The 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.