By Seneca

Trans James Romm

ISBN 978-0-691-18195-0  Princeton £13.99

 Reviewed by Alan Dent


Seneca lived at the same time as Christ. While the latter preached a doctrine of modesty of material means, Seneca was a very rich man. He wrote that pursuit of wealth was a reasonable activity for a philosopher. As well as his Stoic philosophy, he penned plays, all tragedies. The disparity between the two is often commented; but it may be that his drama shows the cost of failing to live stoically. The word “tragedy” is derived from the Greek for “goat” and “ode”. Tragic drama shows human being reduced to bestiality.  He served two demented leaders, Caligula and Nero, the latter forcing him to kill himself for his alleged involvement in the assassination plot known as the Pisoninan conspiracy. Quintillian rebuked Seneca for his degenerate style. Only readers fluent in Latin will be able to judge. The English translations are anything but degenerate. James Romm’s prose is fluent and attractive. Once again, how well it renders the original, only Latinists will know.

            Including notes, this volume runs to 220 pages,  but it’s a short read as alternate pages are in Latin then English. Each page is approximately 200 words. The English title is slightly more self-indulgent than the Latin. Why not simply On Anger ? It’s a small query, but perhaps How To Keep Your Cool is a product of the excessive personalisation of contemporary culture. It seems modern populations suffer from the same disability as Emma Bovary: they can value only what they draw a personal advantage from.

            Seneca sees anger as the most negative of emotions. The rise of the so-called angry young men (why were there no angry young women ?) in post-war Britain was seen as a form or liberation. Perhaps the rancid Jimmy Porter would have done well to read Seneca, and even more so his equally rancid creator. Seneca believes the right response to anger is to shut it out. “Once shaken and overthrown the mind becomes a slave to that which drives it,” he writes. “Ills that have taken root..are retrenched only with difficulty.” This is a stern doctrine of self-control at odds with the Fleabag tenor of modern times. It defies the push-me-pull-you, mechanistic, therapeutic view of the human mind which is constantly anxious to explain behaviour as a result of the effect of circumstance rather than a matter of choice. Seneca has a more noble view of selfhood : he believes we can control our behaviour and are responsible for it.

            He is aware of the importance of child rearing. Minds that are pliable are easy to mould, but bringing up children is hard and requires the greatest effort. “The spirit flourishes when it is given license (sic)”, he says. Yet at the same time he recognizes that indulgence leads to arrogance and anger. “Let children’s spirits encounter nothing lowly or slavish.” Just as well Seneca didn’t experience the internet. In our post-modern morass, where we fear hierarchies of value and propose that subjectivity is all, the lowly and the slavish prevail. “Don’t you see how greater wrathfulness accompanies a greater fortune?” Wealth, Seneca asserts, hypocritically, drives people to anger. Power too. The rich and powerful are touchy. The merest slight “gathers momentum like a ship with a favorable  (sic) breeze”. Presumably, Seneca believed that the Stoic temperament could hold off the prissy petulance of wealth and power. He may be right, but wouldn’t it be more rational to prevent people having too much of either?

            “What we hate to hear, we readily believe, and we grow angry before we use our judgement.” As all tabloids know. People love to be enraged; at others, of course. If all the world is at fault, we are the only virtuous. Hence, the odd landscape at once full of turpitude but occupied by the self-justifying virtuous. Always the prelude to violence and mayhem. “The greatest outrage arises from this attitude: ‘I’ve committed no wrong’”. No one is innocent, Seneca argues. Thus, anger against those you consider guilty is a self-deception. We should fulfil our duties to humanity, generosity, justice, loyalty. The words seem quaint. Self-discipline is out of fashion because it doesn’t serve. Self-abandonment keeps the cogs of the economy turning, and crushes us within them.

            The enraged, says Seneca, are “responsive to every slight” and “they use force for every task”. This brings to mind Brecht’s injunction to fight injustice, but with moderation. Seneca isn’t suggesting that injustice won’t make us angry, but that we must learn to control our anger and direct it to rational ends. Something Jihadists might like to reflect on. And ethno-political Zionists too. Anger easily becomes collective. Social conflict, riots, violence, war are the too common results. We should pull ourselves back from inciting anger in others because it is infectious and its results so devastating.

            “For those who dash about doing a multitude of tasks, no day goes  by so fortunately that some problem does not…. whet their minds for anger.” A good message for the “lunch is for losers” culture. Dashing about doing a multitude of tasks is exactly what our culture expects of us. Those who do so are held in esteem. Margaret Thatcher was admired for hardly sleeping and being at her tasks for eighteen hours a day. Seneca often returned to the idea of otium, the freedom from the burdens of business and public affairs. He was himself a high-ranking public servant, but at least he recognised that a culture of manic activity makes people touchy and quick to rage. If he’s right, its probable that our society is held together by the anger it generates.

            “Fortune is not so partial to anyone as to make every path easy when we are attempting many things.” How charming the use of “fortune”. Anyone can be hit by bad luck. Today we have a harsher creed: the market decides and is never wrong. As we attempt many things, there will be hitches and then we get frustrated and petulant. Seneca recognizes there is a childishness about this. “…when we’ve been loaded up, by other people’s hands, with things we can barely carry, we get overwhelmed…” The condition of most employees, which means most people, is exactly that. “For the mind to be able to stay peaceful,” argues Seneca, “it must not be scattered or worn out…” Do we recognize today that a peaceful mind is desirable?

            We should choose our companions carefully. The drunkard will drag us to the folly of his drunkenness. We should spend our time with calm minds, with those who are easy-going and not anxious or depressed. Nothing calms the mind more than association with those who can take life in its stride and who try not to feel wronged. “Our hopes should venture only next door.” A piece of advice entirely at odds with our culture of exorbitant ambition in which people are exhorted with empty slogans – “you can have it all” “you can be anything you want to be” – to believe in fantasies of wild success, fame and wealth. What has this to do with anger? Seneca believes in limits and rage breaks them all.

            “It’s an old saying,” he writes, “that quarrels are sought by the weary.” “The afflicted mind is offended by the slightest things.” You only have to look at the headlines each morning to see this at work. “Ailing things can’t be touched without a fight being provoked.” Our collective mind is ailing. The culture needs it to be because satisfied minds make poor consumers.

            “Even the wisest have failed at many things; no one is so careful that his diligence doesn’t sometimes get away from him; no one is so mature that changes of circumstance do not push his gravity into some too rash deed, no one is so shy of giving offense (sic) as not to accidentally commit the very offences he avoids.”

            Seneca ends with an appeal to our sense of mortality: “As they say, the moment we turn and look behind us, death stands right there.” His point is that we should value life and try to make it as pleasant as possible. Perhaps we will, but we shall have to rid the world of the petty gods who rule and who behave as if they can defy mortality itself.