Thursday, April 11, 2013

The philosophy of anger

In his documentary, Botton illustrates the driving mechanism behind anger and its management by citing philosopher Seneca’s beliefs.

“Modern life is full of frustrations and most of us do not seem to be able to respond philosophically to it. We are prone to losing our tempers. Anger seems as much a part of life today as bad driving and traffic jams,” says Botton in the third documentary on “Philosophy: A Guide to Happiness”.

“We find one ancient philosopher who was particularly concerned with anger and wanted to calm people down. He was born in Coduba province of Spain in the year A.D. 180. His name was Seneca. The author of more than 20 books on all aspects of life, Seneca came to Rome and became influential here. He was the most popular and famous philosopher of his day. But that does not mean his life was free from frustration. He was naturally a melancholic man... and he lived in very dangerous times of despotic, violent and unpredictable rulers.”

In 49 A.D. he had to take on, against his will, the most fateful job in the Imperial administration: tutor a 12-year-old boy, the future emperor Nero. “It soon became apparent that Nero was a murderous psychopath. Knowing he was in danger, Seneca attempted to withdraw from court. He offered his resignation twice. The emperor Nero refused. Nothing in Seneca’s experience encouraged him to believe Nero, when he embraced him tightly and he said he would not harm him, that he would actually not,” says Botton

Botton takes you on a virtual tour of the underground chambers where Nero, who wielded absolute power, perpetrated utmost cruelty on his countrymen. Botton enumerates them, painfully. That is why, he says, Seneca felt the urgency to tame tempers. “It was because the consequences of anger were so great that Seneca was desperate to assuage them,” says Botton. “Seneca dedicated a whole book to the subject titled ‘On Anger’. The most hideous and frenzied of all emotions, he called it, but crucially he refused to see it as an irrational outburst, something over which we had no control. Anger arose because of some rationally held ideas about the world, and the problem with these ideas is that they are far too optimistic. Seneca said people get angry because they are too hopeful. Whenever we get angry there is an element of surprise, self-pity and injustice. Seneca’s first advice is to be more pessimistic so that we adjust our view of the world so that we are less surprised when reversals occur. Also if we accept that we are less likely to be able to do something about them, we will lose it less often.”

Seneca said that we want the world in our way; that cannot be. Like a dog on a leash, we have some freedom, not all. And like a dog on a leash it is better to know the length of your leash. So Seneca says our freedom comes from knowing what we can do is to acquire an attitudinal change.

“Seneca believed prosperity fostered bad tempers. The wealthier you are the more expectations you have,” says Botton, who goes on to talk of how surprises can also throw your temper off balance. “So he recommends a calm daily meditation on how things can go wrong.”

That makes you more prepared and also differentiate between the things you can change and that which you cannot. Seneca believes we often overestimate our capacity to change things. “In order to remind us constantly of just how many things lie outside of our control he invoked Goddess Fortune. She holds the cornucopia, which was a symbol that she would bestow the best in life. In the other hand she had a darker object, the rudder, a reminder of her power to shift our destiny for the worse. She is a symbol of everything we must accept... the good and bad.”

Botton ends with shots of Pompeii where destiny ran her course of hot lava without man’s permission and the story of how Seneca was ordered to kill himself by Emperor Nero. Seneca did so with fortitude, giving life to his beliefs in his death.