Resistance Is Futile: Stoic Counsel About “Externals” by William Ferraiolo

Axiom of Futility. Agents are required not to make direct attempts to do (or be) something that is logically, theoretically, or practically impossible.” [Becker, p. 42]

“To be happy, we must not be too concerned with others.”― Albert Camus, The Fall

Emotional and psychological attachment to futile endeavors assures frustration, anxiety, and discontent. Insisting that the external world must conform to one’s stubbornly held desires and pre-conceived expectations, virtually guarantees dissatisfaction. Such insistence is futile. I contend that unhealthy attachments of this nature are an astoundingly common, but readily eradicable, source of needless distress. Marvin Kohl mentions the Stoic attitude regarding futile endeavors:

Perhaps no school of philosophy in the ancient world placed greater emphasis on the importance of understanding and accepting the limits of human power than did the Stoics. For the Stoics maintain that in addition to knowing what is worth doing, wisdom, in some very fundamental way, consists in knowing what is and is not in our power, and not attempting to do what we cannot do. [2001, p. 75]

In particular, I contend that all psychological dependence upon such Stoic “externals” as the behaviors and cognitive states of persons other than oneself, are subsumable under the Becker epigraph (above) indicating the Stoic Axiom of Futility. In other words, we invite needless suffering when we tether our contentment to conditions, such as the beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors of others, that lie beyond our sphere of direct, practical control. Any attempt to govern another agent’s beliefs, desires, or behavior constitutes a futile effort to control phenomena that are, in the language of Epictetus’ Enchiridion, “not up to us”. There is a sense in which this is a trivial and obvious observation—we cannot control other people, their thoughts, etc. Nearly everyone understands this, and few would openly dispute any such assertion. Nonetheless, the pervasive and seemingly incorrigible insistence upon attempting to do so, and the tendency to become distressed at the failure of such attempts, warrants careful analysis and cries out for therapeutic counsel.

The effort to formulate and offer helpful counsel is not futile. Composing and communicating advice is, for all practical purposes, within my control (provided that brain and body do not fail me). Insisting upon the efficacy or acceptance of such counsel is, however, a quixotic and futile bit of stubbornness—destined to result in psychological and emotional distress. I can write this article defending and explaining a little valuable Stoic counsel as best I am able (and that effort is largely, if not entirely, “up to me”), but I am a fool if I allow my emotional well-being to depend upon the article being accepted at an academic conference, selected for publication, or upon anyone reading it, taking it seriously, or adhering to the counsel offered herein. The wise attitude regarding the acceptance of proffered counsel is rational detachment, and recognition that such matters are simply not within the counselor’s control. That is the Stoic’s advice—take it or leave it.

Futility and Discontent

Surely, some will contend, limiting our endeavors and concerns in this fashion is bound to stultify development and inhibit the kinds of hopes and dreams that have driven innovation, technological achievement, and nearly every form of advancement from which humanity has enjoyed benefit. We must dare, even in the face of futility, to risk failure. Only through such daring is real progress realized. Let us dare great deeds and, if we fail to achieve them, glory nonetheless in our valiant struggle and derive both pride and hope from “dreaming the impossible dream”. Don Quixote may be a tragic hero, but he is a hero nonetheless, precisely because he “tilted at windmills” and enlarged his spirit thereby. The inspiration is worth braving defeat and humiliation.

Our culture is, for good reason, saturated with expressions of admiration for those who dare, those who dream, those who persevere in the face of seemingly impossible obstacles and brutally bruising travails. We Americans, after all, “Remember the Alamo!” The birth of the United States as a nation is inextricably dependent upon braving terrifying odds and summoning the courage to combat an ostensibly insurmountable challenge, an invincible adversary. Consider the stirrings conjured by a mention of Valley Forge. Who among us does not root for the underdog, and “hope against hope” when faced with a lost cause? Patron saints do not, after all, generally live lives of luxury, or die peaceful, gentle deaths. Does Stoicism counsel cowardice, acquiescence, and quietism? If so, then its counsel is ignoble at best, and is apt to diminish those who embrace it. Again, Kohl nicely articulates this ancient complaint:

Some thinkers may immediately object to this line of thinking and say that to be failure-proof one must have an unconquerable faith in being able to do anything one wants to do. Others may urge us to believe that invincible determination of purpose should be psychologically so fixed that we persevere until “either victory or death.” Still others, operating under the pretence of wisdom, may urge us to combine a false with a true statement. Here we are told that “you can have anything you want, but you can’t have it all.” These extreme libertarians of choice reject the precept that one ought not try to do things that known to be impossible or, and more important, that very few things are, in fact, impossible. Like Nicholas Rescher, they are also inclined to believe as a general life stance that optimal results are attainable only by trying for too much. [2001, p. 78]

So goes a fairly standard objection against “lowering one’s aim” in order that one may avoid disappointment. First of all, it is practically impossible that any endeavor may be known to be futile. We have all heard “stranger things have happened,” or “nothing is impossible,” offered as encouragement and exhortation. Secondly, even a truly futile endeavor may have an ennobling quality not otherwise attainable—an ennobling power that countervails against the detriments of failure. We admire those who endure, those who strive, and those glorious “fools” willing to “fight the unbeatable foe”. Such sentiments may be poetic—but poetry often makes for lousy philosophy, and impractical counsel.

This objection is misguided on two fronts. As Kohl reminds us, the Stoics long ago argued that:

The point…is that to aim at what cannot be done is not only to invite failure but to waste precious time and energy that could have been effective elsewhere. To aim at the futile with indefeasible resolution and the profound conviction that one must persevere to “either victory or death” is to invite the latter and is, therefore, even more seriously normatively flawed. [2001, p. 78]

Every moment spent in pursuit of the impossible, the futile, is a moment lost to the effort to attain plausible (or, at the very least, possible) results. Our time and our energy are limited. It is irrational and self-defeating to sacrifice a potential benefit to the futile attempt to gain the unattainable boon. This is the classic “sucker’s bet”. Furthermore, successful ventures are not, inherently, less ennobling than are quixotic quests. The Alamo would still be worth remembering had Santa Ana’s legions faltered and turned back—perhaps even more so! Surely, failure is not a necessary condition for optimizing consequences over the long term, nor is it necessary for sublime experience. Were it so, we would be well served to aim for failure. This would, arguably, generate a paradox involving succeeding in the attainment of failure—or aiming to succeed at an endeavor that precludes the possibility of success. If such an effort is not, flat out, incoherent, it at least tends in the general direction of discomfiting cognitive dissonance. Is George Washington less worthy of our respect than is King Leonidas? Both are heroic and admirable—but Washington won. Would not Leonidas have preferred victory at Thermopylae?

Cannot Implies Ought Not

If Immanuel Kant is correct that “ought implies can,” then it follows that cannot implies ought not. This is a fairly straightforward application of modus tollens to the sphere of practical reasoning. It is impractical, and arguably incoherent to attempt what cannot be done. That is, one ought not attempt the impossible. In any such attempt, the agent wastes time, effort, and resources on a doomed endeavor. Those resources could have, otherwise, been devoted to some project with at least a hope of success. How much needless suffering has resulted from failure to desist in hopeless endeavors? Moreover, how much avoidable suffering might have been forestalled by a rational reallocation of the resources wasted in futile pursuits? No exact quantification is possible (any attempt to produce one would be futile), but we may safely conclude that “a lot” would serve as a modest and conservative answer. In A New Stoicism, Lawrence Becker articulates the practical and logical problems with futile pursuits:

The point cannot be more straightforward: We reject the soundness of any normative proposition constructed from an agent’s endeavor to do (directly) what she believes to be impossible. We do this because such endeavors are incoherent, in the sense that their propositional representation always tacitly involves an inconsistent pair of propositions: one about impossibility, to the effect that there are no available means to achieve a given end; the other about a contrary possibility, to the effect that there is a course of conduct that might be a way to achieve the same end…But the system of normative logic constitutes a formal representation of practical reasoning, and practical reasoning aims to resolve such conflict and incoherence. [1998, p. 45]

Practical reasoning cannot countenance the ultimate impracticality of applied principles culminating in incoherence. One cannot, as the adage goes, “serve two masters” (one, at least, ought not to attempt to do so), and one certainly cannot abide by mutually inconsistent action-guiding propositions or maxims of conduct. The impossible, is for practical purposes, forbidden to the rational agent.

A Practical Test

The Stoics enjoin us to discontinue any and all concern with, and emotional or psychological attachment to, circumstances or endeavors that are known to be futile, or for which we have reasonably conclusive evidence of futility. This is wise counsel—all too frequently flouted or ignored. Sometimes, there really is no hope. It behooves us to identify such cases and respond with properly rational detachment. What, however, might constitute compelling evidence that any endeavor is, in fact, futile? There are, of course, some fairly obvious cases of physically, nomologically, or logically impossible achievements.

These are, however, not genuine options of the type William James held up as live possibilities. No one sincerely contemplates leaping the Grand Canyon at its widest point, without deploying some form of artificial propulsion. No one thinks, “I will broad jump that distance!” It is clearly impossible for any human to do so. Furthermore, any such attempt, far from being admirable or ennobling, is simply a suicidal exercise in foolishness. This is not an interesting case for practical counsel. No one needs pronouncements from a Stoic sage to dissuade obvious lunacy!

The interesting test case involves the endeavor that is not obviously impossible, but that may appear to defy reason. What test can distinguish the improbably from the unattainable? How, in actual practice, can one tell the difference? As is often the case with Stoic counsel, the answer is shockingly (and deceptively) simple: Will it to be so. What one’s will does not, at the moment in question, produce is, ipso facto, beyond the power of one’s will—at that moment.

This may seem a presumptuous determinism and, indeed, it may be. Luckily, practical purposes do not require us to settle recondite metaphysical disputes. Can I control, simply by exertion of my will, another person’s beliefs, behavior, attitudes, etc.? Those who would answer in the affirmative, thereby acquire the burden of proof. One may of course, speak, debate, threaten, and so on. All of these endeavors depend upon the cooperation of one’s interlocutor(s). As Epictetus reminds his students, such matters are simply not “up to us”:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs. [Enchiridion, I]

It is not mere coincidence that Arrian places this first on the Enchiridion’s list of admonitions to would-be Stoics. This is the sine qua non of Epictetan counsel’s efficacy. Know what is “yours” to control. Bend all of your cognitive efforts on the improvement and perfection of your “internals” (i.e. opinion, aim, desire, aversion, etc.). Know what is not yours to control. Embrace it, accept it, and do not allow yourself to be troubled by anything that is not “yours”. Stoic “externals” (i.e. body, property, reputation, office, etc.) are not “up to you,” and it is foolish to allow yourself to be concerned about them. Every moment of discontent caused by emotional attachment to the attitudes and behaviors of other persons, is a moment that might have been spent improving oneself.

We waste our lives insofar as we strive for the unattainable. Life is too short for constructing cloud castles. Our time is too valuable to be frittered away upon childish fantasy. Stoicism is largely about accepting the external world as it is, and resisting the urge to pine for a world that has not been, is not, and cannot be. The world will have its way. The Stoic is untroubled by the unfolding of events over which he has no direct control. The good Stoic is busy with self-governance and self-rectification. That is more than enough to occupy any rational agent. Don Quixote tilted at windmills. Epictetus strove after wisdom, virtue, and self-control. Choose the more admirable endeavor. Get to work.

Works Cited

Becker, Lawrence C. (1998). A New Stoicism. Princeton University Press.

Camus, Albert (1958). The Fall. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Epictetus. Discourses and Enchiridion. Thomas W. Higginson (trans.). New York: Walter J. Black, Inc. (1944)

Harris, Sam. (2010). The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. New York: Free Press (a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.)

Kohl, Marvin. (2001). “Wisdom and the Axiom of Futility,” The Philosophical Forum, 32: 73–93.

Rescher, Nicholas. (1987). Ethical Idealism: An Inquiry into the Nature and Function of Ideals. Berkeley: University of California Press.


William Ferraiolo received a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Oklahoma in 1997. Since that time, he has been teaching philosophy at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California. He is the author of Meditations on Self-Discipline and Failure: Stoic Exercise for Mental Discipline.

Stoicism and Surgery by Robert S. Colter

As a professor of philosophy, and of ancient philosophy in particular, I have been studying Stoicism at some level for over 20 years. It is one thing to study it as a dry academic subject, and an entirely different thing to apply it to one’s own life, especially in the systematic way that Stoicism invites us to. I want to share a recent experience that, for me at least, was an example of how Stoicism can fit into one’s life, even in quite difficult circumstances.

I began writing this reflection from a hospital bed in Hamilton NZ. I just had my catheter removed (oh what freedom!), and was still awaiting the passing of wind (the lovely New Zealand euphemism for farting), the next great milestone to be achieved! What better time to reflect on Stoicism and its role in my week?

My week began with great excitement as I embarked upon a long-planned journey from my home in the US to NZ in order to, among other things, deliver a talk on Stoicism to a number of philosophers at a conference, as well as to do some sightseeing and other tourist activities. The journey is of course a long one, and I was a bit anxious about it, primarily about whether I would be able to sleep on the long flight over the Pacific. I did sleep a bit, although not as much as I hoped, and arrived in NZ in good spirits, looking forward to delivering my talk.

I was staying with a friend and colleague of long standing, and arriving at his home proceeded with my unpacking. We then had a nice lunch, went to the local campus where we worked on some projects for a few hours. Next we took a walk along the local river and park, enjoying the sights, and talking about the different varieties of flora and fauna to be found in NZ vs the US. All very pleasant (at least in a way appropriate for preferred indifferents) and exactly what I had been hoping for as the beginning of my visit. But there was a storm on the horizon that I could not yet see. I would soon have the opportunity to reflect on Zeno’s quip, after learning that he had lost everything in a shipwreck, “Fortune bids me to become a less encumbered philosopher.”

I had started to feel some discomfort in my abdomen sometime during our walk, and it was slowly increasing. I mentioned it to my companion, and we decided it must be the after effects of the long trip, and would soon pass, at least after a trip or two to the toilet. Seemed quite reasonable. So I proceeded to the event I had planned for the evening, but before the event was over, I found myself being attended to as I lay on the cold concrete, sweating and in pain. The fine people at that event delivered me to my friend’s home, where I made a number of futile attempts to use the toilet.

Soon the pain increased many fold, and I began vomiting, and the ambulance was called, and the Emergency Department, and pain, and … Those who may be medically inclined might recognize a likely culprit – an obstructed bowel (and please no witty comments about philosophy professors being full of shit).

I don’t remember too many details of those hours, but the ones I do recall are vivid. I recall, being bent over double by pain, saying to myself “you are but an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be” and “you are nothing to me.” Shockingly, I felt a shift in both my attitude and perception of the pain, albeit minor (it still hurt pretty severely!) and temporary (lasted for a few seconds). Later, with a bit more clarity, I was able to recall Epictetus words more fully, from the Enchiridion:

From the start, then, work on saying to each harsh appearance, “You are an appearance, and not at all the thing that has the appearance.” Then examine it and assess it by these yardsticks that you have, and first and foremost by whether it concerns the things that are up to us or the things that are not up to us. And if it is about one of the things that is not up to us, be ready to say, “You are nothing in relation to me.”

It took a while, but I was finally seen by the doctor, who proceeded to send me upstairs to the ward I still occupied several days later. There were a couple of days of attempts at non-surgical intervention, but in the end surgery was required. I was still hooked up to machines and my guts hurt. My family remained in the US, and I missed them (less stoically that I ought to have). I am all the way across the world from my home, and while perhaps no longer in deadly medical peril, still there is much discomfort, and many plans, including my return, remain up in the air.

Once again, I find some comfort in a number of stoic reflections: Cleanthes’s Hymn to Zeus keeps popping up:

Lead me, Zeus, and you too, Destiny,
Wherever I am assigned by you;
I’ll follow and not hesitate,
But even if I do not wish to,
Because I’m bad, I’ll follow anyway.

It is clear that I did not want to go through this medical emergency. My plans were wiped out. I did not give my talk, and I was unable to see all the sights I had anticipated. But none of that was up to me. The universe was in charge, and I am just a part of nature, and if this is what nature wills, the so be it. I can either choose to go along, or be dragged kicking and screaming.

Many times I faced more pain, even after surgery. And there was the loneliness, although I had daily visits from my friend and the nursing staff was wonderful. I found the following from Marcus helpful:

Everything that happens either happens in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it or in such a way that you are not. If, then, it comes about in such a way that you are fitted by nature to bear it, make no complaint, but bear it as your nature enables you to do; but if it comes about in such a way that you are not fitted by nature to bear it, again you should make no complaint, for it will soon be the end of you. Remember, however, that you are fitted by nature to bear everything that you can render bearable and endurable through the exercise of your judgement, by suggesting the idea to yourself that your interest or your duty demands it.

I will find the means to endure, or not. Many before me, and many still to come, have faced and will face trials such as mine, and even more severe. Thinking of these passage certainly decreased my anxieties and loneliness. I am no stoic sage, but these reflections give me at times some small comfort against the vicissitudes of life. But it is comfort that was not available to me before, and I am grateful for that.

I had found that I could endure. But then something even more unexpected occurred. A couple of days after surgery, I was conversing with my wife via Skype, and she noted, “You seem happy!” I was struck by this, since I hadn’t noticed it, and besides, what did I really have to be happy about, even if I had come to a point where I was no longer miserable?

I took a look around me. Perhaps like most of us, I often operate under the illusion that I have control of a great number of things in my life. I was raised in the mythology of the “self-made man” and the notion of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.” My situation here, however, was different. I had been forcibly stripped of the idea that my zone of control extended much beyond my hospital bed. As Epictetus points out, not even my body is truly under my control, and that was certainly true in my case. I was attached to a number of tubes and hoses, so that I couldn’t even get out of bed without assistance. Even when I could get out to bed, I could barely manage to walk the 100 feet of hallway outside my room. And, of course, I was unable to even fart, despite my best efforts.

So, I was reduced to doing my best to make choices a virtuously as possible, even if I didn’t think of it that way. I decided to treat everyone on the hospital staff with kindness and respect. When I attempted to move around the ward, I tried to do so with courage, knowing that it would be painful and difficult. I decided to wean myself from the pain medications as soon as I could, so that my cognitive faculties might not be so muddled. But, I did not totally forswear the medications, since being in too much pain might also make it more difficult for me to make virtuous choices. My zone of control had been reduced to such choices, or at least I had been compelled to recognize that those were its limits all along! The following passage from Epictetus seemed to capture my situation rather well:

Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be; short if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even this part skillfully, or a cripple, or a public official, or a private citizen. What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.

So, I could focus on what was mine, to play the part of the convalescent well. It was not my choice, but it was not mine to choose in the first place. And the result seemed to be that I was happy, as my wife seemed to note, or at least I was undisturbed and content with my lot, which may not be so far from happy.

As I finish writing this, some weeks after the incident, I can report that surgery was successful, and I am recovering nicely. I am thankful for the ways in which Stoicism, and especially these passages, have helped me through a difficult trial. I am now a bit more confident of my ability to remain in agreement with nature the next time something difficult occurs. And, perhaps I can even be content!

Robert Colter is Associate Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Wyoming. His research is in ancient philosophy and the philosophy of education. He is also the founder and director of the Wyoming Stoic Camp.

Event Announcement – Summer Stoic School / Scuola Estiva di Stoicismo

Spend three days in Rome (July 13-15) studying ancient and modern Stoicism! Join Massimo and a small group of prokoptontes (students of Stoicism) to dig into Epictetus’ Manual, learn about practical Stoicism and how to apply it to your life. While there, walk through the Roman Fori or visit the National Roman Museum, and of course enjoy traditional Roman cuisine and local wines (don’t worry, we won’t accuse you of being a Epicurean…)! Il corso sarà offerto sia in italiano che in inglese.

Vieni per tre giorni a Roma (luglio 13-15) a studiare lo Stoicismo antico e moderno! Unisciti a Massimo e ad un gruppetto di prokoptontes (studenti di Stoicismo) per imparare il Manuale di Epitteto e applicare lo Stoicismo alla tua vita personale. Mentre sei con noi, fai una camminata tra i Fori Romani, o visita il Museo Nazionale Romano, e ovviamente goditi la cucina tradizionale romana e i vini locali (non preoccuparti, non ti accuseremo di essere un Epicureo…)! The course will be offered both in English and in Italian.

For more information (books, activities, logistics, etc.) see the Meetup page for the school and feel free to email Massimo Pigliucci

Per maggiori informazioni contatta Massimo Pigluicci via email 

On Outrage: Trump is the Obstacle and the Way by Marco Bronx

Serious question: when is outrage appropriate? Because I’m a progressive democrat and Donald Trump is now president of the United States. As I write this, my Facebook feed is falling apart. I’ve seen videos of riots in the streets, people punching each other in the face, friend unfriending friend, and many deleting their accounts from pure overwhelm.

Facebook and Twitter has fallen into a never-ending cycle of clickbait headlines, arguments, and my friends, both republican and democrat, trading barbs via links from their favorite news of the day.

But I’ve yet to flip out, take a dump on a Trump sign in public or try to eat someone’s face off who smugly laughed at the stunning loss of Hillary Clinton. In fact, I’ve been pretty calm… I actually went to sleep around midnight on November 8, before it was clear to me that Trump would win.

Impossible you say?

Maybe you think I’m an older white man who needs to check his privilege, or I just don’t get the importance of what we just voted into office. Because if I did understand, I should be freaking furious, I should feel devastated and already planning my move to Canada.

On November 9th, my wife woke up in tears and asked me why I seemed so positive. Then she then threw me out of the room when I tried to tell her.   But if she weren’t so upset, I’d tell her the answer to that question is Stoicism.

Is it possible, then, that shameless men should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible. For this man also is one of those shameless men who must of necessity be in the world. Let the same considerations be present to thy mind in the case of the knave, and the faithless man, and of every man who does wrong in any way. – Marcus Aurelius

Isn’t it immoral to stand by calmly amidst such unrest? Isn’t this the time we take to the streets and shout at the top of our lungs that this is unacceptable? Where should the line of acceptance fall? While I’m disappointed by Trump’s divisive win and concerned for our future, the more important question for me is how should we respond?

I think this post-election period presents us with a unique opportunity to ask ourselves what is the wisest, most ethical way to handle a now wide-spread, increasing rivalry in our country. Because as Marcus Aurelius points out, there will always be shameless men and women in our world, so let’s not wish for the impossible now… it won’t help.

Why Be Against Outrage?

As a type-A, I used to think there are times when action powered by anger would help me obliterate any obstacles in my path and that it made me more resourceful. But 10 years ago, I permanently crippled my health and I suspect it’s because I lived with so much stress and anger.

Today I believe that anger – while useful at times – should never be indulged in, even in the slightest degree, if at all possible.  So if not now… then when? What if someone insults you, you might ask?

Seneca would respond, “Thanks my good kinsmen! For giving me so generous a part that I can love, though not beloved.”

Well isn’t that nice Mr. Holier-than-thou… ok, you say, so what if you’re having a heated argument and then she spits on you??

Seneca might calmly whisper to himself, “well… that’s how it seemed to her.”

Haaa, yeah right! Ok fine, you self-righteous sally… then, what if someone kills your wife??? What are you gonna do then?!

To feel anger on behalf of one’s friends does not show a loving, but a weak mind: it is admirable and worthy conduct to stand forth as the defender of one’s parents, children, friends, and countrymen, at the call of duty itself, acting of one’s own free will, forming a deliberate judgment… not in an impulsive, frenzied fashion. (But) no passion is more eager for revenge than anger, and for that very reason it is unsuited to obtain it: being overly hasty and frantic, like almost all desires, it hinders itself in the attainment of its own object, and therefore has never been useful either in peace or war: for it makes peace like war, and when in arms forgets that (the god of War) Mars belongs to neither side, and falls into the power of the enemy, because it is not in its own power. -Seneca

…And to those of you who say at very least, the act of punishment for the murder of your wife is justified by anger:

Do you think that the law is angry with men whom it does not know, whom it has never seen…? We ought, therefore, to adopt the law’s frame of mind, which does not become angry, but merely defines offenses… as Plato says, ‘no wise man punishes any one because he’s sinned, but that he may sin no more: for what is past can’t be recalled, but what is to come may be checked.’-Seneca

Almost makes you angry reading that, doesn’t it? Look, I’m not saying you won’t feel any anger from such a horrific loss. Of course you would.

How could we all not be overcome by despair, anger and the passionate desire for revenge? I suspect even the best of us would fall into our darkest thoughts. Because we’re not robots. We’re human, highly fallible, subject to our passions at any given time and Seneca understood that, too.

The Stoics realized the cold reality that we often can’t control our initial reactions, it’s beyond our reason…but we can control our response to those initial reactions. And that, Epictetus adamantly affirms, is in our control.

This is why Seneca fills an entire book called On Anger, in order to lay out his case against anger, using pure reasoning and explains why – in any situation – there is never a good enough reason to justify it.  If you haven’t read it yet, I can’t recommend it enough.

Not Your Typical Stoic

Like most people, I used to think a Stoic person was just a cold, emotionless person who couldn’t care less about other people…yes, I know lots of British people could fall into this category, too.  But I was pleasantly surprised to learn that contrary to the stereotype, Stoics were all about action and compassion. Because the Stoics also reasoned that it’s in our nature to be social, just and compassionate.

Does the wise man just calmly sit back and do nothing? Of course not. Like the serenity prayer, they exercise the courage to change the things they can change, accept the things they can’t, and develop wisdom to know the difference.

As a progressive Democrat, action and compassion are very important to me because I can’t just sit back calmly and watch Rome burn.  And if we want to pursue justice, then shouldn’t reason prevail above all? Shouldn’t our moral values be born out of a compassionate motivation but also be tempered with wisdom and rational thinking?

If we act out of outrage, then we’re clearly not coming from a place of reason – literally or figuratively. And that’s a dangerous choice we’re making, even if we’re not aware of it – or especially because of it. So as counterintuitive as it may sound, I don’t want to focus as much on what actions we can take in pursuit of justice.

Instead, I want to share some key coping strategies I’ve learned from Stoicism to help keep your sanity and be more effective (and trust me, this list is as much for me as it is anyone else).

Stoic Coping Strategies To Keep You From Going Crazy:

Meditate on the Good

As soon as I open my Facebook, Twitter or turn on the news, the worst, most clickbait-y headlines await me….lots of posts about racism, voter fraud, gun shootings, terrorism videos, illegal immigration, the middle east – and of course, Adolf Hitler is always a must-have crowd favorite.

At the same time, I’m also aware of the amazing and positive changes happening right now as I write this. Incredible breakthroughs in biotech and technology that may cure common cancers and diseases, the coming revolution in transportation which brings with it the inevitable switch to alternative energy, regardless of who’s President (…no more wars?), and the fact that diverse philanthropic donations has never enjoyed such meteoric heights in our nation’s history.

Not enough? How much would you miss your iPhone or Android if you couldn’t do remote deposits, email on the couch or candy crush during awkward social engagements? Or if you lost your left hand, how would you cook, use the bathroom, drive?

What about basic civil engineering like running water (hot AND cold), flushing toilets and the working electricity throughout our world that we use many times per day without a single thought? And finally, you live and breathe every day, despite having done nothing at all to deserve it.

There’s much to be thankful for at any given time – if you want. So if you’re feeling pessimistic, that’s a choice you’re making.  This is not about seeing the good and ignoring the bad. This is about opening up and expanding your world view to see and accept both truths.

Buddhist monks who practice meditation are taught to use negative and positive visualization to stimulate compassion.

An example of negative visualization would be imagining that someone close to you was just in a car accident and she’s lying in your arms, suffering from terrible pain. By empathizing with the suffering of those we care about, our altruistic desire is awakened and exercised.

However, if they begin to feel overwhelmed by the idea their loved ones are suffering terribly, the counter technique is to visualize all the joy and happiness of others. To meditate on the many great people in the world who are helping a great number of people, in order to be filled with hope and optimism. But should that joy overflow to the point of distraction, the monks will then bring their attention back to the suffering of others again.

In this way, they exercise and build their compassion without being overly attached to either suffering or joy. The ultimate goal for these monks is to build their compassion and use that to act accordingly in the service of others… without losing their sense of equanimity.

And just like the Buddhist monks, we’re also responsible for maintaining our equanimity by managing our focus. Because without that equanimity, we’re living in reaction to our environment and the goal of our action is lost.

Is the world full of terrifying pain and injustice? Of course. Is the world full of genuine grace, unconditional love, boundless joy and hallelujah? Yes. As Tony Robbins says, “what’s wrong is always available, but so is what’s right.” It’s up to us to take the blinders off.

Not In My Control

To avoid being angry with individuals, you must pardon the whole mass, you must grant forgiveness to the entire human race. -Seneca

Did you ever get angry because you haven’t figured out how to control the weather yet? Maybe it rained on your graduation day and after a few moments of huffing and puffing, you laughed at yourself.

Have you thought about how unfair it is that you’re getting older and you still can’t stop time? And regardless of whether you get angry at the sun or not, it will continue to rise and set every day.

Zeno, one of the original founders of Stoicism (think of him like the Justin Timberlake of his boy band), once compared humanity to a dog tied to a moving cart. The cart is like the wheels of fate moving onward. And the dog must run along with the cart or be dragged by it. Yet the choice remains his.

So is it wise to be outraged by every murder and every murderer around the world? Should I be outraged that Genghis KHAAAAAAN! raped thousands of women and murdered 40 million people a thousand years ago?

Regardless if I get angry or not, shameless people will exist in the world, tyrants will be in power at times, bad policy will be enacted and the powerful will oppress the powerless. History will repeat itself in many ways and I can choose to accept this truth or be dragged by it.

A comedian I saw at Comedy Cellar once joked that it’s almost impossible to be a racist if you live in New York City because you’d be exhausted by the end of the day. There’s a lot of wisdom to that.  Because if you think the right answer to every injustice is more outrage, then prepare to be outraged all day, every day.

There are lots of things I don’t have control over. The movement of the planets, the passage of time, life and death, people’s behaviors and feelings. In fact, my sphere of influence is very small and while that may sound defeatist, it’s not only rational, it’s very freeing.

Because there’s no point worrying about what I can’t control or getting angry about it.  And that brings us to one of my favorite coping strategies…

It’s like having two separate folders in your mind. What you can control and what you can’t. Under the folder of “in my control” is your thoughts, your reactions, and your behaviors. Under the folder of what’s “not in my control” is everything else… and it’s the list of things you need to let go of.

Sometimes when I forget this lesson, I play a mental exercise: I meditate on trying to catch the wind. How would I make the wind blow south even while the breeze drifts north? Can I push it with my hands? Can I pull it somehow? What tools could I use to influence it? How much progress could I make if I worked on it tirelessly for the next 3 months? 6 months?

After a few moments of trying to solve this impossible problem my mind clears up a bit and I remind myself that “this too, is like trying to catch the wind.”

The Trichotomy of Control

For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his very soul? – Mark 8:36

I should mention here that modern stoicism recognizes the gray area between what’s in our control and what isn’t. Or rather, it underscores it more because it’s still discussed in the original stoicism.  This third folder is called “some control”.

An example from Epictetus is how we go about an ocean voyage. We can choose the captain, the cruise line, the date, the season and look at the forecasts. But if a storm strikes the boat on your way, then that’s “no longer my business” as he says. Because you’ve done your best to have a good voyage beforehand and now it’s up to the captain.

But what if the boat sinks? Then “I do the only thing I’m in position to do,” says Epictetus. To “drown – but fearlessly, without bawling or crying out to God, because I know that what is born must also die.”

Sounds like a lot of fun at parties, right?  As depressing as that sounds, the wisdom of it shines forth: that even when fate and fortune turn against us, it’s still our responsibility to do the best we can. And if we fail, we’re still expected to be in control of how we react.

The key is that it’s an internal compass, not external.

If your goal is to be a better athlete, it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose. It matters that you tried to improve your skill. If you want to conquer the fear of public speaking, it doesn’t matter that the audience hates you, it matters that you got up to speak and that you faced your fear with courage and inner calm.

And if your goal is to protest Trump policy… dare I say it?  It doesn’t matter whether the policy you were protesting changed or not, it matters that you tried, that you did it with thoughtfulness, courage and you maintained your inner peace.

Because if the goal is never outside your control, then you’re never derailed from your goal. You never stop. You don’t lose hope. You’re not discouraged.

You will have setbacks. But when fortune turns against us – as it sometimes does – it just becomes more grist for sculpting our character. We become stronger because of it, not in spite of it… “what stands in the way, becomes the way”, as Marcus Aurelius said.

Because for him, the challenge isn’t what ultimately matters. It’s who we become in the process that matters. This is the meaning behind his famous quote.

Whether you hate Trump or Clinton or anyone else in power, rather than wishing our society didn’t have leaders like them, shouldn’t we rather wish that we were strong enough to withstand leaders like them? And even be better for it?

It’s certainly noble to want to make the world a better place for our neighbor and our children, to want to ease the suffering of others. But in the end, we can only be certain of making ourselves better for the world.

So go ahead and protest, in whatever form you see best. There’s nothing more stoic than standing up for what’s right, even when reasonable people won’t support you. But do it without anger. Either way, the choice is yours.

Take the Long View – Let Time Tell Its Story

We need a long-breathed struggle against permanent and prolific evils; not, indeed, to quell them, but merely to prevent their overpowering us. – Seneca

I have a quirky, and maybe not so politically correct, theory about people. It’s that the more similar we are, the more we look for differences in each other.

Have you noticed how South Koreans hate North Koreans? Northern Chinese hate southern Chinese. Puerto Ricans hate Dominicans. Italians from the north hate Italians from the south and vice versa. Ok, maybe hate is a strong word, but they do have a strong rivalry.

As an outsider, the differences between Haitians and Dominicans might seem trivial to me. But as a native New Yorker, the hatred for New Jersey is an immutable law of nature. Just… no.

As an American, I find the Australian rivalry funny between New South Wales and Victoria. I mean, come on! They’re from the same place for god’s sake! They speak with the same quirky accents, don’t they? They have to have more in common with each other than not!

Yet, as a New Yorker, I can get along easily with the Brits, Australians, South Americans, and Canadians. After all, we’re not that different, are we?  But if you asked me to visit rural Arkansas, Oklahoma City or Alabama…I’d probably hesitate more than a little bit. Because yanks like me blend in with those good ole’ boys about as well as oil and water.

Yes, we’re all Americans, we all speak English and the fact that we live on the same continent seems significant…certainly, we’re much closer to each other than those in London, Sydney, Buenos Aires or Nova Scotia.

So why do we often get along better with strangers than our neighbors?

It’s like the closer we are, the more distance we seek. And the more distance we have, the more we want to travel to farther exotic nations and seek common ground.

So in my theory, the key motif to all these contradictions is the word distance. It’s funny to me as long as I’m the outsider. But when it lands too close to home, it starts to feel more threatening.

In the same way, I see all humanity. When our identity is threatened, we want to emphasize our differences in order to reinforce our identities or re-establish our alpha nature by comparison. But when we have enough space, our self-importance fades.

But what if instead of expanding our space, we expanded our identity? Do we need physical distance in order to feel safe, to rise above our differences?

I don’t know if those Blues Travelers were Stoics but their song “100 Years” sounds suspiciously like it. Because it won’t mean a thing in a 100 years – none of it. In 100 years, all these silly rivalries mean nothing when you see the rise and fall of entire civilizations, of empires, business empires, the generations of people being born, having kids, growing old and dying.

Do the people from 1,000 years ago affect your daily life? Like us, they lived, they ate, they loved, they fought, they had hopes, disappointments, and dreams…but as Marcus Aurelius says, “of all that life, not a trace survives today”.

In the same way, our actions, our hopes, and worries today will mean nothing to the people 10,000 years from now – assuming humans exist. In the grand scheme, we will all be forgotten – and those who remember us will be forgotten as well.

For Stoics, this is taking the long view. It goes beyond just meditating on the good. It’s a way of creating cognitive distance. Of expanding our identity to a cosmic scale. Until – like a magnifying glass that’s suddenly removed – our field of view opens wide.

Marcus Aurelius (and yes, I get the irony he lived 2,000 years ago so shut up about it already) liked to meditate on the impermanence of nature. He’d reflect not only on the eons of time passing by, but space. By doing this the importance of the things he believed was important would lose their significance.

If we were to rise mentally above the earth high enough, it becomes a perfect sphere and the people smaller than ants. If we keep rising, we can begin to see the neighboring planets, the solar system, the galaxy, the neighboring galaxies and a swath of the expansive universe.

We can mentally see the existence of life rise and fall across the eons of time, from the single cell to the almost innumerable complex mammals, including humans… and in the future, the life forms yet to come. And yet, on a cosmic scale, we all share the same home and the same birth.

We can see the massive wheels of time turning, in synchronized motion with the clockwork of the cosmos and massive heavenly bodies. We become the ultimate outsider looking down on the smallest of things…our flash of existence in the thinnest measure of infinite time.

Are democrats to blame for the rise of Trump or are the republicans? Who cares? Let time tell its story. Is the stock market poised for a crash soon? Who knows? Let time tell its story. Is my friend a bigot because he voted for President Trump…what were his true motives after all?

Let time tell its story. In the final balance, the truth always becomes clearer. And just like at the end of our short lives, when we’re on our death beds, our priorities change. Few things seem significant.  So too, should we live our lives.

Just as gaining cognitive distance from our problems gives us a better perspective, taking the long view cultivates our wisdom, patience, and equanimity.

Do I feel the need to read every explosive expose, or march in every protest or donate to all the causes my friends are promoting? No. While I believe it’s important for me to be a voice for good in the world, it also helps if I stay away from the conversation at times.

So when all else fails, this is one of my last lines of defense: I take the long view. I reserve my judgment and let time tell its story.

The headlines from both my friends and media alike are filled with fear and anger triggers. The question is always, “where’s the outrage?!” on X, Y or Z.

There are many reasons people want you to get triggered and feel outraged… outrage drives traffic, outrage generates clicks, likes, comments, search rankings, mountains of ad revenue and allows them to exploit political opportunities endlessly.

But it’s said that the most dangerous person in the world is the one who’s happy. Because she can’t be manipulated into buying anything – she doesn’t need anyone’s approval. And she has no reason to hate her neighbor. She’s dangerous because she can’t be controlled. She’s dangerous because she’s mentally free.

That’s why I believe no other issue confronting us today is more important than our anger, collectively and individually. In a time when outrage is so widespread and a rapidly growing trillion dollar currency, to be untroubled is a revolutionary act.

To be master of oneself is the greatest rebellion.

An earlier version of this piece appeared in Marco Bronx Writes.

Marco Bronx grew up in the Bronx and has been an entrepreneur since he was seventeen. is a place where he writes what seems “worthy”. He sometimes writes personal development advice, meditations or thought experiments just to play Satan’s advocate and challenge your beliefs. What’s the truth? You decide. 

Event Announcement – Stoicism In The Rockies

The Wyoming Stoic Camp will take place again from May 15 to 19 at the Table in the Wilderness Camp in Centennial, WY.  It is hosted by the University of Wyoming Department of Philosophy, and has the goals of experimenting with living in a thoroughly philosophical way, using the Stoics as a model, and exploring what it means to live intentionally.

Registration, lodging, and meals for the camp is $300.  Participants will engage in study of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, through small groups and large discussions.  Outdoor activities such as hiking, bonfires, and waking up to watch the sunrise on the final morning are also part of the camp.

To learn more about the Wyoming Stoic Camp, you can visit their site, or Stoic Camp 2017_Flyer.

Stoic Perspectives and Practices For Addressing Anger by Gregory Sadler

Over the last several months here at Stoicism Today, we have been publishing a number of pieces originating in the presentations and workshops provided at Stoicon 2016.  Among those that have appeared at this point are some great pieces by Julia AnnasWilliam IrvineChristopher Gill, and Cinzia Arruzza – and we also published the excellent presentation John Sellars would have given, but was unable to. We still have a number of other posts by Stoicon presenters in the works, and they will appear in the coming months.  The idea behind this series – something that we will hopefully repeat for future Stoicon conferences – is to allow the readership of Stoicism Today opportunities to learn, share, reflect upon, and discuss the topics examined during the conference.

Instead of giving a talk during the plenary sessions, I opted to provide a longer workshop during the break-out sessions, and since a significant portion of the work I do centers on understanding, managing, and working through anger – quite a timely topic at present (though really, a perennial one!) – I decided to focus on Stoic resources for dealing with that often difficult emotion.  Since it was a roughly 90-minute fairly interactive workshop, that format doesn’t lend itself quite as easily as a 20-minute talk to generating a blog post, but it also doesn’t present any insurmountable obstacles to setting something down that readers might find informative and useful, and that more or less adequately conveys some of the information we covered in the workshop.

In the case of this workshop in particular, if you could not attend Stoicon, you are still in some degree of luck – as a practice I videorecord most of my talks and workshops.  So, if you would like to watch or listen to the session, you can easily do so – here’s the video – and you can also download the materials I provided the participants – here’s the session overview, a set of quotes on anger, a worksheet for tracking anger, a handout on Epictetus on anger, and a handout on Seneca on anger.  In my view, these just scratch the surface of this complicated topic about which the Stoics have so much to teach us – but hopefully they provide a useful start for thinking about the subject.

Since the video and handouts of the workshop are available, instead of merely providing an overview of what I presented (and the discussions we engaged in) during the session, I decided a better use of this blog post about the workshop would be for me to follow up more selectively on a few of the workshop’s topics.

A Starting Point for Changing Perspective

To start off the workshop, I read a passage from Epictetus’ Discourses:

Well, what then? Am I not to injure the man who has injured me?—First consider what injury is, and call to mind what you have heard the philosophers say. For if the good lies in moral purpose, and the evil likewise in moral purpose, see if what you are saying does not come to something like this:”Well, what then? Since so-and-so has injured himself by doing me some wrong, shall I not injure myself by doing him some wrong?” Why, then, do we not represent the case to ourselves in some such light as that? (2.10)

I selected that passage for a particular reason.  As I remarked, a good bit of what the workshop would set out really amounts to an extended commentary on that passage, whose context is actually an extended discussion about how we can determine what our duties are by looking at the “names” or “designations” we bear.  That is, what our roles, relationships, and responsibilities are.

For many of us it is easy to get angry with those with whom we do have ongoing relationships, for instance those of family, friends, colleagues, neighbors, or other similar roles that involve ongoing interaction.  It is a common experience to perceive ourselves being wronged, to take offense, and to get angry, when others don’t measure up to expectations – whether entirely legitimate, wholly off-base, or anywhere in between.

When we do get angry at someone else (or even sometimes with inanimate objects), it is because we judge that person as having injured or harmed us in some way to have imposed upon us something we are averse to, or to have interfered with our desires.  This perception of harm by itself is not enough to provoke or constitute the emotion of anger, though. It also requires that we view what was done to us (or to others we care about or identify with) – or perhaps left undone – to be wrong, undeserved, unwarranted.  There is a third essential aspect to anger as well, namely that at the heart of it is a desire to retaliate against the other person, that is to impose some harm or humiliation upon them in return for what one thinks that they did to oneself.

From the Stoic perspective, anger is always something bad.  They are uncompromising on that point, so much that other philosophical traditions placed them at one end of a spectrum (the Epicurean Philodemus’ On Anger, and the Christian Lactantius’ On The Anger of God would be prime examples of this), with the Aristotelians at the opposite end (perhaps a bit unfairly). There is what might appear to be an exception in one passage of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (2.10), where he agrees with the Aristotelian philosopher Theophrastus in viewing actions committed out of anger as less bad than actions motivated by desire for sensual pleasures, but even then, anger is still bad, just not as bad as something else.

Why is anger especially bad? And “bad” in what senses or ways?  In his treatise On Anger, Seneca will point out how anger distorts the appearance of a person, particularly the face, rendering it ugly and frightening.  But that change in appearance – which can be harnessed as a means for managing one’s anger, in the technique of “bringing before the eyes” – is really least among the bad things anger introduces.  One might say that in the angry person, the distorted, even inhuman exterior, signified by face, posture, and voice, reflects and reveals the more important and damaging distortions within the person.

Immediately following the very passage cited above, Epictetus points out  and then asks:

Instead of that, where there is some loss affecting our body or our property, there we count it injury; but is there no injury where the loss affects our moral purpose?

The prohairesis – the “moral purpose” or “faculty of choice” at the core of our persons and characters – that is what inside of us gets damaged by the anger we feel and act upon.

To be sure, when we act upon anger, following out its essential desire, we do attempt to cause some sort of injury in return, to impose some kind of retaliation – even if merely imagined on our part (e.g. muttering insults under our breath, as if that somehow did something to the other person!)  In many cases, we may indeed harm that person, and that is another badness resulting from our anger.  Even though, from a Stoic perspective, whether that person is indeed harmed does depend upon whether they judge or think themselves to be harmed, most of the people that we interact with are not Stoics (or are only imperfectly so – myself included!), and will not only regard themselves as being harmed, but will thus be harmed, by our angry attitudes, put-downs, silent treatments, or other ways of expressing anger.

We injure and damage ourselves through anger – and that is something particularly bad.  This is precisely why Epictetus points out the irrational line of reasoning in the passage above.  If a person does something wrong to me – for example, if a longtime friend keeps failing to keep appointments to do something with me, promised over and over again, because he clearly prefers to spend his time with other people (say, posting pictures of how much fun he is having on social media) – it is understandable that, if I don’t make an effort to remind myself that this is really something up to him, and that I don’t have to interpret it as some kind of injury to me, that I will feel hurt by his inattention and broken promises, and that I will also likely feel anger arising from those hurt feelings.

Imagine that, motivated by this anger, I determine that it makes sense for me – it is something reasonable and good for me – to retaliate, to seek out some vindication of my feelings. Perhaps I’m a real hot-head and call up my friend, leaving some sort of message intended to accuse, to hurt or humiliate, to express my outrage, on his voicemail.  Alternately, I talk badly of that person to others behind his back.  Or – and here we’re getting into particularly dangerous territory – I go to where he is enjoying himself, make a scene, get in a physical fight, or something along similar lines.

Now, all of this might accomplish what the emotion of anger is driving towards, that is, causing the other person some emotional pain in return.  In fact, there might be a good deal of “collateral damage” as well – pain, or even fear, disgust, or anger (or for those who like those sorts of spectacles, perhaps enjoyment), caused on the part of yet other people involved in the situation.  But what does this do to me, the person who is feeling the emotion, and then acting on that emotion, of anger?

Both in the immediate situation, and in the longer term, anger damages me.  It leads me to abandon what bit of good I have developed within myself.  There are various ways to think of this, and the Stoics employ different – and in my view, entirely complementary – ways of naming and thinking about what is lost in the process.  Virtue is one of them.  Living – or maintaining one’s prohairesis – in accordance with nature is another. The person of a certain sort (e.g. the person of fidelity) within oneself is another.  However we conceive it, there is some real injury I do to myself in indulging in – and not at least opposing or calming – my anger.

And so, there is a paradoxical and counter-productive line of reasoning that, if not going explicitly through my head, is certainly what I am following when I am angry.  And this line of practical reasoning, when left to itself, seems so understandable, so needed, so natural that unless its absurdity is pointed out to us – by someone like Epictetus – and perhaps also explained and driven home to us (if we’re particularly stubborn or already have built up vicious habits in this respect), we don’t realize just how irrational anger can be, or how injurious indulgence in it turns out to be for us.

Another Way We Can Shift Our Perspective

The Stoics are not the only philosophical school to engage in analyses of anger that prove helpful not only in understanding what anger is and how it works, but also how we can change our own particular (and often habitual) perspectives in ways that gradually help us to become less angry, more in control of our emotional states, more fully rational, better integrated both in ourselves and with the world we inhabit.  Their favorite sparring partners on this topic – the Aristotelians – and perhaps their most popular rivals – the Epicureans – also make interesting contributions.

But the Stoics – going from the ancient texts that we do still possess – do provide us with some of the most fully developed strategies for altering our ways of looking at matters and responding emotionally – that is, changing our basic perspectives – when it comes to anger.  Many of these are of wider application and significance.  They aren’t just about anger specifically, but instead have to do with our reasoning, our beliefs or judgements, our emotions, our desires and aversions, and our choices more generally.

One of these strategies for changing perspective stems from a distinction that, once formulated explicitly by Epictetus, assumes an absolutely central role in Stoic thought – that between those things that are in our control and those that are not in our control, made in Enchiridion, chapter 1.  His discussions and explanations in the Discourses give much fuller picture of how this important distinction is supposed to work (if you’d like to read more about that in particular, you can go here), but there are two really key points to make here.

The first is that most people – ourselves included – and indeed our cultures and societies in general are mixed up about this distinction. Getting to a point of not being mixed up about it more often than not is not as simple as reading and understanding, or even committing to memory and reminding ourselves of, this distinction.  For many of us, it requires a considerable amount of continual practice – of “discipline” or ascesis – in actual situations, and along with this some review and reflection of what we did well or rightly, and where we failed ourselves, in order to start changing how we typically think about what is and what is not in our control.

The second is that the distinction between what is and what is not in our control intersects with another distinction equally important to Stoic moral theory, that between what is genuinely good or bad in itself – possessing intrinsic moral value or disvalue – and what is indifferent – perhaps a “preferred” or “rejected” indifferent, but nevertheless something that does not have intrinsic moral value or disvalue.  When we allow ourselves to become preoccupied with matters that are outside of our control, to ascribe them fuller importance than they do possess, it is quite often – from the Stoic perspective – because we have confused things that are indifferents with what is genuinely and intrinsically good or bad for us.

What do these general considerations have to do with anger specifically? It isn’t hard to draw out several implications – to pluck some of the proverbial “low hanging fruit”.  Many of the things that we tend to get angry over are really matters that are outside of our control, and they also tend to be matters that are strictly speaking indifferent.  If we have mistaken views about these sorts of matters, we render ourselves vulnerable at a myriad of points to things going contrary to our expectations, to our desires to be stymied or interfered with, and to winding up experiencing or at least being threatened with what we feel aversion towards.

How does that then lead to anger, rather than other emotional responses, for example sadness, fear, grief, anxiety, or the like?  Considering this reveals an important factor that can get left out of the picture, one that makes anger a bit more of a complicated emotion.  When we get angry, we feel – and think ourselves – to have been wronged or injured, but we also desire to retaliate, to impose some kind of retribution, vindication, reckoning, and even if we don’t entirely justify ourselves in this, we do view it as at least partly right, as something that is good for us in some sense.

Anger doesn’t just stem in many cases from mistaken conceptions of what is and what is not in our control.  It also by its very nature steers us towards assuming or judging that some things that aren’t in our control are in our control – for instance whether we control whether the person we are angry with suffers in his or her core from the retaliation we attempt to impose on that person (what is more galling to the angry person than finding out that their attitude, words, or actions don’t bother the other person?), or how other people witnessing our angry response react to and speak about the situation.  And by contrast, things that are in our control – at least if we intervene quickly enough – like our own mental processes of getting angrier and angrier, tend to be framed as if they aren’t in our control at all.  In fact, one’s own responsibility often gets displaced onto the offending person – “he made me lose control, by deliberately pushing my buttons” is one common expression running along those lines.

Likewise, mistaken conceptions of what is genuinely good or bad are not only a component of anger.  Again, anger makes matters worse for us in that respect.  Seneca’s On Anger is particularly eloquent on this point. When we get angry we not only devalue things whose intrinsic goodness we ought to recognize – rationality, our shared human nature, even the truth itself – we do this because we wrongly view imposing retribution – something that is clearly an external, but somehow corresponds to our own internal emotions, desires, and judgements – as a good that trumps just about anything else in the situation.

It is not the easiest thing to do – but it does get easier with practice, since that effectively reshapes our habits (and it can be made easier by the support or counsel of other people as well) – but one effective course we can pursue when we are becoming angry, or when we are already feeling angry, is to try to remind ourselves about these key distinctions of Stoic philosophy.  This sort of deliberate restoration of perspective is precisely the sort of thing Epictetus repeatedly counsels us to practice (as do other Stoic writers), for example in Enchiridion chapter 4:

If you are going out of the house to bathe, put before your mind what happens at a public bath: those who splash you with water, those who jostle against you, those who vilify you and rob you. And thus you will set about your undertaking more securely if at the outset you say to yourself, “I want to take a bath, and, at the same time, to keep my moral purpose in harmony with nature.” And so do in every undertaking. For thus, if anything happens to hinder you in your bathing, you will be ready to say, “Oh, well, this was not the only thing that I wanted, but I wanted also to keep my moral purpose in harmony with nature; and I shall not so keep it if I am vexed at what is going on.”

As I pointed out during the workshop, framing the choice or prioritization one is faced with making in terms of maintaining one’s prohairesis in accordance with nature might feel rather abstract, but there are many closely connected – and more concrete – ways we can express this to ourselves.

Another important implication of these distinctions that we can help ourselves by considering is that what does not lie in our control is quite often in someone else’s control.  It is their business, their responsibility, and how they choose to behave stems from their viewpoints.  Those may be quite off-base, even vicious, but those mistakes are bad for them not for oneself.  Marcus Aurelius suggests (to himself, but also to us, his readers) a very useful way of looking at actions others do that could anger us:

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)

Epictetus and Seneca echo this advice at a number of points as well. Another useful counsel – also expressed by multiple authors – is that we consider our own anger as we might view it if it were to be felt and acted upon by another person. Seneca suggests:

Let us put ourselves in the place of him with whom we are angry. At present an overweening conceit of our own importance makes us prone to anger, and we are quite willing to do to others what we cannot endure to be done to ourselves. (On Anger, 3.12)

This is a specific application of a point Epictetus makes somewhat more broadly in Enchiridion chapter 26, where he points out that it is much easier for us to treat the aggravations and losses others encounter as just the course of things, than for us to apply that same reasoning to our own experiences.  That is, however, something that we ought to do, which is why he suggests that we learn what the “will of nature” is by focusing on those matters in which we don’t actually differ from one another.

A Worry: What Happens If One Sets Anger Aside?

To bring this discussion to a close, I would like to introduce another issue that was touched upon, but not explored all that much during the workshop.  One of the concerns that arises for many people who struggle with their own anger, and who make a decision to deliberately move away from it as go-to emotional response, has to do with how they will manage without anger.  Speaking from experience, it does quite literally feel as if in adopting such a course – particularly when you’re in a concrete situation in which you perceive someone doing wrong – you are putting yourself at a disadvantage, setting aside the arms that you require, and have gotten used to, in the midst of precisely the sorts of conflicts that call for them.

It is worth pointing out that this worry is in one respect entirely legitimate.  If a person has been relying upon anger as his or her main way to deal successfully (or at least what appears so) with a variety of situations, that person will indeed be at a disadvantage, at least for a while.  Anger is not just something that occurs episodically, with zero connection between its breakouts.  Like so many other things, it quickly develops into a habit of its own, and sinks its roots into other habits and dispositions of a person.

So if, for instance, a child learned early on that, by getting angry and acting upon that anger, it became easier to brave conflict and redress perceived wrongs – perhaps not just through the child’s own experiences but also through observing the model provided by parents, teachers, and others – by the time that the child-turned-adult comes to realize that anger has developed into a serious problem, a longstanding pattern of excessive or disordered angry responses has been established, and that will feel natural to that person.  Going against that habit will not only seem unnatural and forced until old habits are broken and replaced by new ones, but will also make the person feel uncomfortably vulnerable, unsure about how to manage things.

When you start Seneca’s work On Anger, you’ll notice that a good portion of both book 1 and book 2 address commonplace views about anger that paint it in a more positive light – as something that is noble, or necessary, or at least useful for a person to feel.  Some of these he attributes directly to the Aristotelian school(mostly fairly, though sometimes not), while others are beliefs more generally widespread in classical culture.  Over and over, Seneca acknowledges that these contentions contain some initial plausibility, but then points out that when they are considered more closely, their irrationality comes to light.  A prime example of this occurs in book 1.

Aristotle says that “certain passions, if one makes a proper use of them, act as arms”: which would be true if, like weapons of war, they could be taken up or laid aside at the pleasure of their wielder. These arms, which Aristotle assigns to virtue, fight of their own accord, do not wait to be seized by the hand, and possess a man instead of being possessed by him.

This by itself would be a serious problem – the weapon or tool of anger not remaining under control keeps it from performing whatever legitimate function it has – but Seneca points out a yet more significant issue.  When anger is habitually relied upon by a person, that stands in the way of using – and developing – a fundamentally human capacity, that of rationality.

What, then, can be more foolish than for reason to beg anger for protection. . .  [R]eason is far more powerful by itself even in performing those operations in which the help of anger seems especially needful. For when reason has decided that a particular thing should be done, she perseveres in doing it. (1.17)

What the person struggling with anger has to remind him or herself of, then, is that – although at first it will feel as if this is not the case – reason provides a much more secure means for attaining what is good for a person and protecting the person against what is bad for them.  The Stoic life is one that, if not yet entirely rational, is at least continually striving towards rationality.  This may not in the end (for many of us) mean an existence entirely removed from anger, but it can be one in which reason predominates, and enables us to successfully deal with anger when it arises.

Event Announcement – New York Stoic Camp

Join Greg Lopez (founder and organizer of the NYC Stoics, Director of Membership for The Stoic Fellowship, and co-organizer of Stoicon ’16) and Massimo Pigliucci (professor of philosophy at CUNY, founder and organizer of The Stoic School of Life, and co-organizer of Stoicon ’16) for an intensive introduction to the theory and practice of Stoicism at Stoic Camp NY 2017! The Camp will be run from August 31 – September 3 at Stony Point Center, in Stony Point, NY.

Over the course of 4 days and 3 nights, attendees will be guided through the philosophy of Stoicism. We will use ancient texts almost exclusively as our starting point. From there, we will discuss how the ancient philosophy of Stoicism can be updated and practiced in the modern world.

Since this is an intensive introduction, it will be suitable for complete beginners. But given the intensive nature of the retreat, people familiar with Stoicism will also get quite a bit out of it (fate permitting). This year’s curriculum centered around the four virtues and featuring readings primarily from Seneca. Previous years have featured readings primarily from the Enchiridion and Meditations and were organized around the Three Disciplines. To get a taste of how the Camp is run, click here to view the 2016 Stoic Camp NY Handbook.

The Camp is limited to only 14 participants, and spots are almost full, although a waitlist is available. You can RSVP on the NYC Stoics Meetup page, and also find more information there. To RSVP for a single room, click here. To RSVP for a double room (to be matched with a roommate, or to bring your own), click here.