The Stoic Traveler

"Wherever I go, it will be well with me."

28 August 2007

De Ira, or, Seneca Shows Off

Lucius Annaeus Seneca salutem dat Caro Lectori:

Anger, amice, is a curious emotion. That might be redundant: all emotions are curious, stemming as the basic ones do from evolutionary history; fight or flight &c. At the same time, the emotions also seem to have a rational component. Happiness or joy, sadness, fear, &c. seem take their source from our perceptions of reality. What we feel is then a response to that perception. These responses can be powerful; overpowering in fact the strongest reserve.
We moderns, like our ancient forebears, have many words for anger: rage, wrath, fury, ire. The ancients had one I especially like: menis. It means "wrath" or "anger" and a declined form begins Book I, line 1 of Homer's Iliad. It is a particular kind of wrath, beyond the ken of mortals; it signifies divine wrath, the kind of anger that can only be felt by such a super-being as a god. This is the wrath, sung by the muses, of Achilles Peliades.
Achilles was wrathful (some would say justly) because King Agamemnon had taken Briseis, a Trojan woman and Achilles' rightful prize, to replace Chryseis, the ransomed daughter of a priest of Apollo. In his wrath, Achilles withdrew from the Trojan War, enabling the Trojans repeatedly defeat the Greek forces on the Plains of Ilium. It was wrath, or perhaps grief, that drove him again from his tent to the battlefield. This time, Achilles was undone by the death of his friend Patroclus. (The nature of that friendship is a matter of discussion). At any rate, Achilles returned to the fight and the rest, as they say, is mythology.
The point is, amice, that anger can be just, it can be righteous. But that is utterly irrelevant. It is highly destructive, regardless of its source. It is also a thing of majesty when done right. For the rest of us, though, we must be content with the puny pleasures that come from impotent displays of rage. And then accept that the universe could not care less, and that the world looks down on such emotiveness.
What is ever our object? Is it the self-restraint that Stoics are justly famous for? Of course not; that is a happy result of our labors, but is not our purpose. Our purpose, our object, our impossible dream is to be able to be as a tree in the wind: remaining rooted in our principles, tho' tossed and buffeted by the world.