Rage Against Reason

What Seneca could teach us about our inflamed passions


As with inaugurations past, yesterday’s inauguration of President Joe Biden was a ceremony that looked to the future, marking the start of a new era. Yet it was impossible not to think about the auguries—a word that derives from the same Latin root as inauguration—surrounding this event. That the ceremony took place in a city scarred by an attempted insurrection two weeks earlier and now resembling a military compound suggests the omens are grim. No matter how powerful President Biden’s address, they will not redress the anger that courses through the nation. The winter of our discontent has spun into the season of our rage.

Anger seems to have become the default position of most Americans. Whether we call it rage or indignation, ire or resentment, this passion plays an ambiguous role in our lives and in our politics. On the one hand, anger is the spark of righteous indignation that spurs us to rectify injustice and to seek justice. On the other hand, fueled by perceived grievances or frustrated objectives, anger can become an inferno that rages out of control. How are we to grasp the uses and abuses of this protean passion?

The Roman philosopher and statesman Seneca grappled with the relationship between anger and justice in both his thought and his life. A native of a far-flung province (modern-day Córdoba), Lucius Annaeus Seneca gained renown in Rome as an orator as well as a teacher of Stoicism. His eloquence and intelligence not only carried him to the highest ranks of imperial government, but also caught the attention of the empress Agrippina, who was particularly impressed by his essay “On Anger.”

Although Agrippina was probably seduced by the essay’s style, the substance is what counts. It is one of Seneca’s longest writings—and for good reason. More than any other passion, anger challenged the practice of Stoicism. A school of philosophy that viewed the passions as unnatural obstacles to right-thinking and right-acting, Stoicism provided precepts or exercises that helped purge the passions and permitted reason to rule. Other philosophers, notably Aristotle, had argued that the passions—including anger—were natural and, if properly ordered, were the partners of reason, anger the helpmate of justice. Seneca asked: Is anger natural? Could the passion be put into the service sovereign reason? Is it necessary to prevent and punish injustice?

For Seneca, the answer was no thrice over. Unnatural, irrational, vicious, odious, and insane were just some of the ways he characterized the passion. Anger was by far the most corrosive and corrupting of all our emotions. Whereas most passions have at least an element of quiet, anger is “entirely violent and exists in a rush of pain, raging in an almost inhuman desire for weapons, blood and punishment.” Gladiatorial games, Rome’s favorite spectator sport, drew Seneca’s censure for exhibiting—and exciting—the bestial in us. We ought never to act from anger, he believed, much less indulge or cultivate it.

This was especially true when anger was joined to justice. Punishment must always be spurred and steered by cool reason. When ire is indulged, especially by those wielding great power, cruelty rather than righteousness is the result. Yet Seneca also warns that anger employed with the best of intentions is the path to madness because of our very desire to see justice done. “If you want the wise man to be as angry as the atrocity of men’s crimes requires,” he wrote, “he must not merely be angry, but must go mad with rage.”

Here is where Stoicism steps in. “Anger is put to flight by teachings,” Seneca wrote, “for it is a voluntary vice of the mind.” If it is voluntary, it is a vice that can be mastered by reason. Indeed, master is a misleading verb. For the Stoic sage, the aim is less to control the passions than to eradicate them in order to achieve apatheia—the state of being without passions. In “On Anger,” as elsewhere, Seneca offers exhortations and examples intended to inculcate in his reader a therapy of desire.

Seneca soon had the opportunity to practice what he preached when Agrippina tapped him to be the tutor to her son Nero. Following the suspicious death of his stepfather Claudius, the teenaged Nero claimed the imperial title. The novice ruler’s maiden speech to the Senate, written by Seneca himself, promised to chart a new path from that of his predecessors. As in “On Anger,” Caligula served in the speech as a cautionary example.

No doubt Seneca congratulated himself for being the grownup in the room as he became Nero’s principal advisor. But the honeymoon was brief. Nero soon found his footing as emperor, but those feet were steeped in the blood he shed. Scores were evened, rivals exiled or assassinated, culminating in the emperor’s order for the murder of his overbearing mother. (A grotesquely farcical affair, it involved a ship with a lead ceiling meant to collapse and crush the empress, who managed to swim safely to shore, only to be stabbed to death by assassins sent by her son to finish the job.)

As Nero spiraled downward, Seneca stayed on. Perhaps he told himself he could restrain the emperor’s worst impulses; perhaps he told himself that if he resigned, others less able would make the situation worse; perhaps, though a Stoic, he was simply frightened. He turned to the power of his pen, addressing his essay “On Mercy” to Nero shortly after the emperor had his rival and stepbrother Britannicus poisoned. To no avail. The emperor behaved in increasingly un-imperial ways, taking up acting and singing as well as chariot racing and transforming life at the palace into a reality show. Finally, a year after a fire consumed Rome, a fire rumored to have been ignited by Nero himself, Seneca looked for the nearest exit.

Once again to no avail. Though Seneca finally left public life, his former pupil decided to make the retirement permanent by ordering him to commit suicide. That effort was also nearly botched. Notified of the order by Nero’s henchmen, Seneca first attended to some unfinished correspondence and then set himself to his task. After several failed attempts, from opening the veins on his wrists and ankles to drinking poison, the aged sage (he was 70) finally succeeded by suffocating himself in his steam bath. Ever the pedagogue, Seneca told his friends that he was leaving to them as a gift “the pattern of my life.”

What can that pattern, and in particular Seneca’s attitude toward anger, tell us today? At a time when our newly retired president has bequeathed, as his parting gift, an inferno of anger threatening to consume us all, what would Seneca advise? Would he concede that anger is the appropriate response to injustice? Or would he insist that anger, even when sparked by the acts of a mad ruler, threatens to become unbridled fury, deaf to the voice of reason?

Advice of a kind might be found in “On Mercy.” Seneca argues that a magnanimous ruler is a good ruler, especially when he shows clemency to those who have committed grave crimes. For Seneca, the reason behind this claim is, once again, reason itself. Minding his Stoic principles, Seneca declares that forgiveness should result from reason, and not from weakness (much less self-interested or partisan motives). Indeed, clemency should never be driven by pity, for that is a disorder of the mind no less than anger, and also capable of undermining reason. The Stoic sage, Seneca observes, “cannot be affected by any disorder: his mind is calm, and nothing can possibly happen to ruffle it.”

Yet perhaps it is a pity that pity, along with anger, falls victim to Seneca’s take-no-prisoner approach to the passions. Perhaps Seneca himself should have gotten angry. And if reason is in danger of losing its rein on anger, then pity may come to its aid. Pity understood not as weakness, but as a recognition of the equality and dignity, the fallibility and vulnerability, of our fellow humans. Both of these passions are not just natural but crucial. It would be not just unnatural but unsettling if we were not deeply angered at the attempted insurrection two weeks ago. But as we look to the weeks, months, and years ahead, it would be no less unsettling and unnatural if we did not harness that anger to reason, and perhaps even to clemency.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

John T. Scott and Robert Zaretsky co-authored this essay. John T. Scott is a professor in the political science department at the University of California, Davis. His specialty is the history of political thought from the Renaissance to the Enlightenment. Robert Zaretsky teaches at the University of Houston. His new book, The Subversive Simone Weil: A Life in Five Ideas, will be published in February.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up