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Ancient and modern

Football, Sir Alex Ferguson, Seneca, Classics, Ancient Rome

18 May 2013

9:00 AM

18 May 2013

9:00 AM

Sir Alex Ferguson is going to be in big trouble in retirement: how will he control or defuse his famous rages, now that they have no outlet?

Ancients took a mixed view of the emotion. ‘Anger’ is the first word of Western literature — the anger of Achilles, with which Homer’s Iliad starts. Even though it results in the death of his dearest friend Patroclus, Achilles admits that there is pleasure in it, ‘sweeter than the dripping of honey’. The Stoics, regarding control of the emotions as the key to virtue, were entirely hostile to it. Seneca (4 BC–AD 65) paints a fine picture of the angry man: devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of loyalties, deaf to reason and advice, excited by trivialities, incapable of distinguishing right from wrong, his whole face crimson with blood, lips quivering, teeth clenched, joints cracking. Even righteous indignation is disallowed.


Plutarch (AD 46–120) added useful tips. The angry man, he suggests, should have a mirror handy, to see how ridiculous he looks. He should learn the pipe and play himself a soothing tune when he boils over. Since, like the panicking occupants of a burning house or a ship in a storm at sea, he loses all judgment, he must avoid situations where he knows his anger will explode.

Aristotle swam against the tide. An advocate of the ‘mean’ in all things, he regards anger as just another passion which it is foolish to indulge in too much or too little. The irascible man, flying off the handle at the slightest provocation, or nursing his wrath to keep it warm, is a danger to himself and others. The sensible man is angry for the right reason, with the right people, at the right time.

Sir Fergie would surely put himself in that group, but high-minded ancients would have questioned the end to which his psychotic rages were directed — winning a mere game for the pleasure of the mob. Back in the real world, his lack of self-control might actually be dangerous. Lady Fergie must be encouraged to carry a mirror round with her. David Moyes, the new manager, might also be well advised to.


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