HOW TO KEEP YOUR COOL: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management

Seneca: selected, translated and introduced by James Romm

Princeton (2019) h/b 238pp £13.99 (ISBN 9780691181950)

In this latest addition to Princeton’s well-conceived and well-executed series on ‘Ancient Wisdom for Modern Readers’ the ancient wisdom on the subject of anger management is provided by Seneca, and the modern translator and editor is the distinguished Seneca scholar James Romm, Professor of Classics at Bard College, New York. 

There can be no doubt that, in an age of anger-fuelled terrorism, anger-driven internet trolling and compulsory direction to anger management courses as a judicial disposal, this is an important topic. As editor R. faces a greater challenge than that offered by some of the earlier works in this series. S.’s de ira is a work of some length, consisting of three books and, to reduce it to a manageable size for the series, R. has to select and therefore omit.

His short introduction highlighting the importance of the subject and S.’s approach to it does not discuss his editorial rationale, but he is scrupulously honest in the text in indicating which passages are included where some are not given in full, and, in his accompanying notes his general editorial approach is clearly revealed. For example, to avoid inappropriate and distracting stereotyping, he has excluded passages in which S. identifies the female as the angrier of the species. He has in his translation used inclusive language, and he notes (perhaps surprisingly) that since ‘S.’s positive anecdotes, illustrating patience and calm-mindedness, are less compelling than his tales of rage and cruelty, this volume makes sparing use of them.’

Every so often R. interposes a short passage in italics to indicate where S.’s argument is leading: e.g. ‘Having dealt with anger in the abstract … S. turns in the second half of his treatise towards a pragmatic discussion of how to stop anger from getting hold of us, and how to manage it once it does.’ These editorial interventions help the reader to follow the threads of what is occasionally a diffuse and repetitive offering from S.

Basically, S. argues that anger is always to be avoided, that arguments for it as a spur to justice or as a motivator to action are specious, that to respond to another’s anger with acceptance, not retaliation, is both wise and prudent (there are some ghastly examples of people feigning indifference when their sons are slaughtered), and that responding to minor annoyances aggravate rather than diminish their significance.

These and countless other ideas bubble around in the de ira, and your reviewer found himself almost shouting on occasion, ‘That can’t be right!’ and then, on reflection, thinking ‘perhaps S. has got a point.’ For example, should we not be angry at those who abuse our loved ones, but should our response to such behaviour be motivated solely by our duty towards the injured? The fact that such questions provoke earnest thought is a tribute both to S. and to R.’s handling of the material.

The translation is clear and effective. For example, in an age in which people and groups take offence so quickly, we need to heed S.’s warning causa iracundiae opinio iniuriae est, cui non facile credendum est, which R. translates as ‘the cause of anger is the sense of having been wronged, but one ought not to trust this sense.’

Presumably for reasons of space, there is no bibliography or index, but, following S.’s advice, we should not get worked up about such things! This is a well-produced, stimulating book and a worthy addition to an excellent series.

Ray Morris

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