“Yet it would be your duty to bear it, if you could not avoid it: it is weak and silly to say you cannot bear what it is your fate to be required to bear. … Would you not be happier if you tried to forget her severity, together with the passionate emotions it excited? Life appears to me too short to be spent in nursing animosity or registering wrongs. We are, and must be, one and all, burdened with faults in this world…”
– Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
For what is, after all, the good life save that
Conducted thoughtfully, and what is passion
If not the holiest of powers, sustaining
Only if mastered.
– Timothy Steele, “Sapphics Against Anger”
Yesterday, I attended a lecture on Stoicism by Dr. Anida Hasic at the Ateneo, the last of her series of lectures on Hellenistic and Roman philosophy. Yesterday, she mostly talked about Seneca’s On Anger. Anger is an emotion, and what distinguishes emotions from physical sensations is that emotions involve cognition, some relevant judgment, an interpretation of bodily responses in light of social situations: I feel my jaw clenching, my head aching, my heart racing, my chest tightening, my muscles tensing, my palms sweating, my hands balling into fists — somebody I was arguing with just slammed the door in my face — oh, I am so mad, I wanna kick down the door, I wanna kick him. Feeling anger involves first, the impression of an injury, and second, the mind’s assent that this injury, this wrong, is unjust and ought to be redressed.
Seneca wrote that “anger can be put to flight by wise maxims; for it is a voluntary defect of the mind…” I asked Dr. Hasic whether there were any grounds at all for anger to be good or virtuous from the perspective of Stoicism. Dr. Hasic said that there was none whatsoever. Because in Stoic cosmology, the soul is material, shaped by passions, then when one feels anger, the soul changes such that there is no room for virtue or joy. This is true of all passions, all forms of psychological turmoil — even feeling compassion for another’s suffering, to the extent that it disrupts one’s equanimity, is contrary to leading a virtuous life. To be virtuous in the Stoic way is to work on governing the self, the mind’s interpretation of experiences, so that one can interact with others and react to external events dispassionately.
I asked, Then what is the proper response to an injury one experiences or one witnesses being deliberately inflicted upon another? She said that the Stoic response is dispassionate judgment: the evaluation of the action as right or wrong. But one shouldn’t feel angry or hurt, or react in a way that would cause more harm. She said, if everyone lived this way, disciplining one’s mind so that one would not feel strongly and act rashly, wouldn’t we live in a more pleasant society? Ethical behavior begins with self-government.
Well I wouldn’t argue with that. But my problem with Stoicism as I understand it is that it is individualistic. Train your own mind to will whatever necessity you are dealt, and you need not be pained. The ethical work of the individual ends with self-management. Whatever occurs outside the self must be interpreted so that it does not trouble the self — this is what wisdom consists in. But what of justice? Suffering cannot be privatized. What harms another also harms me, if we consider that all is connected. Like Stoicism, Buddhism advocates dispassion / non-attachment, but it also teaches that the self, this atomizing concept, is an illusion.
I used to be very attracted to Stoicism. I am thinking about it again. I know too little about it to ponder it, so I want to read Seneca’s On Anger. But now I am checking papers and trying not to be angry, or at least not to give vent to anger. I think I am failing. Hahahaha. It’s very difficult work, this management of the self.