William Poulos reviews 'How To Keep Your Cool: An ancient guide to anger management' by Seneca and 'How To Be a Friend: An ancient guide to true friendship' by Marcus Tullius Cicero

William Poulos reviews 'How To Keep Your Cool: An ancient guide to anger management' by Seneca and 'How To Be a Friend: An ancient guide to true friendship' by Marcus Tullius Cicero

How To Keep Your Cool: An ancient guide to anger management

by Seneca, translated by James Romm

Princeton University Press (Footprint), $29.99 pb, 240 pp, 9780691181950

Book Cover 2 Small

How To Be a Friend: An ancient guide to true friendship

by by Marcus Tullius Cicero, translated by Philip Freeman

Princeton University Press (Footprint), $29.99 pb, 208 pp, 9780691177199

‘Serenity now,’ repeated Seinfeld’s Frank Costanza whenever his blood pressure got too high. His doctor recommended this anger-management technique, but he might as well have got it from Seneca, whose De Ira (Of Anger) James Romm has edited, translated, and released as How To Keep Your Cool. Seneca’s credentials are mixed: as a senator, he probably saw a fair bit of Caligula’s anger; as an exile, he had plenty of time for introspection; as a tutor, he saw his student Nero committ matricide. As Lloyd Braun said, ‘Serenity now; insanity later.’

To be fair, Seneca’s advice is more nuanced than repeating mantras. He acknowledges that we have involuntary reactions, but he stresses that emotions usurp our judgement only if we let them. As Romm translates: ‘just as bodies in freefall have no power over themselves and cannot resist or slow their descent … so the mind, if it launches itself into anger, or love, or the other emotions, has no chance to check its impetus’. Emotions are, by definition, irrational; you cannot have a moderate emotion any more than you can have moderate insanity. Reject them as soon as they appear: stay cool.

A public man, Seneca was aware that some situations demand a response. Should one do nothing if he sees his father killed or his mother raped? Seneca replies that the good man will avenge his parents because it’s his duty, not because he’s aggrieved (quia oportet, non quia dolet). This is shocking but not novel: Seneca was working within the Stoic tradition, which states that the ideal man has no emotions. Fortunately, he knows we can’t purge emotions. We can, however, prevent them from controlling us.

When we readily judge that someone has wronged us, anger is the result. Avoid this judgement by thinking of the times you’ve done something wrong. Don’t believe everything you hear. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t live in luxury: ‘the mind must be roughly treated so that it does not feel any blows except the heavy ones’. The best cure for anger is delay (mora): would you hastily condemn a friend? So far, so good – but then Seneca encourages a disturbing lenience:

[the man who wronged you] was ordered to do it: who but an unfair man becomes angry at what’s necessary? He had been hurt: it’s no injury if you suffer what you did to him first. He’s a judge: you would do better to trust his opinion than your own. He’s a king: if you’re guilty and he punishes you, yield to justice; if you’re innocent, yield to your fate.


Subscribe to ABR


Read the rest of this article by subscribing to ABR Online for as little as $10 a month.

We offer a range of subscription options, including print, which can be found by clicking here. If you are already a subscriber, enter your username and password in the ‘Log In’ section in the top right-hand corner of the screen.

If you require assistance, contact us or consult the Frequently Asked Questions page.

Published in ABR Online Exclusives
William Poulos

William Poulos

William Poulos is a poet and essayist who publishes in Australia and the United Kingdom. Among his various projects, he is researching the influence of Martial on Alexander Pope.

Social Profiles

Leave a comment

Please note that all comments must be approved by ABR and comply with our Terms & Conditions.

NB: If you are an ABR Online subscriber or contributor, you will need to login to ABR Online in order to post a comment. If you have forgotten your login details, or if you receive an error message when trying to submit your comment, please email your comment (and the name of the article to which it relates) to comments@australianbookreview.com.au. We will review your comment and, subject to approval, we will post it under your name.