Stoic practical advice, IV: anger

anger-management-set1The next chapter in part III of William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life, devoted to Stoic practical advice, concerns anger. The Stoics had a lot to say about this, especially Seneca and, to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius.

Anger, of course, is a negative emotion, which clearly disturbs our apatheia, and so we need to figure ways out of it: “Anger, says Seneca, is “brief insanity,” and the damage done by anger is enormous: “No plague has cost the human race more.””

A classical objection to the Stoic approach (not just regarding anger specifically) is that negative emotions are actually helpful, because if we are angry, say, we are then motivated to do something about whatever the source of that anger happens to be. Isn’t Stoicism, therefore, simply counseling indifference and detachment?

No, not really. Seneca made it clear that when we react with anger to a problem or situation we are putting a destructive emotion in charge, instead of our reason: “when someone wrongs us, says Seneca, he should be corrected “by admonition and also by force, gently and also roughly.” Such corrections, however, should not be made in anger.”

Stoics developed advice on how to prevent or manage anger:

* Resist our natural tendency to assume the worst about others.

* Likely, if things seem unbearable it is not because they really are, but because we have become (or perhaps have always been) “soft” (see my previous post on practicing mild hardship to harden ourselves to circumstances, as well as to better enjoy the comforts we do have).

* Things that cause us anger often turn out not to actually do us any real harm, as they are more likely to be mere annoyances.

* “Furthermore, as Seneca observes, “our anger invariably lasts longer than the damage done to us.” What fools we are, therefore, when we allow our tranquility to be disrupted by minor things.”

* Our own behavior is likely to anger others. As Seneca put it: “We are bad men living among bad men, and only one thing can calm us — we must agree to go easy on one another.”

Marcus’ view, as usual, was that we need to keep in mind the broader scheme of things, reminding ourselves that whatever is angering us right now probably will not last, and is inconsequential on a cosmic scale.

Irvine also says that Stoics had some very practical advice on the subject that was similar to Buddhist practice: “When angry, says Seneca, we should take steps to “turn all [anger’s] indications into their opposites.” We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice, and slow our pace of walking. If we do this, our internal state will soon come to resemble our external state, and our anger, says Seneca, will have dissipated.”

And if you do lash out at someone, simply decide immediately to apologize. Not only this is likely to repair whatever damage you may have inflicted to your social relations, but the act of making an apology will calm you and make it less likely that you will brood over your bad behavior later on. Moreover, making apologies will help you internalize the idea that getting angry is wrong, which in turn will lead you to be less angry in the future.

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Categories: Psychology

13 replies

  1. Excellent advice, as usual Massimo.

    The problem is turning reasoned assent into action. That is where we need continual practice. And to continually pick ourselves off the floor and start again, without becoming angry at ourselves in the meantime!

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  2. For some reason this reminds me of the scene in the movie Road House in which Patrick Swayze is training the bouncers at a ne club. “Be nice,” he says, “until it’s time to not be nice.” https://youtu.be/nTh5JzRziHE

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  3. I think that the Stoic offers excellent advice for handling anger. However, it is not enough for me. In addition, I need to know that God is in control. This is the only way that I can relax my grip. I have to know that God is in control of the justice part, and He will avenge:

    • Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everybody. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Romans 12:17-19; Also, see Romans 13:1-4 where God avenges through the criminal justice system.)

    • Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him; for God’s temple is sacred, and you are that temple. (1 Corinthians 3:16-17)

    Without this knowledge, I am prone to take justice into my own hands, even if I know that it will harm me. The indignation is that powerful!

    I also need to know that my Lord has me entirely covered and even has a good purpose for the abuse I might receive:

    • For it is commendable if a man bears up under the pain of unjust suffering because he is conscious of God. But how is it to your credit if you receive a beating for doing wrong and endure it? But if you suffer for doing good and you endure it, this is commendable before God. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. (1 Peter 2:19-21)

    Only with these assurances can I stand against the growing horrors of this world.

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  4. While I think there is a lot of worthwhile advice here I also think the Stoic framing of the issue is not ideal.
    1) I think the point Massimo brings up on the potential usefulness of anger is important. Not only can anger serve as a motivating emotion, but it’s flaring up can also as an important signal for us to consider our own role in it’s origin. I think often times anger emerges from a poor understanding or narrow picture of the factors involved in the situation we are reacting to. I would like to see more emphasis on this angle for personal growth.

    2) I also think some of the metaphors used might be counterproductive and could be improved. If the goal is to live in accordance with nature I don’t think it is ideal to frame our method of achieving that goal in combative terms. For example:

    I think learning to become receptive to discomforts is poorly described ny becoming ‘hard’ as opposed to being ‘soft’. I’m not a big fan of Naseem Taleb’s interpretations but his ‘anti-fragile’ metaphor works much better here for me. I think often it is those who try to be ‘hard’ that hold the most unconsidered anger. I think the choice of metaphors is important.

    Here is another example:

    I love the idea of allowing opposing alternatives to be expressed (very much in agreement with Zhaungzi). Relaxation however is not something that can be ‘forced’, but instead is the result of the expanded awareness (in mind and body) to the alternative. Mainly just different framing that I think is more accurate to the process of learning to respond productively to the emotion.

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  5. Daniel,

    forgive me but it sounds to me like you need a metaphysical crutch to lean on or you can’t do the right thing. I think that’s a problem. (That said, Epictetus did think that there is a God and a plan, and he did get comfort out of that thought. I guess I simply don’t believe there is enough evidence of such a plan and that the moral thing to do is to get on anyway.)

    Seth,

    “Not only can anger serve as a motivating emotion, but it’s flaring up can also as an important signal for us to consider our own role in it’s origin”

    But the Stoics didn’t deny either of them. They just thought that once you feel the anger (which you cannot avoid) you then need to deny it assent, so that you can take care of whatever caused it rationally, not emotionally.

    “I think often times anger emerges from a poor understanding or narrow picture of the factors involved in the situation we are reacting to.”

    Precisely, but you are unlikely to achieve understanding while you are still in the thralls of emotions.

    “I think learning to become receptive to discomforts is poorly described ny becoming ‘hard’ as opposed to being ‘soft’.”

    But that passage was about hardening ourselves to circumstances to better withstand them. I don’t see the metaphor, if that’s what it is, as misleading. As for living according to nature, remember that for the Stoic this means to follow human nature, that of a social being capable of reason.

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  6. “you need a metaphysical crutch to lean on or you can’t do the right thing.”

    Massimo, You are exactly correct! Without God, all I have is a set of bio-chemical reactions and social conventions, none of which are authoritative. I had therefore decided that, if I was to live authentically, I would follow my feelings, no matter how destructive, no matter what the cost.

    It was only through Christ – the higher Truth – that I was rescued from materialism and my destructive course.

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  7. Thanks for the responses Massimo.

    I was just indicating a couple of points where I disagree with the Stoics and your responses simply highlight those areas disagreement.

    I don’t think we can separate reasons from emotions, and I do think our emotions not just our reasoning capacity can feed progress in understanding. If by ‘thralls of emotion’ you are referring to emotions so strong as to remove reason as a functional capacity then yes this is an undesirable condition. Yet I think we can also feel a degree of anger without losing our reasoning capacity and I think this place of interaction between emotion and reason is where understanding is best achieved.

    If the Stoics think equanimity feeds pure reasoning and the Buddhists think equanimity feeds pure loving kindness, I’m arguing that equanimity exists where reason and emotion mutually support each other.

    As for the last point:
    “But that passage was about hardening ourselves to circumstances to better withstand them”

    I’m simply disagreeing that the best way to think about withstanding circumstances is by ‘hardening ourselves’. Things that are hard & brittle tend break more easily than those that have some pliancy. So I prefer a metaphor more in line with a resiliency concept. This is a more minor point as I think a lot of those Stoic practices help build resiliency to circumstance.

    Thanks again.

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  8. “when someone wrongs us, says Seneca, he should be corrected “by admonition and also by force, gently and also roughly.” Such corrections, however, should not be made in anger.”

    I agree that when someone wrongs us there should be appropriate consequences for their actions. But does Stoicism offer any suggestions on how we should craft and deliver those consequences to the wrongdoer? For instance, with your texting woman at the movies, would your undelivered quip about her always being so rude have been an appropriate consequence handed to her?

    I guess the broader question I am getting at is: what does Stoicism have to say about justice?

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  9. Seth,

    I agree that one needs to achieve a good balance between reason and emotion. I just don’t think anger is ever a positive emotion, even when justified. But we can disagree on that!

    “Things that are hard & brittle tend break more easily than those that have some pliancy. So I prefer a metaphor more in line with a resiliency concept.”

    I still get the feeling you are taking the metaphor in the wrong way: “hardening” here means getting used to bad situations and how to deal with them, not losing flexibility. Indeed, resilience is one of the fundamental Stoic concepts.

    Jay,

    “does Stoicism offer any suggestions on how we should craft and deliver those consequences to the wrongdoer? For instance, with your texting woman at the movies, would your undelivered quip about her always being so rude have been an appropriate consequence handed to her?”

    Maybe not to the latter question. As for the first one, yes, Stoic writings discuss justice quite a bit, as the Stoics saw their philosophy as one of social concern, among other things.

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  10. My last comment –
    Rather than labeling emotions as positive or negative my view is that it is more useful to put those qualifications on our actions and behaviors in response to the emotions. I think emotions like anger and fear often lead to negative actions and behaviors but that need not be the case. Sometimes in admittedly rare occasions they may be necessary for survival in response to a physical threat. Other times they may be vallid emotions, but the response needs to be tempered by reason so that the action or behavior is appropriate to the circumstance.

    Circumstance should dictate the use of the emotion, and these so called negative emotions may provide a range of physiological changes (like vigilance, alertness, motivation) that could potentially be beneficial in an appropriate response. Maybe we could label an emotion that itself is inappropriate to the circumstance as negative. I could go along with that, but in that case any emotion might potentially be negative in context of a given circumstance.

    If ‘hardening’ in the example discussed doesn’t imply lack of flexibility I’m just suggesting that it would be better to use a different metaphor because hardening generally does imply loss of flexibility 🙂

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  11. seth,

    “Sometimes in admittedly rare occasions they may be necessary for survival in response to a physical threat. Other times they may be vallid emotions, but the response needs to be tempered by reason so that the action or behavior is appropriate to the circumstance”

    Yes, though that doesn’t sound to me very different from the Stoic idea of giving or withdrawing assent, depending on the circumstances. Perhaps a different emphasis?

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I find Daniel’s belief system troubling to be honest — to feel so incensed at injustice that the wish for wrath and vengeance is so great is a problem. It is the problem the Stoics identified as needing therapy. If one needs a God that threatens to do the vengenace part for us then that person is still the one with the problem. Daniel — offloading that baggage onto a metaphysical entity might actually be a good thing if it keeps you from taking the law into your own hands to make people suffer.

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