Plutarch, On the Control of Anger

Translated by William Dillingham. Edition by William W. Goodwin, Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1878.
Annotation of text copyright 2007 David Trumbull, Agathon Associates. All Rights Reserved.

The Persons of the dialogue are:
  • FUNDANUS (principal speaker) and
  • SEXTIUS SYLLA (a friend of Plutarch)
  • ¶ Plutarch through the speaker Sylla, notes that, as one cannot step away from himself in order to return and observe whether he has progressed in virtue, one stands in need of friends to examine and prove one. [1] SYLLA. Those painters, O Fundanus, in my opinion do very wisely, who never finish any piece at the first sitting, but take a review of it at some convenient distance of time; because the eye, being relieved for a time, renews its power by making frequent and fresh judgments, and becomes able to observe many small and critical differences which continual poring and familiarity would prevent it from noticing. Now, because it cannot be that a man should stand off from himself and interrupt his consciousness, and then after some interval return to accost himself again (which is one principal reason why a man is a worse judge of himself than of other men), the next best course that a man can take will be to inspect his friends after some time of absence, and also to offer himself to their examination, not to see whether he be grown old on the sudden, or whether the habit of his body be become better or worse than it was before, but that they may take notice of his manner and behavior, whether in that time he hath made any advance in goodness, or gained ground of his vices. Wherefore, being after two years' absence returned to Rome, and having since conversed with thee here again for these five months, I think it no great matter of wonder that those good qualities which, by the advantage of a good natural disposition, you were formerly possessed of have in this time received so considerable an increase. But truly, when I behold how that vehement and fiery disposition which you had to anger is now through the conduct of reason become so gentle and tractable, my mind prompts me to say, with Homer,—

    O wonder! how much gentler is he grown!
    —Iliad xxii, 373.
    ¶ Sylla, noting that Fundanus, in the two years since last they met, seems to have mastered the anger which formerly had mastered him, asks Fundanus by what means he has achieved this improvement. Nor hath this gentleness produced in thee any laziness or irresolution; but, like cultivation in the earth, it hath caused an evenness and a profundity very effectual unto fruitful action, instead of thy former vehemency and over-eagerness. And therefore it is evident that thy former proneness to anger hath not been withered in thee by any decay of vigor which age might have effected, or spontaneously; but that it hath been cured by making use of some mollifying precepts.

    And indeed, to tell you the truth, when I heard our friend Eros say the same thing, I had a suspicion that he did not report the thing as it was, but that out of mere good-will he testified those things of you which ought to be found in every good and virtuous man. And yet you know he cannot be easily induced to depart from what he judges to be true, in order to favor any man. But now, truly, as I acquit him of having therein made any false report of thee, so I desire thee, being now at leisure from thy journey, to declare unto us the means and (as it were) the medicine, by use whereof thou hast brought thy mind to be thus manageable and natural, thus gentle and obedient unto reason.

    FUNDANUS. But in the mean while, O most kind Sylla, you had best beware, lest you also through affection and friendship may be somewhat careless in making an estimate of my affairs. For Eros, having himself also a mind oft-times unable to keep its ground and to contain itself within that obedience which Homer mentions, but subject to be exasperated through an hatred of men's wickedness, may perhaps think I am grown more mild; just as in music, when the key is changed, that note which before was the base becomes a higher note with respect to others which are now below it.

    SYLLA. Neither of these is so, Fundanus; but, I pray you, gratify us all by granting the request I made.

    ¶ The answer is that first one must daily feed on reason, for other passions may give way before reason, but not so anger which closes the mind from receiving reasonable advice unless the mind has been already fortified from within by reason. [2] FUNDANUS. This then, O Sylla, is one of those excellent rules given by Musonius which I bear in memory,—that those who would be in sound health must physic themselves all their lives. Now I do not think that reason cures, like hellebore, by purging out itself together with the disease it cures, but by keeping possession of the soul, and so governing and guarding its judgments. For the power of reason is not like drugs, but like wholesome food; and, with the assistance of a good natural disposition, it produceth a healthful constitution in all with whom it hath become familiar.

    And as for those good exhortations and admonitions which are applied to passions while they swell and are at their height, they work but slowly and with small success; and they differ in nothing from those strong-smelling things, which indeed do serve to put those that have the falling sickness upon their legs again after they are fallen, but are not able to remove the disease. For whereas other passions, even when they are in their ruff and acme, do in some sort yield and admit reason into the soul, which comes to help it from without; anger does not, as Melanthius says,—

    Displace the mind, and then act dismal things;

    but it absolutely turns the mind out of doors, and bolts the door against it; and, like those who burn their houses and themselves within them, it makes all things within full of confusion, smoke, and noise, so that the soul can neither see nor hear any thing that might relieve it. Wherefore sooner will an empty ship in a storm at sea admit of a pilot from without, than a man tossed with anger and rage listen to the advice of another, unless he have his own reason first prepared to entertain it.

    But as those who expect to be besieged are wont to gather together and lay in provisions of such things as they are like to need, not trusting to hopes of relief from without, so ought it to be our special concern to fetch in from philosophy such foreign helps as it affords against anger, and to store them up in the soul beforehand, seeing that it will not be so easy a matter to provide ourselves when the time is come for using them. For either the soul cannot hear what is spoken without, by reason of the tumult, unless it have its own reason (like the director of the rowers in a ship) ready to entertain and understand whatsoever precept shall be given; or, if it do chance to hear, yet will it be ready to despise what is patiently and mildly offered, and to be exasperated by what shall be pressed upon it with more vehemency. For, since wrath is proud and self-conceited, and utterly averse from compliance with others, like a fortified and guarded tyranny, that which is to overthrow it must be bred within it and be of its own household.

    ¶ Reason and anger both admit of cultivation by application and practice; he who indulges anger will, over time, develop a wrathful habit of soul, but he who resists anger will find himself less and less prone to anger. [3] Now the continuance of anger and frequent fits of it produce an evil habit in the soul called wrathfulness, or a propensity to be angry, which oft-times ends in choleric temper, bitterness, and moroseness. Then the mind becomes ulcerated, peevish, and querulous, and like a thin, weak plate of iron, receives impression and is wounded by even the least occurrence; but when the judgment presently seizes upon wrathful ebullitions and suppresses them, it not only works a cure for the present, but renders the soul firm and not so liable to such impressions for the future. And truly, when I myself had twice or thrice made a resolute resistance unto anger, the like befell me that did the Thebans; who, having once foiled the Lacedaemonians, that before that time had held themselves invincible, never after lost so much as one battle which they fought against them. For I became fully assured in my mind, that anger might be overcome by the use of reason. And I perceived that it might not only be quieted by the sprinkling of cold water, as Aristotle relates, but also be extinguished by putting one into a fright. Yea, according to Homer, many men have had their anger melted and dissipated by sudden surprise of joy. So that I came to this firm resolution, that this passion is not altogether incurable to such as are but willing to be cured; since the beginnings and occasions of it are not always great or forcible; but a scoff, or a jest, or the laughing at one, or a nod only, or some other matter of no great importance, will put many men into a passion. Thus Helen, by addressing her niece in the words beginning,—

    O my Electra, now a virgin stale,

    provoked her to make this nipping return:—

    Thou'rt wise too late, thou shouldst have kept at home.

    And so did Callisthenes provoke Alexander by saying, when the great bowl was going round, I will not drink so deep in honor of Alexander, as to make work for Aesculapius.

    ¶ Anger is easy to quell at its first manifestation, but can hardly be rooted out later after it has been nourished. [4] As therefore it is an easy matter to stop the fire that is kindled only in hare's wool, candle-wick, or a little chaff, but if it have once taken hold of matter that hath solidity and thickness, it soon inflames and consumes, as Aeschylus says,—

    With youthful vigor the carpenter's lofty work;

    so he that observes anger while it is in its beginning, and sees it by degrees smoking and taking fire from some speech or chaff-like scurrility, need take no great pains to extinguish it, but oftentimes can put an end to it only by silence or neglect. For as he that adds no fuel to the fire hath already as good as put it out, so he that doth not feed anger at the first, nor blow the fire in himself, hath prevented and destroyed it. Wherefore Hieronymus /1/, although he taught many other useful things, yet hath given me no satisfaction in saying that anger is not perceptible in its birth, by reason of its suddenness, but only after its birth and while it lives; for there is no other passion, while it is gathering and stirring up, which hath its rise and increase so conspicuous and observable. This is very skilfully taught by Homer, by making Achilles suddenly surprised with grief as soon as ever the word fell on his ear, saying of him,—

    This said, a sable cloud of grief covered him o'er;

    but making Agamemnon grow angry slowly and need many words to inflame him, so that, if these had been stopped and forbidden when they began, the contest had never grown to that degree and greatness which it did. Wherefore Socrates, as oft as he perceived any fierceness of spirit to rise within him towards any of his friends, setting himself like a promontory to break the waves, would speak with a lower voice, bear a smiling countenance, and look with a more gentle eye; and thus, by bending the other way and moving contrary to the passion, he kept himself from falling or being worsted.

    ¶ Plutarch advices to suppress anger by refusing to yield to it and by temporarily withdrawing from society, thus avoiding the occasion of venting anger on fellow man, because, anger and strife being such strong emotions, will if no enemy is at hand, break out toward even a friend. [5] For the first way, my friend, to suppress anger, as you would a tyrant, is not to obey or yield to it when it commands us to speak high, to look fiercely, and to beat ourselves; but to be quiet, and not increase the passion, as we do a disease, by impatient tossing and crying out. It is true that lovers' practices, such as revelling, singing, crowning the door with garlands, have a kind of alleviation in them which is neither rude nor unpleasing:—

    Coming, I asked not who or whose she was,
    But kissed her door full sweetly,— that I wot;
    If this be sin, to sin I can but choose.

    So the weeping and lamentation which we permit in mourners doubtless carry forth much of the grief together with the tears. But anger, quite on the contrary, is more inflamed by what the angry persons say or do.

    The best course then is for a man to compose himself, or else to run away and hide himself and retreat into quiet, as into an haven, as if he perceived a fit of epilepsy coming on, lest he fall, or rather fall upon others; and truly we do most and most frequently fall upon our friends. For we neither love all, nor envy all, nor fear all men; but there is nothing untouched and unset upon by anger /2/. We are angry with our foes and with our friends; with our own children and our parents; nay, with the Gods above, and the very beasts below us, and instruments that have no life, as Thamyras was,—

    His horn, though bound with gold, he brake in's ire,
    He brake his melodious and well-strung lyre;

    and Pandarus, wishing a curse upon himself if he did not burn his bow,

    First broken by his hands.

    But Xerxes dealt blows and marks of his displeasure to the sea itself /3/, and sent his letters to the mountain in the style ensuing: "O thou wretched Athos, whose top now reaches to the skies, I charge thee, put not in the way of my works stones too big and difficult to be wrought. If thou do, I will cut thee into pieces, and cast thee into the sea."

    For anger hath many terrible effects, and many also that are ridiculous; and therefore of all passions, this of anger is most hated and most contemned, and it is good to consider it in both respects.

    ¶ As the saying goes, "if you could see how you look," so Plutarch argues that as anger is disfiguring, one should bear in mind an image of the ugliness of anger, which image, when reflected on, will prompt one to avoid anger. [6] I therefore, whether rightly or not I know not, began this cure with learning the nature of anger by beholding it in other men, as the Lacedaemonians learned what drunkenness was by seeing it in the Helots /4/. And, in the first place, as Hippocrates said that that was the most dangerous disease which made the sick man's countenance most unlike to what it was, so I observed that men transported with anger also exceedingly change their visage, color, gait, and voice. Accordingly I formed a kind of image of that passion to myself, withal conceiving great in dignation against myself if I should at any time appear to my friends, or to my wife and daughters, so terrible and discomposed, not only with so wild and strange a look, but also with so fierce and harsh a voice, as I had met with in some others of my acquaintance, who by reason of anger were not able to observe either good manners or countenance or graceful speech, or even their persuasiveness and affability in conversation.

    Wherefore Caius Gracchus /5/, the orator, being of a rugged disposition and a passionate kind of speaker, had a pipe made for him, such as musicians use to vary their voice higher or lower by degrees; and with this pipe his servant stood behind him while he pronounced, and gave him a mild and gentle note, whereby he took him down from his loudness, and took off the harshness and angriness of his voice, assuaging and charming the anger of the orator,

    As their shrill wax-joined reed who herds do keep
    Sounds forth sweet measures, which invite to sleep.

    For my own part, had I a careful and pleasant companion who would show me my angry face in a glass, I should not at all take it ill. In like manner, some are wont to have a looking-glass held to them after they have bathed, though to little purpose; but to behold one's self unnaturally disguised and disordered will conduce not a little to the impeachment of anger. For those who delight in pleasant fables tell us, that Minerva herself, playing on a pipe /6/, was thus admonished by a satyr:—

    That look becomes you not, lay down your pipes,
    And take your arms, and set your cheeks to rights;

    but would not regard it; yet, when by chance she beheld the mien of her countenance in a river, she was moved with indignation, and cast her pipes away; and yet here art had the delight of melody to comfort her for the deformity. And Marsyas, as it seems, did with a kind of muzzle and mouth-piece restrain by force the too horrible eruption of his breath when he played, and so corrected and concealed the distortion of his visage:—

    With shining gold he girt his temples rough,
    And his wide mouth with thongs that tied behind.

    Now anger doth swell and puff up the countenance very indecently, and sends forth a yet more indecent and unpleasant voice,—

    Moving the heart-strings, which should be at rest.

    For when the sea is tossed and troubled with winds, and casts up moss and sea-weed, they say it is purged; but those impure, bitter, and vain words which anger throws up when the soul has become a kind of whirlpool, defile the speakers, in the first place, and fill them with dishonor, arguing them to have always had such things in them and to be full of them, only now they are discovered to have them by their anger. So for a mere word, the lightest of things (as Plato says), they undergo the heaviest of punishments, being ever after accounted enemies, evil speakers, and of a malignant disposition.

    ¶ Above all, one must control the tongue by which anger breaks out against fellow man to lasting harm. [7] While now I see all this and bear it in mind, the thought occurs to me, and I naturally consider by myself, that as it is good for one in a fever, so much better is it for one in anger, to have his tongue soft and smooth. For if the tongue in a fever be unnaturally affected, it is indeed an evil symptom, but not a cause of harm; but when the tongue of angry men becomes rough and foul, and breaks out into absurd speeches, it produces insults which work irreconcilable hatred, and proves that a poisonous malevolence lies festering within. For wine does not make men vent any thing so impure and odious as anger doth; and, besides, what proceeds from wine is matter for jest and laughter, but that from anger is mixed with gall and bitterness. And he that is silent in his cups is counted a burthen, and a bore to the company, whereas in anger there is nothing more commended than peace and silence; as Sappho adviseth,—

    When anger once is spread within thy breast,
    Shut up thy tongue, that vainly barking beast.
    ¶ One ought to have an abhorance and shame at anger for in the display of anger is the exhibition of want of that self-control which should be characteristic of manliness. [8] Nor doth the constant observation of ourselves in anger minister these things only to our consideration, but it also gives us to understand another natural property of anger, how disingenuous and unmanly a thing it is, and how far from true wisdom and greatness of mind. Yet the vulgar account the angry man's turbulence to be his activity, his loud threats to argue boldness, and his refractoriness strength; as also some mistake his cruelty for an undertaking of great matters, his implacableness for a firmness of resolution, and his morosity for an hatred of that which is evil. For, in truth, both the deeds and motions and the whole mien of angry men do accuse them of much littleness and infirmity, not only when they vex little children, scold silly women, and think dogs and horses and asses worthy of their anger and deserving to be punished (as Ctesiphon the Pancratiast, who vouchsafed to kick the ass that had kicked him first); but even in their tyrannical slaughters, their mean-spiritedness appearing in their bitterness, and their suffering exhibited outwardly in their actions, are but like to the biting of serpents who, when they themselves become burnt and full of pain, violently thrust the venom that inflames them from themselves into those that have hurt them. For as a great blow causes a great swelling in the flesh, so in the softest souls the giving way to a passion for hurting others, like a stroke on the soul, doth make it to swell with anger; and all the more, the greater is its weakness.

    For this cause it is that women are more apt to be angry than men are, and sick persons than the healthful, and old men than those who are in their perfect age and strength, and men in misery than such as prosper. For the covetous man is most prone to be angry with his steward, the glutton with his cook, the jealous man with his wife, the vainglorious person with him that speaks ill of him; but of all men there are none so exceedingly disposed to be angry as those who are ambitious of honor, and affect to carry on a faction in a city, which (according to Pindar) is but a splendid vexation. In like manner, from the great grief and suffering of the soul, through weakness especially, there ariseth anger, which is not like the nerves of the soul (as one spake), but like its straining and convulsive motions when it vehemently stirs itself up in its desires and endeavors of revenge.

    ¶ It is part of fortitude to bear offenses with mildness, of which Plutarch brings forth examples, not from the philosophers, but these from the lives of men of action.

  • Antigonus who said to his soldiers reviling him near his tent not knowing that he heard them: "Please go stand somewhere else if you must revile me"; and

  • Phillip who gave gifts of friendship as to a stranger when he came upon Arcadio who had fled after abusing Phillip with his speech and declaring that he wanted to run far away to where none would know Phillip, and who said to those who urged him to smite the Greeks who spoke ill of him even after he had treated them with leniency, "and how do you think they'll speak of me if I abuse them?"

    And not be like Alexander who, in a fit of anger, slew Callisthenes and Clitus, two of his ablest friends.

  • [9] Indeed such evil examples as these afford us speculations which are necessary, though not pleasant. But now, from those who have carried themselves mildly and gently in their anger, I shall present you with most excellent sayings and beautiful contemplations; and I begin to contemn such as say, You have wronged a man indeed, and is a man to bear this?—Stamp on his neck, tread him down in the dirt,— and such like provoking speeches, whereby some do very unhandsomely translate and remove anger from the women's to the men's apartment. For fortitude, which in other respects agrees with justice, seems only to disagree in respect of mildness, which she claims as more properly her own. For it sometimes befalls even worser men to bear rule over those who are better than themselves; but to erect a trophy in the soul against anger (which Heraclitus says it is an hard thing to fight against, because whatever it resolves to have, it buys at no less a price than the soul itself) is that which none but a great and victorious power is able to achieve, since that alone can bind and curb the passions by its decrees, as with nerves and tendons.

    Wherefore I always strive to collect and read not only the sayings and deeds of philosophers, who (wise men say) had no gall in them, but especially those of kings and tyrants. Of this sort was the saying of Antigonus to his soldiers, when, as some were reviling him near his tent, supposing that he had not heard them, he stretched his staff out of the tent, and said: What! will you not stand somewhere farther off, while you revile me? So was that of Arcadio the Achaean, who was ever speaking ill of Philip, exhorting men to flee

    Till they should come where none would Philip know.

    When afterwards by some accident he appeared in Macedonia, Philip's friends were of opinion that he ought not to be suffered, but be punished; but Philip meeting him and speaking courteously to him, and then sending him gifts, particularly such as were wont to be given to strangers, bade him learn for the time to come what to speak of him to the Greeks. And when all testified that the man was become a great praiser of Philip, even to admiration, You see, said Philip, I am a better physician than you. And when he had been reproached at the Olympic solemnities, and some said it was fit to make the Grecians smart and rue it for reviling Philip, who had dealt well with them, What then, said he, will they do, if I make them smart? Those things also which Pisistratus did to Thrasybulus, and Porsena to Mutius, were bravely done; and so was that of Magas to Philemon, for having been by him exposed to laughter in a comedy on the public stage, in these words:—

    Magas, the king hath sent thee letters:
    Unhappy Magas, thou dost know no letters.

    And having taken Philemon as he was by a tempest cast on shore at Paraetonium, he commanded a soldier only to touch his neck with his naked sword and to go quietly away; and then having sent him a ball and huckle-bones, as if he were a child that wanted understanding, he dismissed him. Ptolemy was once jeering a grammarian for his want of learning, and asked him who was the father of Peleus: I will answer you (quoth he) if you will tell me first who was the father of Lagus. This jeer gave the king a rub for the obscurity of his birth, whereat all were moved with indignation, as a thing not to be endured. But, said Ptolemy, if it is not fit for a king to be jeered, then no more is it fit for him to jeer others. But Alexander was more severe than he was wont in his carriage towards Calisthenes and Clitus /7/. Wherefore Porus, being taken captive by him, desired him to treat him like a king; and when Alexander asked him if he desired no more, he answered, When I say like a king, I have comprised all. And hence it is that they call the king of the Gods Meilichius, while the Athenians, I think, call him Maimactes; but the office of punishing they ascribe to the Furies and evil Genii, never giving it the epithet of divine or heavenly.

    ¶ Anger, being immoderate and unreasoning, is rather a hindrance than an aid to one going into battle of swords or of words. [10] As therefore one said of Philip, when he razed the city of Olynthus, But he is not able to build such another city; so may it be said to anger, Thou canst overthrow, and destroy, and cut down; but to restore, to save, to spare, and to bear with, is the work of gentleness and moderation, of a Camillus, a Metellus, an Aristides, and a Socrates; but to strike the sting into one and to bite is the part of pismires and horse-flies. And truly, while I well consider revenge, I find that the way which anger takes for it proves for the most part ineffectual, being spent in biting the lips, gnashing the teeth, vain assaults, and railings full of silly threats; and then it acts like children in a race, who, for want of governing themselves, tumble down ridiculously before they come to the goal towards which they are hastening. Hence that Rhodian said not amiss to the servant of the Roman general, who spake loudly and fiercely to him, It matters not much what thou sayest, but what this your master in silence thinks. And Sophocles, having introduced Neoptolemus and Eurypylus in full armor, gave a high commendation of them when he said,—

    Into the hosts of brazen-armed men
    Each boldly charged, but ne'er reviled his foe.
    ¶ As an example, Plutarch presents Pelopidas the Theban who, in his battle against Alexander of Pherae could not moderate his anger, but blindly following his passion, regardless alike of his own life and his command, lost his life and left his men leaderless.

    ¶ In short, he who would command men must first control himself.

    Some indeed of the barbarians poison their swords; but true valor has no need of choler, as being dipped in reason; but anger and fury are weak and easily broken. Wherefore the Lacedaemonians are wont by the sounding of pipes to take off the edge of anger from their soldiers, when they fight; and before they go to battle, to sacrifice to the Muses, that they may have the steady use of their reason; and when they have put their enemies to flight, they pursue them not, but sound a retreat (as it were) to their wrath, which, like a short dagger, can easily be handled and drawn back. But anger makes slaughter of thousands before it can avenge itself, as it did of Cyrus and Pelopidas the Theban /8/. Agathocles, being reviled by some whom he besieged, bore it with mildness; and when one said to him, O Potter, whence wilt thou have pay for thy mercenary soldiers? he answered with laughter, From your city, if I can take it. And when some one from the wall derided Antigonus for his deformity, he answered, I thought surely I had a handsome face: and when he had taken the city, he sold those for slaves who had scoffed at him, protesting that, if they reviled him so again, he would call them to account before their masters.

    Furthermore, I observe that hunters and orators are wont to be much foiled by anger. Aristotle reports that the friends of Satyrus once stopped his ears with wax, when he was to plead a cause, that so he might not confound the matter through anger at the revilings of his enemies. Do we not ourselves oftentimes miss of punishing an offending servant, because he runs away from us in fright when he hears our threatening words? That therefore which nurses say to little children—Do not cry, and thou shalt have it—may not unfitly be applied to our mind when angry. Be not hasty, neither speak too loud, nor be too urgent, and so what you desire will be sooner and better accomplished. For as a father, when he sees his son about to cleave or cut something with an hatchet, takes the hatchet himself and doth it for him; so one taking the work of revenge out of the hand of anger doth himself, without danger or hurt, yea, with profit also, inflict punishment on him that deserves it, and not on himself instead of him, as anger oft-times doth.

    ¶ When punishing underlings, anger should be avoided for it is better that servants be something the worse by indulgence than that the master be distorted by anger. [11] Now, whereas all passions do stand in need of discipline, which by exercise tames and subdues their unreasonableness and stubbornness, there is none about which we have more need to be exercised in reference to servants than that of anger. For neither do we envy nor fear them, nor have we any competition for honor with them; but we have frequent fits of anger with them, which cause many offences and errors, by reason of the very power possessed by us as masters, and which bring us easily to the ground, as if we stood in a slippery place with no one standing by to save us. For it is impossible to keep an irresponsible power from offending in the excitement of passion, unless we gird up that great power with gentleness, and can slight the frequent speeches of wife and friends accusing us of remissness. And indeed I myself have by nothing more than by such speeches been incensed against my servants, as if they were spoiled for want of beating. And truly it was late before I came to understand, that it was better that servants should be something the worse by indulgence, than that one should distort himself through wrath and bitterness for the amendment of others. And secondly, observing that many by this very impunity have been brought to be ashamed to be wicked, and have begun their change to virtue more from being pardoned than from being punished, and that they have obeyed some upon their nod only, peaceably, and more willingly than they have done others with all their beating and scourging, I became persuaded of this, that reason was fitter to govern with than anger. For it is not as the poet said,—

    Wherever fear is, there is modesty;
    ¶ Punishment administered in anger moves the recipient to devise plans to do evil undetected rather than to repent of doing evil. but, on the contrary, it is in the modest that that fear is bred which produces moderation, whereas continual and unmerciful beating doth not make men repent of doing evil, but only devise plans for doing it without being detected. And in the third place I always remember and consider with myself, that as he who taught us the art of shooting did not forbid us to shoot, but only to shoot amiss, so no more can it be any hindrance from punishing to teach us how we may do it seasonably and moderately, with benefit and decency. I therefore strive to put away anger, especially by not denying the punished a liberty to plead for themselves, but granting them an hearing. For time gives a breathing-space unto passion, and a delay which mitigates and dissolves it; and a man's judgment in the mean while finds out both a becoming manner and a proportionable measure of punishing. And moreover hereby, he that is punished hath not any pretence left him to object against the correction given him, if he is punished not out of anger, but being first himself convinced of his fault. And finally we are here saved from the greatest disgrace of all, for by this means the servant will not seem to speak more just things than his master.

    ¶ It is better to wait until anger has subsided before administering punishment, not using anger as a sauce to whet the appetite for punishment. As therefore Phocion /9/ after the death of Alexander, to hinder the Athenians from rising too soon or believing it too hastily, said: O Athenians, if he is dead to-day, he will be so to-morrow, and on the next day after that; in like manner do I judge one ought to suggest to himself, who through anger is making haste to punish: If it is true to-day that he hath thus wronged thee, it will be true to-morrow, and on the next day, also. Nor will there any inconvenience follow upon the deferring of his punishment for a while; but if he be punished all in haste, he will ever after seem to have been innocent, as it hath oftentimes fallen out heretofore. For which of us all is so cruel as to torment or scourge a servant because, five or ten days before, he burnt the meat, or overturned the table, or did not soon enough what he was bidden? And yet it is for just such things as these, while they are fresh and newly done, that we are so disordered, and become cruel and implacable. For as bodies through a mist, so actions through anger seem greater than they are. Wherefore we ought speedily to recall such considerations as these are to our mind; and when we are unquestionably out of passion, if then to a pure and composed reason the deed to appear to be wicked, we ought to animadvert, and no longer neglect or abstain from punishment, as if we had lost our appetite for it. For there is nothing to which we can more justly impute men's punishing others in their anger, than to a habit of not punishing them when their anger is over, but growing remiss, and doing like lazy mariners, who in fair weather keep loitering within the haven, and then put themselves in danger by setting sail when the wind blows strong. So we likewise, condemning the remissness and over-calmness of our reason in punishing, make haste to do it while our anger is up, pushing us forward like a dangerous wind.

    He that useth food doth it to gratify his hunger, which is natural; but he that inflicts punishment should do it without either hungering or thirsting after it, not needing anger, like sauce, to whet him on to punish; but when he is farthest off from desiring it, then he should do it as a deed of necessity under the guidance of reason. And though Aristotle reports, that in his time servants in Etruria were wont to be scourged while the music played, yet they who punish others ought not to be carried on with a desire of punishing, as of a thing they delight in, nor to rejoice when they punish, and then repent of it when they have done,—whereof the first is savage, the last womanish; but, without either sorrow or pleasure, they should inflict just punishment when reason is free to judge, leaving no pretence for anger to intermeddle.

    ¶ Suppression of the outward manifestation of anger leads to the suppression of anger.

    ¶ If one seem to offend, it is better, rather than to be angry, to consider that he may act out of ignorance or other extenuating defect from sound thinking.

    [12] But this perhaps may seem to be not a cure of anger, but only a thrusting by and avoiding of such miscarriages as some men fall into when they are angry. And yet, as Hieronymus tells us, although the swelling of the spleen is but a symptom of the fever, the assuaging thereof abates the disease. But, considering well the origin of anger itself, I have observed that divers men fall into anger for different causes; and yet in the minds of all of them was probably an opinion of being despised and neglected. We must therefore assist those who would avoid anger, by removing the act which roused their anger as far as possible from all suspicion of contempt or insult, and by imputing it rather to folly or necessity or disorder of mind, or to the misadventure of those that did it. Thus Sophocles in Antigone:—

    The best resolved mind in misery
    Can't keep its ground, but suffers ecstasy.

    And so Agamemnon, ascribing to Ate /10/ the taking away of Briseis, adds:—

    Since I so foolish was as thee to wrong,
    I'll please thee now, and give thee splendid gifts.

    For supplication is an act of one who is far from contemning; and when he that hath done an injury appears submissive, he thereby removes all suspicion of contempt. But he that is moved to anger must not expect or wait for such a submission, but must rather take to himself the saying of Diogenes, who, when one said to him, They deride thee, O Diogenes, made answer, But I am not derided; and he must not think himself contemned, but rather himself contemn that man that offends him, as one acting out of weakness or error, rashness or carelessness, rudeness or dotage, or childishness. But, above all, we must bear with our servants and friends herein; for surely they do not despise us as being impotent or slothful, but they think less of us by reason of our very moderation or good-will towards them, some because we are gentle, others because we are loving towards them. But now, alas! out of a surmise that we are contemned, we not only become exasperated against our wives, our servants, and friends, but we oftentimes fall out also with drunken innkeepers, and mariners and ostlers, and all out of a suspicion that they despise us. Yea, we quarrel with dogs because they bark at us, and asses if they chance to rush against us; like him who was going to beat a driver of asses, but when the latter cried out, I am an Athenian, fell to beating the ass, saying, Thou surely art not an Athenian too, and so accosted him with many a bastinado.

    ¶ Excessive attachment to perishible material objects often leads to anger at the loss of the enjoyment of them. [13] And especially self-love and morosity, together with luxury and effeminacy, breed in us long and frequent fits of anger, which by little and little are gathered together into our souls, like a swarm of bees or wasps. Wherefore there is nothing more conducing to a gentle behavior towards our wife and servants and friends than contentedness and simplicity, if we can be satisfied with what we have, and not stand in need of many superfluities. Whereas the man described in the poet,—

    Who never is content with boiled or roast,
    Nor likes his meat, what way soever drest,—

    who can never drink unless he have snow by him, or eat bread if it be bought in the market, or taste victuals out of a mean or earthen vessel, or sleep on a bed unless it be swelled and puffed up with feathers, like to the sea when it is heaved up from the bottom; but who with cudgels and blows, with running, calling, and sweating doth hasten his servitors that wait at table, as if they were sent for plasters for some inflamed ulcer, he being slave to a weak, morose, and fault-finding style of life,— doth, as it were by a continual cough or many buffetings, breed in himself, before he is aware, an ulcerous and defluxive disposition unto anger. And therefore the body is to be accustomed to contentment by frugality, and so be made sufficient for itself. For they who need but few things are not disappointed of many; and it is no hard matter, beginning with our food, to accept quietly whatever is sent to us, and not by being angry and querulous at every thing, to entertain ourselves and our friends with the most unpleasant dish of all, which is anger. And surely

    Than that supper nought can more unpleasant be,

    where the servants are beaten and the wife railed at, because something is burnt or smoked or not salt enough, or because the bread is too cold. Arcesilaus was once entertaining his friends and some strangers at a feast; the supper was set on the board, but there wanted bread, the servants having, it seems, neglected to buy any. Now, on such an occasion, which of us would not have rent the very walls with outcries? But he smiling said only: What a fine thing it is for a philosopher to be a jolly feaster! Once also when Socrates took Euthydemus from the wrestling-house home with him to supper, his wife Xanthippe fell upon him in a pelting chase, scolding him, and in conclusion overthrew the table. Whereupon Euthydemus rose up and went his way, being very much troubled at what had happened. But Socrates said to him: Did not a hen at your house the other day come flying in, and do the like? and yet I was not troubled at it. For friends are to be entertained by good-nature, by smiles, and by a hospitable welcome; not by knitting brows, or by striking horror and trembling into those that serve.

    We must also accustom ourselves to the use of any cups indifferently, and not to use one rather than another, as some are wont to single some one cup out of many (as they say Marius used to do) or else a drinking-horn, and to drink out of none but that; and they do the same with oil-glasses and brushes, affecting one above all the rest, and when any one of these chances to be broken or lost, then they take it heinously, and punish severely those that did it. And therefore he that is prone to be angry should refrain from such things as are rare and curiously wrought, such as cups and seals and precious stones; for such things distract a man by their loss more than cheap and ordinary things are apt to do. Wherefore when Nero had made an octagonal tent, a wonderful spectacle for cost and beauty, Seneca said to him: You have proved yourself to be a poor man; for if you chance to lose this, you cannot tell where to get such another. And indeed it so fell out that the ship was sunk, and this tent was lost with it. But Nero, remembering the words of Seneca, bore the loss of it with greater moderation.

    But this contentedness in other matters doth make a man good-tempered and gentle towards his servants; and if towards servants, then doubtless towards friends and subjects also. We see also that newly bought servants enquire concerning him that bought them, not whether he be superstitious or envious, but whether he be an angry man or not; and that universally, neither men can endure their wives, though chaste, nor women their husbands, though kind, if they be ill-tempered withal; nor friends the conversation of one another. And so neither wedlock nor friendship with anger is to be endured; but if anger be away, even drunkenness itself is counted a light matter For the ferule of Bacchus is a sufficient chastiser of a drunken man, if the addition of anger do not change the God of wine from Lyaeus and Choraeus (the looser of cares and the leader of dances) to the savage and furious deity. And Anticyra (with its hellebore) is of itself able to cure simple madness; but madness mixed with anger furnishes matter for tragedies and dismal stories.

    ¶ Anger turns good-will into hatred; love of knowledge into love of contention; avid learners into haters of all learning

    ¶ A man who shows anger will find it causes his prosperity to be envied and his suffering to be unpitied.

    [14] Neither ought any, even in their playing and jesting, to give way to their anger, for it turns good-will into hatred; nor when they are disputing, for it turns a desire of knowing truth into a love of contention; nor when they sit in judgment, for it adds violence to authority; nor when they are teaching, for it dulls the learner, and breeds in him a hatred of all learning; nor if they be in prosperity, for it increases envy; nor if in adversity, for it makes them to be unpitied, if they are morose and apt to quarrel with those who commiserate them, as Priam did:—

    Be gone, ye upbraiding scoundrels, haven’t ye at home
    Enough, that to help bear my grief ye come?
    ¶ Follow rather the example of Euclid, who, when his brother had said in a quarrel, "Let me perish if I be not avenged of you", replied, "And let me perish if I do not persuade you into a better mind." On the other hand, good temper doth remedy some things, put an ornament upon others, and sweeten others; and it wholly overcomes all anger and moroseness, by gentleness. As may be seen in that excellent example of Euclid, who, when his brother had said in a quarrel, Let me perish if I be not avenged of you, replied, And let me perish if I do not persuade you into a better mind; and by so saying he straightway diverted him from his purpose, and changed his mind /11/. And Polemon, being reviled by one that loved precious stones well and was even sick with the love of costly signets, answered nothing, but noticed one of the signets which the man wore, and looked wistfully upon it. Whereat the man being pleased said: Not so, Polemon, but look upon it in the sunshine, and it will appear much better to you. And Aristippus, when there happened to be a falling out between him and Aeschines, and one said to him, O Aristippus, what is now become of the friendship that was between you two? answered, It is asleep, but I will go and awaken it. Then coming to Aeschines, he said to him, What? dost thou take me to be so utterly wretched and incurable as not to be worth thy admonition? No wonder, said Aeschines, if thou, by nature so excelling me in every thing, didst here also discern before me what was right and fitting to be done.

    A woman's, nay a little child's soft hand,
    With gentle stroking easier doth command,
    And make the bristling boar to couch and fall,
    Than any boisterous wrestler of them all.
    ¶ Man who can tame the wild beast will in a fit of anger act the beast with family and friends. But we that can tame wild beasts and make them gentle, carrying young wolves and the whelps of lions in our arms, do in a fit of anger cast our own children, friends, and companions out of our embraces; and we let loose our wrath like a wild beast upon our servants and fellow citizens. And we but poorly disguise our rage when we give it the specious name of zeal against wickedness; and it is with this, I suppose, as with other passions and diseases of the soul,—although we call one forethought, another liberality, another piety, we cannot so acquit and clear ourselves of any of them.

    ¶ Anger may be ranked as the worst of passions as it seeks as its end the grieving and hurting of another. [15] And as Zeno has said that the seed was a mixture drawn from all the powers of the soul, in like manner anger seems to be a kind of universal seed extracted from all the passions. For it is taken from grief and pleasure and insolence; and then from envy it hath the evil property of rejoicing at another's adversity; and it is even worse than murder itself, for it doth not strive to free itself from suffering, but to bring mischief to itself, if it may thereby but do another man an evil turn. And it hath the most odious kind of desire inbred in it, if the appetite for grieving and hurting another may be called a desire.

    Wherefore, when we go to the houses of drunkards, we may hear a wench playing the flute betimes in the morning, and behold there, as one said, the muddy dregs of wine, and scattered fragments of garlands, and servants drunk at the door; and the marks of angry and surly men may be read in the faces, brands, and fetters of the servants. “But lamentation is the only bard that is always to be heard beneath the roof” of the angry man, while his stewards are beaten and his maid-servants tormented; so that the spectators, in the midst of their mirth and delight, cannot but pity those sad effects of anger.

    ¶ Because one is likely to be angry at discovering that one's fellow is a disappointment, it is best not have excessive confidence in frail humans [16] And even those who, out of a real hatred of wickedness, often happen to be surprised with anger, can abate the excess and vehemence of it so soon as they give up their excessive confidence in those with whom they converse. For of all causes this doth most increase anger, when one proves to be wicked whom we took for a good man, or when one who we thought had loved us falls into some difference and chiding with us.

    As for my own disposition, thou knowest very well with how strong inclinations it is carried to show kindness to men and to confide in them; and therefore, like those who miss their step and tread on nothing, when I most of all trust to men's love and, as it were, prop myself up with it, I do then most of all miscarry, and, finding myself disappointed, am troubled at it. And indeed I should never succeed in freeing myself from this too great eagerness and forwardness in my love; but against excessive confidence perhaps I can make use of Plato's caution for a bridle. For he said that he so commended Helicon, the mathematician, because he thought him a naturally versatile animal; but that he had a jealousy of those who had been well educated in the city, lest, being men and the offspring of men, they should in something or other discover the infirmity of their nature. But when Sophocles says, If you search the deeds of mortals, you will find the most are base, he seems to insult and disparage us over much. Still even such a harsh and censorious judgment as this may make us more moderate in our anger; for it is the sudden and the unexpected which do most drive us to frenzy. But we ought, as Panaetius somewhere said, to imitate Anaxagoras; and as he said upon the death of his son, I knew before that I had begotten but a mortal, so should every one of us use expressions like these of those offences which stir up to anger: I knew, when I bought my servant, that I was not buying a philosopher; I knew that I did not get a friend that had no passions; I knew that I had a wife that was but a woman. But if every one would always repeat the question of Plato to himself, But am not I perhaps such a one myself? and turn his reason from abroad to look into himself, and put restraint upon his reprehension of others, he would not make so much use of his hatred of evil in reproving other men, seeing himself to stand in need of great indulgence. But now every one of us, when he is angry and punishing, can bring the words of Aristides and of Cato: Do not steal, Do not lie, and Why are ye so slothful? And, what is most truly shameful of all, we do in our anger reprove others for being angry, and what was done amiss through anger we punish in our passion, therein not acting like physicians, who

    Purge bitter choler with a bitter pill,

    but rather increasing and exasperating the disease which we pretend to cure.

    While therefore I am thus reasoning with myself, I endeavor also to abate something of my curiosity; because for any one over curiously to enquire and pry into every thing, and to make a public business of every employment of a servant, every action of a friend, every pastime of a son, every whispering of a wife, causes great and long and daily fits of anger, whereof the product and issue is a peevish and morose disposition. Wherefore God, as Euripides says,

    Affairs of greatest weight himself directeth,
    But matters small to Fortune he committeth.
    ¶ After cautioning not to place too much confidence in fellow man, Plutarch argues for placing in the hand of wife, servant, or friend some confidences, while tending to the weightiest matters oneself.

    ¶ He further advises to not be overly concerned over the small matters which vex one and beget an evil habit of attachment and anger that will encompass the larger things as well.

    ¶ He concludes with an admonition to undertake a fast from anger.

    But I think a prudent man ought not to commit any thing at all to Fortune, nor to neglect any thing, but to trust and commit some things to his wife, some things to his servants, and some things to his friends (as a prince to certain vicegerents and accountants and administrators), while he himself is employing his reason about the weightiest matters, and those of greatest concern.

    For as small letters hurt the sight, so do small matters him that is too much intent upon them; they vex and stir up anger, which begets an evil habit in him in reference to greater affairs. But above all the rest, I look on that of Empedocles as a divine thing,“To fast from evil.”And I commended also those vows and professions made in prayers, as things neither indecent in themselves nor unbecoming a philosopher,—for a whole year to abstain from venery and wine, serving God with temperance all the while; or else again, for a certain time to abstain from lying, minding and watching over ourselves, that we speak nothing but what is true, either in earnest or in jest. After the manner of these vows then I made my own, supposing it would be no less acceptable to God and sacred than theirs; and I set myself first to observe a few sacred days also, wherein I would abstain from being angry, as if it were from being drunk or from drinking wine, celebrating a kind of Nephalia and Melisponda /12/ with respect to my anger. Then, making trial of myself little by little for a month or two, I by this means in time made some good progress unto further patience in bearing evils, diligently observing and keeping myself courteous in language and behavior, free from anger, and pure from all wicked words and absurd actions, and from passion, which for a little (and that no grateful) pleasure brings with itself great perturbations and shameful repentance. Whence experience, not without some divine assistance, hath, I suppose, made it evident that that was a very true judgment and assertion, that this courteous, gentle, and kindly disposition and behavior is not so acceptable, so pleasing, and so delightful to any of those with whom we converse, as it is to those that have it.

    Here Ends Plutarch's On the Control of Anger


    /1/ Hieronymus of Rhodes, peripetatic philosopher of the third century.

    /2/ Elsewhere, in his essay, How to Profit by One's Enemies Plutarch again takes up human tendency to break out into strife, if not against an enemy, then against a friend, even putting forth that an enemy profits one by redirecting that destructive passion away from friends and toward its proper end.

    /3/ See Herodotus, Histories, vii, 35.

    /4/ Plutarch relates this of the Lacedaemonians elsewhere in the Life of Demetrius, 1.

    /5/ See Plutarch, Life of Tiberius Gracchus, 2.

    /6/ See Plutarch, Life of Alcibiades, 2.

    /7/ Alexander slew Callisthenes and Clitus, two of his ablest friends. (See Plutarch, Life of Alexander, 50-55).

    /8/ See Plutarch, Life of Pelopidas, 32.

    /9/ See Plutarch, Life of Phocion, 22.

    /10/ Ate (ah-TAY), Greek word for 'ruin, folly, delusion', is the action performed by the hero, usually because of his/her hubris, or great pride, that leads to his/her death or downfall. Also the name of a goddess as the personification of failing.

    /11/ See Plutarch, Of Brotherly Love, 18.

    /12/ Offering of honey without wine.