Two thousand years ago -- give or take a decade--the Stoic philosopher Athendorus gave Augustus Caesar some now classic advice: "Whenever you get angry, don't say or do anything before repeating to yourself the letters of the alphabet."

Centuries later psychological gurus decided that unvented anger could result in severe emotional and physical trauma. Their prescription: "Let it all hang out."

In between this classical restraint and contemporary "sock-it-to-'em," the annals of anger are filled with ambivalence. Theologians labeled anger the sixth deadly sin, yet praised the righteous wrath of the just. American statesman Benjamin Franklin wrote "anger and folly walk cheek by jowl," around the same time Scottish philosopher David Hume called anger "the whetstone of courage."

Plato, Shakespeare and Freud all compared the powerful emotion to a high-spirited horse, ridden by reason. Poetic metaphors liken it to "a fever," "a storm" or "a short madness." Grandparents, teachers and other voices of reason advise in one breath "don't rock the boat," and in another "the squeaky wheel gets the grease."

So it's not surprising that today therapists cite anger and its extremes--being unable or too quick to anger--as one of America's most common problems.

"We're becoming an angrier society," contends social psychologist Carol Tavris, whose much-discussed new book Anger: The Misunderstood Emotion (Simon and Schuster), probes the question "to rage or not to rage."

"We encourage and reward temper tantrums, particularly in sports. Look at tennis star John McEnroe and former Baltimore Orioles coach Earl Weaver. Even for the fans, part of the fun is yelling 'Kill da bum!' "

Unemployment, crowds, traffic and other sources of provocation "often result in anger," she says, "because anger works in America. We emphasize the individual, which allows people to get away with anger more here than they would in other places. In the Far East, for instance, the relationship comes first, so you don't do anything to disrupt it. But we think that's somehow un-American."

Citing the plethora of books telling How to Get the Upper Hand and Look Out for Number One, she asserts, "as long as angry people get their way, we'll see more and more of it."

This rage rage is "a dangerous direction," claims Tavris, who started researching anger in the late '70s.

"The more I studied, the madder I got at the bad advice people were getting. The idea that you should always ventilate your anger because it's bad to suppress hostility encourages selfishness of emotional expression without emphasizing what is equally important--the situation that is making you angry and your relationship with the person who is making you angry.

"I was seeing marriages come to grief because people were suddenly hurling insults at each other in the name of emotional liberation."

Rather than serving as a catharsis to discharge anger, Tavris concludes, "the ventilationist model tends to escalate anger and create an angry habit. Studies showed that little kids playing with knives and baseball bats were becoming more aggressive. Many people say that their self-esteem drops when they have let themselves express anger.

"Expressions of anger aren't biological inevitabilities. They are social constructions. Much of it has to do with people's value judgments and what they learned was appropriate. Something that makes you angry may not bother me at all. Anger can be in the eye of the beholder."

Tavris does admit, however, that "sometimes expressing anger is the right, necessary, important thing to do." Generally this "moral use of anger" should be reserved for "the large indignities of life . . . For most of the small indignities, the best remedy is a Charlie Chaplin movie."

Her message is clear: Temper your temper. "Sometimes suppressed hostility can aggravate stress and illness, but sometimes suppressed hostility is the best thing for you. It used to be called common courtesy."

While mental health professionals appear to agree with Tavris' conclusions, Philadelphia psychiatrist Leo Madow sums up their major caveat: "She doesn't draw a sharp enough distinction between supressed and repressed anger.

"Supressed anger is a conscious decision to exert self-control. It can be a problem, but it usually isn't the anger that gets people into big trouble."

Repressed anger, however, "can be very serious since the person doesn't even recognize that they're angry. There's a general feeling in our culture that it's unacceptable to be angry, so people convince themselves that they're not."

In 40 years of practice, Madow has chronicled "well over 100 expressions" used by patients for whom repressed anger was a major problem. "You ask someone 'How do you feel about the fact that your husband is drinking up your grocery money?' and she'd say 'disappointed' or 'frustrated.' But you ask her if she's angry, and she says 'no.'

"It's not that she isn't frustrated or disappointed, but she is also angry. As we go along in treatment and nibble through the unconscious, she eventually realizes she is furious."

Madow's realization that "repressed anger is the major problem I see clinically, accounting for maybe 70 to 80 percent of my patients," led him to write, in 1972, Anger: How to Recognize and Cope With It (Scribner's).

Anger-coping strategies are particularly important considering the temper of the times, he says, since "one of the things we've been running into a great deal is the anger generated by unemployment and the economy." This anger is often manifested as depression, notes Madow, who concurs with the classic definition of depression as "anger turned inward. The most common cause I see for outpatient depression is denied anger."

The great popularity of "assertiveness training" is evidence of America's high degree of anger anxiety, says George Washington University psychiatry professor Marc Hertzman. "Many people have difficulty in expressing themselves as directly as they would like to, particularly when it might mean a confrontation. Often they store up and store up their hot feelings until the lid blows off the teapot."

Parents unwittingly teach children to repress anger, Hertzman says, "when they tell a child, 'Oh you're not angry' or 'You're not angry at me.' So who is the child angry at? Himself? For someone 3 to 7 years old, this is pretty scary."

Paradoxically, anger is often strongest "toward those we love the most," writes sex therapist Lonnie Barbach in For Each Other (Anchor Press). "Anger is bound to occur in any intimate relationship. If there is good there is bad, if there is right there is wrong and if there is love in a relationship there will be anger."

Stored, uncommunicated anger, she says, is a common cause of sexual problems ranging from "blocked orgasms" to lack of desire.

Anger can be a particular problem between couples from different cultural backgrounds, says Washington psychiatric nurse Thelma Bates. "I worked with a couple where the wife was Italian and the husband Oriental. When he got angry he'd withdraw, and when she got angry she'd throw things. She wanted him to talk, but she had to realize he was saying something to her--just not verbally. They had to learn to bridge their two different anger communication styles."

"Ethnicity plays a great part in the way people express their anger," concurs psychologist Abby G. Rosenfeld, director of the Metropolitan Psychiatric Group's pain clinic.

"Among the Mediterranean groups it's more customary to express emotion, while emotion is less approved among northern Europeans. Some groups tend to express anger through physical illness, which I've seen among recent immigrants from the Middle East."

While some psychologists contend that women have more problems with anger because they're oriented toward pleasing, others say men have more trouble because they're trained to supress all emotions. Rosenfeld asserts: "I have not found any sex difference in admitting anger. What I do see is a sex difference in how anger is expressed.

"Women are more likely to express anger as depression or physical illness or passive aggressiveness--such as quietly sabotaging something or someone they're angry at. Men are more likely to express anger with physical violence."

Teen-agers are particularly prone to anger, says psychiatrist Russell Iler, director of Bethesda's Community Psychiatric Clinic. "They are very often caught in the struggle between dependence and independence. It may feel easier to separate from your parents if you're angry at them, so they might be more apt to have a short fuse."

Anger is also commonly expressed in relationships, he says, "as a substitute for hurt or helplessness. A good example is the Monday-morning fight. You've spent the weekend together with a lot of sharing, and rather than own up to the fact you'll miss the other person you start snapping. Sometimes people are more comfortable being angry than being sad."

"What angry people try and do is control others," says Annandale psychologist Joel Friedman. "Most people, when they get angry at someone else, say 'You really p--- me off.' But they need to learn that no one can make you angry--only you can make yourself angry. Until they can own their anger, the problem won't be resolved."

A major reason some people have problems with anger is that they automatically associate it with aggression, says psychologist Arnold P. Goldstein, director of the Center for Research on Aggression at Syracuse University and author of Aggress-Less (Prentiss-Hall).

"Anger refers to an underlying emotion; a condition of arousal. Aggression is an overt behavior in which there is an effort to inflict intentional injury. The former is often a stimulant of the latter--but it doesn't have to be."

Aggression is "a learned behavior which will be maintained if it is rewarded," contends Goldstein, who teaches aggressive adolescents "pro-social alternatives"--like negotiation--to antisocial behaviors such as fighting. "We tell them to stop and think about why they want to fight, what they want to happen in the long run and what other ways there are to answer the problem."

Over the last decade "the expression of anger in America has been changing," maintains District psychiatrist Ralph Wittenberg. "Traditionally violence has been as American as apple pie. It was admirable for the hero to sock the bad guy in the chops, and anyone who wasn't ready to do that was considered a sissy."

But in the wake of varied social consciousness-raising movements, he says, "we seem to be learning that violence isn't the only way to express anger.

"Anger is an acceptable human emotion. It's important because it signals that there's something wrong or troublesome going on.

"The question is what you do about it. We seem to be learning that expressing anger physically is neither the only option nor necessarily the admirable thing to do."