In the 1601 edition of Francis Bacon’s Essays, the essay “Of Anger” concludes with the following paragraph:
For raising and appeasing anger in another; it is done chiefly by choosing of times, when men are frowardest and worst disposed, to incense them. Again, by gathering (as was touched before) all that you can find out, to aggravate the contempt. And the two remedies are by the contraries. The former to take good times, when first to relate to a man an angry business; for the first impression is much; and the other is, to sever, as much as may be, the construction of the injury from the point of contempt; imputing it to misunderstanding, fear, passion, or what you will.
This paragraph might be paraphrased as follows:
Let me tell you how you can either make other people angry or how you can remove their anger. If you want to make them angry, you should choose a time when they are most obstinate or inflexible and when they are in the worst possible mood or temper. As I mentioned earlier, you can also try to discover any fact that might make them even fuller of contempt than they were already. Likewise, if you want to try to dampen someone’s anger, there are two methods. One method is to choose a pleasant or happy time to talk to that person about anything that might make (or has made) the person angry. After all, people often follow their first impressions; if you approach them when they are in good moods, they are more likely to be agreeable and to put aside their anger. Another method for diminishing someone’s anger is to emphasize that if you did anything to make that other person angry, you didn’t do so because you felt contempt or disrespect for that person. Instead, you should claim that you made the person angry only because you made a mistake, or because you were afraid, or because you couldn’t control your emotions, or for any other plausible reason. Just don’t allow the person that you lacked respect or felt contempt or disdain.
The second section of Bacon’s paragraph is especially intriguing. Just as many people today are highly offended if they think they have been disrespected (or “dissed”), so Bacon assumes the same thing about people living during his own time. He assumes that people of his day are motivated partly by pride and that they cannot stand to have their pride challenged. They may be willing to let go of their anger if they are presented with just about any other excuse to explain why someone else made them angry. However, if they feel that they have been disrespected, they will find it very difficult to let go of their anger.
Since violence and even death often results today from people who feel that they have been “dissed,” Bacon’s comments here still seem particularly relevant.
In his essay “Of Anger,” Sir Francis Bacon lists various causes or motives of anger, including the following:
- a “natural inclination and habit to be angry”: in other words, a tendency toward anger may be part of a particular person’s character and is probably also innate in human nature.
- an inability or disinclination to be patient, so that we behave like bees (in the words of Seneca):
. . . animasque in vulnere ponunt
[that put their lives in the sting].
- weakness. Bacon suggests that weak persons are more likely to be angry than strong persons.
Bacon cites three causes of anger especially:
- being overly sensitive – in other words, having feelings that are too easily hurt.
- assuming that any injuring one receives from others was full of contempt and disrespect – in other words, immediately assuming that one has been disrespected.
- assuming that an injury will damage one’s reputation.
Bacon suggests a number of ways of overcoming anger, including the following:
- Don’t assume, as did the Stoic philosophers of ancient Rome, that anger can be utterly extinguished by an act of mere will. Anger cannot be dealt with so easily; it must be allowed to diminish with the passage of time.
- Consider the negative effects that anger causes in the life of the person who is angry. Anger injuries the angry person most of all and is thus self-defeating.
- Try to be patient.
- Try not to be easily hurt or easily worried about one’s reputation. An honorable person need not worry about his/her reputation. Therefore, truly honorable people are less likely to be angry.
- Let time pass, even telling oneself that one can take revenge later for an injury suffered today. Meanwhile, the passage of time will diminish one’s anger.
All in all, Bacon looks at anger from a Christian rather than from a Stoic perspective. At the same time, his advice is also highly pragmatic. In other words, he shows an awareness of how anger actually develops and can be dealt with in ordinary life. His comment about waiting to take revenge is especially intriguing. He knew that taking revenge was frowned about in Christianity, but instead of suggesting that a person refrain from revenge altogether, he suggests that any contemplated revenge should be postponed. He seems to have assumed that postponing revenge would make it ultimately less likely to occur. This is a bit of shrewd psychology on Bacon’s part.