Other People’s Anger – Resources and Reflections From Epictetus
by Greg Sadler
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.