Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

06 July 2012

Seneca on Anger

Instead of writing this article about pornography that I'm supposed to be writing, and instead of editing my dissertation (which I kind of need to do), I felt like reading Senecan philosophy. There's a series out by the University of Chicago Press that proposes to publish the Complete Works of Seneca in new, exciting translations, and I couldn't help but buy myself the volume Anger, Mercy, Revenge, which, as it happens, is pretty much ancient Roman violence theory. What a delight! Seneca, the famous Stoic philosopher, relates wisdom such as:

Missiles rebound from a hard surface, and solid objects, when struck, cause pain to the one striking them; just so, injury cannot cause a great spirit to feel it, because it is more fragile than the thing it attacks. How much finer it is to rebuff all injuries and insults, as though impervious to any missile! To take vengeance is to acknowledge pain: a great spirit is not bowed down by a wrong. The one who has harmed you is either stronger or weaker than you: if he's weaker, give him a break; if he's stronger, give yourself a break.

Later, he relates this story:

When Plato was angry with his slave, he couldn't get himself to grant a delay but ordered the slave to doff his tunic and offer his back for lashes, which he intended to administer with his own hand. After he realized he was angry, just as he raised his hand, he kept it raised in midair and stood there like someone poised to strike; then when a friend who happened on the scene asked him what he was doing, he said, "I'm punishing an angry man." Like someone paralyzed, he maintained the pose—grotesque for a wise man—of someone on the verge of savagery, having now forgotten the slave because he'd found another more deserving of rebuke.

Seneca's writings are filled with these tiny wise tales, and much sound philosophy. Reading him is also giving me a much fuller picture of what this ancient playwright was like – his plays are brutal grotesqueries, though his philosophy is restrained and generous. Such a complicated man deserves a much more full reading than what I have known up until now about his work.