06 Apr On the Control of Anger (PLUTARCH)
SULLA. A good plan, as it seems to me, Fundanus,7 is that which painters follow: they scrutinize their productions from time to time before they finish them. They do this because, by withdrawing their gaze and by inspecting their work often, they are able to form a fresh judgement, and one which is more likely to seize upon any slight discrepancy, such as the familiarity of uninterrupted contemplation will conceal. Since, therefore, it is impossible for a man to contemplate himself from time to time by getting apart from himself and interrupting his consciousness of himself by breaking its continuity (and this is what, more than anything else, makes every man a poorer judge of himself than of others), the next best course would be for him to inspect his friends from time to time and likewise to offer himself to them, not to see if he is grown old suddenly or if his body is better or worse, but for them to examine both his behaviour and his character to learn whether time has added some excellence or taken away some vice. As for me, since I have returned to Rome after a year’s absence and this is now the fifth month that I have been with you constantly, I do not find it altogether surprising that, of the virtues which were already yours by gift of Nature, there has been so great an increment and increase; but when I see that that violent and fiery tendency of yours toward anger has become so gentle and submissive to reason, it occurs to me to say with reference to your temper O wonder, how much milder has it grown!
FUNDANUS. Well, what about you, my generous friend Sulla? Are you careful not to let your goodwill and friendship for me make you overlook some of my real qualities?
SULLA. Neither of these suppositions is true, Fundanus. Please do as I ask.
FUNDANUS. One of those excellent precepts of Musonius which I remember, Sulla, is: “He that wishes to come through life safe and sound must continue throughout his life to be under treatment.” For I do not think that reason should be used in one’s cure as we use hellebore, and be washed out of the body together with the disease, but it must remain in the soul and keep watch and ward over the judgements. For the power of reason is not like drugs, but like wholesome food, engendering an excellent state, together with great vigour, in those who become accustomed to it; but exhortations and admonitions, if applied to the passions when they are at their height and swollen, can scarcely accomplish anything at all, and that with difficulty. For this reason a ship deserted by her crew in the midst of a storm far out at sea will more easily be able to take on a pilot from the outside, than will a man who is being tossed upon the billows of passion and anger admit the reasoning of another, unless he has his own powers of reason prepared to receive it. But just as those who expect a siege collect and store up all that is useful to them if they despair of relief from without, so it is most important that we should acquire far in advance the reinforcements which philosophy provides against temper and convey them into the soul in the knowledge that, when the occasion for using them comes, it will not be possible to introduce them with ease. For the soul hears nothing from the outside because of its tumult unless it has its own reason within, which, like a boatswain who directs the rowers, will promptly catch and understand every order given. Yet if the soul has heard words of advice which have been quietly and mildly spoken, it despises them; and toward any who insist in a rougher fashion, it grows exasperated. In fact, temper is overbearing and stubborn and altogether difficult for anyone other than itself to move, and, like a well-fortified tyranny, must have its destroyer born and bred in the same household. To be sure, when anger persists and its outbursts are frequent, there is created in the soul an evil state which is called irascibility, and this usually results in sudden outbursts of rage, moroseness, and peevishness when the temper becomes ulcerated, easily offended, and liable to find fault for even trivial offences, like a weak, thin piece of iron which is always getting scratched. But if judgement at once opposes the fits of anger and represses them, it not only cures them for the present, but for the future also it renders the soul firm and difficult for the passion to attack. In my own case, at any rate, when I had opposed anger two or three times, it came about that I experienced what the Thebans did, who, when they had for the first time repulsed the Spartans, who had the reputation of being invincible, were never thereafter defeated by them in any battle; for I acquired the proud consciousness that it is possible for reason to conquer. Not only did I see that anger ceases when cold water is sprinkled on it, as Aristotle says, but that it is also extinguished when a poultice of fear is applied to it. And, by Heaven, if joy comes on the scene, in the case of many the temper has been quickly “warmed,” as Homer says, or dissipated. Consequently I came to the opinion that this passion is not altogether incurable, for those, at least, who wish to cure it.