Seneca On Anger is not exactly about anger, and rightly so

One of my least favorite rejoinders during a discussion is: “well, but that’s just semantics.” As if semantics -- i.e., the meaning of words -- weren’t crucial to any reasonable discussion. If you and I have a disagreement, we better make sure we use words in mutually agreed upon fashion, or we risk keep on debating things on the basis of a misunderstanding, not substance.

In philosophy in particular, semantics are fundamental. One of the major roles of the philosopher is to clarify concepts, something that can only be achieved by a precise use of language. I’m not talking about the sort of self-sustaining logic chopping that goes on in many academic departments of analytical philosophy, I’m talking more along the lines of Wittgenstein’s idea that the role of the philosopher is to show the fly out of the fly bottle, so to speak. While I don’t go as far as Witty and say that all philosophical problems are pseudo-problems springing from a confused use of language (they manifestly aren’t), I do think that confusion of language is the first thing to clear up if we want to make progress.

All of this is pertinent to a recurring phenomenon I have observed. Every time I post a link to one of my articles about Seneca’s treatment of anger (like this one, or this group) people get, ahem, quite angry, responding that of course anger is justified, in certain situations. It seems like a lot of people just want to be angry. Fine, that’s their prerogative, and certainly outside of my control.

But the other day I was re-reading my Italian version (with Latin text nearby) of De Ira, Seneca’s essay On Anger, and I realized that, despite the common English translation, it isn’t about anger, not exactly. It’s more properly about wrath. And once one understands the difference it seems to me that all objections to the Stoic position should fade away, though I admit that that’s a rather optimistic position on my part.

Let’s take a close look at sections 3 of Book I of De Ira. I’ll use the Latin word, ira, every time Seneca does, to make clear why it should be translated with wrath, not anger. At one point he says that:

Aristotle provides an explanation of ira which is not very different from my own, when he says that ira is the desire to repay someone for the evil one has suffered.

Notice that although he is saying that Aristotle’s and his own account of what ira is are similar, this doesn’t imply that he agrees with the Aristotelian position that a bit of ira is a good thing. For the Stoics it isn’t.

To both accounts [i.e., Aristotle’s and the Stoic’s] people counter with the same objection, that animals become infuriated even though they have not been offended and when they do not intend to inflict any punishment or pain.

From this point on, please indulge Seneca’s comparisons between animals and humans without bringing up modern caveats along the lines that perhaps some large-brained animals are capable of human-like emotions. Perhaps they are, we don’t actually know. More importantly, it’s besides the point, in terms of the argument advanced by Seneca, so let him proceed undisturbed, yes?

But we have to remember that animals are incapable of ira, which -- even though it is the enemy of reason -- is born precisely only where there is reason, that is, in humans. Animals follow instinct, therefore they are subject to anger [furor, in Latin], ferocity, and aggressiveness, but not ira.

Notice the use of “furor” for what in Italian is translated as “rabbia,” and which in English is rendered as anger. The Latin “ira,” by contrast, which translates to the same word in Italian, is best given in English as wrath. For instance, the famous words with which Homer’s Iliad begins, explaining that Achilles’ attitude caused a lot of trouble for the Greeks during the Trojan war. The 1951 translation by Richmond Lattimore opens with these lines:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles / and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaeans, / hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls / of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting / of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished / since that time when first there stood in division of conflict / Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

But I remember perfectly well, when I studied the Iliad in high school that in Italian "anger” is translated “ira” not “rabbia,” i.e., wrath, not anger.

Let’s proceed with Seneca:

Animals, which are not gifted with words, do not know emotions, otherwise, besides love and hatred, they would also have friendship and enmity, discord and concord, and so on. True, some of their instincts resemble the movements of the human soul, and perhaps they do have something in common, but at any rate, emotions, for good and for bad, are typical of humanity. Only to humans nature has given abilities like prudence, the foreseeing of the possible course of events, dutifulness, the capacity to reflect; animals are immune from virtues and vices, which are a human prerogative.

This is an incredibly sophisticated passage, for having been written two millennia ago! Seneca is admitting the possibility that the difference between animals and humans may be a matter of degrees in certain respects, while at the same time defending the notion that “emotions” (i.e., not just feelings, but fully fledged, cognitively informed emotions) are only human. That is why we are the only ones capable of love (again, in the sense of a cognitive emotion), friendship, and especially virtue and vice. Even modern philosophers agree that it makes no sense to apply moral categories to animals. Lions are not doing something immoral when they eat the cubs of a rival. They are just being lions. Precisely because they are incapable of reflecting on what they do and why.

[Animals’] voice is inarticulate and incapable of being translated into words … the faculty that governs them is little developed ...Which is why their impulses have a dose of violence, but are neither fears nor anguish, neither humiliation nor ira, even though they resemble them. This is also why they soon cease and change into their opposites.

Again, please refrain from beginning to object along the lines of “my dog surely feels humiliation.” No, he doesn’t. Not in the sense that Seneca is talking about: an emotion that is reinforced by conscious reflection on one’s actions or on external events. But yes, your dog may display some behaviors that resemble humiliation (or fear, or any of the others), an observation that Seneca would readily concede.

This last passage also explains why the Stoics considered pre-verbal human babies as closer to the animal condition. Just like an animal, a human infant easily shifts between pre-cognitive emotions, crying one moment and being peaceful, or even laughing, the next. That sort of rapid shift is near impossible for adults, precisely because we have the blessing and curse of reflecting on things. That’s why when someone is upset it doesn’t help to tell him “don’t be upset.” It takes time, sustained re-alignment of his thought, and a re-analysis of what he thinks, in order to unwind him.

So I suggest that we should read De Ira in particular, and the Stoic approach to “anger” in general as really being concerned with wrath. The Merriam-Webster defines wrath as “strong vengeful anger,” or “retributory punishment for an offense.” Interestingly, one of the listed synonyms is ire, which comes from the Latina ira, the exact same word used by Seneca in the title of his book.

To recap, then: the Stoics distinguished between proto-emotions, or feelings -- which we share with other animals and human infants -- and cognitive emotions. By anger, or more properly, ire or wrath, they meant the cognitive judgment that we have been offended and that something strong and violent has to be done about it. It is not by chance that their standard example is the horrenouds reaction Medea has when she finds out that she has been betrayed by Jason. And since this fully fledged emotion is the result, in part, of a judgment, it can be corrected by reason. If we don’t correct it, it quickly overwhelms reason, and only trouble can ensue in the wake.

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