This is our third interview with author and scholar James Romm. We interviewed James first back in 2016 after his review of The Daily Stoic in the Wall Street Journal about his great biography of Seneca, Dying Every Day, then again in 2018 on his translation and collection of Seneca’s various thoughts on death, as featured in How to Die: An Ancient Guide to the End of Life. Now, James is back with his new book, How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management—another wonderful translation of Seneca and his timeless thoughts on anger.
If this is the first time you are discovering his work, aside from being an author and reviewer, James is also the James H. Ottaway Jr. Professor of Classics at Bard College. He also specializes in ancient Greek and Roman culture and civilization. His reviews and essays have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the London Review of Books, the Daily Beast, and other venues. Enjoy our interview with James Romm below!
This is the third work you’ve done or translated from Seneca now, if we include your wonderful biography Dying Every Day, do you feel like you’re any closer to figuring him out? Or is he still a fascinating mystery to you?
Still a fascinating mystery. The De Ira (which forms the basis of How to Keep Your Cool) is a great case in point. It’s a moving plea for forgiveness, self-restraint, repression of anger—but what are the political motives behind it? Seneca wrote parts of it while in exile in Corsica, then was recalled a short while later by the regime that exiled him. Was he trying to demonstrate heeded not hold a grudge?
He has such a broad definition of what anger is in the essay—what do you think he was trying to accomplish with this piece? Was it to help people be more even-keeled, or was it to warn against Nero’s worst impulses?
See above. The situation is complex because we don’t know exactly when De Ira was composed. It seems that the first two books were composed well before the third. It could be that only the third book postdates Seneca’s time with Nero, and perhaps not even that. In any case, Nero had not yet become a source of fear to Romans until well after De Ira was published.
As far as practical tips about managing our anger, what do you think Seneca’s best piece of advice is?
My own favorite is summed up in the quote: “Do you want to be less angry? Be less aware.” Anger often starts from noticing too many subtleties of the way others interact with us. In many cases, we’d do better not to notice the slights and microaggressions that can drive us nuts if we let them. One can will oneself to ignore such things — a practice many long-married couples will instantly recognize!
At one point Seneca says that greatness can’t have any anger in it. But so many people use anger as fuel to do what seem like good things. What do you think of that argument?
It’s true that most versions of the hero, starting with Achilles, include healthy doses of anger. Anger fuels their power. Seneca sought to combat that literary trope, just as Plato did in banning tragedy from his ideal state. It’s thrilling to watch Achilles go ballistic on the battlefield of the Iliad, but in actual combat, as Seneca knew, victory lay in staying in formation and coolly executing the battle plan. Perhaps Seneca overstates the case, but he was trying to counterweight a millennium of mythic and literary tradition.
It’s always risky talking politics, but Secretary of Defense Mattis—who had a kind of Senecean role in the Trump administration and is himself a fan of the Stoics—finally resigned late last year (not unlike Seneca leaving Nero’s regime). Do you see those parallels? Do any of Seneca’s warnings about the effect of anger on a leader stand out to you in our current environment?
Mattis was indeed a very Senecan figure, as was the anonymous author of a widely-discussed NY Times op-ed piece. Seneca had already seen the self-destruction of Caligula before he wrote De Ira, and had almost become one of Caligula’s victims. It’s curious that he deals so often in the work with ministers forced to endure sadistic tyrants — but he never suggests they should do otherwise than serve loyally and obediently. Or else, if they’re truly driven to unlivable levels of suffering, they should commit suicide.
Any plans to translate more from Seneca?
Yes, I’ll be excerpting Seneca’s long work on giving and receiving, De Beneficiis, for a Princeton volume called “How to be Generous.” It should appear in 2020.
James Romm’s new book is out now! If you haven’t already, pick up a copy of How to Keep Your Cool: An Ancient Guide to Anger Management—a timeless guide to avoiding and managing anger and why doing so can bring vast benefits to individuals and society.