Anger and Pre-Emotions
by Leonidas Konstantakos
For Seneca, it is by understanding what anger is that we can avoid it or seek the appropriate therapy. This implies that it can in fact be avoided. In De Ira, Seneca proposes a Stoic cognitive view of anger that consists of a series of physical and mental steps, or qualifications, to meet the definition. The cognitive aspects that define the emotion are within our control. Anger, for Seneca (and his view is quite orthodox Stoicism), is a species of desire- a desire to take vengeance for a (perceived) wrong. (1.2.3b) Moreover, anger involves various physical and mental phenomena (phantasiai, impressions in Stoic parlance) and beliefs or judgments about those phenomena. Let’s begin with the formulae for pathe, emotions, as viewed from within Seneca’s philosophical tradition.
The third scholarch of the Stoa, Chrysippus, had systematized the following criteria that must be met for a belief of judgement of this sort to be a pathos: 1) it must assert that something is good or bad; 2) it must be recently formed; 3) it must be false; 4) it incites an excessive impulse. (Gould, 191) The excessive impulse here means that it is irrational- excessive and disobedient to the dictates of reason. By this criterion, in the grips of a passion we first assent to the impression that something is, say, a punch in the face. We may experience psychosomatic responses (a flash of spirited feelings, quickening of the pulse, etc.) due to the initial impression which is involuntary: the sense-perception of being struck, and the supervening bodily responses. What follows in anger is an assent to the impression that this is an undeserved offense and that it is appropriate to seek retribution for the perceived harm. This leads to, but is not yet, anger. Anger manifests when these judgements become disobedient to reason- that is, they incite excessive impulses that are no longer controllable. By Stoic definition anger is always excessive and harmful.
The utility of Seneca’s discussion is that it allows us to be aware of the pre-emotions that lead to our false judgements and to anger if left unchecked. Seneca outlines the steps to anger in Book Two. The first part of the emotion, or pre-emotion, is what later came to be referred to by the Alexandrian Christian authors as propatheiai. These are the involuntary psychosomatic responses that are not under our control. When referring to anger, this initial phantasia is, for Seneca, merely the “first mental jolt produced by the impression of an injury.” (2.3.5) The pre-emotion, the impression (not the judgement) that one has been harmed, is not anger because by itself it does not yet involve the subsequent judgements. Reason cannot overcome them, although Seneca suggests that “perhaps their force can be lessened if we become used to them and constantly keep a watch for them.” (2.4.2) We perhaps cannot help that some things seem terrible (e.g. an assault) or that some things seem good (e.g. revenge), but as rational agents we can decide whether or not we assent or withhold assent to those impressions. In modern terms, Seneca’s discussion allows us to realize that we are experiencing the feeling of anger without necessarily having to experience the emotion of anger. By understanding our involuntary psychosomatic responses, and understanding that it is not necessarily the case that we have been offended, or at least that it is not the case that revenge is now appropriate, we need not experience these negative, destructive emotions. We often confuse these initial responses for emotions and believe we must, or that it is appropriate to, act in a certain manner.
A vivid example can be borrowed from the popular psychological story, James and the Bear, for the sake of understanding Stoic propatheiai. If James were asked what falling in love feels like, he might give a description of his psychosomatic responses: weakening of the legs, shaking of the hands, dizziness, paleness, a sudden loss of mental ability, etc. Yet if James is asked what terror feels like, his list of psychosomatic functions may be identical, or at least overlap significantly. But when James walks through the woods and is suddenly confronted with a snarling bear, there is no question which of these previous emotions he is experiencing despite their similarity in feelings. It is in the judgements about the impressions (that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, and that it is appropriate to be terrified) that lead to the emotion of terror. The initial impression of the snarling bear and the accompanying psychosomatic responses are involuntary, but the judgements that lead to the emotion are not. Similarly, when Seneca is confronted with an irritating impression (a slanderous insult, or to keep with our theme, a punch in the face) he can have the feelings of anger (which are unavoidable) and still understand that these feelings are not yet anger. He can judge that nothing evil is happening (due to his Stoic axiology) and not have to contend with the further belief that retribution is warranted. Also there will be no chance that these judgements will be carried to an excessiveness that is disobedient to reason, and hence Seneca will not experience the pathos of anger. The Stoic model is useful and plausible for anyone threatened with becoming angry, and can provide emotional therapy even for those who do not accept adiaphora- the Stoic axiological doctrine of the indifference of externals.
Gould, J. (1970). The Philosophy of Chrysippus. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Seneca. (2010). Anger, Mercy, Revenge; translated by Robert A. Kaster and Martha Nussbaum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Despite the focus on the Stoic account of emotion in recent years, it is important to note that the sufferer of the emotion is not healed when the emotion has passed due to time (2) or because it no longer excessive (4). The sufferer may still erroneously believe that there is good or evil present or in prospect, and this is the fundamental error, rather than any damage that the emotion can cause. Moreover, the sufferer may have the false belief that it is appropriate to be elated or angry or grieved. It is these false beliefs, and their extirpation, that are the foundational problems. The Stoics argue that this is the time for their cognitive therapy- after the impulse has downgraded from emotion to merely false beliefs about the presence or prospect of something good or bad, and the further judgment of the appropriateness of the emotion.
 By ‘offense’ I mean that we here judge the strike as something bad that has happened. This is the first of the false beliefs in the Stoic view. According to Stoic axiology (that only the agent’s own vice is a present evil), this judgment errs.
 Or any of the pathe, which by definition involve a false belief.
 The two need not coincide, e.g. the park ranger may have the (false) belief that being mauled by a bear is an evil in prospect, but not have the further (false) belief that it is now appropriate to be terrified.
 That is, those who believe that it is not the case that there is no evil present- or more simply, those who believe e.g. being punched is a present evil. They may have this belief but realize that it is not the case that one must act in a certain manner (seek revenge). Moreover, non-Stoics can accept that pre-emotions are not yet anger and can only lead to the pathos of anger if they assent to the impressions.
Leonidas Konstantakos became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further.