“You have importuned me, Novatus, to write on the subject of how anger may be allayed, and it seems to me that you had good reason to fear in an especial degree this, the most hideous and frenzied of all emotions.”
So begins Seneca the Younger’s famous epistle, De Ira, written to his brother in an attempt to explain what the passion of anger is and how reason might conquer it. If only Prince Andrei Bolkonsky had such a wise friend to counsel him. De Ira (On Anger) seems tailor made for his current predicament. Had Prince Andrei something so insightful to reflect upon perhaps he would not have started down the path of tragedy he does today.
The first portion of Seneca’s letter describes how incredibly mad anger is. It provokes in man the behavior of a rabid beast and contributes to all manner of misery and suffering. Next he defines anger as the desire to repay suffering with violence. Is this not precisely what Andrei is up to in today’s chapter as he chases Anatole Kuragin around the globe seeking his revenge?
In fact, many of Seneca’s symptoms of anger infect Andrei today. Seneca says that the man possessed by anger is full of resentment, rage, and lust for blood. The angry man has a “gloomy brow, a fierce expression, a hurried step, restless hands, an altered step.” Seneca also lists the outcomes of anger: discord, violence, riot, destruction. It’s almost as if Tolstoy wrote this chapter alongside a copy of De Ira.
Prince Andrei disrupts his life by going back into the army not out of patriotic duty but, rather, out of simple anger. When he returns home on his way West to join the army he finds that he is extremely irritable and once again possessed by a weariness of life that overtakes him with great intensity. His disposition is so bad that when he leaves Bald Hills he does so having alienated his family and on bad terms with his aging father.
So what does Seneca say we do about anger?
First, he distinguishes between anger and irascibility. Remember, the stoics are not, as they are often presented, merely advocating suppression of emotion. They recognize that some emotions are natural, automatic responses to human experience. It’s the continuing assent to these emotions that the stoics stress we guard against. If we offer our assent, they argue, we’ll be endlessly carried away by our natural responses to experience and we will boil over in a cauldron of passion.
Irascibility, then, is the immediate and natural response to a wrong. Anger, with all its aforementioned horrors, is the assent to this reaction. It is irascibility untempered by reason. Reason dictates that an irascible man reacting to a wrong first distance himself from the situation and then ask if that wrong is within his power or outside his power. If it’s within his power he must do something to change it. If it’s outside his power then he must accept it as the natural course of things and move on.
It’s clear that this wrong is outside Prince Andrei’s power. He has no control over Anatole and Natasha’s action. So how should he move on? First, Seneca argues, he should attack anger before it takes him away. He should recognize the social character of humankind and guard against the antisocial viciousness of anger. Then, in the beautiful, tender, and compassionate spirit of stoicism, he should understand that Anatole’s actions are the ravings of a broken man, ignorantly cut off from his social character. Anatole, and those like him, therefore, are not deserving of anger but, rather, forgiveness.
Indeed, what reason has he for hating sinners, since it is error that leads them into such crimes? Now it does not become a sensible man to hate the erring. […] How much more philanthropic it is to deal with the erring in a gentle and fatherly spirit, and to call them into the right course instead of hunting them down? When a man is wandering about our fields because he has lost his way, it is better to place him on the right path than to drive him away.
Seneca, On Anger I