Stoic Perspectives and Practices For Addressing Anger by Gregory Sadler

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

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

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

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

A Starting Point for Changing Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Way We Can Shift Our Perspective

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Worry: What Happens If One Sets Anger Aside?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

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