Insult Pacifism: A Reply to Eric O. Scott by William Irvine

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Let me begin by thanking Eric O. Scott for taking the time to respond to my Oxford University Press blog and my STOICON talk (I start talking at 58:00; sorry about the poor quality of the audio!). As I like to tell my students, if what we seek is the truth, we have the most to gain from those who challenge our views, since they will be the quickest to discover our mistakes.

The Stoics were very much interested in transforming themselves into better human beings. As part of their program of self-transformation, they attempted to develop their own character. Such efforts might have included doing things that they were afraid of doing, simply as an exercise in overcoming fear. Or it might have included intentionally interacting with difficult people, simply so they could practice preventing anger from arising within them.

But besides being concerned with their own well being, Stoics felt a social duty to make their world a better place. This could be done, they knew, by introducing other people to Stoicism, but it could also involve helping extract non-Stoics from the trouble they got themselves into as a result of their misguided views regarding what in life is valuable. Marcus Aurelius is a prime example of a Stoic who took his social duty very seriously, but despite being the emperor, he failed to bring about a just society. The Rome that he ruled still allowed or even encouraged slavery and acts of human cruelty.

It is easy for us to judge Marcus harshly, but before we do so, we should realize that future generations are likely to do the same to us. Eric Scott says we live in an unjust world. I agree entirely, but I think I have a different perception of that injustice than he does. It is this difference in perception, which I will now explain, that makes me critical of some of the campus protests that have recently been in the news.

Consider, for example, the injustice, on a global scale, of allowing people to live on two dollars a day. Many of us in the developed world, including many college activists, find it easy to ignore the plight of these individuals: because they live so far away, their lives don’t intersect with ours. And yet, closer investigation would reveal that their lives are not only interconnected with ours, but are, in a sense, as close as the shirt on our back or the dress on our body. If the label on that shirt or dress says “Made in Bangladesh,” it was likely made by someone working long hours under hazardous conditions, for two dollars a day.

Many college activists concern themselves with the injustice of the racial discrimination they detect on their campuses. They even take pains to develop an ability to detect racial microaggression, as when a fellow student asks, “Where are you from?” These same students, however, seem oblivious to the rather more serious form of racial discrimination—known as slavery—that still exists in places like Mauritania. They also seem ignorant of or indifferent to the human trafficking that might be taking place in their college town. This last injustice, of course, is sex based rather than race based, but this makes it no less objectionable.

College activists might without thinking twice carry on a conversation about the injustice they experience on their campus, all the while eating a juicy hamburger at a local restaurant. They can do this only because they are oblivious to the inter-species injustice that is involved in treating animals cruelly and then killing them, all to satisfy our craving for meat.

College activists might think of themselves as social justice warriors, but it is unlikely that their descendants will share this assessment of them. And when these descendants learn of the students’ obsession with microagressions, they will be even more puzzled by their behavior. Where, they will wonder, was their sense of proportion?

In my recent remarks, I was passing on the advice I think the ancient Stoics would offer to modern targets of insults. These include not only barely perceptible microagressions but outright racist, sexist, and homophobic attacks.   The Stoics’ advice: shrug or, better still, laugh them off. This advice is a consequence of the Stoic insistence that we divide the things in our life into two categories: those we can control and those we can’t. We can’t control whether other people insult us. We can very much control, though, how we respond to those insults, and in particular, we can respond in a way that minimizes the harm they do us. College students would do well to give this Stoic strategy a try.

I was surprised, by the way, that Scott would refer to those who experience injustice as “victims.” They are certainly targets, but the Stoics would tell us that they are victims only if they choose to see themselves as such. They would add that if you choose to play the role of victim, your suffering will be intensified.

When we examine the lives of Stoics, we find that many of them were targets of injustice. Musonius Rufus, for example, was exiled to the desolate island of Gyaros, but he did not spend his time there complaining about the unfairness of it all. This is in large part because he refused to play the role of victim, a refusal that doubtless made his exile far more endurable than it otherwise would have been. More generally, when we look at the Stoics, we cannot find a “victim” among them—and if we could, Stoicism probably wouldn’t have remained a viable philosophy of life for two thousand years.

The social movements of the last few decades have taught us how harmful labels can be. We therefore no longer refer to someone who is blind or missing a limb as being handicapped.   This change in thinking has had profound consequences. These days, “handicapped” individuals are doing things that in the past would have been unthinkable: there are blind skiers as well as footless individuals who, with the aid of prosthetics, can outrun the rest of us. So much for their “handicaps.”

In much the same way, those who are targets of sexist, racist, or homophobic slurs have an important choice. If they take themselves to be the victims of insults, they are likely to be needlessly miserable. If they instead take themselves to be the targets of insults, and if they respond to those insults by shrugging them off, thereby making their insulters look foolish, they not only limit the harm the insults do them but act as an inspiration for the rest of us.

Realize that shrugging off a sexist, racist, or homophobic insult does not preclude you from fighting the injustice that probably lurked behind it. To the contrary, it leaves you with more energy with which to carry on that fight! Imagine how different the world would be if people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, on being the targets of racism, had chosen to play the role of victim. Suppose that instead of spending their days organizing protests, they had responded by wallowing in hurt feelings.

And before I conclude, let me respond to Scott’s observation that my remarks at STOICON did not make ethnic minorities feel “welcome or wanted.” I know that this is what you are supposed to do if you are trying to get someone to convert to your religion or join your political party, but it is not something an ancient Stoic would have felt compelled to do. Indeed, when Musonius Rufus lectured, he did not try to make those in his audience feel welcome or wanted. To the contrary, those in his audience were reduced to silence by the sting of his remarks. They were, Epictetus tells us, made to feel ashamed of the way they were living their lives. He adds that a visit to a Stoic should feel like a visit to the physician’s office: you should not leave feeling good, since any treatment that can cure you is likely to cause you discomfort at first. [Discourses, III: 23.]

We Stoics invite everyone to join us in the practice of Stoicism and think that what Scott calls “marginalized people” have as much to gain from its practice as anyone, but we extend this invitation fully aware that not everyone will find Stoicism an attractive doctrine. To benefit from Stoicism you have to be willing to critically examine your values and your strategies for living. It is an examination that most people are unwilling to undertake.

It is entirely possible that if the Stoic movement continues its current geometric growth rate, someone will come up with an “I’m okay, you’re okay” version of the doctrine that allows you to call yourself a Stoic without requiring self-transformation. But this Indulgent Stoicism, as it might be termed, will have lost its power to transform people and thereby transform the society in which they live.

William B. Irvine is professor of philosophy at Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, and the author of A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy and A Slap in the Face: Why Insults Hurt And Why They Shouldn’t.  For more on his life and other writings, visit his author website.

'Dealing with One's Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus' by Greg Sadler

Dealing with One’s Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

V0009398 A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. E Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org A frontal outline and a profile of faces expressing anger. Etching by B. Picart, 1713, after C. Le Brun. 1713 By: Charles Le Brunafter: Bernard PicartPublished: [1713] Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Two months back, I wrote a short piece setting out several insights and resources stemming from Epictetus’ Discourses, focusing specifically on how to understand and deal with anger felt, expressed, and acted upon by other people. I also promised a second piece, following up by setting out the practical wisdom Epictetus has to provide us bearing upon our own anger. Here in this blog post, I will partially make good on that promise, but also kick the proverbial can a bit further down the road by deferring some of the necessary discussion to a third and later post about Epictetus on the emotion of anger. In that piece, I plan to expand on the considerations and techniques for dealing with anger mentioned at the end of this post, and to examine the importance of reworking habits for managing anger.

The choice to confine this post to a manageable length is a deliberate one, and the main reason for it is that this topic (Epictetus, his discussions of anger, and their applications in the present) turns out to be one upon which a great amount can be said. After consideration of the resources for understanding and addressing anger contained in Epictetus’s works (not to mention Seneca, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius), I’ve embarked upon a new large-scale research and writing project, intended to culminate in what will be a (hopefully short) book on Stoicism and anger. Later on this Fall, I’ll be providing a workshop on that topic, including practical resources for managing anger, at Stoicon in New York City (and likely some additional workshops and talks on the topic during the Stoic Week that follows). For the present, here are some of Epictetus’ contributions to thoughtfully and productively dealing with anger.

 

Some Starting Considerations

There are numerous passages within the Discourses, in which Epictetus makes some reference to anger in one of its various aspects. Piecing these together provides a coherent and fairly systematic approach to understanding, controlling, lessening, and hopefully even ending one’s own anger. We are particularly fortunate, though, in that beyond those scattered discussions, there are actually several chapters of the book devoted specifically to Epictetus’ teachings about anger.

One of these is chapter 18 of book 1, titled “That we ought not to be angry with those who make mistakes.” That sounds like a sentiment that most of us can get behind, at least in principle. But, what sort of mistakes does Epictetus have in mind? Failing to hold the door open for someone laden down with packages, because one assumes they are going past the doorway? Failing to follow a recipe and serving a less than appetizing dish for dinner? Mixing up a coworker’s name with someone else’s in introducing him or her?

The sorts of mistakes or errors (hamartiai) Epictetus cautions us about in that chapter are wider and deeper reaching, reflective of mistaken viewpoints that fundamentally motivate a person. The kinds of people he has in mind are thieves, robbers, and adulterers. It seems natural to get angry at people like that, people who we think are not just making a small or innocent mistake, but actively doing wrong, and choosing to do so, often at considerable risk and despite the illegality, public condemnation, or possible consequences of their actions.

But why do they engage in the sorts of actions that they do? According to Epictetus, it is because they are either totally or at least partly mixed up about some fundamental matters, the sorts of things that Stoic philosophy ought to provide us with a better perspective upon. As a first point, he notes that these people

have gone astray and are mistaken about the most important matters, and in a state of blindness as well, not in the sort of vision that distinguishes between black and white, but in the judgement that distinguishes between good and bad things. (1.18)

Epictetus suggests that we ought to consider showing them how they have things wrong, to allow them an opportunity to get them right, fully understanding that many of the erring will not take that offered opportunity as such. He also notes that it doesn’t make sense for us to get angry with them, if we think matters through, when what would be more appropriate to the situation is to feel pity or compassion towards them (in his Greek, eleein, which could be translated by either term).

Second, he suggests that our own anger represents a failure on our own part to adopt the right perspective when faced with these kinds of situations, and these sorts of troublesome people.

If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that that can happen to a person, and the greatest thing in a person is his or her faculty of choice [prohairesis], and if a person is deprived of this very thing, what ground do you still have for getting angry with that person? If you have to be put into a condition contrary to nature by the misfortunes of another, why don’t you pity that person instead, rather than hate that person? Let go of this readiness to take offense and the spirit of hatred. (1.18)

He asks a hard but necessary question to hear, when one is already angry or getting angry with people who not only one takes to be doing wrong, but who are in fact, doing wrong, and doing so quite often: “How is it that you have been so suddenly converted to wisdom that you get angry at foolish people?” From Epictetus’ Stoic perspective, anger on our own parts indicates to us that we ourselves either have not attained, or are straying from, the wisdom that we view as lacking in the “fools”.

Insofar as we are getting angry with them, we actually share some assumptions in common with the foolish or the morally bad, and this is an important third point Epictetus makes:

We admire the things of which these people rob us. After all, stop admiring your clothes, and then you’re not angry with the person who steals them. Stop marveling at your wife’s beauty, and then you’re not angry at the adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among those that belong to another, and that are not up to you. (1.18)

To many of us, uncompromising counsels of this sort are admittedly difficult to agree with entirely, despite whatever attraction or affinity we may have with Stoic doctrine as a whole. Notice though, what Epictetus follows this up with:

So long as you admire these things, be angry with yourself, and not with the people I’ve just mentioned. For consider, you have fine clothes and your neighbor does not. You have a window, and want to air them out. That person does not know what the good for human beings consists in, but thinks it resides in having fine clothes, the very same thing that you imagine. (1.18)

In Epictetus’ view, the emotional response of anger is always a sign and symptom of something going wrong on our part, not only within the particular situation, but in the overall structure of our thinking, feeling, valuing, and acting. In this chapter, he points out to us an irrationality involved our own responses and stances of anger towards those who are likewise behaving in fundamentally irrational ways.

We have the capacity to understand the irrationality, the mistakenness, the error involved in choices those people make that lead them to unjust, counter-productive, selfish, harmful, or unseemly actions – and indeed, ways of living and being. And since we have that capacity, it is up to us whether or not we exercise it. If we do, a more appropriate emotional response is pity or compassion (although it seems that from where Epictetus sits, that’s still a second-best response by comparison to not feeling any “contrary to nature” emotion). It may be difficult, but we can head off, lessen, or at least control our own anger by attempting to understand the other, and we are aided considerably in doing so by realizing that their own bad motivations mirror our own, those that lead us into anger at them.

 

Understanding How and Why Anger Arises

Why do we find ourselves getting – or already – angry? For the Stoics, this emotion is not some random, unforeseeable, occurrence that just happens to us. Nor is it merely an automatic response we have no control over, so that when someone does something offensive, harmful, threatening, or just plain wrong, we can’t help but react with anger. There are intelligible and general processes underlying specific situations in which particular people get angry. Understanding what those processes are, and how they work, is essential to managing or addressing anger over time.

Understanding anger as an emotional (and even bodily) response that is not just raw affectivity, but also has underlying thought-processes driving it, allows us to examine those thought processes. And that, in turn, can give us a certain degree of freedom, permitting us to recognize those processes at work, as well as to decide for ourselves whether those thought processes are as reasonable or as necessary as they present themselves to us as being. As Epictetus reminds us at numerous points in our work, our desires and aversions, our choices and denials, our assents, judgments, and assumptions are the sorts of matters that are in our power.

As a general rule, whenever we get angry, Epictetus would say, we have gone wrong not only in our evaluation of what is happening – quite literally in the “use” (khresis)  we make of external appearances or impressions (phantasiai) – but also in our practical reasoning about the matter in relation to other things. Put in other terms, anger arises because of what it is that we think good and bad, how we order and value things, and accordingly what we desire and are averse to.

For each of us, in our own case, if we are to understand, let alone to manage or even master our own emotions – particularly anger – we have to examine what it is that we do value, what it is that we do think to be good, and therefore desire (and correspondingly what we think to be bad, and are averse to). If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find (I know this is the case for me) that there are quite a few externals, matters that fall outside of the scope of our power, things that are strictly speaking neither good nor bad, that we treat as being genuinely good or bad. And we do this precisely because we do think and feel them to be good or bad, making some mistakes in those assessments.

In doing so, in many different ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and in particular to other people, most of whom one should not expect to be fully rational. In fact, as Epictetus points out, the one thing you can really count on them to do is to follow what seems to them – but likely isn’t in reality – rational.

In another chapter of book 1, he provides multiple examples derived from classical culture of persons who went tragically astray in their excessive anger – Medea, Achilles, and Agamemnon in particular. In each of these cases, the person was deceived about where the genuine good resided, thinking themselves deprived of what they took to be a good, and they responded to admittedly trying circumstances by becoming very angry and following the dictates of that passion. In Medea’s case, “she regards the gratification of her ire and taking vengeance on her husband as more beneficial than saving her children” (1.28), and she in fact kills her own children as a portion of the retribution she imposes upon Jason.

Medea’s is admittedly an extreme case, but whenever we get angry, according to Epictetus, we similarly allow ourselves to be drawn into mistaken lines of reasoning. These bring us to dwell upon certain key matters, getting them wrong in the process – what goods we have been deprived of, what bad things we have had to suffer, and most importantly what good is to be attained through imposing something bad upon someone else, as just retribution or as a merited reciprocal response.

How precisely do we get these matters wrong? The specifics will, of course, depend on particular persons in concrete situations. But there are some broad commonalities that can be picked out. One of the most central of these is the assumption that whatever has been done to, or happened to, us should not have occurred – perhaps, if we go even further, we might add that it should never occur, should not even be imagined, and so on.

What is the basis for this “should not” that we import, in our judgements and desires, to the situation? At bottom, it stems from wanting things to go our way – things that are, strictly speaking, out of our control, not up to us, but rather up to someone else. We want to keep or attain certain things that might be possible for us, but certainly don’t have to be ours. We also want to be treated by people in certain ways and not in other ways, not least because we view their actions and words as indicative of how they think and feel about us. In short, we want a world of people and events over which we have no real or lasting control to conform to our own desires about it – and when this does not occur, we feel ourselves wronged, get angry, and want to strike back.

 

Addressing Anger When It Arises

Developing a solid understanding of  he irrationality, the negative consequences, or the counter-productiveness of our anger certainly proves useful. For some people, those insights may even prove necessary, if they are to control or address their anger. But as many of those of us who research the emotion know all too well from experience, simply grasping certain weak points to one’s character, as well as the processes by which one consistently goes wrong, does not by itself change much.

A person can engage in analysis, self-scrutiny, or reflection interminably without necessarily addressing a problem. In fact, after a certain point, such theoretical or contemplative work can become a substitute for the practical effort required, much like the people Epictetus jokes about and criticizes, who confuse studying books of Stoic philosophy with actually putting it into practice (e.g. in 1.4  or 2.19). It’s also possible to go one step further, and still not address the problem. A person can make all sorts of resolutions, even work out quite complex plans, and still make no real progress with their anger.

Once a person realizes their emotional response of anger to be something bad for them, if they want to work upon their temper, he or she has to choose to do something about it. And there’s two main things to be said about this.  The first is that if the person really recognizes their anger as something bad for them, and truly does want to change it, that person has to choose some effective means towards that end. The Stoics offer a number of those means, but the real measure of their effectiveness is what happens when a person really does put them into practice.

The second is that when one does make that choice not just to examine and to face up to one’s own emotional response of anger, but to actually do something about it in order to improve one’s character, what that person is doing is using his or her faculty of choice, the prohairesis. This is a use of one’s capacity for choice that bears reflexively upon that very faculty, partly undoing and then reweaving the fabric of one’s character. Put in slightly different terms, we are able to use what we possess of freedom and rationality to increase that very freedom and rationality, thereby rendering ourselves more free, more rational through that very work.

At numerous points in the Discourses, Epictetus reminds us of the centrality of bringing and maintaining our prohairesis “in accordance with nature” as the primary good. Over and over, we are faced with making choices between the alternatives of keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature or pursuing something else that we view as a good (or conversely avoiding something else that we take to be an evil). When we choose that something else, we would like to tell ourselves that the option before us is not an exclusive one, but Epictetus relentlessly stresses that it is, often using mundane examples.

Reminding ourselves what precisely is at stake is something that we can do to stiffen our resolve when we have to deal with our own anger, something that is admittedly difficult to do at first, since it means opposing a portion of oneself that is already pressing upon us, trying to direct our faculty of choice, to hijack our thinking, to dominate our feelings. If we’re making progress along the Stoic path, one recourse we have is to pause and consider that in giving in to anger, we direct our prohairesis away from a state of conformity to (not even to mention harmony with nature). In resisting it, in not allowing it to sweep us away or seduce our reasoning, we maintain our prohaireis in accordance with nature. Good or bad, what’s fundamentally good for us, or damagingly bad for us – that’s our choice.

Now though, that is rather abstract, isn’t it? When we are already agitated by anger, how many of us really find an appeal to the ideal of a prohairesis in accordance with nature all that compelling? Answering this requires a modicum of honesty about one’s own moral condition, because if the Stoics are right – and I think they are about this – such a consideration ought to be more compelling the more progress we have made. And if it isn’t all that helpful for us in actual situations in which we feel anger, then that is an index of the lack of progress we have made.

So, what else might we choose to do in order to manage our anger effectively? Epictetus does offer us a number of more concrete suggestions. Each of these, technically speaking, is a general way in which, whether we realize it or not, we do choose to bring or keep our faculty of choice in accordance with nature. In the aforementioned interests of keeping this post from becoming overly long, I simply list several of these more specific techniques or considerations here, with a brief description of each.

#1: Understanding Reasons Why – As noted earlier, people act the ways they do for reasons that we can understand. While people who engage in actions likely to anger us typically have irrational assumptions, thought-processes, emotional responses, desires, etc., what they do does seem rational to them. If we can see what they do as partly rational and partly irrational, it makes sense to us, and we then are less bothered by it.

#2: Distancing From the Appearance(s) – We are confronted constantly with all sorts of “appearances” (phantasiai) which suggest to us how they ought to be taken, and play into our own matrix of desires and aversions, opinions and assumptions. We don’t have to automatically assent to them, and this goes particularly for those that typically make us feel angry, for instance appearances having to do with whether we are being harmed or insulted, whether other people intend to harm or insult us, and so on.

#3: Reminding Ourselves of Our Humanity – When we fall into various moral failures, we metaphorically resemble certain classes of animals. Those having to do with anger are dangerous beasts of prey, engaging in behavior appropriate to them as animals, but not for us as human beings. Thinking along these lines, we can “bring before our eyes” what it is that we look like when we become angry (a classic anger management technique).  We can also remind ourselves that, as human beings, we possess capacities for choosing how we respond, and for approaching matters rationally.

#4: Removing Ourselves From Competition – If we take what other people view as goods (which are really externals and indifferents) to be genuine goods, we will inevitably be drawn into conflict (makhe) with other people over those goods (and also experience inner conflict as well – though that’s a separate topic). When we find ourselves getting angry – particularly when in contention with other people – we can remind ourselves about what status these externals have, and that we needn’t place ourselves into competition over them.

#5: Fulfilling Our Roles Towards Others – When we get angry with others, and particularly when we act upon that anger towards them, we typically transgress (at least in part) the role and the accompanying duties we have in relation to those people. We do have a choice whether we maintain, or even restore that role (being a friend, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a family member, etc.) within ourselves, or whether we give in to anger. Conversely, we can also head off anger we might feel towards them when they don’t fulfill their own roles towards us, by realizing that this is their failure, and not up to us.

In a follow-up post here later on this Summer (or early this Fall), I’ll expand on each of these strategies, provide discussion of several additional approaches found in Epictetus’ Discourses, and also examine the role our habits play in addressing anger.

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He also works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.

Other People's Anger – Resources and Reflections from Epictetus

Other People’s Anger – Resources and Reflections From Epictetus

by Greg Sadler

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One of the more troublesome of human emotions is that of anger.  It was just as much so in antiquity as it remains for us today.  Anger is one of the more complex and paradoxical emotions, seemingly arising from natural drives, desires, and aversions common to human beings, but also interconnected in so many ways with moral notions such as right and wrong, merit and expectations, valuing and disvaluing, and especially with a conception of retribution, setting things right, or making another suffer in return. Playwrights and poets, historians and politicians, philosophers, rhetors, and religious thinkers – even unnamed people passing down proverbial wisdom – concerned themselves with understanding and addressing this difficult and often destructive emotion.

Although we enjoy a number of advantages over ancient people in our late modern present time, on many topics, they still have much to teach us. I think this is particularly so in matters concerning the emotions, rationality, habits, choices, relationships, happiness, and the goods around which we orient our lives. Anger fits solidly within the matrix of those concerns, and the Stoics in particular provide a lot of valuable considerations and advice about that emotion. (In the interests of full disclosure, however, I should mention that although I draw upon Stoics as a resource, I’m not in full agreement with them at every point about anger).

As editor of Stoicism Today, one of the perks of the position is regularly contributing posts that might be of use, value, or interest to the readers of the blog. In a post last month, I set out my intention to write a series in the following months, dealing specifically with the issue of anger and what Stoic philosophers can contribute to understanding and addressing it today. That first post was rather general, and of what you might call a promissory or projective nature. With this post, I intend to start making good, by providing some substantive discussion of what Stoics can tell us that helps in dealing with anger in the present.

I’ve decided to start with Epictetus’ teaching about anger. Although Epictetus did not, as Seneca did, compose a treatise specifically about the emotion of anger, he did delve into the subject, and provide some very useful passages of advice, argument, and explanation in the course of his teaching, a portion of which we still possess thanks to his student Arrian. What he has to tell us from a Stoic perspective can be divided, along very broad strokes, into how we can understand and address our own anger, and how we can understand and approach anger felt and exhibited by others, in some cases towards ourselves. I’ll address his teaching bearing upon our own anger in next month’s post. In this post, I’m going to focus on a portion of what he has to tell us about dealing with everyone else’s anger from a Stoic perspective.

Anger As A Common Human Problem

Within the Discourses, there are a number of interesting examples of people who are in some way upset or affected by the anger felt and displayed by other people. Consider just a few examples:

  • A man comes to Epictetus, asking how he can persuade his brother to stop being angry with him (1.15)
  • People get angry with the many, the masses of humanity, for being fools, greedy thieves, robbers, cheaters, and so on (1.18)
  • Some parents get angry with their children for studying philosophy (1.26)
  • The legendary Medea engages in her terrible revenge because of her anger (1.28)
  • Acting contentiously, injuriously, angrily, and rudely lowers people to the level of wild beasts (2.9)
  • Some people study the works of philosophers, and nevertheless are hypercritical, quick-tempered. . . finding fault with everything, blaming everybody (3.2)
  • An official comes to Epictetus, angry with the common people, who get angry with him for taking sides in a contest, giving the prize to the person he favors rather than to the one they favor (3.4)
  • People get angry when other people get things they don’t, when the other person paid the price and they didn’t pay it (and actually come out better for it) (3.17)
  • Some people are quick-tempered, wrathful, fault-finders. They look for people they can punch or kick (4.5)

Although he doesn’t mention anger directly as a motive in those passages, there are also many places where Epictetus refers to the threats that others, particularly the powerful, may make against others. One can presume that in many cases those sorts of reprisals would stem at least in part from the feeling of anger on the part of the person who threatens to inflict them.

Given a long enough period of time, in any group of people, within any organization or community – and in our own time, especially, given any website, video channel, or blog that draws enough views! – someone is likely sooner or later to get angry with someone else, and probably express it as well. Often anger on one person’s part will arouse anger on another person’s part in response.

That is the reality in which we live, and it isn’t one radically different in its general features from the reality of the culture Epictetus himself inhabited. Quite likely, from a Stoic perspective, that’s also how we can expect human beings to be in any probable future as well.

Responses to the Anger of Others

A person can experience or adopt multiple responses on their own part to other people’s anger – whether it be directed against oneself, directed against yet others, or even anger more generally and globally expressed. Quite often our responses to other people’s anger are not reflective but more reactive.  These usually involving some thought-process or practically reasoning that is implicit rather than explicit. It is quite common, looking across the range of responses for our own emotions to be involved, also at times in ways we are not entirely aware of.

Some people actually ignore or seem oblivious to the feelings of other people, and that is one way to not have to deal with other people’s anger. Although people often use the term “stoic” in a very broad sense for that sort of attitude, that isn’t actually how a Stoic in the strict sense would suggest that we ought to live. And in quite a few cases, what underlies the surface façade of such detachment is rejection of other people, their actions, and their attitudes, indicating some sort of emotional attachment and conflict still present in the person.

Witnessing or bearing the brunt of other people’s anger can cause, contribute to, or intensify a range of emotions on our own part. One of the most common ones is fear, but we can also feel pain, sadness, even despair. Another common emotional response, which can be fed by these others, is to become angry oneself in response. In all of these cases, we can rightly talk about a person being “troubled” or “upset” by the anger of someone else. The classic Stoic view on emotions, which Epictetus accepts as a basis, is that emotional states are not simply affective. They involve judgments or assumptions, and usually some process of practical reasoning, made on the part of the person feeling the emotion.

What should our responses be to the anger that others exhibit? What insight does a Stoic philosopher like Epictetus (who certainly had to deal with this himself) have to offer us? Answering that will involve asking several other questions. Why are we bothered or affected by an emotion someone else feels, expresses, acts upon (or even just might feel, for instance when we worry about making someone angry)? How should we evaluate the reasons why another person’s anger affects us in light of basic Stoic doctrines?

Differentiating What Is From What Isn’t In Our Power

There are several ways that this classic and fundamental distinction made by the Stoics, between what is in our power, what is our business (ep’ humon), and what isn’t (ouk ep’ humon) applies to the issues raised by anger. Three of these are other persons’ emotions as externals, possible consequences of anger felt by others, and our responsibility for the emotions of others.

In Epictetus’ view, we do not, in any real sense of the term, control or determine how other people feel, think, or respond. That, just as much as things like the weather, our possessions, the state of the general economy, what gets published in any given newspaper, and so on is not something that falls within the providence of what is up to us. The feelings and thoughts of others are, to use the technical term, “externals” and “indifferents”. They aren’t the sorts of matters that we ought to allow to affect us. But, of course, we often do, and in the process effectively hand over control over our own psychological condition to other people or to the world more generally.

We may also be bothered or troubled by the anger that other people feel precisely because of how that anger manifests itself, what sorts of choices and actions it leads to, or even the threat of what a person who is angered might do. If we step back and examine why someone else’s feelings affect us in this way, we can then realize that it is because we care about – in Epictetus’ language, we have desire and aversion in relation to, and have assumptions, judgments, and assents about – what can indeed be affected by another person’s anger. If, for example, we are concerned about our possessions, our bodies, our social status, our positions, this makes us vulnerable to the effects of what other people might do or say in anger.

Even for a person who recognizes that, strictly speaking, another person’s feelings and judgements are something lying in his or her control, not within the scope of our own power, and who isn’t overly concerned about the external things that could be affected by another person’s anger, there could be another concern. It does seem up to us whether or not we do things that are liable or likely to make given people angry. So it seems that we then bear a kind of responsibility towards them, especially if these are persons who we are in some way connected with, people towards whom we have some kind of role and corresponding duties.

Two reminders Epictetus provides us can be quite helpful here. The first is that “Nobody is master over another person’s faculty of choice” (4.12), that is, each person ultimately is responsible for their own use or misuse of their prohairesis (their faculty of choice, or “moral purpose”). The second is that Stoicism stresses a choice, or better yet, commitment that needs to be made.

You cannot be continually giving attention to externals and your own governing principle. But if you want the first, let the second go; otherwise you will have neither one, being drawn in both directions. If you want the second, you must let the first one go. (4.10)

Understanding Why Other People Get Angry

The anger that other people feel and show can be very troubling to us, and a common question that people ask is: Why? This unfolds into a host of additional, more specific questions. What made this other person angry? Why did that make them angry? Why do they do the things that they do when they are angry? Why do they have to go so far in their anger? Who are they really angry with? Don’t they realize they are going too far, being destructive, throwing good things away for the chance to impose some kind of retribution?

There is a general answer to this – and many other such questions – that Epictetus supplies. People do what they do – including feeling what they feel – because on some level, in some way, that seems to them to be reasonable. We human beings do share a common stock of general ideas or conceptions (the proleipseis, a topic I’ll write more about at another time), but we vary considerably over how to understand and apply them within the concrete framework of our lives. In fact, the ways in which most people work these out are in some respects incoherent, involving conflicts or contradictions. Epictetus observes:

It so happens that the rational and the irrational are different for different persons, precisely as good and evil, and the profitable and the unprofitable are different for different persons. (1.2)

Although it might seem at first that Epictetus is simply lapsing into a type of relativism about these matters, that isn’t the case. In fact, this variance among human beings about such fundamental issues of value is one reason he advocates education (paideia) and discipline or training (askesis) so strongly and consistently. We don’t start out naturally inclined to get these sorts of matters right, and we inhabit cultures in which most people are getting them at least partly wrong as well, in their concrete application. Stoic philosophy, when actually practiced (rather than just read, talked about, or thought about) helps to get these matters straightened out for people.

So, coming back to anger, when we ask about any given person questions as to why he or she gets angry, does or says these or those sorts of things when angry, holds grudges, takes offense – anything along those lines – the general answer is that, however it happened to be that way, what that person is doing seems reasonable to them. It seems to them, at least in part – since of course they can find themselves conflicted about it – that getting angry, and acting upon their anger is what they ought to do.

“I can’t let that person push me around,” a common line of reasoning closely connected with the feeling of anger runs. “If I do that, they’ll just keep it up. I’ll show them they can’t treat me like that.” That’s a person to whom it seems not only reasonable, but as the most rational thing to do, to get angry and to retaliate. That person may be entirely off-base – and Epictetus (along with the other Stoics) thinks that to be the case – but unless somehow that person’s viewpoint on these matters is changed, we should expect them to do what seems (wrongly, but reasonably) to seem most rational to them.

Addtional Approaches To Dealing With Angry People

We have a number of ways in which we can deal with or address other people’s anger. As noted earlier, we can reframe our own perspectives – though of course, this takes time to be able to do consistently, easily, when we want to – so that we rightly view and then respond to the anger of another person as something that is outside of our control, and only affects other things that are outside of our control. As we just noted, we can also understand the other person’s emotional response, and angry action or expression, as something that does seem reasonable and right to them, even if it isn’t really reasonable or right from a more adequate perspective.

Another thing we see Epictetus stressing is that it is up to us how we ourselves respond in relation to the angry person, particularly with those with whom we have some sort of relationship, a role that we occupy or play, and towards whom we thereby have duties or obligations. Typically the other person similarly has duties or obligations towards us as well. A common sort of case that Epictetus addresses is when one of our family members is angry with us, and for that reason behaving badly, in ways that don’t conduce to being a good sibling, or parent, for example. It is still up to us whether we feel and act as we ought to towards that person on our own part. That is, as Epictetus frames it, a decision about whether or not we want to maintain the good brother or sister, the good child or parent, the friend, the neighbor within us. That is something that does lie within our power when faced with an angry person, who is not fulfilling his or her own roles in relation to ourselves.

This isn’t to say, of course, that Epictetus simply advocates taking or tolerating whatever abuse, recriminations, argument, or other effects that person’s anger produces. It seems entirely consistent with Stoic principles of making good use of, e.g. the body, to remove ourselves from situations in which violence is occurring or being threatened by a person in a rage. Likewise, it might even be an expression of the virtue of courage to intervene in such a situation in which others are threatened, particularly those who are especially vulnerable, like children being bullied or abused by angry adult parents. But, these sorts of legitimate responses to aggression stemming from anger can be done in a variety of manners, which don’t require us becoming angry on our own part.

An important question remains, however, if we get away from those more extreme situations, and consider the people we interact with daily, who may exhibit all sorts of problems with anger. What should our approach or attitude be towards them? Epictetus provides us with three useful bits of advice, each of which sets out one line of behavior and attitude for us.

The first one starts with the following suggestion:

If you have to be affected in a way that is contrary to nature at the misfortunes of another, pity that person instead of hating him; let go of this readiness to take offense and this spirit of hatred. (1.18)

In dealing with the anger of other persons – anger that from a Stoic perspective, will inevitably be unreasonable, but appear quite reasonable to the angry person – we could simply be unaffected emotionally. But if our emotions are going to be engaged, a feeling of “pity” (eleos), or to use the term people prefer in the present “compassion” is a much better response than anger, fear, disgust, or other negative emotions.

If anger is in general not a good thing for the person who feels it – and it certainly does feel bad much of the time (here just speaking from my own experience) – and if we see those who were are attached to, those we care about, those we are close with, shouldn’t we do whatever we can to help wean them away not only from their anger, but from the irrational assumptions, judgements, and thought-processes that help produce that emotion? In short, shouldn’t we guide them into the Stoic path? The second thing Epictetus has to tell us bears directly upon that:

Do you wish to help them? Then show them, by your own example, the kind of people philosophy produces, and stop talking nonsense (3.23) 

If studying and adopting resources from Stoic philosophy does help people deal with, and perhaps even eventually eliminate, the emotional response of anger, then it is up to Stoics who aim to preach about this to others to show those others not just how it works, but that it works. (Full disclosure here – I’m not a good example in this respect, though I’m working on it).

The third passage that strikes me as particularly relevant here is one in which Epictetus notes that sometimes one simply has to recognize that the person isn’t at that time up to grasping what one would like or hope they would, for their own sake. He asks:

Must I say these things to the multitude? For what purpose? Is it not sufficient for a person him or herself to believe them? (1.29)

He likens the “multitude”, or as we might say today, our “general culture”, to children who come up to us, cheerful about a holiday, thinking everything is well. It is better not to bring up that everything isn’t well, not to “rain on their parade”, as our contemporary expression goes, but to be cheerful towards them. He suggests then that if it turns out that you can’t get a person to change their perspective, for example about the anger they feel and express, to either just leave them alone or to exhibit that sort of cheerfulness.

In fact, it is – at least for some of us – enough of a task to figure out how to better deal with our own anger. It isn’t up to us to fundamentally change other human beings. As Epictetus points out:

. . . can we escape from human beings? And, how is that possible? But, can we, if they associate with us, change them? But who gives us that power? (1.12)

And so, in the next post in this series, we will turn to the closely connected topic of what Epictetus has to tell us about our own anger.

 

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the company ReasonIO. the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series, a team member of (Slow) Philosophies, and a member of the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics.

'Stoic Philosophy and Anger' by Greg Sadler

 

Stoic Philosophy and Anger

by Greg Sadler

The_Rage_of_Achilles_by_Giovanni_Battista_Tiepolo

Anger has been one main subject of my philosophical research, writing, and practice for roughly a decade. Several different motives steered me in that direction, one of which, I must admit, is a particularly personal one. From childhood on, I found myself struggling with my own anger. Studying what other people had observed, argued, mulled over, and advised in dealing with this difficult emotion proved useful for me, when I could put into practice. Attaining something like a virtuous disposition with respect to anger remains, for me, a “work in progress.”

Back when I was in graduate school, studying philosophy in a pluralistic department – which meant that there was quite a bit of discussion and debate not just between people who shared a common project and perspective, but between philosophers and philosophers-in-training working and arguing from very different bases – I found another motive for examining philosophical approaches to anger.  I was surprised by how frequently anger and other rancorous emotions arose – and then were displayed, acted upon, or even (rather implausibly) denied – not only among my fellow graduate students, but even among the professors.

Knowing that I experienced problems in addressing my own emotions well, I imagined that in a field in which rationality is so highly valued, and ethical comportment and critical (including self-critical) thinking were routinely espoused as ideals, the other members of the department would be much better off than I with respect to anger. A much longer and more detailed story could be told about how I learned this, but suffice it to say, that assumption was not borne out. So, that presented me with a sort of paradox, one I wanted to explore and understand.

Another motivation for focusing a considerable portion of my attention upon anger coalesced through the process of studying what classic philosophical texts, thinkers, and even schools had to say about anger. Many of them situated that emotion in particular, and the emotions, desires, and drives more generally, within a broader philosophical framework focused upon providing a fuller understanding of human nature, particular human beings, the broader social world, and ethical concerns.

I found myself drawn in to study of these more comprehensive philosophical perspectives, in part because they often offered quite complex and sophisticated views to explore, and in part because they proved very suggestive and insightful, but often fragmentary and unsystematic. Much of my academic writing involves what I like to call jokingly “philosophical detective work”, in which I attempt to reconstruct a systematic perspective through exegesis of a body of philosophical work. Put in a different way, I try to assemble a puzzle in which only a portion of the pieces are present, and I need to fabricate some of the missing pieces based upon the materials available.

The Stoics were in certain respects latecomers to the scene of Ancient Greek philosophy, emerging as a distinct school after other main schools – whether Socratic (Plato’s Academy, the Cynics, Aristotle’s Lyceum) or non-Socratic (Pyrrho’s Skepticism, Epicurus’ Garden) – at the very least had a significant head start. But they quickly developed into a distinctive philosophical school of their own, with substantive contributions to make.  More importantly here with respect to anger in particular, they articulated what would become one of the main philosophically-focused positions on that emotion in ancient Greco-Roman culture (one which would also go on to inform late ancient and medieval Christian discussions of anger as well).

This post will be the first in a series I intend to write – making use of my prerogative as editor of Stoicism Today to contribute entries to the blog – focused specifically upon what Stoics thought and taught about the emotion of anger. As a side note, I intend to alternate these upcoming discussions about Stoics on anger with more or less monthly posts attempting to address matters that people find obscure or problematic about Stoicism (for example, what Epictetus has to say about “general conceptions” and how they don’t conflict with each other – or a recent complaint made in the Stoicism Group in Facebook that classic Stoics provide no way of addressing moral dilemmas).

It is indeed unfortunate that we possess such a small portion of the ancient Stoics’ texts. Imagine if we could read through Zeno’s work On the Emotions, or his Ethics, or perhaps even his On Duty – all lost to us, but known to have existed at one time through the listings Diogenes Laertes provides us. We might also find relevant and useful discussions in his student, Cleanthes’ On The Virtues, On The End, On Conduct, and On Friendship – who knows what we might have to work with and consider, since we possess only the titles? Imagine what interesting passages we might find within Chrysippus’ massive catalogue of works!

We do get some doctrines of key Middle Stoa representatives like Panaetius and Posidonius mediated through Cicero’s surviving writings (as well as a few other authors), but it would certainly be preferable to possess the originals. Who knows what insights about anger we might find in the full text of Hierocles’ Elements of Ethics, or in his other writings? Given how many Stoic writers and teachers there were in antiquity, one could go on and on with this line, which risks transforming into a dismal litany of loss.

On the brighter side, we do at least have a good representation of works from the Late Stoa – Seneca’s various works and letters, the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, supplemented by Musonius Rufus’ own Discourses (or Lectures) – and those do comprise substantial bodies of philosophical literature. Among those, we are fortunate enough to have one work specifically devoted to the topic of anger by Seneca. There are a number of discussions bearing on anger, either directly or by implication, contained within the other texts of the Late Stoa.

The Stoics staked out a rather uncompromising but coherent position grappling with the emotion of anger, viewing it as a passion that could never prove good, rational, or morally legitimate. In this, they set themselves at antipodes from the wider culture of antiquity, which occasionally glorified instances of anger, at other times saw it as a sign of virility or spiritedness, but also worried about its tendencies towards excessiveness.

The Stoics also ended up distancing themselves from other main philosophical schools, in particular the Aristotelians, since Aristotle himself had articulated a conception of a right mean with respect to feeling anger, the virtue of “mildness” (praotes). Epicureans developed what they took to be a middle position between the Aristotelians, who gave far too much legitimacy to a troublesome emotion and the Stoics, who declared that anger always represented or stemmed from a moral failure.

Cicero himself, who develops an eclectic position that differed from the Stoics at multiple points, did nevertheless adopt a Stoic position on anger. The Stoic position represented what many regarded – then and perhaps even now – as an extreme one , but they provided powerful and persuasive reasons for the stance that they adopted.

I should make clear at this point that my own stance, as a philosopher, is an eclectic position resembling the one Cicero works out.  While not a Stoic in an orthodox sense, I draw extensively upon Stoic thinkers on many topics where I find their doctrines and overall system useful. On this particular topic of anger, though, I do part company with both Cicero and the Stoics, and tend more towards the Aristotelian position on the emotion. Still, I view what the Stoics have to say as well worth taking into consideration – as valuable, and on some points superior to what Aristotle and his successors have to say. You might say that I see them as not merely useful, but essential, dialogue-partners as I continue to think out – and live out – a philosophical perspective on this all-too-human emotion.

In the months to come, I plan to author a series of posts here in Stoicism Today setting out and explaining some of the key contributions that Stoic philosophers have to make in understanding anger, starting out with Epictetus’s discussions of anger in his Discourses in early May.

I realize that in this post, while I’ve considerably talked up the Stoics as a particularly useful resource for understanding the anger, at this point I have yet to provide any detailed or substantive discussion of their positions on the emotion. Until the next installment in this series, for those who are particularly interested in the topic, I have several video lectures available discussing the Stoics’ positions on the emotion of anger.

Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of the company ReasonIO. the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series, a team member of (Slow) Philosophies, and a member of the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics.