Moralia: On The Control Of Anger

“He that wishes to come through life safe and sound must continue throughout his life to be under treatment.”

Anger is a Disease of the Soul

If I had some attentive and clever companion, I should not be vexed if he held a mirror up to me during my moments of rage, as they do for some persons after bathing, though to no useful purpose. For to see oneself in a state which nature did not intend, with one’s features all distorted, contributes in no small degree toward discrediting that passion. When the sea is disturbed by the winds and casts up tangle and seaweed, they say that it is being cleansed; but the intemperate, bitter, and vulgar words which temper casts forth when the soul is disturbed defile the speakers of them first of all and fill them with disrepute, their inner nature being now laid bare by their anger. For the actions and the motions and the whole demeanour of angry persons declare their utter littleness and weakness, not only when they rend little children and rage bitterly against women and think it proper to punish dogs and horses and mules; but also in the butcheries that tyrants perpetrate, their meanness of soul is apparent in their cruelty and their perverted state in their action, and is like the bites of vipers, which, when thoroughly inflamed with rage and pain, eject their excessive fiery passion upon those who have hurt them. For just as with the flesh a swelling results from a great blow, so with the weakest souls the inclination to inflict a hurt produces a flaring up of temper as great as the soul’s infirmity is great. Most prone to anger, for instance, are the miser with his steward, the glutton with his cook, the jealous man with his wife, the conceited man when he has been maligned.

The Cure of Anger

Reason should not be used in one’s cure as we use hellebore, and be washed out of the body together with the disease, but it must remain in the soul and keep watch and ward over the judgements. For the power of reason is not like drugs, but like wholesome food, engendering an excellent state, together with great vigour, in those who become accustomed to it; but exhortations and admonitions, if applied to the passions when they are at their height and swollen, can scarcely accomplish anything at all. The other passions, even at their height, do in some sort yield and admit reason, when it comes from without to the rescue, into the soul; but temper shuts out sense completely and locks it out, and just like those who burn themselves up in their own homes, it makes everything within full of confusion and smoke and noise, so that the soul can neither see nor hear anything that might help it. For this reason a ship deserted by her crew in the midst of a storm far out at sea will more easily be able to take on a pilot from the outside, than will a man who is being tossed upon the billows of passion and anger admit the reasoning of another, unless he has his own powers of reason prepared to receive it. But just as those who expect a siege collect and store up all that is useful to them if they despair of relief from without, so it is most important that we should acquire far in advance the reinforcements which philosophy provides against temper and convey them into the soul in the knowledge that, when the occasion for using them comes, it will not be possible to introduce them with ease.

When anger persists and its outbursts are frequent, there is created in the soul an evil state which is called irascibility, and this usually results in sudden outbursts of rage, moroseness, and peevishness when the temper becomes ulcerated, easily offended, and liable to find fault for even trivial offences, like a weak, thin piece of iron which is always getting scratched.

But if judgement at once opposes the fits of anger and represses them, it not only cures them for the present, but for the future also it renders the soul firm and difficult for the passion to attack. In my own case, at any rate, when I had opposed anger two or three times, it came about that I experienced what the Thebans did, who, when they had for the first time repulsed the Spartans, who had the reputation of being invincible, were never thereafter defeated by them in any battle; for I acquired the proud consciousness that it is possible for reason to conquer. For he who gives no fuel to fire puts it out, and likewise he who does not in the beginning nurse his wrath and does not puff himself up with anger takes precautions against it and destroys it. The best course is for us to compose ourselves, or else to run away and conceal ourselves, and anchor ourselves in a calm harbour, as though we perceived a fit of epilepsy coming on, so that we may not fall, or rather may not fall upon others; and we are especially likely to fall most often upon our friends.

The Causes of Anger

Different persons are liable to anger from different causes; yet in the case of practically all of them there is present a belief that they are being despised or neglected. For this reason we should assist those who endeavour to avoid anger, by removing as far as possible the act that rouses wrath from any suspicion of contempt or arrogance and by imputing it to ignorance or necessity or emotion or mischance.

Once when Socrates took Euthydemus home with him from the palaestra, Xanthippê came up to them in a rage and scolded them roundly, finally upsetting the table. Euthydemus, deeply offended, got up and was about to leave when Socrates said, “At your house the other day did not a hen fly in and do precisely this same thing, yet we were not put out about it?”


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