Friday, 8 May 2015

On the Avoidance of Anger by Plutarch.

Plutarch's On the Avoidance of Anger is the 19th piece of writing for the Deal Me In Challenge, and I did laugh last week when I drew it - I had a feeling that writing about this essay on the day after the election would somehow be appropriate. What I didn't realise that all of my fears were actually quite tame compared with the reality of it - a Conservative majority government. I'm still reeling, and I had planned this morning to write a few words on this and leave Plutarch for the weekend, however no words will come, so I'm going to stick with the planned post.

Plutarch (Πλούταρχος) was a Greek historian, essayist, and biographer who later became a Roman citizen (changing his name to Lucius Mestrius Plutarchus). His essay On the Avoidance of Anger (Περὶ ἀοργησίας) is part of his Moralia (Ἠθικά), a series of 78 essays and speeches (usually arranged in 14 books: Avoidance of Anger is within Book I) written around 100 A.D. I have the Penguin Classics edition, which is essentially the edited version of Moralia, and I'm looking forward to reading more of it.

In the essay one of the first points Plutarch makes is on the importance of being gentle. Addressing Fundanus, a Roman, he writes,
... this gentleness has not made you ineffective or languid, but it has replaced your notorious sudden changes of mood with a smooth surface and an effective, productive depth - like a cultivated field.
Reason, it is argued, is a "therapeutic agent", and from reason one gains energy and nourishment. Thus, Plutarch suggests,
... it is particularly important for people to gather from far and wide everything philosophy has to offer that will combat anger, and to store it up in the mind - because the time when the need is crucial is also when they will not readily find it possible to introduce such assistance.
If this is not adhered to, if anger becomes uncontrollable the result is "prickliness, bitterness and a sour temper". The key to managing this is to spot the early signs of anger, making it easy not to give rise to it, denying Hieronymus' claim that stopping anger in its tracks is too difficult owing to its speed.

He continues,
You see, my friend, there is a first-rate way to bring down our tyrant-like temper, which is not to listen or obey when it is ordering us to raise our voices, look fierce and beat our breasts, but to keep quiet and, as if the emotion was a disease, not aggravate it by thrashing and yelling.
It is this behaviour, he adds, that makes us not only angry but ridiculous, cruel, and ugly. Ultimately, it exhausts us, leaving us no good to tackle any problem that provoked us. Discipline of anger, indeed any emotion, is not always possible, but at the least an attempt ought to be made.

And so the essay continues. It is a tad repetitive though not very long - in my edition it was about 24 pages. Nevertheless, it's interesting, and this subject of anger is not limited to Plutarch - since the first lines of The Iliad were read, "Sing, O goddess, the anger of Achilles" there has been much written on the subject. Seneca's De Ira is one such example, and Plato in Laws wrote too on the subject distinguishing between anger and rage. I must note that not all Greeks took Plutarch's stance that righteous anger as potentially damaging, quite the opposite in fact.

Overall, I do think that perhaps Plutach's essay is too simplistic, and I am inclined to agree with Plato's distinction between anger and rage. That said I appreciate Plutarch's sentiment very much - I do believe it is absolutely true that anger may lead to ridiculousness, cruelty, and extreme ugliness. I've hardly seen anything but anger of late with regard to the aforementioned election and I've learned that it really does not do to shout down one's opponent, that only leads to one's opponent becoming defensive. Any righteous message is therefore lost. In short, there is a lot to be learned from this essay and I appreciated the message of dignity in the face of opposition.

Next week for the Deal Me In Challenge - Investigations of a Dog by Franz Kafka. 


  1. I've read Plutarch's Lives multiple times but never explored his essays. Your post makes me want to do so.

    Do you remember that a volume of Plutarch was one of the three books Frankenstein's monster found in the woods, which helped him educate himself?

    1. No, I forgot about that - thanks for the reminder!

      I think when I've finished these essays I might have to look at Lives. If you've read it multiple times I'm guessing it's good :)


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