The following arguments are explanations and comments based on Philodemu’s scroll On Anger (1). As expected, the fragments are incomplete but we have a fairly clear idea of the arguments of the teacher.
The first thing to note is that, when it comes to anger, we see a huge contrast between the Stoic and Epicurean schools. Stoics idealized apathy (which literally means lack of emotion) and saw all anger as an evil that had to be repressed. Epicureans teach that it’s a bad idea to suppress human nature, and one of the main arguments we see is on how anger is completely natural. Philosophy would otherwise be castrating and lack compassion if it didn’t allow us to experience what is called natural anger.
Diagnosing an ailment of the soul
Epicurean therapeutic process has much in common with medicine, and is inspired by Hippocratic models: first a description of symptoms is given, then an illness diagnosed, then potential therapies and cures. The scroll begins with a physical description of the symptoms of anger. These symptoms are physical, psychological and social, and are described in detail, the way a doctor would.
Among the physical symptoms, we find that the face reddens and the heart quickens. The psychological ones include how one begins to plot revenge and takes delight in imagining that something bad happens to the enemy. Such anger is compared sometimes with dementia, and indeed Philodemus mentions something that is perhaps universally observable: the word mad, or going mad, often applies not just to crazy people but also to furious people. He was writing in Greek, but that is the case also in French with folie, and in other languages.
The social symptoms are the worst. The angry person says reckless things that are impossible to take back, sometimes in the presence of bosses or powerful people, and this precipitation can cost them “a bitter wage”, says Philodemus. Anger can cause exile, physical danger, legal problems, and rejection by family and friends. It can destroy families and relationships with loved ones, and can even destroy a country.
Philodemus mentions the dynamics that arise whenever there are relationships based on exploitation and domination, where the fate of the weak is controlled excessively, and sometimes in an abusive and exploitative way, by the powerful as in the case of slavery. In these cases, the animosities that may arise are huge. Sometimes these dynamics are still seen between workers and employers in modern labor.
Rational and natural anger
The first type of anger that Philodemus discusses is natural anger, which does not need treatment other than the hedonic calculus, i.e. the long-term measurement of gains and losses with the goal of ensuring net pleasure. The purpose of the hedonic calculus is not to find the most pleasant way to get revenge, but to ensure the highest long-term stable pleasure, which opens the doors for many creative techniques of non-violent conflict resolution and to resolve mutual benefits.
“Even the wise can sometimes appear to be temporarily angry.”
The philosophers of other schools, particularly the Stoics, questioned this teaching that anger was natural (3). Philodemus argued this in several ways. First, he said that anger was often unavoidable and compared the debt we owe to people who have hurt us voluntarily with the debt of gratitude we owe to people who have benefited us voluntarily by teaching us philosophy or by providing other goods. Seen this way, the desirability of good will among men and women is emphasized.
This factor of voluntary action is important by observable and obvious reasons. Never does a rational person feel gratitude or anger toward inanimate objects or toward chance and fate, but only to living entities. So anger can be natural when other living entities voluntarily cause us damage.
A good rule to determine whether anger is natural, is to measure whether the damage received causes a threat against natural and necessary goods, if they have the potential to destroy life or take away our safety, the health of the body or happiness.
Another example given to justify the concept of rational and natural anger is by giving three possible reactions to a voluntary loss or damage that we have done. The first is indifference, but this possibility is somewhat forced. The second is hostility, which is the most natural and expected. The third is to express friendship toward our abusers, which would be stupid.
The recognition of natural anger is important for another reason: it helps to understand the potential dangers of other ethical philosophies such as Stoicism (which idealizes unqualified resignation as a virtue and teaches to repress the natural and healthy emotions, never pondering that they may be healthy and productively channeled), Christianity (which says we should turn the other cheek), and others.
These ethical philosophies unnecessarily perpetuate social injustice that could be resolved through non-violent conflict resolution methods like the boycott, coming out of the closet and exposing our foes to shame and public scrutiny, and other tactics. Sometimes the remedies for social injustice have been somewhat violent, but in the long term, considering the benefits (the independence of India in the case of Gandhi, which ended economic exploitation, or the civil rights movement in the case of Martin Luther King Jr), these events have passed the sieve of hedonic calculus and were worthwhile.
A peculiar case is the example of the Stonewall Riots in 1969, in which gay, lesbian and transgender people first became involved in an armed urban battle against the NYPD, which constantly invaded the few spaces where members of the community could be themselves, humiliated and imprisoned them arbitrarily just for fun. The indignation of the Stonewall Riots is now recognized as a moment in history after which the modern movement of LGBT rights officially began, with its marches, struggles for a voice and space, and even culminating today with the recognition of egalitarian marriage.
Many other indignant voices (like Occupy, the Indignados movement in Spain, etc.) have taken place in history. In all these cases, we see that anger produces natural and rational ennobling causes to which we can dedicate ourselves to channel our anger. Philodemus spoke of thesse when he spoke of “virtuous dispositions” underlying our natural and rational anger.
These and other cases of outrage and public expression of anger have often produced great social change. If those who carried out these acts, had fallen into the errors of Christian philosophy (to embrace the cross and to love agony and victimization) or Stoic philosophy (to love unqualified resignation as a false, unnecessary and impractical value), it would have perpetuated huge unnecessary pain for many generations in all these cases. No social progress can happen if we don’t allow rational, natural anger to find expression and change the world, creating a new world like volcanoes after an eruption can produce new islands and new paradigms.
Philodemus explains the phenomenology of anger in the rational man. He says it begins as a pang, an initial mild indignation which then evolves into outrage as it increases until it manifests itself in anger when the person endorses it.
To conclude, there are cases where natural anger is not an evil. In fact, anger can be a good as long as it is brief and has its origin in a virtuous disposition. That is, anger can be virtuous and rational when damage is produced voluntarily, and even wise and virtuous men naturally and inevitably experience natural anger, which is moderate, rational, calculated.
Chronic Anger and Rage
The next two forms of anger are not rational, but are pathological and represent a loss of reason, that is, they are irrational (even if sometimes they have natural beginnings).
The second is chronic or addictive anger. This is not natural, but a disease of the soul. It is its continuity that shows how it’s irrational, which prevents one from fully enjoying all the pleasures available which are extremely important in life, and is also responsible for many evils.
Like depression (which is chronic sadness), chronic anger is a destructive disease of the soul characterized by particular symptoms. It is an obsessive anger about revenge, persistent, uncontrolled, intense and violent. One symptom of this second form of anger is that it’s oftentimes carried to the grave, and another symptom is that parents often teach it to their children, and their children’s children, leaving a sad legacy of violence, miscommunication and lack of love.
The third is rage (2), an excessive level of fury that deserves a name other than anger. In this case, the person instantly enjoys imagining or enacting the punishment of the enemy.
This fury can generate many difficulties. Philodemus describes this fury as wild and irrational: that is, its intensity is not deserved and does not correspond with the initial pang of indignation, as we would expect with rational anger.
This madness is temporary, yet the sufferer punishes himself in the worst way, so it deserves treatment.
However, Philodemus says that even the wise experience it sometimes as “a brief fury and, so to speak, aborted”. That is, the sage is a natural being subject to the natural conditions of mortality and pain, but does not become insane because of her anger or consider it a weakness. The important thing, again, is to subject these impulses of indignation and anger to reason and the hedonic calculus.
The wrath of the gods
In one passage, Philodemus talks about how men grotesquely mimick the wrath of the gods. It’s reminiscent of how modern preachers of fear-based religion still cite God’s anger to justify both man-made and natural disasters. He is not exactly arguing that belief in mad gods produces neurosis (perhaps he sees a correlation, not a cause), but clearly sometimes fables lend themselves to legitimize evils and therefore he blames the poets (in the case of the one God, we could speak of the prophets) for having imagined the wrath of grotesque gods who sends pestilence, kill innocent children and order genocide.
Another observation that emerges from this passage is that popular religion can be understood as a poetic function, and therefore as art. The possibility that religion is a form of art and self-expression, even one that could have some therapeutic use and help diagnose the ills of the soul, might be a valid way of understanding religion from a secular perspective.
Philodemus explains that the furious and the chronically angry can not advance in philosophy. A commitment to themselves, to their ataraxia, and to cognitive therapy is necessary live a pleasant life.
One of the treatments used by Philodemus and other philosophers was called seeing before the eyes. In this technique, the Epicurean guide confronts the patient with the consequences of chronic fury in the form of a vivid vision where the impact and effects of anger in relationships and the ability to enjoy life every day are presented clearly as if they were present here and now.
This is done using the rhetoric. It is a verbal exercise for the guide and one of guided visualization for the patient. The practice requires that we attribute a gruesome identity in detail to our anger, so that it is seen as an enemy of the soul.
Let us completely rid ourselves of our bad habits as if they were evil men who have done us long and grievous harm. – Vatican Saying 46
The physical features of fury were used in descriptions of symptoms by Greek philosophers as part of the art of vilifying vice. The master showed the patient the loss of support from friends, the removal of family, the possible loss of jobs and opportunities because of angry behavior, etc. Thus, the angry person can internalize the harm caused by their condition and increase their commitment to imperturbability.
Other treatments include reasonings, which may be seen as a form of preventive medicine (similar to reading and digesting this article) and arguments, which consist of personifying the disposition that produces the constant anger and confronting it with rational arguments for change. This type of cognitive therapy can be used in creative contexts, like a diary, a dramatization or a (written or oral) imaginary conversation.
The idea that we should protect our heads is metaphorically understood, but also physical. One of the remedies used in African religions is washing the head with cool water in the crown, nape and temples to calm us when we’re irate. This they do with prayers, but we can adapt it to a pleasant secular practice and easily turn it into an Epicurean remedy, since we recognize the physical symptoms of anger, including the heating of the face and head.
Self-sufficiency is also a preventive remedy for anger. Philodemus said the less we care about externalities, the less anger we have. Fury depends on our vulnerabilities and what we expose ourselves to.
Losing our heads because of anger has always produced great difficulties for many people, and there are fables and stories in all cultures that warn of its dangers. Therefore, we must always keep a cool head and cultivate ataraxia.
Adapted from the book Tending the Epicurean Garden, from the French translation of the Philodeman text (La colère) in the book Les Epicuriens and from Elizabeth Asmis’ commentary in her article The Necessity of Anger in Philodemus’ On Anger in the book Epicurus and the Epicurean Tradition.
1. Recently, new laser technology has been developed that will enable more scrolls to be deciphered. There are 300 burnt scrolls from Herculaneum that remain undeciphered.
2. In both English and French, rage is used in the translation as distinct from common anger and more intense.
3. The same categories that exist for desires (as we see in Principal Doctrines 26, 29 and 30) can be applied to anger. Also we categorizeanger as useful or useless, that is, anger can be channeled wisely so as to produce a greater good, or it can be channeled recklessly and produce many evils or produce nothing.