Seneca’s Mental Remedies For Anger

One of the nice things about the morning time is that you have some distance from what lies ahead.

You have a little space into which you can stretch. You can mentally reach into the day and prepare for what comes your way.

It’s difficult to feel anger, for example, in the calm light of morning time.

But it’s an emotion you know might visit you later on as you engage with the world.

There are so many things you could be angry about right now. The injustices in the world, the way someone treated you yesterday, or any number of more trivial matters to which a response of anger wouldn’t even be close to appropriate.

For now, for this very moment, you’re making anger wait.

In doing so, you’re showing yourself that you’re capable of making anger wait.

The greatest remedy for anger, wrote Seneca, is delay.

Sure, it’s more difficult in some situations than others, but if you can do it now, why can’t you do it later?

If you remind yourself in the morning to be on the lookout for early signs of anger as the day progresses you might be able to catch it before it escalates.

If you remind yourself that events themselves don’t make you angry, but rather your judgments about them do, you can regain that morning distance at any time of the day.

If you remind yourself that instinctive feelings don’t need to guide your actions it will be easier to delay your response until you have calmly decided the best way forward.

If you remind yourself that the consequences of anger are much more grievous than the causes of it, you will be further discouraged from acting on impulse.

In his book On Anger, Seneca lays out for us the many other advantages of using our capacity for reason rather than allowing ourselves to be guided by anger:

Anger is altogether inconsistent. Sometimes it goes further than it should. Sometimes it stops short. It indulges itself, judges capriciously, refuses to listen, leaves no room for defense, clings to what it has seized, and will not have its judgment, even a wrong judgment, taken from it. Reason gives time to either side, and then demands a further adjournment to give itself room to tease out the truth: anger is in a hurry. Reason wishes to pass a fair judgment: anger wishes the judgment which it has already passed to seem fair. Reason considers nothing save the matter at issue; anger is roused by irrelevant trifles.

On Anger 1.17-18

Seneca goes on to offer different practical techniques to ensure we don’t succumb to our anger.

Here are five of the best pieces of advice from Seneca’s On Anger you can use today if you feel anger beginning to bubble up.

1. Delay

The greatest remedy for anger is delay: beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offence, but that it may form a right judgment about it: if it delays, it will come to an end.

On Anger 2.29

As I touched on earlier, a simple but powerful way to keep anger at bay is to delay. When angry, try counting to 10 before reacting. It’s cliched advice, but it allows you to stop for a moment and consider your best response with a clearer mind.

2. Practice

But anger can be put to flight by wise maxims; for it is a voluntary defect of the mind, and not one of those things which are evolved by the conditions of human life, and which, therefore, may happen even to the wisest of us.

On Anger 2.2

Seneca believed that no emotion is so strong that it can’t be tamed through training. The more you practice calmer responses to anger, like routinely preparing for its arrival in the morning, the better you’ll get at it.

3. Use art and music

Let [the mind] be softened by reading poetry, and interested by legendary history: let it be treated with luxury and refinement. Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit by playing upon the lyre: and who does not know that trumpets and clarions are irritants, just as some airs are lullabies and soothe the mind? Green is good for wearied eyes, and some colors are grateful to weak sight, while the brightness of others is painful to it. In the same way, cheerful pursuits soothe unhealthy minds.

On Anger 3.9

Make a list of, as Seneca puts it, “cheerful pursuits” that reliably calm you down. Turn to them to soothe you when anger threatens your peace of mind.

4. Consider the consequences

Would not every man wish to lay aside anger when he sees that it begins by injuring himself?

On Anger 3.4

Remind yourself always that, as Marcus Aurelius put it, the consequences of anger are much more grievous than the causes of it.

5. Know your triggers and catch them early

It is best, therefore, to apply remedies to oneself as soon as we feel that anything is wrong, to allow oneself as little licence as possible in speech, and to restrain one’s impetuosity: now it is easy to detect the first growth of our passions: the symptoms precede the disorder. Just as the signs of storms and rain come before the storms themselves, so there are certain forerunners of anger, love, and all the storms which torment our minds.

On Anger 3.10

Take note of what happens in your mind and body just before anger sets in. The earlier you can catch it the easier it will be to tame.

In conclusion, the Stoics believed that it’s our capacity for reasoning that can save us from indulging in anger and suffering from its consequences.

We’re only in danger when we choose to follow anger as opposed to reason.

As Seneca puts it, we have the ability to prevent ourselves from being carried away:

A man thinks himself injured, wants to be revenged, and then – being dissuaded for some reason – he quickly calms down again. I don’t call this anger, but a mental impulse yielding to reason. Anger is that which overleaps reason and carries it away.

Seneca, On Anger 2.3