Dealing with One’s Own Anger – Resources and Insights From Epictetus
by Greg Sadler
Two months back, I wrote a short piece setting out several insights and resources stemming from Epictetus’ Discourses, focusing specifically on how to understand and deal with anger felt, expressed, and acted upon by other people. I also promised a second piece, following up by setting out the practical wisdom Epictetus has to provide us bearing upon our own anger. Here in this blog post, I will partially make good on that promise, but also kick the proverbial can a bit further down the road by deferring some of the necessary discussion to a third and later post about Epictetus on the emotion of anger. In that piece, I plan to expand on the considerations and techniques for dealing with anger mentioned at the end of this post, and to examine the importance of reworking habits for managing anger.
The choice to confine this post to a manageable length is a deliberate one, and the main reason for it is that this topic (Epictetus, his discussions of anger, and their applications in the present) turns out to be one upon which a great amount can be said. After consideration of the resources for understanding and addressing anger contained in Epictetus’s works (not to mention Seneca, and to a lesser extent, Marcus Aurelius), I’ve embarked upon a new large-scale research and writing project, intended to culminate in what will be a (hopefully short) book on Stoicism and anger. Later on this Fall, I’ll be providing a workshop on that topic, including practical resources for managing anger, at Stoicon in New York City (and likely some additional workshops and talks on the topic during the Stoic Week that follows). For the present, here are some of Epictetus’ contributions to thoughtfully and productively dealing with anger.
Some Starting Considerations
There are numerous passages within the Discourses, in which Epictetus makes some reference to anger in one of its various aspects. Piecing these together provides a coherent and fairly systematic approach to understanding, controlling, lessening, and hopefully even ending one’s own anger. We are particularly fortunate, though, in that beyond those scattered discussions, there are actually several chapters of the book devoted specifically to Epictetus’ teachings about anger.
One of these is chapter 18 of book 1, titled “That we ought not to be angry with those who make mistakes.” That sounds like a sentiment that most of us can get behind, at least in principle. But, what sort of mistakes does Epictetus have in mind? Failing to hold the door open for someone laden down with packages, because one assumes they are going past the doorway? Failing to follow a recipe and serving a less than appetizing dish for dinner? Mixing up a coworker’s name with someone else’s in introducing him or her?
The sorts of mistakes or errors (hamartiai) Epictetus cautions us about in that chapter are wider and deeper reaching, reflective of mistaken viewpoints that fundamentally motivate a person. The kinds of people he has in mind are thieves, robbers, and adulterers. It seems natural to get angry at people like that, people who we think are not just making a small or innocent mistake, but actively doing wrong, and choosing to do so, often at considerable risk and despite the illegality, public condemnation, or possible consequences of their actions.
But why do they engage in the sorts of actions that they do? According to Epictetus, it is because they are either totally or at least partly mixed up about some fundamental matters, the sorts of things that Stoic philosophy ought to provide us with a better perspective upon. As a first point, he notes that these people
have gone astray and are mistaken about the most important matters, and in a state of blindness as well, not in the sort of vision that distinguishes between black and white, but in the judgement that distinguishes between good and bad things. (1.18)
Epictetus suggests that we ought to consider showing them how they have things wrong, to allow them an opportunity to get them right, fully understanding that many of the erring will not take that offered opportunity as such. He also notes that it doesn’t make sense for us to get angry with them, if we think matters through, when what would be more appropriate to the situation is to feel pity or compassion towards them (in his Greek, eleein, which could be translated by either term).
Second, he suggests that our own anger represents a failure on our own part to adopt the right perspective when faced with these kinds of situations, and these sorts of troublesome people.
If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that that can happen to a person, and the greatest thing in a person is his or her faculty of choice [prohairesis], and if a person is deprived of this very thing, what ground do you still have for getting angry with that person? If you have to be put into a condition contrary to nature by the misfortunes of another, why don’t you pity that person instead, rather than hate that person? Let go of this readiness to take offense and the spirit of hatred. (1.18)
He asks a hard but necessary question to hear, when one is already angry or getting angry with people who not only one takes to be doing wrong, but who are in fact, doing wrong, and doing so quite often: “How is it that you have been so suddenly converted to wisdom that you get angry at foolish people?” From Epictetus’ Stoic perspective, anger on our own parts indicates to us that we ourselves either have not attained, or are straying from, the wisdom that we view as lacking in the “fools”.
Insofar as we are getting angry with them, we actually share some assumptions in common with the foolish or the morally bad, and this is an important third point Epictetus makes:
We admire the things of which these people rob us. After all, stop admiring your clothes, and then you’re not angry with the person who steals them. Stop marveling at your wife’s beauty, and then you’re not angry at the adulterer. Know that a thief or an adulterer has no place among the things that are your own, but only among those that belong to another, and that are not up to you. (1.18)
To many of us, uncompromising counsels of this sort are admittedly difficult to agree with entirely, despite whatever attraction or affinity we may have with Stoic doctrine as a whole. Notice though, what Epictetus follows this up with:
So long as you admire these things, be angry with yourself, and not with the people I’ve just mentioned. For consider, you have fine clothes and your neighbor does not. You have a window, and want to air them out. That person does not know what the good for human beings consists in, but thinks it resides in having fine clothes, the very same thing that you imagine. (1.18)
In Epictetus’ view, the emotional response of anger is always a sign and symptom of something going wrong on our part, not only within the particular situation, but in the overall structure of our thinking, feeling, valuing, and acting. In this chapter, he points out to us an irrationality involved our own responses and stances of anger towards those who are likewise behaving in fundamentally irrational ways.
We have the capacity to understand the irrationality, the mistakenness, the error involved in choices those people make that lead them to unjust, counter-productive, selfish, harmful, or unseemly actions – and indeed, ways of living and being. And since we have that capacity, it is up to us whether or not we exercise it. If we do, a more appropriate emotional response is pity or compassion (although it seems that from where Epictetus sits, that’s still a second-best response by comparison to not feeling any “contrary to nature” emotion). It may be difficult, but we can head off, lessen, or at least control our own anger by attempting to understand the other, and we are aided considerably in doing so by realizing that their own bad motivations mirror our own, those that lead us into anger at them.
Understanding How and Why Anger Arises
Why do we find ourselves getting – or already – angry? For the Stoics, this emotion is not some random, unforeseeable, occurrence that just happens to us. Nor is it merely an automatic response we have no control over, so that when someone does something offensive, harmful, threatening, or just plain wrong, we can’t help but react with anger. There are intelligible and general processes underlying specific situations in which particular people get angry. Understanding what those processes are, and how they work, is essential to managing or addressing anger over time.
Understanding anger as an emotional (and even bodily) response that is not just raw affectivity, but also has underlying thought-processes driving it, allows us to examine those thought processes. And that, in turn, can give us a certain degree of freedom, permitting us to recognize those processes at work, as well as to decide for ourselves whether those thought processes are as reasonable or as necessary as they present themselves to us as being. As Epictetus reminds us at numerous points in our work, our desires and aversions, our choices and denials, our assents, judgments, and assumptions are the sorts of matters that are in our power.
As a general rule, whenever we get angry, Epictetus would say, we have gone wrong not only in our evaluation of what is happening – quite literally in the “use” (khresis) we make of external appearances or impressions (phantasiai) – but also in our practical reasoning about the matter in relation to other things. Put in other terms, anger arises because of what it is that we think good and bad, how we order and value things, and accordingly what we desire and are averse to.
For each of us, in our own case, if we are to understand, let alone to manage or even master our own emotions – particularly anger – we have to examine what it is that we do value, what it is that we do think to be good, and therefore desire (and correspondingly what we think to be bad, and are averse to). If we’re honest with ourselves, we may find (I know this is the case for me) that there are quite a few externals, matters that fall outside of the scope of our power, things that are strictly speaking neither good nor bad, that we treat as being genuinely good or bad. And we do this precisely because we do think and feel them to be good or bad, making some mistakes in those assessments.
In doing so, in many different ways, we make ourselves vulnerable to the world, and in particular to other people, most of whom one should not expect to be fully rational. In fact, as Epictetus points out, the one thing you can really count on them to do is to follow what seems to them – but likely isn’t in reality – rational.
In another chapter of book 1, he provides multiple examples derived from classical culture of persons who went tragically astray in their excessive anger – Medea, Achilles, and Agamemnon in particular. In each of these cases, the person was deceived about where the genuine good resided, thinking themselves deprived of what they took to be a good, and they responded to admittedly trying circumstances by becoming very angry and following the dictates of that passion. In Medea’s case, “she regards the gratification of her ire and taking vengeance on her husband as more beneficial than saving her children” (1.28), and she in fact kills her own children as a portion of the retribution she imposes upon Jason.
Medea’s is admittedly an extreme case, but whenever we get angry, according to Epictetus, we similarly allow ourselves to be drawn into mistaken lines of reasoning. These bring us to dwell upon certain key matters, getting them wrong in the process – what goods we have been deprived of, what bad things we have had to suffer, and most importantly what good is to be attained through imposing something bad upon someone else, as just retribution or as a merited reciprocal response.
How precisely do we get these matters wrong? The specifics will, of course, depend on particular persons in concrete situations. But there are some broad commonalities that can be picked out. One of the most central of these is the assumption that whatever has been done to, or happened to, us should not have occurred – perhaps, if we go even further, we might add that it should never occur, should not even be imagined, and so on.
What is the basis for this “should not” that we import, in our judgements and desires, to the situation? At bottom, it stems from wanting things to go our way – things that are, strictly speaking, out of our control, not up to us, but rather up to someone else. We want to keep or attain certain things that might be possible for us, but certainly don’t have to be ours. We also want to be treated by people in certain ways and not in other ways, not least because we view their actions and words as indicative of how they think and feel about us. In short, we want a world of people and events over which we have no real or lasting control to conform to our own desires about it – and when this does not occur, we feel ourselves wronged, get angry, and want to strike back.
Addressing Anger When It Arises
Developing a solid understanding of he irrationality, the negative consequences, or the counter-productiveness of our anger certainly proves useful. For some people, those insights may even prove necessary, if they are to control or address their anger. But as many of those of us who research the emotion know all too well from experience, simply grasping certain weak points to one’s character, as well as the processes by which one consistently goes wrong, does not by itself change much.
A person can engage in analysis, self-scrutiny, or reflection interminably without necessarily addressing a problem. In fact, after a certain point, such theoretical or contemplative work can become a substitute for the practical effort required, much like the people Epictetus jokes about and criticizes, who confuse studying books of Stoic philosophy with actually putting it into practice (e.g. in 1.4 or 2.19). It’s also possible to go one step further, and still not address the problem. A person can make all sorts of resolutions, even work out quite complex plans, and still make no real progress with their anger.
Once a person realizes their emotional response of anger to be something bad for them, if they want to work upon their temper, he or she has to choose to do something about it. And there’s two main things to be said about this. The first is that if the person really recognizes their anger as something bad for them, and truly does want to change it, that person has to choose some effective means towards that end. The Stoics offer a number of those means, but the real measure of their effectiveness is what happens when a person really does put them into practice.
The second is that when one does make that choice not just to examine and to face up to one’s own emotional response of anger, but to actually do something about it in order to improve one’s character, what that person is doing is using his or her faculty of choice, the prohairesis. This is a use of one’s capacity for choice that bears reflexively upon that very faculty, partly undoing and then reweaving the fabric of one’s character. Put in slightly different terms, we are able to use what we possess of freedom and rationality to increase that very freedom and rationality, thereby rendering ourselves more free, more rational through that very work.
At numerous points in the Discourses, Epictetus reminds us of the centrality of bringing and maintaining our prohairesis “in accordance with nature” as the primary good. Over and over, we are faced with making choices between the alternatives of keeping our prohairesis in accordance with nature or pursuing something else that we view as a good (or conversely avoiding something else that we take to be an evil). When we choose that something else, we would like to tell ourselves that the option before us is not an exclusive one, but Epictetus relentlessly stresses that it is, often using mundane examples.
Reminding ourselves what precisely is at stake is something that we can do to stiffen our resolve when we have to deal with our own anger, something that is admittedly difficult to do at first, since it means opposing a portion of oneself that is already pressing upon us, trying to direct our faculty of choice, to hijack our thinking, to dominate our feelings. If we’re making progress along the Stoic path, one recourse we have is to pause and consider that in giving in to anger, we direct our prohairesis away from a state of conformity to (not even to mention harmony with nature). In resisting it, in not allowing it to sweep us away or seduce our reasoning, we maintain our prohaireis in accordance with nature. Good or bad, what’s fundamentally good for us, or damagingly bad for us – that’s our choice.
Now though, that is rather abstract, isn’t it? When we are already agitated by anger, how many of us really find an appeal to the ideal of a prohairesis in accordance with nature all that compelling? Answering this requires a modicum of honesty about one’s own moral condition, because if the Stoics are right – and I think they are about this – such a consideration ought to be more compelling the more progress we have made. And if it isn’t all that helpful for us in actual situations in which we feel anger, then that is an index of the lack of progress we have made.
So, what else might we choose to do in order to manage our anger effectively? Epictetus does offer us a number of more concrete suggestions. Each of these, technically speaking, is a general way in which, whether we realize it or not, we do choose to bring or keep our faculty of choice in accordance with nature. In the aforementioned interests of keeping this post from becoming overly long, I simply list several of these more specific techniques or considerations here, with a brief description of each.
#1: Understanding Reasons Why – As noted earlier, people act the ways they do for reasons that we can understand. While people who engage in actions likely to anger us typically have irrational assumptions, thought-processes, emotional responses, desires, etc., what they do does seem rational to them. If we can see what they do as partly rational and partly irrational, it makes sense to us, and we then are less bothered by it.
#2: Distancing From the Appearance(s) – We are confronted constantly with all sorts of “appearances” (phantasiai) which suggest to us how they ought to be taken, and play into our own matrix of desires and aversions, opinions and assumptions. We don’t have to automatically assent to them, and this goes particularly for those that typically make us feel angry, for instance appearances having to do with whether we are being harmed or insulted, whether other people intend to harm or insult us, and so on.
#3: Reminding Ourselves of Our Humanity – When we fall into various moral failures, we metaphorically resemble certain classes of animals. Those having to do with anger are dangerous beasts of prey, engaging in behavior appropriate to them as animals, but not for us as human beings. Thinking along these lines, we can “bring before our eyes” what it is that we look like when we become angry (a classic anger management technique). We can also remind ourselves that, as human beings, we possess capacities for choosing how we respond, and for approaching matters rationally.
#4: Removing Ourselves From Competition – If we take what other people view as goods (which are really externals and indifferents) to be genuine goods, we will inevitably be drawn into conflict (makhe) with other people over those goods (and also experience inner conflict as well – though that’s a separate topic). When we find ourselves getting angry – particularly when in contention with other people – we can remind ourselves about what status these externals have, and that we needn’t place ourselves into competition over them.
#5: Fulfilling Our Roles Towards Others – When we get angry with others, and particularly when we act upon that anger towards them, we typically transgress (at least in part) the role and the accompanying duties we have in relation to those people. We do have a choice whether we maintain, or even restore that role (being a friend, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a family member, etc.) within ourselves, or whether we give in to anger. Conversely, we can also head off anger we might feel towards them when they don’t fulfill their own roles towards us, by realizing that this is their failure, and not up to us.
In a follow-up post here later on this Summer (or early this Fall), I’ll expand on each of these strategies, provide discussion of several additional approaches found in Epictetus’ Discourses, and also examine the role our habits play in addressing anger.
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of the ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutoring, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources. He also works as an executive coach and ethics trainer for Priority Thinking, produces the Half Hour Hegel series, and is a team member of (Slow) Philosophies.