Ancient and modern

How to deal with Brexit anger, according to the ancients

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

7 September 2019

9:00 AM

Sir Philip Pullman, tweeting that thoughts of hanging the PM came to mind after the decision to prorogue parliament, later drew back: ‘I don’t apologise for the anger I feel; only for its intemperate expression.’ The ancients were well aware that rage usually removed a man’s judgment and made him look an idiot.

In his lengthy treatise on anger, defined as ‘a desire to avenge a wrong’, the Roman stoic philosopher Seneca argued against it on three grounds: it was unnecessary, learned behaviour; it did not lead to desirable conduct; and it made a man prone to violence. Take, for example, one’s reaction to wrongdoing. It needed to be dealt with, and punishment might well be the appropriate response, but not if it was driven by anger or the desire for revenge. The reasonable man would take a quite different attitude towards it and regard it as a wrong to be cured, as a doctor cured a patient.


Aristotle took a different line. Believing that virtue depended partly on a balance between excesses, he argued that between flying off the handle and simply repressing one’s wrath, there lay a middle way: feeling angry for the right reasons, against the right person, at the right moment, for the right length of time. But the stoics argued that was a vain hope. The whole point about such passions was that they contained their own impetus within them, making them impossible to control (Seneca drew a comparison with a body falling headlong from a cliff). Seneca’s picture of the angry man emphasised the point: devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of loyalties, and deaf to reason and advice, his inner derangement reflected in his physical reactions — bellowing, groaning, eyes blazing, face crimson with blood, lips quivering, teeth clenched, joints cracking. Seneca’s overall conclusion? ‘Let us cultivate our humanity.’

Gary Lineker, John Bercow, Stephen Fry, Hugh Grant and many other 21st-century luminaries joined Pullman in adding their smug little tweets to the incontinent screams of ‘Dictator!’ ‘Fascist!’ ‘Coup d’état!’. One can be fairly sure they do not see themselves as (ugh) ‘populists’, but their rage has certainly made them as one with the mob on this occasion.

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