Why you can’t be angry and rational at the same time

Unthinkable: The Stoic philosopher Seneca debunked the idea of ‘righteous anger’, his translator explains

‘Anger is a kind of madness; it blots out rational thought.’ File image: Lambert/Getty Images

Jesus lost his cool just once in the New Testament – when he overturned the tables of money changers in the temple – but that has been enough in the minds of many to justify “righteous anger”.

The concept is familiar today to anyone who frequents social media: Fury is used as a way of signalling virtue and concern.

Yet righteous anger is something of a western creation, more accurately perhaps a creation of Abrahamic faiths. Under Buddhism, Confucianism and the Ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism, it is generally considered a contradiction in terms.

In his essay, On Anger (De Ira), the Roman Stoic thinker Seneca – born just four years before Jesus – argues that losing your temper is always self-defeating. It clouds your judgment; it lessens you. He writes: "Surely no one would choose to hit a foe so hard as to have his hand get stuck in the wound and be unable to withdraw from the blow. But anger is a weapon of just this type."


Seneca's essay has just been republished as How To Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management (Princeton University Press), with a translation and introduction by James Romm.

Far from being morally naive, Seneca’s philosophy recognises the “shared fallibility” of human beings and, “above all, our forgivability”, says Romm, a professor at Bard College, New York who is today’s Unthinkable guest.

You write in the book that Seneca advocates a “pact of mutual leniency” in human relations. Does he use that phrase specifically, or how did you alight on the concept?

James Romm: “The phrase is Seneca’s. It speaks to so much of what is compelling about Seneca and the De Ira.

“The Latin word for ‘pact’ is conventio, a rare word, usually used in political and military contexts – ‘treaty’ is another possible translation. For Seneca, personal relations were also political, and bonds between people determine the character of the state. His own life was a prime instance of the parallelism, for his relationship with Nero determined to a large degree the direction of the government of Rome.

“Seneca saw the need for a pact in social relations because they otherwise tend toward violence and lawlessness, as he had witnessed himself as a member of the senate during Caligula’s reign. In one of his essays he compares all human life to the melee of a walled city under siege. That’s a dark view, but Seneca lived in dark times for members of the political elite. His writing has the urgency and moral fervour of a man who saw the demise of the Roman system looming around every corner.”

Does Seneca believe it’s possible to be angry and rational at the same time?

“No, and this is the crucial danger in getting angry. Anger is a kind of madness; it blots out rational thought. For Stoics, who valued reason as the supreme source of human virtue and happiness, that blotting out presented a terrible threat.

“Even soldiers attacking an enemy, Seneca argued, had better not get angry and ignore their battle plans – the very opposite of what’s admired in the ancient mythic hero, or modern superhero, celebrated for his or her moments of disordered rage.

“Achilles in the Iliad, for example, was for Seneca an antitype of true heroism, which clings to its reasoning capacity despite all the disasters of life.”

What about the scope for “righteous anger”? Is that a contradiction in terms?

“To some degree, yes, it’s impossible to be both righteous and angry. Seneca pushes the boundaries of his thesis by discussing the case of a person whose father has been killed or whose mother has been raped. For a virtuous person, even that situation will not arouse anger. The desire to punish the wrongdoer should come out of a sense of duty and loyalty, not emotion.

“Seneca tells the story of Plato, exasperated by the misdeeds of a slave, handing the whip to a companion and saying: ‘You strike him, I’m too angry’. He also relates rather repugnant cases of fathers who had watched their sons killed by cruel monarchs, then repressed their anger and drank the health of the murderous kings.

“In those cases even Seneca realises he may have passed the bounds of what is possible or morally defensible, and says he will defer to another time the question of what these men should have done – but he never returns to it.”

Why should we listen to Seneca any more than Eckhart Tolle or some other self-help guru? What gives him any authority?

“It’s hard to say what ‘authority’ looks like in the modern self-help marketplace. Different strategies work for different people, and the range of approaches is vast. Most modern therapies urge us to express our anger, not suppress it, and reject the notion that anger can be prevented or dispelled. I don’t disagree, but the path down which that thinking is leading us is one of trolling, flaming, uncivil discourse, and acts of spontaneous violence.

“The internet, with its opportunities for anonymous verbal abuse, has opened up the floodgates of an underground reservoir of free-floating rage. It’s clear that prevailing strategies of dealing with anger are not working, so trying an opposing strategy makes a certain sense.”

Ask sage:

Question: The put-down is ubiquitous in modern culture – from Donald Trump's name-calling of opponents to wrestlers trash-talking rivals – but is it morally justifiable?

Martha Nussbaum replies (in Anger and Forgiveness): "It is normatively problematic to focus exclusively on relative status, and that type of obsessive narrowness, though common enough, is something we ought to discourage in both self and others."