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Real Harm, not Slight: the Prerequisites for "Natural Anger" in Philodemus' On Anger and their Influence on Vergil

David Armstrong

  The first two-thirds of Philodemus' On Anger disappeared when the papyrus roll was opened in 1802-1803. There is no doubt, however, of the main bullet point made throughout the surviving text about Epicurean "natural anger," φυσικὴ ὀργή, which the sage may, indeed in some circumstances must feel. The apprehension that one has been unjustly harmed, if confirmed by reflection (ἐπιλογισμός) , causes only pain, which the sage faces resignedly "for he contemplates retribution (κόλασις) not as something enjoyable...but as one would face something utterly necessary, but utterly unpleasurable, like a draught of wormwood, or surgery" (44.15-23).  By contrast the "empty" (κενή) anger of the fool is based only upon immediate apprehension (ὑπόληψις), and focusses on the imaginary pleasure of revenge (τιμωρία), which, for want of cognitive reflection to correct it, is always careening aside to damage, not one's enemy, but one's friends, and ultimately oneself.

  This is patently Epicurus' and his followers' response to Aristotle's benchmark definition of anger in Rhetoric 2.4 1377a31-b9, as an emotion entailing both pain and pleasure, the pain of unmerited slight (ὀλιγωρία), and the resultant pleasure in dream-like fantasies of revenge. Obviously the Epicureans were influenced by their "hedonic calculus" which distinguishes ultimately profitable painstaking , and pleasures that cause greater pain to follow, from pains and pleasures taken simpliciter (KD 8, Men. 129). They object that the pain of "retributive" anger could be, on Aristotle's account, a realistic (πραγματικόν) and valuable (ὠφέλιμον) emotion. But its literally fantastic pleasure in imagined revenge is irresponsible, unrealistic, and dangerous more to oneself than one's enemies.

  Since Vergil and many of his circle were directly influenced by Philodemus' teaching, scholars like Galinsky, Erler, Fish and myself have argued that--except in the Helen episode, where he earns Venus' rebuke by fantasizing revenge, at the wrong time, in the wrong way--Aeneas' reluctant and pleasureless yielding to ira and even furor resembles that of the Epicurean sage. The anger of younger and less mature warriors like Turnus, Nisus and Euryalus is more like Epicurean κενὴ ὀργή, pleasureable, violent, unreflective,  and self-destructive. As no other sect makes any similar distinction between wise pain and foolish pleasure in anger, this would be an example of Epicurus' and Philodemus' influence on Vergil.

  Two further points can be made. In the opening fragments 1-17 and the last five columns XLVI-L, Philodemus appears to me to be arguing throughout that the violent physical symptoms of anger, dear to the physiognomists who have also influenced Seneca's de Ira, cannot be used to prove that anger is a necessary (ἀναγκαῖον, βεβιασμένον) reaction to the apprehension that one has suffered intentional harm (ἑκουσία βλάβη). Rather,  the physical symptoms result from deceit (ἀπατή) by untested imaginings (ὑπολήψεις) (fg. 12 4-10) which need further reasoning  (λογισμός) to correct, and which the philosopher should use harsh rebuke to arrest and cure (VII 6-26).  This looks at first glance merely scholastic. But consider the passage in which Turnus, at first not even resentful at Aeneas' compact with Latinus, is misled by Allecto into falsely believing his honour has been slighted by it, and goes into a rage as he seeks revenge (Aen. 7. 406-466). No therapist intervenes, but Vergil makes it plain one was needed.

  A broader point: On Philodemus' evidence Epicureans reject "slight" and "injustice" as acceptable motives for anger: they speak only of intentional βλάβη. Both Sorabji and Konstan note this fact, without analyzing the reasons for it. Why, then? Because slight is a superficial thing in the Epicurean system, and even ἀδικία a mere formality, compared to the basis itself of the social contract, the agreement "neither to harm nor to be harmed," μὴ βλάπτειν μηδὲ βλάπτεσθαι (KD 31-36). I will show that it's significant how Amata and Turnus are made by Allecto to run mad over fancied slights; whereas Aeneas is only (and reluctantly) stirred to retribution for genuine harm done to him and his people.

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Problems in Ancient Ethical Philosophy

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