How To Keep Your Cool by Seneca: Summary & Notes

Front cover of How To Keep Your Cool by Seneca.

In short

How To Keep Your Cool is a new translation by James Romm of Seneca’s essay on anger, De Ira. Even though the original work was written around 45 BCE it is still highly relevant today and even feels quite ‘modern’.

Seneca was one of the most important stoic philosophers and so How To Keep Your Cool follows the basic tenets of stoicism. The main one being that virtue is all that matters, and that we can become virtuous if we control our passionate/emotional side with rationality. Anger, of course, is one of those emotions that the stoics would try to control. In fact, according to Seneca anger is the most destructive and dangerous emotion humans have.

So even though the ideas are old, Seneca’s advice on how to prevent anger from happening and how to restrain it once it does happen is still useful even today.

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Book Summary & Notes

All text that is quoted & italicized is taken directly from the book.

According to Seneca, anger is the most destructive and irresistible of all emotions. It’s also the most harmful to our ‘moral condition’ and mental health since anger knows no bounds and is very difficult to control.

“I think you are right to be most frightened of this emotion, the ugliest and most savage of all emotions. […] Some wise men have called anger a brief madness; in equal degrees, it is unable to govern itself, forgetful of decorum, ignorant of friendships, obstinate and intent on finishing what it begins, deaf to reason and advice, stirred by empty provocations, unsuited to distinguishing what’s just and true; it resembles nothing so much as a collapsing building that breaks apart upon that which it crushes.”

The best solution against anger is to deny its entry in the first place. If you can shut out the first seedlings of anger you don’t have to worry about moderating it later on. If this is not possible then Seneca advises to try to not do any wrong while in an angry state. Throughout the essay he provides tips for both scenarios.

Once shaken and overthrown, the mind becomes a slave to that which drives it.”

“There is no emotion more eager for vengeance than anger, and for that very reason, none less suited to the taking of vengeance. Over-hasty and heedless like every greedy desire, it blocks itself on the way to where it is rushing.”

The spirit flourishes when it is given license and shrinks under servitude; it shoots up if it is given praise and encouraged to value itself highly. But license and praise also give rise to arrogance and an angry temperament. We must steer the middle course, pulling back on the reins at one moment, applying the goad the next.”

One of the best techniques to stop anger is to take a step back and build in some delay. If we always readily believe the things that make us angry, we don’t make use of our judgement. So take a step back and think things through – and taking this step back naturally restricts the build-up of anger. “A punishment that’s delayed can still be imposed, but once imposed, it can’t be withdrawn.”

“Where self-indulgence has ruined both the body and mind, nothing seems bearable, not because the task is hard but because the one doing it is soft.”

“We hold the flaws of others before our eyes but turn our backs towards our own. Thus a father who’s worse than his son condemns his son’s dinner parties, thought they’re not excessive; the man who denies nothing to his own extravagance forgives nothing in another’s; the tyrant grows angry at the murderer; the temple robber punishes theft. The majority of humankind gets angry not at the wrongs but at the wrongdoers. A good look at ourselves will make us more temperate if we ask ourselves: “Haven’t we ourselves also done something like that? Haven’t we gone astray in the same way? Does condemning these things really benefit us?”

The stoics were cosmopolitans: they were part of a larger world and considered that all of mankind were their fellow citizens. Another way to stem anger is to realize it is unnatural to harm others. Humans “are created for unity; society cannot be kept intact except by care and love of its constituent pieces.”

“The wrongs done by the powerful should be received not just patiently but with a cheerful expression, for if they think they’ve achieved their goal, they’ll do it again. […] There’s that very famous saying of a man who had grown old serving under monarchs. When someone asked him how he’d obtained that thing which is most rare at court – old age – he said “By accepting hurts and saying thank you.”

Anger is an emotion that will overpower all others. It also exceeds other vices in terms of a sudden onrush (rather than a slow creep). As Seneca puts it: “Other vices depart from rationality, this one from sanity.”

Seneca advises that we can stop being angry if we can visualize all the bad things that happen as a consequence. For example, it brings grief or regret later on, it can lead to divorce, antagonizing others, et cetera. In contrast to other vices, exercising anger usually comes with a direct cost.

The more things we do, the higher the chance that we will encounter obstacles – things we didn’t foresee or things are opposite of our intent. We should take this into account as well and not lose our patience. “Fortune is not so partial to anyone as to make every path easy when we are attempting many things.”

“Whenever an argument goes on too long and gets heated, we should stop it at the outset before it gathers steam. A dispute feeds on itself and grabs hold of those who are mired in it. It’s easier to keep aloof from a fight than to extricate oneself.”

“They say that Socrates, struck by a blow to the head, said nothing more than “It’s annoying how one doesn’t know when to go out wearing a helmet.” It doesn’t matter how an injury was done, but how it was received.”

The struggle against anger will never be easy, but if you start to see that anger stays hidden more and more, you know you are making progress. Seneca advises to keep burying feelings of anger and to “let inner feeling conform to outer signs”. That is: relax your face, don’t shout or raise your voice, slow down, take a step back.

“Who am I, that it’s a sin for my ears to be hurt? When many have pardoned their foes, shall I not pardon those who are tardy, or negligent, or chatty? … He’s a friend: he didn’t realize what he was doing. He’s an enemy: he did what he had to. The overly clever man should gain our trust; the overly stupid, our pardon.”

“The greatest punishment of a wrong that’s been committed is having committed it. No one suffers a weightier consequence than those who are handed over to the torture of regret.”

Another technique that may be of use is to do a daily review, something Seneca himself apparently did as well. “I plead a case every day in my own private court session.” In this he used to examine his day: what went well? What didn’t go so well? How was my tone of voice? Did I do things that could have been done better in the future? Seneca states that if this daily review is implemented it will be easier to maintain a calm composure during the day.

“Soon we’ll spit out our life’s breath. For the moment, while we still draw it, while we’re in the human world, let’s cherish our humanity. Let’s not be a source of fear or danger to anyone. Let’s cast scorn on injuries, harms, insults, and taunts; let’s put up with brief annoyances. As they say, the moment we turn and look behind us, death stands right there.”

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