we do not become angry (resisting anger), and the other is that we do no wrong when we are angry (restraining anger). Much of the advice is devoted to the first aim of preventing anger. Seneca does offer some practical advice on restraining anger (mostly in III.10-15) although after this he resumes his theme of preventing anger.

For the Stoics anger was contrary to human nature, and vengeance considered an evil, which explains Seneca’s emphasis on anger prevention. The fact that he offers advice on merely restraining anger shows an awareness that his audience is one of male Roman aristocrats for whom anger was largely a part of everyday routine.