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Ancient and modern

Ancient & modern

Gordon Brown using his pen to stab the back seat of his limo in rage puts one in mind of Domitian (emperor ad 81-96) killing flies in rather the same way.

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

24 February 2010

12:00 AM

Gordon Brown using his pen to stab the back seat of his limo in rage puts one in mind of Domitian (emperor ad 81-96) killing flies in rather the same way. Brown’s furious treatment of messengers with bad tidings likewise has many ancient parallels. So our Prime Minister would do well to read some ancient treatises on anger-management.

In his de ira (‘On Anger’), the Roman philosopher Seneca (ad 1-65) describes what an angry person looks like: ‘his eyes blaze and flash, his whole face is crimson with blood surging up from the depths of his heart, his lips quiver, his teeth clench, his hair bristles and stands on end, his breathing is forced and harsh, his limbs can be heard twisting themselves into knots, he groans and bellows…’. One can see why he is against it. It is Stoicism that lies behind this analysis, with its conviction that, since reason rules the universe, man must live by reason alone if he is to be happy. Even righteous indignation is disallowed (hard luck, God, and a number of minor prophets).


The essayist Plutarch (ad 46-120) couches his treatise in the form of an account by the notoriously irascible Roman Fundanus on how he beat the anger bug. All the usual arguments are there: anger merely demonstrates that you are out of control; think how it makes you look to others; see what terrible consequences it has; it will destroy you and yours.

Aristotle (384-322 bc) takes a more balanced view. The irascible man, he says, will always put his foot in it, and he distinguishes three categories. There are those who, when they do fly off the handle, fly off at once but quickly fly back on again; those who are flying off all the time at everything; and, worst of all, those who do not let their anger express itself, but nurse their wrath to keep it warm over the years. But ‘the man who feels anger for the right reasons, against the right persons, in the right manner, at the right moment, and for the right length of time, is due nothing but praise’.

The first word of Western literature in Homer’s Iliad is ‘anger’— the anger of Achilles that brought disaster on his own side rather than the Trojans, and most catastrophically of all, on himself. Brown seems intent on treading the same path.

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