'Stoicism in the Service Industry' by Christopher Edwards

Stoic Solutions for Practical use in the Service Industry

by Christopher Edwards

Marcus from Christopher

“Be like a duck. Remain calm on the surface and paddle like hell underneath.”
– Michael Caine

A successful server is like the duck in Michael Caine’s quote.  Not everyone in the Service Industry stays calm though. There is a spirited concoction of challenges swarming about, both interpersonal and mental for the Service Industry professional. A Stoic solution exists, though, in practising the principles of this ancient philosophy, helping to effectively navigate the often stressful realities of the restaurant business.

I’ve been working in the restaurant service industry, in a variety of Front of the House (FOH) positions, from casual-high volume to fine dining, for about 14 years now. I’ve been practising Stoicism as a philosophy of life, (off, but mostly on) for a little over two years and have loosely practised it for more than 10. It is my experience that implementing these ancient principles works to keep a cool head in this Industry.

Challenges On A Busy Shift

I will first walk you through the common situations, pace, and challenges a server encounters during a busy shift at a casual high-volume restaurant. Then I will go over a few crucial nuggets from the later Roman Stoics that have not only helped me in life and in the Service Industry, but I believe can be applied successfully by anyone in this business. …but first, a quote from Marcus Aurelius:

“First, do not be upset: all things follow the nature of the Whole, and in a little while you will be no one and nowhere… Next, concentrate on the matter in hand and see it for what it is. Remind yourself of your duty to be a good man and rehearse what man’s nature demands: then do it straight and unswerving, or say what you best think right. Always, though, in kindness, integrity, and sincerity.” (Meditations 8.5)

See if the above passage helps you spot opportunities to practice Stoic principles in the paragraphs ahead.  Keep in mind that servers in North Carolina and many other states aren’t paid minimum wage. It’s $2.15 per hour. They live off their tips. They also have to tip out support staff a percentage of tips and/or sales. If you don’t tip, the server is essentially paying for you to dine out.

What Service Can Be Like

It’s the middle of a dinner rush. You have a 5-table section. You’ve just been “stiffed” (i.e. left no tip) by a table of three guys. A couple sits down and you greet them, “Hi my name’s Chrysippus and I’ll be taking special care of you this evening.” We’ll call this table, table A. You go through the spiel of featured drink and menu specials. The lady at the table sizes you up with a mean look. You give them a moment to glance over the menu.

A second table (table B) has just sat down 30 seconds ago. “Hi folks, I’m Cato the Younger and will be taking care of you tonight….” They let us know immediately that they’re in a hurry and are trying to make the eight o’clock movie. So you, without hesitation, take their drink and food order promptly, then head directly to the Point of Service (POS) workstation to enter the order. As you pass by table A, you check to see if they’re ready to order. They seem okay, still immersed in the menu.

As you’re entering the server station to enter in table B’s order and retrieve their drinks you see the Hostess seating a party of 5 (Table C) in your section. You take a deep breath. After delivering the drinks to table B you figure you have enough time to take take table A’s order. “What are we drinking tonight?” “Well, we’d like a bottle of your Reisling, but we have a question about the chutney on your Salmon special.” “Yes,” you reply?” Could I have it without red peppers?” You’re pretty sure it’s already pre-mixed, so you tell her as much, but to do the right thing, you tell her that you will go ask and return shortly.

Before asking about that, you must greet table C. They are a group of young college kids celebrating a birthday. You introduce yourself and tell them about the drink specials, but don’t take any orders. On your way to enter in the Riesling order for table A, you see there are 2 other Servers in front of you in line at the POS Micros workstation.  While you are waiting you ask Server 1 in front of you if it is possible to get the chutney on the Salmon without red peppers? “How long have you worked here?” she asks sarcastically. You don’t say anything. Server 2 answers your question, as he finishes up entering in his order “No, it’s premixed. They can’t separate it. Offer a different topping.” You thank that Server.

As you’re still waiting to put in your order, Server 2 says, “I’m going to be a minute, I have to cash out a six top. The other Micro at the other end of the restaurant has a line at it with other Servers as well. You run to the bartender, to give him heads up that you’re about to ring in a bottle of Riesling, so it’ll be ready to deliver after you ring it in. You see that Server 1 has about another minute, and you’ve made it known that you’re next in line. So during that minute of downtime you rush to make 5 waters for your college kid party of 5. Okay, finally you enter in the wine order for table A.

You make a decision to drop waters off at the 5 top, telling them that you will be right back to take drink and appetizer orders, but first you think to yourself, you must present this bottle of wine to Table A. While presenting the bottle of wine you see that Table B’s food is arriving. They are pleased. Good! After taking table A’s appetizer and entree order you check on table B to ask if they need anything else? “Extra honey mustard.” You dart “elegantly” as possible back to the Server station to retrieve a ramekin of honey mustard for them.

When you go to squeeze the bottle, nothing comes out. The lunch closing Server didn’t restock the honey mustard. You run downstairs to the kitchen to get some from the Chef expediting. He looks like he could use a valium, or rather a Stoic week or two under his belt. The kitchen’s crazy. Before you get to voice your request for back up honey mustard, he barks at you, “Cleanthes! Run these plates to table 32!” You tell him you need backup honey mustard. He tells you to run that and come back for it. He gives you a ramekin of honey mustard but stresses to have a food runner do that kind of work next time. There was no food runner around at the critical moment when things needed to get done.

Throughout this honey mustard excursion people keep pouring through the door. You see that you just got sat a three top. The place is getting busy and coming alive. You deliver the honey mustard, and refill drinks at Table B then head immediately to table C to take drink orders. They all give you a look that says, we’ve been waiting and are ready to order. To lighten the air of tension between the guest and yourself, you ask whose birthday it is. They all look at this one young lady who blushes with upper middle class entitlement. You charmingly tell her that she gets a free desert and to start thinking about which one she wants. She smiles with all eyes on her. The tension eases.

During that moment you begin taking drink and appetizer orders. They all get beers. After putting in the order, you pause to think what the next thing to do is. During that moment the manager interrupts your train of thought asking you to take a bus tub of dishes to the dishwasher because the Server Assistant is currently clearing a large table. It is while performing this side work that you realize you need to print table B’s check, so they can make their movie, and that you have a new table (Table D) that still has to be greeted.  All this is happening at the pace of 100 ballerinas dancing frantically to 90’s punk rock, dunking and dodging as gracefully as possible, trying to be that calm Duck paddling like Hades.

You drop the check at Table B. Next, you greet your three top (Table D) and apologize about the wait, then take their drink orders. You see that Table A has finished their appetizers, so you clear the plates from the table and head by Table B to pick up their payment. On your way to run their payment, you see that you are getting seated again (Table E). There is a line at the Server station again. You wait in an antagonizing limbo where you’re tortured with the things that have to be done but can’t do them until you do this thing first. You run table B’s card and make change for a 20 they gave you, fix drinks for table D and deliver them, take table B their card and change, wishing them a fantastic evening, then head to table C to take their food orders. It’s getting hairy.

Table E asks if you can turn the music down after you greet them. On your way to the Server Station to put table C’s food order in, you check on Table A as they just got their main course. They want to see a wine list. On your way to retrieve a wine list you stop by table B to pick up your tip. When you make it to the Server Station finally, the manager speaks harshly to you about not pre-bussing table B, i.e. only picking up my check and not clearing the rest of the table. “I don’t expect to have to tell you that again.” He’s clearly stressed. You start to feel like you don’t have any job security. You don’t. While he’s flaring red, you ask if he can turn down the music in the section where Table E is. He gets flustered and does so.

Upon delivering the wine list to Table A, you check on table C. They all request more drinks. Before entering them in though, you go take table D’s order. Two parents and their daughter. The daughter asks a lot of questions about substitutions and has a lot of complicated order modifications. You give them another minute to make a decision and try to keep a smile on your face as you approach table E. You take their drink order. On your way to put in Table E’s drink order and to pick up the 2nd round of drinks for table C, table D calls out to you, “we’re ready to order now.” To be a good and fair Server, you have to tell them, “just one moment, please. I’ll be right back with you.”

So you go put in table E’s drink order. While doing that, Server 1 is impatiently tapping her foot behind you, hovering. You have to focus. You take Table C their 2nd round of drinks before heading to table D to take their order. They ask for a lot of modifications and you can see Table A growing impatient, ready to order more wine. you also see that Table C is getting their entrees. You get table A more wine. Table C is beckoning for attention.

So much to do. Several things at once. Must keep composed. You have to pee. You’re beating yourself up for being such a Cyrenaic in college and not finishing your degree. You’re thinking if the tips are worth the acting anymore. What else can I do for you folks at the moment, you ask? ” “Can I have extra honey mustard?” “Of course.” “Another beer?” “Certainly.” “Yes.” “Absolutely.” “My pleasure.” “HEEEELLLLLPPP!!!!!!”

Okay, hopefully with all that, you get a sense of the oftentimes, difficult and chaotic pace of a high volume restaurant shift. It’s not always exactly like that. But usually, the money comes from these high stress shifts. So, how on earth is one supposed to keep it together during all that? When customers are demanding and running you around; when you have to endure the cattiness and mean tempers of co-workers, and take crap from your superiors. When you’re doing everything you can to be as efficient as possible with your time, but you still get stiffed from that one table that couldn’t be pleased. What about the pace? …accelerated heart beat, people engaging in substance-less conversations loudly; feeling the hectic rush that a fast paced shift entails… knowing that you’re not able to give the service you want to give because so many things have to be done, seemingly at once. Thank goodness for the Stoics.

Stoic Solutions

Let’s get right to it! One thing that works for me is to meditate on what my day may consist of, upon awakening. Then I do it again, as a quick pre-shift meditation, before walking in the door of the restaurant. This could also be paired with a similar technique called Negative Visualization, where one visualizes potential adversities befalling them, without dwelling on them, throughout the day, so when and if it does happen, you’ve allowed yourself the capacity to foresee it, and hopefully prepare for it.

Marcus Aurelius gives us an account of how to do this in Book 2.1 of his Mediations:

Say to yourself first thing in the morning: today I shall meet people who are meddling, ungrateful, aggressive, treacherous, malicious, unsocial. All this has afflicted them through their ignorance of true good and evil. But I have seen that the nature of good is what is right, and the nature of evil what is wrong; and I have reflected that the nature of the offender himself is akin to my own – not a kinship of blood or seed, but a sharing in the same mind, the same fragment of divinity. Therefore I cannot be harmed by any of them, as none will infect me with their wrong. Nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him. We were born for cooperation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. So to work in opposition to one another is against nature: and anger or rejection is opposition.

Another late Stoic, slave turned philosopher, Epictetus, has something useful to say about preparing oneself for the reality of certain places, events, etc. Try applying Chapter 4 from the Enchiridion to the Service Industry, specifically, before going into a serving shift, and see if it helps you better map out the potentialities therein:

Whenever planning an action, mentally rehearse what the plan entails. If you are heading out to bathe, picture to yourself the typical scene at the bathhouse – people splashing, pushing, yelling and pinching your clothes. You will complete the act with more composure if you say at the outset, ‘I want a bath, but at the same time I want to keep my will aligned with nature.’ Do it with every act. That way if something occurs to spoil your bath, you will have ready the thought, ‘Well, this was not my only intention, I also meant to keep my will in line with nature – which is impossible if I go all to pieces whenever anything bad happens.’

Holy cow Epictetus! You said it. Reading, meditating on, and practising this stuff can make the difference between staying cool during a shift or having a swarming stress box of a head, wearing the face of a very uncalm duck. Speaking for myself, the practice of doing this on a regular basis helps me anticipate difficulties, and curves my reaction to these difficulties. When people start acting nuts and catty, I pause, and say, “…that is the nature of this industry.” I don’t have to take it personally. When the pace gets out of control, I smile to myself and say, “I will carry on the best I can, and will not be taken away to high levels of stress by these impressions… just do what’s in front of me.”

One of the most helpful key elements to use in the Service Industry from the Stoics, for me, is the dichotomy of control as Epictetus lays out in Enchiridion 1.1 – 5:

[1] We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status – in a word, anything not in our power to control…

…[5] So make practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’ And if it’s not one of the things that you control, be ready with the reaction, ‘Then it’s none of my concern.’

It is a good thing for a restaurant and for me financially, when we get busy, but it can be quite the stressful thing to endure. When it gets crazy, and I am “in the weeds,” I don’t have to freak out. I slow down, focus on what needs to be done, and in what order, and do it to the best of my ability. Again, with practice, you’ll find the calm within this awareness, increases. When a customer is overly perturbed at not getting the perfect service and experience they feel entitled to, you don’t have to take it personally. Stay professional, but keep moving. What is the next right thing to do? They cannot harm your prohairesis (faculty of choice)!

Managing Impressions and dealing with difficult people and situations:

When another blames you or hates you, or people voice similar criticisms, go to their souls, penetrate inside and see what sort of people they are. You will realize that there is no need to be racked with anxiety that they should hold any particular opinion about you. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends… (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.27)

Essentially, practice being indifferent to things that are outside of your control and resolve to press on, kindly, with your duties.

This next one by Marcus should be reserved for when events or people are really begging for permission to get under your skin, or when you’re contemplating the relevance of JUSTICE over social kindness and need to simply avoid interactions with difficult people as much as possible:

What sort of people are they when eating, sleeping, coupling, shitting, etc.? Then what are they like when given power over men? Haughty, quick to anger, punishing to excess. And yet just now they were slaves to all those needs for all those reasons: and shortly they will be slaves again” (Meditations 10.19)

Be careful here not to get onto a Stoic “high horse” though. Some people are fundamentally flawed or conditioned in ways which predispose them to seemingly “mean” behaviors. You still have to work or interact with these people, just keep your prohairesis straight!

Then there’s this:

Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation. Which is why it is essential that we not respond impulsively to impressions; take a moment before reacting, and you will find it is easier to maintain control. (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 20)

This is where I like to pause, breathe, and consciously think first… “What is in my control?”

I ask myself too, “What is said person trying to tell me (if it is a fellow employee or superior) that pertains to my job, rules, correct procedures, etc…. Because oftentimes, co-workers and customers (let’s just call them people) say and intend relevant things, but in a mean way, or with a smothering tone. And I know I’m not alone in having an equally cut-throat reaction to some of the harsh language and stressors a service industry professional endures. The thing with practising these principles though, is that you can learn to assess these emotive-thought reactions against a calm, rational criteria… then, hopefully… Stoic-on!

Dealing with the crazy pace:

These are a few of my favorite principles to implement. Here, I try and keep an expansive philosophical perspective, which has a calming effect, while staying engaged in the grind.

“Keep constantly in your mind an impression of the whole of time and the whole of existence – and the thought that each individual things is, on the scale of existence, a mere fig-seed; on the scale of time, one turn of a drill.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.17)

“You can strip away many unnecessary troubles which lie wholly in your own judgement. And you will immediately make large and wide room for yourself by grasping the whole universe in your thought, contemplating the eternity of time, and reflecting on the rapid change of each thing in every part – how brief the gap from birth to dissolution, how vast the gulf of time before your birth, and an equal infinity after your dissolution.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.32)

This is definite consolation that your shift will be over soon. It will also help you stay right sized (at least you don’t have to stay two hours after closing, like the dishwasher does. Be nice to him or her). If situations or people become increasingly difficult, it might be helpful to pair these last two exercises with a quick view from above which Marcus also advises in Meditations 9.30. I have, on a few occasions, had to go to the bathroom and do this along with some deep breathing and cognitive distancing. Afterwards, I leave the bathroom calm, and carry on without going to pieces.

Now, I want to stress how all of these principles compliment one another. You manage the negative impression of your Manager talking down to you by deconstructing the facts. “He is talking down to me. He obviously feels justified in doing so. Where is he coming from? It is in my power not to take offense from his outbursts. That is within my control. It is my duty to continue to work the best I can, where my integrity allows, given whatever situation arises. And, didn’t I understand that something of this fashion was bound to unfold anyway?”

These are principles that work perfect in theory within the Service Industry, but one will only be able to see the benefits from them by practising it daily! Seneca, a later Stoic, advises us to ask ourselves before retiring at night, what progress we made that day, how did we excel in our character. Well, if you didn’t throw your hands up and curse your boss or a customer out, then you’ve succeeded. If, in spite of a particularly difficult customer, you maintained the standard of good service, then you have conquered an army. So, although the interpersonal and mental challenges within the pace of a busy shift are difficult, practising these Stoic principles creates space for a certain peace and clarity, to see what’s the best way to navigate each situation, maintaining your moral purpose, as a working member of society. Be like the duck.

Do not look around at the directing minds of other people, but keep looking straight ahead to where nature is leading you – both universal nature, in what happens to you, and your own nature, in what you must do yourself. Every creature must do what follows from its own constitution. The rest of creation is constituted to serve rational beings (just as in everything else the lower exists for the higher), but rational beings are here to serve each other. So the main principle in man’s constitution is the social… (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations 7.55)

Christopher L. Edwards works in the Service Industry in North Carolina. He is also a singer-songwriter who draws on philosophical themes.  He uses Stoicism primarily in recovery from alcoholism and addiction, but finds that practising it as a philosophy of life makes for eudaimonia. For more of Christopher’s experientially-based reflections on practical uses of Stoicism in relation to recovery, the service industry, and living the good life, check out his site, A Stoic Mime’s Blog.

Other People's Anger – Resources and Reflections from Epictetus

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.

STOICON lands in the Big Apple

Stoicon Lands in the Big Apple

by Massimo Pigliucci


STOICON is the now recurring annual meeting for people curious about Stoicism, or who already practice the philosophy and wish to meet fellow prokopta, go in-depth on specific topics, or just hang around the authors of an increasing number of books on ancient and modern Stoicism. The event also takes place in synch with the annual Stoic Week, coordinated by Don Robertson, a chance to actually live like a Stoic for a few days while also helping the group at the University of Exeter to keep gathering data on whether and how Stoicism “works” when applied to the cultural setting of the 21st century.

This year, after a number of editions taking place in London and most recently organized by the excellent Jules Evans, STOICON is jumping the pond for a stint in New York City. Mark the date: Saturday, 15 October (and while you are at it, register now. See here for more information, including the program). It’s an experiment to test new waters, bring Stoicism to new audiences, and further evolve the Modern Stoicism movement (is that what it is?).

The idea is not to permanently relocate, however, but rather to see if we can involve several groups of organizers in different parts of the world. Who knows? 2017 may be the turn of Canada, or Australia, or perhaps Japan. We shall see, fate permitting, and let us know if you might be interested in hosting it.

Meanwhile, though, let me tell you a bit about STOICON ’16. We have a lineup of 14 speakers, some well known from events past, others brand new, in an attempt to mix continuity and novel directions.

The morning session will see a number of half hour talks, including:

  • “Is Stoic virtue as off-putting as it seems?” by Julia Annas
  • “Let us take care of ourselves: Stoic exercises and Foucault” by Cinzia Aruzza
  • “Albert Ellis: A Model of Resiliency, Compassion, and Stoicism in Action” by Debbie Joffe Ellis
  • “Stoicism as a wellbeing intervention in the workplace, prisons and mental health charities” by Jules Evans
  • “Can you be a Stoic and a political activist?” by Chris Gill
  • “On Becoming an Insult Pacifist” by Bill Irvine
  • “Stoicism, mindfulness, and cognitive therapy” by Don Robertson
  • and “Hard Truths and Happiness in Stoicism” by John Sellars.

The group will then break out for lunch in the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan, and reconvene for a series of more targeted workshops, running in parallel:

  • “Introduction to REBT as a Healthy and Empowered Way of Life” again by Debbie Joffe Ellis
  • “Poor but happy? Aristotle and the Stoics on external goods” by Gabriele Galluzzo
  • “Does Stoicism work?” by Tim LeBon
  • “Sati & Prosoche: Buddhist vs. Stoic Mindfulness in Theory & Practice” by Greg Lopez,
  • Struggling With Anger? Useful Stoic Perspectives and Practices” by Greg Sadler
  • and “Everything you wanted to know about Stoicism but were afraid to ask” by yours truly.

We count on our fellow Stoics to have stamina, because after the morning session and afternoon workshops we will hear Ryan Holiday, best selling author of The Obstacle Is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, deliver the keynote speech, which will be followed by a social gathering for general chatting.

We are also introducing a new social & fundraising effort this year, which will take place after the conference will be over: people who will be able to book in time will join several of our speakers at a number of restaurants in Manhattan (one group per speaker per restaurant) for a nice meal and a more intimate and relaxed discussion with Bill, Cinzia, Debbie, Don, Gabriele, Greg S., Ryan, or myself.

After more than a millennium and a half of hiatus and indirect influence (on fellows like Augustine, Aquinas, Descartes, Montaigne, Spinoza, and so on) Stoicism is coming back to life, shaping up as an ecumenical big tent for people of different religious inclinations (from Buddhists to Christians to atheists) and political persuasions to come together and explore whether the life of virtue really is the good life that Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius promised. Join us for STOICON ’16 in New York City and contribute to the discussion!

Massimo Pigliucci is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He is an evolutionary biologist and a philosopher of science, whose writings can be found at platofootnote.org and howtobeastoic.org. He has written or edited ten books, most recently Philosophy of Pseudoscience: Reconsidering the Demarcation Problem (University of Chicago Press). He grew up in Rome, reading Seneca and Cicero, but re-discovered Stoicism only recently. He sports two philosophy-related tattoos…