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Anger, Mercy, Revenge

Anger, Mercy, Revenge

by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, Robert A. Kaster (Translator), Martha C. Nussbaum (Translator)

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Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE–65 CE) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, dramatist, statesman, and adviser to the emperor Nero, all during the Silver Age of Latin literature. The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca is a fresh and compelling series of new English-language translations of his works in eight accessible volumes. Edited by world-renowned classicists


Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 BCE–65 CE) was a Roman Stoic philosopher, dramatist, statesman, and adviser to the emperor Nero, all during the Silver Age of Latin literature. The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca is a fresh and compelling series of new English-language translations of his works in eight accessible volumes. Edited by world-renowned classicists Elizabeth Asmis, Shadi Bartsch, and Martha C. Nussbaum, this engaging collection restores Seneca—whose works have been highly praised by modern authors from Desiderius Erasmus to Ralph Waldo Emerson—to his rightful place among the classical writers most widely studied in the humanities.

Anger, Mercy, Revenge comprises three key writings: the moral essays On Anger and On Clemency—which were penned as advice for the then young emperor, Nero—and the Apocolocyntosis, a brilliant satire lampooning the end of the reign of Claudius. Friend and tutor, as well as philosopher, Seneca welcomed the age of Nero in tones alternately serious, poetic, and comic—making Anger, Mercy, Revenge a work just as complicated, astute, and ambitious as its author.

Editorial Reviews

“The translations are faithful and lively. . . . Although the translators take Seneca seriously as a moralizing philosopher, their introductions and annotations—though attentive to the literary and rhetorical qualities Seneca’s writing displays—are not technical in terms of philosophy. Accordingly, they will be accessible to any intelligent reader.”

Bryn Mawr Classical Review
"The translations strike that difficult balance between fidelity to the original and natural English idiom. Latinless readers will not be confused, philosophically minded readers will appreciate the citations, and classicists will find in the notes the discussion and arguments they may want to clarify the original....An admirable effort to bring Seneca to a wider audience."—Bryn Mawr Classical Review

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Anger, Mercy, Revenge

By Lucius Annaeus Seneca

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2010 The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-74841-2


Seneca and His World....................vii
On Anger TRANSLATED BY ROBERT A. KASTER Translator's Introduction....................3
On Anger....................14
On Clemency TRANSLATED BY ROBERT A. KASTER Translator's Introduction....................133
On Clemency....................146
The Pumpkinification of Claudius the God TRANSLATED BY MARTHA C. NUSSBAUM Translator's Introduction....................197
The Pumpkinification of Claudius the God....................215

Chapter One



The Treatise

Sometime near the middle of the first century CE, Seneca's brother Annaeus 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 On Anger. Writing—or purporting to write—in response to such a request was a long-established convention of polite letters, and it would be understood that the "you" whom Seneca addresses throughout the treatise represents a broad group of people beyond Novatus himself. Also conventional is the form that Seneca gave his response, a combination of theory and therapy in which the latter presupposes the former. Within the Stoic tradition that Seneca followed, the great philosopher Chrysippus (ca. 280–207 BCE) had written on the passions in four books that similarly presented his understanding of what the passions were before giving advice on how to cure them; and not quite one hundred years before Seneca took up the topic of anger, Cicero had done the like in the Tusculan Disputations—the only discussion of the passions in classical Latin more extensive than 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, nor was it unique to the Stoics in antiquity: for example, the Epicurean Philodemus, in the first century BCE, included a therapeutic section in his own On Anger, and Plutarch, an adherent of Plato, wrote On Controlling Anger two generations after Seneca. But the Stoics took up the topic with special urgency, because alone among all ancient philosophical sects they believed (for reasons we will consider below) that the passions as we commonly know them are an evil per se. For the Stoics, the only sure therapy for the passions is their eradication. Following this doctrine, and focusing on anger because of its especially dreadful effects, Seneca divides his three books almost exactly in half: in Book 1 and the first half of Book 2 he defines anger in orthodox Stoic terms, defends that conception of anger against objections, and analyzes the sequence of perceptions and judgments that constitute the passion; he then turns to anger's therapy in the rest of Book 2 and all of Book 3. We can take a similar line, addressing first the theory and then the therapy in the two sections following. At the end we can briefly consider Seneca's conception of his audience and the way he speaks in trying to heal them.

The Theory

Stoicism treats the passions as central to ethics in a way and to a degree unparalleled in other ancient philosophical systems: one would not go too far to say that thoroughly understanding Stoic views on the passions requires thoroughly understanding Stoic views on being human. Fortunately, we do not need to attempt that thorough understanding for the purposes at hand, because Seneca's On Anger is itself far from being a thorough Stoic account of the passions. Because Seneca is concerned less with the theory for its own sake than with the therapy based upon it, he gives only as much of the former as he considers necessary for the latter. We can follow suit, first sketching some general principles in fairly broad strokes before concentrating on the points that Seneca treats as essential.

To start, let's consider the normative human beings who represent the Stoic ideal, the people understood to live the best human life: the wise. If such people happened to exist (and they are, at best, extraordinarily rare), they would live exactly as nature—which is to say, the providential god who orders the universe—equipped them to live: hence the Stoic doctrine that the best human life is the life "according to nature." Two elements of that natural equipment are especially 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 proper objects of our own concern, and that concern impels us to seek what promotes our health and well-being. Second, and most important of all nature's endowments, there is the capacity for reason that mature human beings, alone of all animals, have in common with the gods. To a significant degree, the best human life simply consists in combining these two elements of our natural makeup, using our reason 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 of us have great difficulty recognizing that what is good for us is not just what is good for us as living creatures (the "creature comforts"), but what is good for us specifically as human beings with the special capacities humans have. Just because of those capacities, the only thing that is truly good and choiceworthy in itself is virtue, and virtue is nothing other than the mind's sure and consistent exercise of reason (conversely, the only thing that is truly evil in itself is vice, which is nothing other than the failure of reason). If our minds always conformed to this good, all our judgments would be valid and all our beliefs would be true, consistent, and mutually supporting: we would have not merely beliefs but knowledge. A rational mind of that sort, consistently making its sure judgments and right choices, acts "according to nature," and that action just is the final good, which just is virtue: traits like courage or temperance or loyalty that are called virtues are just the capacities of the rational mind to make right choices in particular circumstances. And because these are the actions of our own minds, they are always under our own control. As the Stoics put it, they are always "up to us"—in fact, they are the only things that are always "up to us." Hence, the only thing that is truly and always good 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. All other 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, we can appropriately prefer health to sickness and do what we reasonably can to acquire what we prefer. But we must never mistake what we prefer for what is good in itself, or seek what we prefer as though it were an end in itself.

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

To put the matter in more specific terms that also bring us directly to the subject of the passions, we can consider the following syllogism:

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

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

This brings us to anger, which Seneca—following Stoic tradition—defined as a strong desire for revenge when you judge that you have been unjustly harmed ("wronged"). Here is Seneca's most 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 initial movement—a mental "blow" or "jolt" (ictus)—provides the first intimation that something has happened to cause a change in our psychic and physical state. We experience it involuntarily—Seneca compares it, for example, to shivering when splashed with cold water, or to blushing—and it is in fact both involuntary and an ineradicable part of our natural makeup; it is therefore experienced even by someone of perfect reason, the wise man. The second movement then attaches an apparent cause to the initial, involuntary "blow," perceiving it as "a wrong" (rather than, say, "a splash of cold water"), and conceives an action appropriate to that cause (taking revenge, rather than grabbing a towel): it is at this stage that the crucial granting or withholding of assent occurs. If we grant assent, we experience the third movement—anger proper—which has "overthrown reason": at this stage, our mind has been wholly modified in the direction of vice, and its movement is no more under our control than was the first "jolt." Indeed, at one point Seneca, again following a long Stoic tradition, compares the movement to hurling oneself off a cliff.

Clearly, then, it is crucial to get right that second, voluntary movement, when "someone has reckoned he was harmed [and] wants to take revenge" but is still capable of withholding assent because his "mind [is] still obedient to reason" (2.3.4). Equally clearly, getting that movement right means getting right the thought that is involved: "I should be avenged, since I've been harmed." If we unpack that thought and 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 impression that gives anger its driving impulse: if I assent to that impression—if I commit myself to its truth—I will seek revenge, irresistibly, as Seneca says. Withholding assent therefore should first of all depend on recognizing as false one or more of the premises on which the conclusion rests—propositions A, B, and C—and these, quite clearly, are themselves a rather diverse lot. Proposition C corresponds to another sort of impression, an evaluative perception (not just "I have been hurt" but "I have been hurt unjustly = wronged") arising from some fresh event. Propositions A and B, by contrast, are plainly not fresh impressions but settled beliefs, convictions acquired long before the relevant event. They are also, plainly, different sorts of belief. Proposition A is in fact a true belief, arising from the self-"appropriation" already noted as part of our human makeup: it might even be called a "natural belief." Proposition B, by contrast, is clearly a product of culture, and in Stoic terms it is dead wrong, twice over: it forgets that only virtue is "according to nature" and thus can be labeled "a good for me," and it transfers the label instead to an act of unreasoning payback that mistakes the nature of just punishment. Withholding assent, therefore, should leave proposition A unshaken but depend either on recognizing that the cultural belief (B) is false, or on recognizing that the fresh impression (C) is unfounded, unreliable, or possibly both. Accordingly, when Seneca tries to cure us of our vulnerability to anger, his therapy should proceed by attacking the same elements; optimally, it should succeed in destroying the false belief. Whether and how his therapy does these things are the questions to which we can now turn.

The Therapy

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


Excerpted from Anger, Mercy, Revenge by Lucius Annaeus Seneca Copyright © 2010 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author

Robert A. Kaster is professor of classics and the Kennedy Foundation Professor of Latin Language and Literature at Princeton University. He is the author of Emotion, Restraint, and Community in Ancient Rome, among other volumes.  Martha C. Nussbaum is the Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago and author of Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities and Creating Capabilities: The Human Development Approach, among other volumes.

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