English in use Anger

Everyday English: Anger

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The following is a summary of On Anger (De Ira), a work written in the mid-40s AD by the Roman statesman and philosopher Seneca, where he discusses in detail anger; its variants, consequences and ways to prevent it. It’s aimed at intermediate and advanced learners of English and focuses on vocabulary, collocations and idiomatic expressions commonly used by native English speakers when discussing anger, which can be clicked to go directly to the full definition. While the original work is made up of* three volumes, here is a breakdown of some of the key points Seneca makes on how to deal with anger.

You can read for free the full work here: “Of Anger – Wikisource, the free online library”

Or a contemporary translation using colloquial English here: “Anger, Mercy, Revenge (The Complete Works of Lucius Annaeus Seneca)


* to be made up of is a phrasal verb which means to consist or comprise of multiple parts.  Such as in “Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland”.  Do not confuse this with made of, which is used to state the quality or material of something, as in “Clothes are usually made of cotton”.


Avoid people, activities, and circumstances that provoke anger.

Easier said than done, but some people just seem to rub us up the wrong way, and no matter what they do or say irritates us, while certain circumstances can drive us mad. It’s impossible to escape a nosy neighbour, a busybody, or a pretentious and arrogant boss, however, we can at least try to keep them at arm’s length, in other words, not get to close to them. We can do this by either being cold with them or being polite but quiet, often called the silent treatment. This is a common tactic in England, especially between couples, to show that what the other person had said or done was inappropriate and caused offence. Sometimes this silent treatment can last for days or weeks without the couple speaking, and in this case we often use the expression that they are not on speaking terms. However some people have a short fuse, and so find it difficult to keep quiet and explode into a (fit of) frenzy.


Judge others’ acts and intentions fairly, accurately, and with a proper sense of proportion.

We are all guilty of causing offence, and many times, we did so without any intention of doing so. A hilarious joke in one country may cause a foreigner to burst into tears. Not because the joke was offensive, but because the foreigner hasn’t read between the lines, doesn’t understand irony, or loathes sarcasm. So, when someone offends us, first judge whether they did so intentionally or not. Which leads us onto Seneca’s next piece of advice.


Make allowances for others and consider grounds for excusing them.

When someone irritates or annoys you, the person may have inadvertently caused offence without meaning to. How many times have you been accused of something when you were innocent? Probably just as many times as you yourself have accused the innocent. Don’t be quick to judge or jump to conclusions but first take a deep breath till you’ve cooled down, and then reassess the situation. If you still judge yourself to have been wronged, then why would that come as a surprise? There is no place in the world where there are not spiteful, bitter, and angry people who take pleasure in insulting others, and so they should be treated as one treats a little biting ant, with complete contempt and disdain, and regard it unworthy of your attention. What do you gain from getting angry? A headache and saying something you later come to regret. But from abstaining from anger and keeping calm? A mind at peace. If however, the person is indeed in need of a reprimand, you’ll pay him back later, and with interest for the delay.


Justly assess yourself and your actions, accurately gauge who you are and what you are due.

Sometimes we learn most from our enemies, those who dislike us the most are quick to spot our errors, and will gladly point them out at any other opportunity. Nobody is completely innocent, everyone has lost their temper, or caused trouble one way or another. Such is the state of the human being. Those who criticise our errors are in fact doing us a favour. Ask yourself before going on the defensive, was he right? Did I actually do or say something inappropriate? If so, that’s a golden opportunity to work on yourself, eliminating the bad habit that has snuck up on you over the years, which you may not have realised about yourself. The best advice often comes from our worst enemies.


Regard matters with the calm forbearance or humour that perspective brings.

In other words, put things into perspective. Think back to a time when you were last offended and how you felt, now looking back, are you still angry? Probably not, and in fact, you may even be able to laugh about it. If you are still angry, then you risk ending up being the victim of the bitterness and resentment that festers deep within you; sooner or later you’ll end up taking it out on those closest to you, and you’ll be no better than the person who insulted you in the first place. Best to let bygones be bygones rather than a moody and irascible person and one prone to anger.


Recognize that doing harm to another is contrary to human nature.

While this final point does have strong philosophical undertones, it is obvious that doing harm to another innocent person is wrong. While to criminals, then it can be justified as it sets an example and shows the populace that justice has been done, it is not natural to harm others, especially if they have done no real harm to anyone. Imagine a world where everyone was taking the law into their own hands and hurting everyone they got angry with? That’s why justice was one of the four cardinal virtues, along with temperance, prudence or wisdom, and courage. Those virtues are in the film Gladiator, where Commodus said he had none of them. But that he had ambition, which he said while grinding his teeth (see video clip below). It was exactly this ambition that drove his desire to be sole ruler of Rome along with his fury at seeing a slave become more powerful than he, that led to his own grim demise. In fact, it was exactly ambition and injustice that caused the assassination of many a Roman emperor; though the actual Commodus wasn’t particularly ambitious though he was unjust and thirsty for blood (see also bloodthirsty).


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