Curing the Irascible Soul

The Greek writer Plutarch is best known for his biographical studies, but he was also an important moralist. I am reading his commentary “On the Control of Anger,” found in volume VI of the Loeb edition. In it he explains that

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 offenses…. 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 it also renders the soul firm and difficult for passion to attack.

Plutarch gives many reasons for excessive anger such as pettiness and impatience. An even temper requires forbearance. While displays of anger may be mistaken by some as a sign of strength, Plutarch demurs. He says that “the whole demeanor of angry persons” reveals “their utter littleness and weakness” in the face of challenges. Mind you, he’s not denouncing rational anger (like the “righteous anger” attributed to divinity, which is an intellectual and moral quality) but unbridled emotion where we are not so much opposing evil as we are indulging in egotistical tantrums.

The ancient sage makes the point that we can best gauge our actions by observing others. It is surprising how foibles that seem insignificant in our own eyes appear pathetic or appalling when seen from the outside. Adam Smith, better known for his economic writings, makes this same point in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

The insolence and brutality of anger… when we indulge its fury without check or restraint, is, of all objects, the most detestable. But we admire that noble and generous resentment which governs its pursuit of the greatest injuries, not by the rage which they are apt to excite in the breast of the sufferer, but by the indignation which they naturally call forth in that of the impartial spectator; which allows no word, no gesture, to escape it beyond what this more equitable sentiment would dictate; which never, even in thought, attempts any greater vengeance, nor desires to inflict any greater punishment, than what every indifferent person would rejoice to see executed.

Even when there is justification for upset, we lose all sympathy if our reactions are disproportionate to the cause. According to Plutarch, one of the surest checks to irascibility is to delay any action we take, to see if our anger does not diminish over time, and when a wrong still needs to be redressed we are more apt to do so in a calm and objective manner.

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