Epictetus, Anger Management, and Habit by Greg Sadler

Epictetus, Anger Management, and Habit

by Greg Sadler

Norman, a 55th Security Forces Squadron military working dog, waits to be unleashed and go after his target during training April 17. The Offutt K-9 unit performs regular training to maximize the dogs effectiveness in the field. (U.S. Air Force Photo by Josh Plueger)


In two posts earlier this year about Epictetus’s teachings bearing on anger, I outlined some  useful insights and advice he provides about dealing with anger. The first post focused on anger on the part of other persons, and the second started an examination of anger on one’s own part. I ended that post with two promises. The first was that I would revisit the strategies or approaches for dealing with one’s own anger briefly set out at the end of the earlier post. The second was that I would address the absolutely central role habit plays in Epictetus’ overall approach to anger. This third and final post makes good on most of those commitments, since in order not to presume overmuch on the reader’s patience in an already quite long post, I’ve decided to focus on just three Stoic-derived anger management approaches in particular.


Understanding Motivations of Other People

This one I’ve already discussed quite a bit in the two earlier posts of this series, but there remains more to be said about it. To start with a reminder, when we get angry, it is most often a response that we frame in relation to words or actions (and sometimes inactions) of other people. We take these as in some way damaging or demeaning, insulting or injurious to ourselves – or to someone or something else we care about or in some way identify with.  For those of us who struggle with anger (myself included), we can also get angry with things other than persons, down to household items or even meteorological phenomena. One might feel a sense of (entirely misplaced!) anger at the wind for blowing dust in one’s face, for instance (again, I have to admit to that one).

For the most part, though, anger arises through what either are interpersonal exchanges, actions, and relationships – or at least bear some resemblance to them (getting angry at what happens on television, for example) . These in turn reveal or at least suggest – we can get these very wrong – a deeper, more interior level of human motivations. A person’s mindset, what it is he or she thinks, assumes, values, desires is revealed through their actions and words. And when we find ourselves getting angry with a person, it is not simply over what he or she did or didn’t do, what he or she said or in some other way expressed. It is over what else gets signified or signaled by their choices, behavior, and communication. That is indeed what gets to us the most.

If we were to actually sit down with the person who angered us and discuss why they did or said what they did, in many cases we would find out that some mistaken assumptions were made on our own part. It’s all too easy to attribute to another person bad motivations that they don’t actually possess, and then interpret what we see them do through that distorting and darkening lens. Typically we don’t have the time or leisure to engage in that sort of discussion, and even if we did, once a conflict starts, communication often begins to spiral around the points of that conflict, making genuine dialogue difficult. More often, we’re in the case of having been affected by someone else’s words or actions, and then dealing with the ensuing emotion of anger on our own.

We can, however, still make some attempt to work out for ourselves what the motivation of the other person might be. And here is where the Stoic approach gets particularly interesting. Epictetus is not at all suggesting that we ought to simply “assume the best” of other people when it comes to their motivations. A person who behaves in an offensive manner liable to anger others might in fact be motivated to do precisely that. That person knows what he or she is doing – in a sense. He or she does mean to offend, the insult, to harm, to provoke. What Epictetus points out is that such a person mistakenly thinks that this is reasonable and a good course of action. That is the part of the person’s structure of motivation that he urges us to take into account. And in doing so – without having to deny that the person is doing something wrong or bad – we can lessen or even entirely calm the anger we are otherwise likely to feel towards them.


Reminding Ourselves of Our Shared Humanity

According to Stoic philosophy, human beings are sociable animals. Although we do have a natural inclination towards our own self-preservation, as well as for what is conducive to our own being – and corresponding inclinations away from what we take to harm us – as human beings the full realization of our nature occurs through our engagements with other people. For the Stoics (and they are not unique among virtue ethicists in this respect), this is a reflection of something distinctive to human beings: our rationality. We are sociable animals precisely because we are rational animals. You might say that to be fully (or even on the way towards fully) rational requires that we live in community and in concord with other rational beings. And insofar as we fall short of – or fail in – that aim, that is a sign of a yet imperfect development of our distinctive endowment of reason.

At a number of points, Epictetus draws contrasts between human beings and the other animals that lack the faculty of reason (and thereby also lack a free faculty of choice, i.e. prohairesis). For example, in the course of discussing the cycles of misguided action, anger, and reprisals narrated within the epic tale of the Illiad, he maintains that “wars and factions, and deaths of many men, and destructions of cities” are not “matters of great important,” when considered in a certain light. Considered in terms of bodies and other externals, those human tragedies are no worse than the death of other animals, and the destruction of their homes or habitats. But considered in a different light, there exists a gulf of difference between human beings and other animals.

Seek and you will find that he differs in some other respect. See whether it be not in his capacity for social action, in his faithfulness, his self-respect, his security from error, his intelligence. (1.28)

One important implication of this is that, when we find ourselves getting angry with another person, we ought to remind ourselves about the humanity the other person shares with us. This is something we remain capable of, even if the other person seems quite set upon not living up to the rational promise of their human potential. A bit earlier in that same chapter, he brings up the archetypical example of Medea, and asks: “Why are you angry with her, because the poor woman has gone astray in the greatest matters, and has been transformed from a human being into a viper?” (1.28).

Epictetus invokes this metaphor of a human being descending – or degenerating – to the level of an irrational animal in a number of passages. Near the end of 1.2, he suggests that those who incline to much towards the “paltry flesh” (sarkidion)

become like wolves, faithless and treacherous and hurtful, and other like lions, wild and savage and untamed, but most of us become foxes, that is to say, rascals of the animal kingdom. For what else is a slanderous and malicious man but a fox, or something even more rascally and degraded? (1.2)

In other passages, he brings up another animal we can become like, namely sheep. We do this when we “act for the sake of the belly, or of our sex-organs, or at random.” In those discussions, he also specifies what sort of behavior makes us like wild and aggressive beasts: “acting pugnaciously and injuriously, and angrily, and rudely.” He goes on to add that “some of us are wild beasts of a larger size, whole others are little animals, malignant and petty.” (1.2)

This animal imagery can prove useful for us, when we become angry, in visualizing something that otherwise can be difficult to wrap our heads around, that is, what happens to us when we allow ourselves to be pushed and pulled by irrational emotions such as anger. In the heat of the moment, telling ourselves that, in becoming angry or acting upon anger, we are becoming irrational might not carry enough weight to move us out of that affective path. Confronting ourselves with these vivid metaphors of departing from our humanity in order to become dangerous beasts might, however, exert a stronger effect.


Rising Above Competition and Conflict

According to Epictetus , a considerable portion of conflict between human beings stems from valuing things that are externals as if they were genuine goods, which then inevitably brings those who value and seek them into competition with each other. Wealth, honors, social position, even the attention of others, all of these are in some respect limited resources, so that if one person gets more another person inevitably gets less. Against these, we might contrast something like knowledge. If I share my knowledge of, say, Stoic philosophy with you, it is not as if my store of knowledge is eroded or lessened in the process (in fact, as a teacher, I can say from experience that at times, this process increases it). We can share in the same knowledge, and even augment it through our communication. But it is not quite like that when it comes to who (if anyone) gets paid for that knowledge, or who gets credited with a reputation for possessing knowledge, or who receives a prestigious award.

If we value certain external matters highly, and conceive of them as genuine goods that we ought to pursue, we will sooner or later find ourselves in situations of competition and conflict with other people over those apparent goods.  This primes us for becoming angry with those other people, who we can easily construe as standing in the way of what we want, what we desire, what we . . . deserve. As we become angry, we can easily convince ourselves that the other person is wronging us simply by possessing or desiring the same thing that we do.

This is the nature of every being, to pursue the good and to flee from the evil; and to consider the man who robs us of the one and invests us with the other as an enemy and an aggressor, even though he be a brother, even though he be a son, even though he be a father, for nothing is closer kin to us than our good. It follows, then, that if these externals are good or evil, neither is a father dear to his sons, nor a brother dear to a brother, but everything on all sides is full of enemies, aggressors, slanderers (4.5)

One additional thing people tend to desire, particularly when conflict occurs, which can intensify this dynamic even more, is what is typically translated as “victory” (nike), but which we could just as well render as “winning”, or even as “being right” (generally meaning: being acknowledged by the other person as being right).

We can avoid a number of occasions not only for winding up in conflict with other people, but also for getting angry in the course of those conflicts, by realizing that if we do set or leave our desire and aversion primarily in external matters, we will inevitably be forced into this rivalrous relationship with other people. It may well be the case, of course, that other people do continue to view us as competitors, and therefore become angry with us and engage in attacks upon us. That imposes a decision upon us: should we retaliate, or should we rise above?


The Importance of Habit

One key common insight running through the various versions of ancient virtue ethics (for example, Platonic, Aristotelian, Stoic, and so on) is the importance of habits (hexeis, ethe, or diatheseis, in the Greek) in the formation, existence, and (possibly) reformation of a human personality.   Habitual dispositions form a significant portion of the fabric of the core of the human person that Epictetus calls the “prohairesis” (the “faculty of choice” or “moral purpose”. You might say that the habits we develop – many of which can become so ingrained as to become, as Aristotle called it, “second nature” – connect up the past, present, and future, providing some measure of continuity to our lives, our choices, our actions.

That isn’t to say, of course, that habit is everything. With respect to certain aspects of anger, for example, some people may have more natural tendencies – temperaments, genetic lots, or whatever it is that we chose to call them – towards irritability and others correspondingly less. Our family environment, our experiences with other people, lessons we have learned from models and culture, traumatic events that have happened to us, all of these can become consolidated into lasting structures that involve habits, but are not identical with habits as such.

There is also an important reciprocity to point out between choices and actions, on the one side, and habits on the other. Habits do not arrive on the scene entirely developed (although to be sure, by the time we start paying adequate attention to them, it may certainly feel like that!). They are created over time by engaging in the same types of choices and actions, gradually becoming more and more stable, lasting, determinative. And in turn, habits once established make the choices and actions characteristically associated with the habit easier, seemingly more “natural,” than other (particularly opposite) choices and actions. In fact, when we are operating “on autopilot,” when we are reacting unreflectively, a habit may seemingly make the choice for us, leading to automatically doing the action, before we even think about it.

There are an additional two considerations, another two sides to the story, as well, which flesh out the role habits play in our moral life.  Human beings are creatures that feel, that is, that move within an entire affective dimension. We interpret the world, other people, and ourselves through a panoply of affects in the broadest sense of the term – though overarching moods, through lasting or fleeting feelings, through emotional responses that sometimes we recognize and sometimes we cannot even name. Another basic aspect of this is that we experience – continually through our lives, though not always centered on the same objects – desire and aversion.

We are also creatures who think. There is an essential cognitive dimension to human being, just as fundamental as the affective dimension. We not only perceive the world through the senses, but as we do so, we form judgements or opinions (doxai) about what appears to us, and we apply a variety of previously derived (or perhaps in some cases, already possessed, like the Stoic “general conceptions,” proleipseis) conceptions to matters. We likewise understand, reflect upon, have ideas about, or arrive at judgements about ourselves.

To bring what might appear to be simply a detour into basic philosophical psychology or anthropology to its conclusion, let me suggest a sort of visual model that may be useful when looking at the significance of habit for anger in Epictetus’ view. Imagine a tetrahedron, a four-sided, three-dimensional figure, extending to four equidistant points. Each of these represents one important and interrelated aspect discussed above. Habit is at one point. Choice is at another point. The two other points are filled out by Affect and Thought. All four of these dynamically interact with, reciprocally affect, or at times even determine, each other. Habit extends to – and encompasses or integrates – but does not simply assimilate the other key aspects, all of which go into making up what a human being is, at the core of his or her personhood.


Anger and Habit

Since habit plays such a central role in moral life, it is to be expected that Epictetus would have quite a bit to say about it, both on its own, and in relation to anger. He tells us, for example, in 3.12, that training (askesis) requires considerable attention to what habits we have already developed. One of the most overarching habits, by the time that a person encounters Stoicism is that of focusing “our desire and aversion solely upon external matters,” or rather, more literally, “using” (khresthai) desire and aversion on external things. This requires of us that we shift that orientation from the external, from what is not in our own but someone else’s control, to the internal. And that in turn, Epictetus tells us, must eventually be consolidated into “a contrary habit to counteract this [original, established] habit”.

How does that work concretely, with specific cases? We must examine, admit, and understand where our own particular weaknesses in relation to external things reside. He uses the examples of being inclined towards pursuing pleasure and being disinclined towards hard work (common enough cases, in my own experience!), and suggests that what the person who discovers these within him or herself needs to do is to “relocate [one]self over on the opposite side of the matter”. Moreover, one should do this “past the measure,” that is, towards what would be excessive for someone else not subject to that weakness.

“Different people will have to practice particularly to meet different things,” he concludes. And so, those who realize that anger is a problem for them will have to work to develop an array of responses, techniques, and strategies that eventually wean them away from following, acting upon, intensifying, or even falling into the emotion. This reworking of habits involved with anger often does feel extreme, unnatural, perhaps even unfair, to the person who begins to engage in it. But it is necessary.

In an earlier chapter (2.18), providing advice about “struggling with appearances” or “external impressions” (phantasiai), Epictetus first notes the general point that “every habit and capacity is confirmed and strengthened by the corresponding actions.” This leads quite naturally to the practical conclusion:   “if you want to do something, then make a habit of it; if you want not to do something, then don’t do it, and habituate yourself to do something else instead.” He then invokes anger as a specific example. “[W]hen you get angry [orgisthes], realize that not only has this evil befallen you, but also that you have strengthened the habit, and added fuel to the flame.”

One remedy in general for this is to apply one’s faculty of reason to understanding what is going on, why it is something bad, and what degree of choice one has in what one feels, thinks, chooses, or does. If we do this, when we are getting angry, or after we are already angry – for instance in applying one or more of the remedies discussed above – then we have some possibility of stilling the emotion or desire we are experiencing, and restoring our governing faculty to its “original authority,” that is, maintaining our own self-control.

If we don’t do that, however, it becomes very easy to be taken in by the appearances (for example, that the other person deliberately insulted us, as well as that the natural thing to do is to impose some sort of retribution), and our already established habits then steer us along a familiar and natural-feeling course that culminates in losing our temper and then acting out of anger. Over time, with repetition, the habit induces the person simply following emotion, desire, and habit to become angry more quickly, with less provocation. And then, after and in addition to that, the habit becomes strengthened within the person in yet other ways.

Certain imprints and welts are left behind on the mind, and unless a man erases them perfectly, the next time he is scourged upon the old scars, he has welts no longer but wounds. If therefore, you wish not to be hot-tempered, do not feed your habit, set before it nothing upon which it can grow. . . For first the habit is weakened, and then utterly destroyed. (2.18)

We can easily fool ourselves into thinking that giving in, on something we know full well to be a problem for us, doesn’t have all that much of an effect. It is tempting to tell ourselves that just this one time, we are justified, and that we are entitled to make an exception to the general rule we decided upon for ourselves. Many of us are also prone to admit failure in the present, but to console ourselves by telling a story in which down the line, in the future, we do manage to make progress. Epictetus cautions us:

[I]f you be defeated once, and then say that down the line you will overcome, and then do the same thing a second time, know that eventually you will be in such a bad and weakened habitual state [hexeis] that you will not even realize that you are going wrong, but you will start to offer arguments in justification [apologias] of your behavior. (2.18)

He also notes that we possess alternatives, options we can choose and are thus responsible for, when we do fail:

Behold, you have been dislodged, though by no one else but yourself. Fight against yourself, vindicate yourself for decency, for respect, for freedom. . . . First of all condemn what you are doing; then, when you have passed your condemnation, do not despair of yourself, nor act like the spiritless people who when once they have given in, surrender themselves completely, and are swept off by the current, as it were, but learn how the gymnastic instructor of boys acts. The boy he is training is thrown; “get up,” he says, “and wrestle again, till you get strong.” (4.9)

In Enchiridion, ch. 51, after pointing out our tendencies to delay and defer committing ourselves concretely to the Stoic path, he points out the importance of each moment at which we find ourselves: “remember that now is the contest, and here before you are the Olympic games and that it is impossible to delay any longer, and that it depends on a single day and a single action, whether progress is lost or saved.”

All of these Stoic reflections about habits, choices, and consequences apply to anger. It is up to us, in the choices we make at determinate moments – when we first start to get angry, or when we realize that we are in a rage, even after we have acted upon anger and ought to set things right – how we form and reform our habits, what one might call the lasting but malleable armature structuring our faculty of choice.   Do we want to be angry people or calm, gentle, rational people? That choice is up to us to make.

The habits we already possess can admittedly render that choice a difficult one, making anger seem rational, natural, even required (if only in this circumstance, or this one time, or. . . )  But we do also possess the capacity to decide for ourselves, at each moment, what we will do with ourselves. Realizing this – both in the sense of grasping this intellectually and in the practical sense of gradually making it a reality – liberates us from the power anger otherwise exerts upon us and in our common social world.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of 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.

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