Gratitude in my Attitude: How I Found my Way Into the Rooms of AA and the Stoics

My name is Frank and this is my experience with Alcoholic Anonymous and my recovery from alcoholism. I am not a spokesperson for AA nor do I hold a position in AA.

My last drunk was October 7, 2013, it was a boys’ night out. I was attempting to prove that I could handle my drinking like the other guys, so I took a cab so I didn’t have to worry about driving. I’d made it home with no consequences and was sitting in my La-Z-Boy in my tighty-whiteys, when the phone rang. It was the woman I was dating at the time. Apparently, I’d thought it would be a good idea to get into my car and drive over to her place, except that she lived 20 miles away, her exit was a cloverleaf and I could not get off the highway. I just kept getting on and off, on and off, until I ran out of gas.

The last thing I remember was sitting at home. When I woke up the next morning, she told me she’d found me on the side of the road and had brought me back to her place. We went to the gas station to fill up a gas can and when we got to my car, I saw that the driver’s side mirror had been sheared off. I must have hit something. Back home, I assumed the “Oh shit” position – my head in my hands, staring at the ground. I knew I had a problem but I didn’t know what to do.

I come from an Italian background and had grown up in the 1970s, in an average NYC household. Money was tight, religion was there but not forced, and drinking was the way I saw adults being happy and having fun. Making wine was a yearly event, and my first and fondest memory of alcohol and its effects were when I was around 10 or 11. My grandparents would come over and we would start by crushing the grapes, laughing and having fun. In 3-4 days, the aroma would waft up from the barrels in the garage. One of my chores was to churn the crushing, and when I did, the aroma would hit my lungs and I’d get lightheaded. I was never late for this chore. After 7-10 days, the sugar converted to alcohol and it was my job to scrape the crushing from the barrel after we took out the juice. My father and grandfather would put the barrel on its side so I could reach inside and scoop. The alcohol fumes were much stronger now, and I would be in the barrel up to my waist. It was beyond lightheadedness. The effervescence would fill my lungs and I would get the same feeling/sensation that I would chase until I made it into the rooms of AA.

There was plenty of debauchery, fear, pain, misery, shame, and guilt. Drinking cost me my marriage. I knew nothing about AA, or recovery but a couple of months before, a friend had given me a book called The Golden Book of Resentments. I’d never looked at it, until that day. I read Step One and said, “That will do it.”

I white-knuckled it for 3 months, but nothing got better. There was still plenty of fear and shame, and the thought of a drink ran through my head constantly. One day, I was talking to a friend and said, “I don’t drink anymore.” “I don’t drink, either,” she said. “What meetings do you go to?” “What do you mean, meetings?” “You don’t go to meetings?” she said. “Do you think you might want to go to one?” “Okay.” At this point I would try anything to feel better.

Funny, how the cosmos work. I hadn’t even known she was in AA. So, I called the friend who’d giving me the book, and said it was suggested that I go to a meeting. He said, “I think that’s a good idea,” and took me. At my first meeting I raised my hand and said, “My name is Frank. I’m an alcoholic.” Something shifted; I cried and felt a sense of relief. The obsession to drink lifted. I went to meetings and got a sponsor, who took me through the steps using the BB, and the 12 & 12. (BB is short for Big Book which is the basic text used by Alcoholics Anonymous.)

In the rooms of AA with the Twelve Steps and my sponsor I built the archway that I walked through a free man, and which led me to the Stoics. On my journey I was searching for anything that might help me spiritually because my childhood faith did not help nor did I want it. Then I found some old quotes and everything changed. They fell in line with what I was learning from going through the Twelve Steps. I read in The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: “Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.” I identified with these sayings and realized that they were along the same lines as the principles I was learning in AA. So I looked up Marcus Aurelius and discovered he was an emperor of Rome. The words “Stoic philosopher” appeared next to his name. So I began reading up on the Stoics.

I’d found out later in life that I was born with only one kidney, which led me to believe I was inadequate and not the same as everyone else. I felt abandoned by everyone, including the god of my childhood. When the doctor informed me about my kidney, he explained to me the importance of taking care of it. So, what did I do? Just what the BB describes as the alcoholic. I could not moderate or stop my drinking, even for a good reason. I made this realization early in my sobriety. It gave me the acceptance of being an Alcoholic, and the drive I needed to dive into AA.

As I looked to enhance my spirituality, I found the Stoics. The foreword of the 12 & 12 states that the basic AA principles were borrowed from religion and medicine. With that, I found some old quotes and everything changed. They fell in line with the basic principles of AA, and they also mentioned God, a God of my understanding.

This one got me: “Resentment, bitterness, and holding a grudge prevent us from seeing and hearing and tasting and delighting” (Marcus Aurelius). So, I looked up the Marcus Aurelius, learned he was Emperor of Rome and the words Stoic Philosopher appeared next to his name. I then looked up the Stoic Philosophy and found the stoics are pantheist, which is:

  1. A doctrine that identifies God as part of the universe or the universe is a manifestation of God.
  2. Worship that admits or tolerate all gods.

That hit me. I was reminded of when Ebby told Bill in the kitchen “Why not choose your own conception of God?” or when Bill uses the word cosmos or universe throughout the book.

When I read the quote from Marcus Aurelius on resentment, I realized the BB has a whole chapter on them and on pg. 64 is the statement, “Resentment is the “number one” offender. It destroys more alcoholics than anything else.” I had plenty of Resentments and realized they were holding me back.

Such as are your habitual thoughts, such also will be the character of your mind; for the soul is dyed by the thoughts.

Marcus Aurelius

Brought me right to the BB pg. 23, There is a Solution. “Therefore, the main problem of the alcoholic centers in his mind, rather than in his body.” I now understood that my mind & body were very sick.

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness by Donald Robertson explained Stoicism in the way the BB explained how to recover from Alcoholism, so I kept going forward with my AA and Stoic schooling. In they are my defects and my assets of character so I read books, took courses and learned more about the Stoics and the 12 steps. I use some Stoic principals in my AA program, first and foremost Gratitude.

I look for gratitude in everything that happens, good or bad. Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics have many different views on gratitude, including amor fati translated “Love of one’s fate”, or the Stoic “Reserve Clause” meaning Fate Permitting. The BB pg. 53 tells me the gratitude I have for my new found belief is correct, and this quote reminds me to keep gratitude in my attitude: “Gratitude is not only the greatest of all virtues, but the parent of all the others” (Cicero).

AA has keeping your side of the street clean or doing the next right thing. The Stoics have what is called the “reasoned thought or mind” and makes huge emphasis on humility. Marcus Aurelius wrote a journal to himself called The Meditations while he was emperor of Rome and they speak to his humility.

Persuade me or prove to me that I am mistaken in thought or deed, and I will gladly change-for it is the truth I seek , and the truth never harmed anyone. Harm comes from persisting in error and clinging to ignorance.

Marcus Aurelius

In the mind of a disciplined and pure man, you will find no sign of infection, no running sores, no wounds that have not healed. It will not be this man fate quit life unfulfilled like the actor who fails to complete his lines and walks offstage before the play is ended. What is more, there is nothing obsequious or conceited about him; he neither depends on others nor is afraid to ask for help; he answers to no man for who he is and for what he does, yet he hides nothing.

Marcus Aurelius

Let your face shine with simplicity, modesty and indifference to whatever is neither virtue nor vice. Love your fellow man. Walk with God. All things are governed by laws, said Democritus.

It is enough to remember that there are but two laws: the moral laws of the gods and the physical laws of the atoms. These two are sufficient.

Marcus Aurelius

I had no idea what gratitude was, let alone how it worked. I’d actually never heard the words gratitude or grateful until I came in the rooms of AA. AA brought me gratitude, restored my relationship with my higher-power and put me on the path of being happy, joyous and free!

Frank, a very grateful alcoholic.

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Freelancing, Stress and Stoicism by Andrew Munro

The gig economy, talent economy, independent professionals, interims, locums  and freelancers – the media seems obsessed with the supposed evils and potential advantages of this brave new world. But, is it real, is it happier and what lessons could Stoicism have for adventurers in this new land?

Freelancing – The Figures

Freelancing, as a model of work, is growing. Of course, there have always been independent workers, from casual bar staff to your local, independent plumber, but a decade of empowering technology has made it much simpler for would-be independents and clients to connect.

In the US, there are now between 40 and 48 million independent workers (between 25 and 30 per cent of the US workforce, depending on the survey).

In the UK (calculated on a different basis), there are around 4 million self-employed solo workers, around 13 per cent of the workforce.

Those are substantial figures and on the increase all across the world.

Is it a happier life? For most, freelancing is a positive career choice (not employment of last resort). Research, like this recent report from FlexJobs, regularly reflects freelancers’ positive outlook.

The report found that:

  • 92% of freelancers said the freelance lifestyle was important to them
  • 63% said freelancing had a “positive impact” [on their lifestyle]
  • 60% said freelancing has helped them become healthier
  • 66% said they are less stressed as a freelancer.

In general, then, we independents are a happy bunch.Sometimes though, it doesn’t feel less stressed. There always seems to be some time-money tension; inevitably you’re worrying about one or the other.

Training? You won’t take the time when you’re busy, but you won’t spend the money when you’re quiet. Holidays? You can’t get free when there’s work to do, but you feel guilty when your project pipeline’s a bit limp and saggy. And then there are sales calls to make, debts to manage and bills to pay. Oh, and difficult client to manage, too.

Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus are two of the most popular Stoic philosophers. Marcus was an emperor, Epictetus a slave. As a freelancer, you can feel like either or both … often on the same day.

What, then, can a 2,000-year old philosophy offer this new world of work?Stoicism emphasizes personal responsibility and self-discipline. In many ways, it’s perfectly aligned to those on an independent journey as “Me Inc.”

Here are five areas where applying a little Stoic perspective can lighten your daily burden.

1.  Don’t stress about what you can’t control

As an independent, it’s all down to you. There’s no corporate comfort-blanket of admin, finance or marketing support; no holiday pay, sick pay or health insurance. You’re on your own. But that doesn’t mean you have to own everything. Some things, simply, are beyond your control.

One of the core tenets of Stoic thinking is the observation that, as Epictetus says, “some things are within our power, while others are not.”[i]

And he warns:

If you regard that which … is not your own as being your own, you’ll have cause to lament, you’ll have a troubled mind and you’ll find fault with both gods and human beings[ii]

Worrying about things you can’t change just increases your overall stress levels. Let them go.

If you’re prone to worry, like a dog with a bone, try listing all your concerns on paper, then mark each as within or outwith your control. Make a positive decision to let go of the things you can’t control. Put your mental energies towards the things you can: the quality of your work, meeting deadlines etc.

2.  Choose how you respond to events

Email, phone, SMS and social media. Someone always wants an answer. And, everything is always changing. The ground moves, the unexpected happens.

Often, as a freelancer, you feel the need to respond to everything, immediately. The customer, after all, is king. You don’t want anyone to think you can’t cope or that you’re not interested.

When something happens unexpectedly, there is a tendency to respond immediately. But, the knee-jerk reaction isn’t always the right reaction. When we react instinctively, we can manufacture our own outrage and offence.

As Epictetus tell us:

It isn’t the things themselves that disturb people, but the judgements that they form about them [iii]

In other words, mind the gap between any stimulus and your response to it.

Without realising, we too often “choose” to get stressed by an unanswered email, a late purchase order, an ill-informed comment or off-the-cuff feedback. Take a moment. Pause. Choose a better response. Realise that the client’s slow reply is not likely to be a personal insult. A delayed purchase order is more often down to bureaucracy than a change of heart. After all your big-company client isn’t as agile as a freelancer. That’s one of the reasons they hired you.

Agility is valuable, but stubborn independence is not. Being freelance doesn’t need to mean being alone. You can respond with time and with help:

Think it no shame to be helped. Your business is to do your appointed duty, like a soldier in the breach. How, then, if you are lame, and unable to scale the battlements yourself, but could do it if you had the aid of a comrade?[iv]

3.  Keep a sense of perspective

When you work on your own, wholly responsible for your success or failure, events can become magnified in your mind. Everything can seem of monumental significance. It can be difficult to keep some headspace, to keep things in their proper proportions.

But remember, even a missed deadline is seldom cataclysmic.

As the most powerful man on earth, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius,  observed:

In the universe Asia and Europe are but two small corners, all oceans’ water a drop, [Mount] Athos a puny lump of earth, the vastness of time a pin’s point in eternity.[v]

Stoic philosophy can be very grounding. Marcus returns time and time again to humanity’s minute and fleeting spot in time and space.

The first rule,” he writes, “is to keep an untroubled spirit; for all things must bow to Nature’s law, and soon enough you must vanish into nothingness, like Hadrian and Augustus.[vi]

In other words, get over yourself. What can seem calamitous in the wee, small, sleepless hours is often somewhat less significant in the cool, morning air.

Remember the Steely Dan song:

When the demon is at your door
In the morning it won’t be there no more.[vii]

Step outside for some oxygen, some sunlight, some space and some coffee.

4.  Enjoy the moment

Enjoy the moment, enjoy the ride. It’s much too easy to dwell on what we should have done yesterday and what we need to do tomorrow. It’s very much a human failing, as Roman philosopher Seneca observes,

Animals in the wild flee the dangers they see and are tranquil once they have escaped; we, though, are tormented both by what is to come and what has been. Often, our goods do us harm: memory recalls the stab of fear; foresight anticipates it. No one is made wretched merely by the present.[viii]

It can easily be a freelancer’s failing, too: How did I do? Did I do enough? Will they like what I sent? How do I get more business? What happens when this project is over? Planning is good, but fretting is pointless.“If you lay hands on today,” Seneca tells us, “you will find you are less dependent on tomorrow. While you delay, life speeds on by.”[ix]

Marcus agrees:

“Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.”[x]

Stoic thinking isn’t fatalistic, but it is deeply pragmatic.

And, nature too

Stoics are very aware of humanity’s integral place in Nature and of its beauty. It’s a perspective that feels perfectly aligned with our current eco-aware times.

I love this passage from Marcus:

“When a loaf of bread, for instance, is in the oven, cracks appear in it here and there; and these flaws, though not intended in the baking, have a rightness of their own, and sharpen the appetite. Figs, again, at their ripest will also crack open. When olives are on the verge of falling, the very imminence of decay adds its peculiar beauty to the fruit.”[xi]

Very wabi-sabi.

Remember that the freedom and flexibility of the freelance lifestyle entitles you to walk bare-foot on the grass, or wander among the trees, and appreciate nature’s ever-changing beauty. Don’t forget to use your freedom to enjoy your surroundings. Live the freelance dream a little.

5.  Live with integrity

For Stoics, life’s goal is to live “in agreement with Nature”, which translates as living a virtuous life where the four cardinal virtues are: Wisdom, Courage, Justice and Temperance.  In many ways, it’s the flip-side of our first observation. You can’t control everything . . . but you can, and should, control your self: your responses, behaviours, and thoughts.

In Meditations, Marcus returns frequently to the concept of duty. That may not be surprising for a Roman emperor (and history remembers Marcus Aurelius as one of – often, the last of – the “good emperors”). His thoughts are relevant for freelancers. We stand or fall by our last project and the reputation that follows us. Therefore:

“Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it.”[xii]

He also counsels himself:

“Hour by hour resolve firmly, like a Roman and a man, to do what comes to hand with correct and natural dignity, and with humanity, independence, and justice.”[xiii]

And, especially for stressed-out sleepyheads:

“At day’s first light have in readiness against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that ‘I am rising for the work of man.’”[xiv]

As a freelancer, reputation is all you have. Never be tempted to compromise or surrender it for the expediency of a project.

It’s also worth noting, in these virtue-signalling times, that “integrity” doesn’t need grim-faced declarations of self-denial. Seneca had little patience with the hair-shirt brigade.“Philosophy,” he said, “demands self-restraint, not self-abnegation – and even self-restraint can comb its hair.”

Finishing Thoughts: A Stoic Guide for the Stressed?

I came to Stoicism by accident.I was browsing in the beautiful, art deco, Waterstones bookshop on Piccadilly, when I came across a table display of Penguin’s Great Ideas series. Series 1, Book 2 was Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. I started to flick through and I was hooked by its easily accessible, mostly “snackable” aphorisms. For an 1,800-year old text, it felt strikingly familiar and contemporary.

Meditations – which is many people’s first encounter with Stoic texts – has, for me, a real sense of authenticity. It was written as a note-book, not a text book. It was Marcus’ notes-to-self, never intended for publication. In it, you read him berating himself for his failures, struggling with the frustrations of his office and contemplating the nature of the world and society around him. It is intimate and applicable.

I’m no expert on Stoicism, but it’s a philosophy that sits well with me. I find it relevant and I draw on it increasingly in every day life as an independent professional. Often, the simple realisation that “this is not new, I’m not the only one” is valuable. For that alone, I think every freelancer should have a copy of Meditations ready at hand. Stick a copy in your bag or on your desk and dip into it wherever you feel the spider of stress crawl across your skin.


[i] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.1)

[ii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (1.3)

[iii] Epictetus, Handbook / Enchiridion (5)

[iv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.7)

[v] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (6.36)

[vi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (8.5)

[vii] Walter Becker and Donald Fagen (1974), “Any Major Dude Will Tell You”

[viii] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (5.9)

[ix] Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucilius (1.1)

[x] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (7.8)

[xi] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (3.1)

[xii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (4.31)

[xiii] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (2.5)

[xiv] Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (5.1)

Andrew Munro is a writer and independent professional. Through Burning Pine, he helps businesses to grow by telling their stories. He blogs on topics related to work and the freelance life at The Sovereign Professional.


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Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 2)

Meeting 3.    How to  Manage Anger

Lucas: Good to see you again Anthony. How did you get on?

Anthony: Good.  Here’s my reconstruction of what happened on Father’s Day.

Event/Trigger:

Robbie spilt coffee over the computer

Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)

Shock. Adrenalin rush, Fight response. First angry thoughts “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger

Definitely intensified anger. Thoughts like  “Look what he’s done to my laptop!” , “He needs to learn not to be so clumsy” and  “He should have been more careful” . I had a sense – I wouldn’t say it was a conscious thought-  that it was appropriate for me to get angry, that it was be wrong not to get angry.

Stage 3 – What happened as a result

I guess I fell over the edge of the precipice, as your Seneca puts it. Yes, I shouted at him, my wife says I looked very angry.  

Robbie was petrified, my wife was horrified, and I am mortified.

Lucas: Well done. Today we are going to look at what you could have done differently – as Stoics do in their evening review. If you get into the habit of analysing angry outburst in the evening and rehearsing how you can avoid them in the morning then you will be able to overcome your anger problem.

Anthony:  Like  a golfer practising his putting on a carpet at home, right?

Lucas: Let’s begin with the trigger, Robbie spilling coffee. Do you remember what we said about non-Stoics being too idealistic?

Anthony: Was it that I need to lower my expectations and to remember that the universe doesn’t always behave how I would like it to?

Lucas: Absolutely.  You haven’t got control over other people or the past, so its best to accept these things – even if you don’t approve of them!

Anthony: It reminds me of a song from an old Mel Brooks movie. “Hope for the Best. Expect the worst. Life is a play. We’re unrehearsed.”. I wonder if he was a Stoic!

Lucas:  There’s a lot of Stoic wisdom in a number of traditions and common sayings, like the Serenity Prayer. Actually learning helpful quotations could be really useful. “Hope for the best. Expect the worst” could be a good one to include.  You might also have a look at a famous passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations.

Anthony: Sure.

Lucas:  Moving on to stage 1 of anger, what were your first movements towards anger when Robbie split the coffee?

Anthony: Shock. Adrenalin rush,  the Fight response. My first angry thoughts were something like  “What the ..” “What a clumsy child!.

Lucas: Seneca says you haven’t much direct control over these, so you shouldn’t try to stop them but you do need to notice them and put yourself on red alert for the next phase of anger.

Anthony: I think you said last time I need to be like a sentry on guard duty

Lucas: Exactly. Then at stage 2 we have your window of opportunity. One of your thoughts was “Look what he has done to my laptop?”  You need to question whether you have  really been harmed. Seneca points out that “The things which cause us such great heat are really  trifles, the sort of things that children fight and squabble over.”

Anthony: But my computer was broken!

Lucas: Your new shiny toy!

Anthony : Are you saying that I exaggerated the harm done?

Lucas: Well,  did you?

Anthony: Well, the keyboard was ruined – but I took it into work and got a replacement the next day.

Lucas: So the actual harm done was …

Anthony: Ultimately, very little.  I see what you mean.

Lucas: And even if the laptop had been ruined, how much does a laptop matter compared to the well-being of your son and your being a good parent?

Anthony: Are you  saying I need to get things into perspective?

Lucas:  Exactly – and things don’t matter as much as how we conduct ourselves in life. Seneca’s next point is that  it’s vital to judge others accurately and fairly. You intensify anger by acting as the prosecution, you resist it by making the case for the defence. Were you acting as the prosecutor or the defence attorney for Robbie?

Anthony: Definitely the prosecutor.

Lucas: What might you have said  had you been defending him?

Anthony:  “He did not intend to damage my computer. He meant well”.

Lucas: “Brilliant. Seneca also says something that is really appropriate to your case. “If is a child, let us pardon his youth.”.

Anthony: That’s true, I was forgetting he is only six. What’s Seneca’s next piece of advice?

Lucas: We must also remind ourselves that we are all hasty and careless, we all are untrustworthy, we all have many faults. Seneca says “What room is there for anger? Everything ought either to move us to tears or to laughter. There is only one route to peace of mind  and that is to agree to forgive one another.”

Anthony: Yes. I suppose it would help me to remember that I am not so perfect either.

Lucas:  Once again Seneca has a good line “We have other people’s faults right before our eyes,  and  our own behind our backs.”

Anthony: I need to remember that. It would make thing to have on the front and back of a T Shirt!

Lucas:  Here’s another idea that would have helped on Father’s Day.  Are we here to help or harm each other?  As a father, how do you see your role, to help or harm?

Anthony: Definitely to help.

Lucas:  Seneca says in it’s useful to imagine your whole family as being an extension of yourself – like your own hands and feet. Would you want to harm your own limbs or help them?

Anthony: Help them

Lucas: So do the same to your family and indeed the whole of mankind. Treat them with the same care you would parts of your own body.

Anthony: So I need to imagine that when I shout at them I feel the pain that they do?

Lucas: Yes, that’s  a good way of putting it. The final idea you might find helpful – and I’ve left it till last because it’s rather left-field – is best introduced by telling you about a story about Socrates.

Anthony: Sounds intriguing…

Lucas: One day Socrates was going for  a walk and was suddenly struck by someone he had offended. Do you know how he responded?

Anthony: I’m assuming he didn’t get angry. But how did he manage that, surely his Fight and Flight response would have kicked in?

Lucas: I’m sure it did, but Socrates was famous behaving in an exemplary manner even under provocation. Socrates just laughed off the whole thing, saying that it was a pity a man could not tell when he ought to wear his helmet when out walking!

Anthony: That’s not the first response that would have come to me…

Lucas:  But with practice most things can be turned into jest, and then anger is diffused into something more gentle. How could you have made light of your computer being incapacitated?

Anthony (after a moment’s thought):  I could have said “That’s one way of stopping me from working today!”

Lucas: And if you had, what would have been the impact?

Anthony: Everyone would have had a much better day.

Lucas:  Exactly. So your task this work  is to learn all these Stoic rebuttals to angry thoughts so they can be ready to hand next time you need them

Anthony: Does Seneca have any tips about what to do when I get to stage 3 of anger?

Lucas: Seneca says that the greatest remedy for full-blown, stage 3 anger is delay. There’s not much reasoning with yourself when in a rage – the best you can hope to do postpone doing anything too harmful.

Anthony: So I should have bit my tongue, counted to 10 before saying anything and then damage limitation …

Lucas: Yes. But remember the best answer is to make sure you don’t get to stage 3. That’s the priority. I’m going to give you a list of unhelpful thoughts and their rebuttals. I’d like you to learn them – there may a short test!

Secondly, keep a log of when there has been an anger trigger and note down how you reacted, using our framework about the 3 stages.

Anthony: OK, is there a particular way you want me to record things.?

Lucas: Yes, here’s a template:-

Lucas: Now let’s fill it in together  for Father’s Day.

(10 minutes later, they have produced the following by Lucas asking Anthony a series of questions)

Stage What Happened What I would do differently next time (if anything)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Father’s Day, Robbie spilt coffee over my computer Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt surprised, an adrenalin rush, an urge to hit him Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts I intensified anger by labelling Robbie as stupid and clumsy. Assumed that anger was appropriate so I could teach him a lesson and he wouldn’t do it again Remind myself that anger is not the answer. He didn’t intend to damage my computer. He isn’t stupid. We all do silly things sometimes. Try to act more like a loving father than Caligula or Vedius Pollio!   Say to myself “At least I wont have to work today!”
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 Shouted and him, ruined the day Hopefully don’t get to this stage, but if I do count to 10 (or more) and delay my response. Probably best to leave the room.

Lucas: What do you think about that?

Anthony: Great – but it’s going to be harder to put it into practice.

Lucas: Indeed. Do you ski?

Anthony: Yes, I go down black runs, the rest of the family usually take the easier blue runs ….

Lucas: Right, well what we have done is like going on a blue run. It takes skill, but it’s not the hardest challenge.

Anthony: And I suppose doing it in real time is more like a red or black run?

Lucas: Precisely.  So for now, you need more blue run practice. Read the list of rebuttals every day and keep a log of when you’ve got angry and how you could have resisted anger better, in the same format as the table above.

Anthony: OK, see you next week, coach!

Meeting 4.  Becoming a virtuoso in the Art of Living

Lucas: Good to see you again, Anthony. How did you get on with the anger log?

Anthony: Good, only one instance to report, and I think I handled that fairly well.

Anthony gets out his anger log

Stage What Happened Stoic Advice (and whether I took it!)
Trigger: Event that triggers anger Very busy at work.  People kept interrupting me.  My wife rang me saying that the internet at home wasn’t working Accept that I don’t have control over events. Lower my expectations about things going my way. Not sure I have quite internalised this yet.
Stage 1 of anger First movements towards anger Fight or flight reaction and starting to think angry thoughts I felt irritated and tense First thoughts “Why is she ringing me now?” Be on guard for these signs and put myself on red alert for further angry thoughts I think I probably need to develop more Stoic Mindfulness as I didn’t catch this very early  
Stage 2 of anger: Response to the first movements. Can resist or intensify initial angry thoughts Intensifying anger thoughts 1)I shouldn’t be interrupted         2)She should know I’m busy       3)She should know these things herself         4) I need to get angry to stop her doing this       Alternatives that resist anger 1)Remind myself to lower my expectations – the universe doesn’t always behave as I want it to! 2) Case for the defence! How can she know I am particularly busy now?   3) I remembered the talk about other people being like parts of our body. We are here to help each other. Why not help her?     4) If I get angry she will get angry back. I need to rise above being angry.   I managed some of these at the time, enough for me to end up resisting angry.
Stage 3 of anger Thinking and behaving and feeling, depending on what happened at stage 2 I didn’t fall off the precipice. I talked my anger down, realising that although I couldn’t control people interrupting me, I could control my reaction. I helped her – turned out she had to reboot the wifi router at home – and was proud I did it calmly. At other times I would still have ended up giving the same advice, but we would both have got upset.  

Lucas: Great work, Anthony. So what do you think we can learn from that?

Anthony: That I can control my anger if I try. That I still have work to do to lower my expectations and notice that I am starting to get angry. That if I do rise above anger then things work out better.

Lucas: Excellent. I think you are ready for the next lesson, which is  the long-awaited, much heralded  “How to be a virtuoso at living, how to develop the virtues”

Anthony: Becoming a virtuoso at living, I like the sound of that.

Lucas: The basic idea is the virtues are qualities we need to live well, given the human condition. We have desires, which can sometimes lead us  into temptation. We have fears, which can sometimes lead us to cowardice and we live in communities which means that we have to decide how to treat others well. But we also have reason, our ability to think and act rationally  – and also to think and act foolishly. The qualities we need to cultivate to live well given our capacity for temptation, fear, selfishness and folly are self-control, courage, justice and wisdom respectively. There are the four main or cardinal virtues – there are also many other important virtues all of which are related to these main four virtues – for example compassion is part of justice, patience part of self-control and discretion is part of wisdom. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Yes, but what has all this got to do with anger?

Lucas:  The virtues provide a much better alternative to anger. The more you cultivate the virtues, the less you will need anger and the less attractive it will be as an option.

Anthony: How?

Lucas: You recall  saying  that you  didn’t want to be a doormat? Well, if you develop virtues, you certainly won’t be  a doormat. What virtues can help you stand up for yourself?

Anthony: Courage? Wisdom?

Lucas: And you want to fight  injustices – what virtues do you need there?

Anthony: Justice of course. Courage and wisdom as well.

Lucas: And if you need to overcome first movements towards anger and a wish to punish others, what virtues do you need then?

Anthony: Self-control, justice and wisdom again.

Lucas: Finally we spoke about  how we set ourselves up for anger by failing to realise that we can’t control other people or events, by having too idealistic expectations. What virtue do we call this understanding?

Anthony: Wisdom?

Lucas: Spot on. You may have noticed that wisdom was required in every single example. For Stoics, wisdom is the most important virtue. Some Stoics even argued that wisdom and virtue were the same thing.

Anthony: So was I being fully virtuous in the office when my wife rang me this week?

Lucas: Let’s think about it together. Did you have the wisdom to lower your expectations and not expect everything to go your way?

Anthony: No, that’s something I need to work on.

Lucas: Did you have the self-control to manage your first movements towards anger?

Anthony: Yes, just about.

Lucas: So I will ask you to develop Stoic Mindfulness by being on the look-out for feeling tense and starting to think angry thoughts. Did you show justice?

Anthony: Yes, I helped her.

Lucas: How did you manage that?

Anthony: I think by putting myself in her shoes and asking how I would like to be treated – a bit like you were saying about imagining my family as part of my own body.

Lucas: Good  – and was courage relevant in this case?

Anthony: Not in this case – but I would have needed it to apologise if I had lost my temper!

Lucas: Fantastic. Here’s this week’s crib sheet summarising the Stoic VirtuesA

Lucas:  So here’s what I would like you to do this week.  As well as looking at the crib sheet,  every morning, carry out a rehearsal of how you might deal with potential adversities. Think of what might go wrong, what might be the early signs of anger, and how you might refute the angry thoughts and then apply the virtues. For example,  next time you could imagine yourself starting to get angry when someone disagrees with you, remember which rebuttals apply and then think about how to practice self-control. wisdom, courage and  justice. You might glance in your diary before you start and envisage potential problems, such as trains being late or encountering difficult people.

Anthony: So I need to approach life like boxers sparring before a  fight.

Lucas: Yes, and  if you feel that it’s unnecessary, remember that even emperor’s did exactly this. This is the passage from Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations  I was telling you about.

“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.”

Anthony: That will raise a smile on my morning commute.

Lucas: Good. Then during the day time look out for first movements to anger – developing Stoic Mindfulness and logging any examples of you getting  angry or overcoming anger in the anger log like you did this week. Actually, please you add to the log ideas about how you would exhibit the virtues in each situation as well?

Anthony: OK

Lucas: Then in the  evening meditation, review your day and think about how you have responded to possible anger triggers, again thinking about whether you responded with wisdom, self-control, courage and justice.  Praise yourself when you have done well. If you have done less well, then reflect on what you can learn to help you do better next time

Anthony: Just like chess-player analyse their games afterwards.

Lucas: Exactly. We are approaching this enterprise as if you were entering the Olympic Games for anger management.

Anthony: Let’s see if I win a gold medal! See you next week.

Meeting 5  A Stoic Daily Regimen

Lucas: Good afternoon, Anthony, how has your week been?

Anthony: Great – no angry outbursts and my wife told me that I am a changed man. I even shared my joke about being a reformed Caligula with her. So I think this may be our last meeting.

Lucas: That’s fantastic news. We will conclude today then with a Stoic Daily Regimen – what you need to do to keep up the progress and become a gold medallist at beating anger. But there’s one important part of Seneca’s On Anger that we haven’t covered -what we might call lifestyle advice. Interested?

Anthony: Most of what Seneca  said has proved useful, so let’s hear it.

Lucas: Seneca’s first lifestyle tip is to make sure you don’t take on too much. These days we would talk about a good life-work balance and about the importance of delegating tasks. Seneca says “In order, therefore, that the mind may be at peace, it ought not to be hurried hither and thither, nor, as I said before, wearied by labour at great matters, or matters whose attainment is beyond its strength.”

Anthony: I could probably do with more holidays and less late nights at the office. Oh, and my wife is always telling me to stop using my phone for work in the evening and weekends.

Lucas: So what can you change?

Anthony: No phone on Sundays or after 1000pm.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to find ways to relax and to pay attention to our diet. He says. “Pythagoras used to calm his troubled spirit by playing upon the lyre … Green is good for wearied eyes.”

Anthony: I’m not sure about the lyre, but I find going for a run in the evening relaxes me

Lucas: How often could you go for a run each week?

Anthony: Maybe 3 times – better than the once every 2 weeks I do now.

Lucas:  Seneca also advises us to choose our company wisely. He says “We should live with the quietest and easiest-tempered persons, not with anxious or with sullen ones: for our own habits are copied from those with whom we associate”

Anthony: Sounds like we should have had him on the panel when we were recruiting!

Lucas: These days many people find social media very unrelaxing too.

Anthony: You are right but in my case its more reading the news that stresses me out . I think I will limit my reading the news to early in the morning and when I come home.

Lucas:  Great.  Let’s finish our work by producing a Stoic Daily Regimen for anger management

Stoic Anger Management                        Meeting 5            A Stoic Daily Regimen

  • 5 minutes reading of Stoic material for example
    • Reasons for not getting angry  (crib sheet 1)
    • The three stages of anger (crib sheet 2)
    • Unhelpful Thoughts and their Rebuttals  (crib sheet 3)
    • How to be a Virtuoso at living (crib sheet 4)
    • The Daily Stoic Regimen (this list)
    • You might like to write up a list of relevant maxims such as:-

“We are affected not by events but our interpretation of them”

 “Remember that you can’t control other people or the past”

“Expect the worst, hope for the best”

 “The sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of the angry person”

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly”

  • Morning Meditation –Rehearsal of dealing with potential triggers for anger with wisdom, courage, self-control and justice
  • During the day
    • Stoic Mindfulness of first movements towards anger
    • Ask yourself “What would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”? (such as Socrates)
    • Think about what virtues are called for in this situation.
    • Find some time for relaxation, especially when stressed
    • Choose your company wisely, including social media and the internet
    • Don’t take on too much
    • Write your Stoic anger log for the day
  • Evening review. Reviewing your day, with an emphasis on any how you have dealt with triggers of potential anger.  Reflect on what you have done well, what you could have done better. 

Anthony: Can you email me that?

Lucas: Sure. Shall we set a date for a follow-up in a month?

Anthony: Yes – but if I’m doing well, can we cancel it? I will drop you an email telling you of my progress. Thank you very much, it’s been really helpful – and interesting too.

Lucas: Thank you for all your work – the gold medal will be in the post!

Postscript:                                                         

There was no need for a final session.  Anthony sent Lucas this email.

Dear Lucas.

I am writing to cancel our final planned session next week, because I really don’t think I need it. I’ve adopted the lifestyle changes and haven’t got angry for 3 weeks. I’ve made the 4 crib sheets and the daily regimen into acetates and put them in the bathroom for me to read every day.  I’d really like to thank you  for helping me and so would my wife!  You’ll be pleased to know that I’ve even bought a copy of On Anger and have started to go through it. I hope that you are paying Seneca some royalties – I now see that  you stole all of your best lines directly from him! Seriously though, many thanks and if we meet again it may be to discuss how I can apply Seneca and  Stoicism  to other aspects of my life. I’ll be in touch if and when I need your help again.

With thanks,

Anthony

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

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Stoic Therapy for Anger by Tim LeBon (part 1)

Seneca’s On Anger contains powerful arguments about both why we should be less angry and how we can curtail anger. At the London Stoicon in 2018 I presented a workshop outlining a 6 step Stoic anger management programme based on Seneca’s On Anger. You can find a pdf of the entire presentation here. Seneca was not, of course a therapist, but,  as someone who has written a book about philosophical counselling and also practices as a CBT therapist and as a philosophical life coach, the obvious question was –  what would Stoic therapy for anger look like?  What parts of On Anger would need to be emphasised?  What objections and difficulties would be most likely need to be overcome for the therapy to succeed?  How can one learn the wisdom of On Anger?

 This article describes  how I imagine such a therapy unfolding. I hope it will be useful for those who wish to work on their own anger issues and also for budding therapists or coaches who wish are interested in this approach.  

The year is 2019. Lucas, a  Stoic philosophical life coach/philosophical counsellor is about to have his first session with Anthony, who has emailed him asking him for a set of sessions on Stoic anger management.

Meeting 1:  Why  Manage Anger?

“Lucas”  is a philosophical life coach who  is trained in contemporary therapy methods such as CBT and knows about Modern Stoicism as well as ancient Stoicism.  All the details about “Anthony”  are fictional, but like many people who come for anger management he is somewhat in denial and ambivalent about change.

Lucas: Good to meet you, Anthony.  I understand from your email that you would like to work on anger management.

Anthony:  Not me, my wife!

Lucas: Your wife has an anger management problem?

Anthony: No, she says I have.  She says she will leave me if I don’t change.

Lucas:  And what do you think?

Anthony:  I think she’s exaggerating. But I’m here now, so can you help me?

Lucas:   I hope so.  The Stoics, especially Seneca in his essay On Anger, offer a lot of pertinent advice.

Anthony: That’s good news.

Lucas:  But it will take work on your side too. I envisage it will take us about 6 weekly meetings.  I’d like you to set aside time for our work, including reading relevant Stoic books, especially Seneca’s On Anger

Anthony. I’m not much of  a reader. I’m a busy man, with a company to run and a family to feed …

Lucas: A family you might lose if you don’t do something about your anger.

Anthony: You have me there.  Look, I’m not going to pretend to you that  I’m likely to be read ancient texts . But I will agree to do something between session. I have a daily  train commute. Can we find a compromise?

Lucas: Very well. After each session I will email you  some written summaries of key Stoic ideas we have discussed for you to read and digest as well as other between-session assignments. I would like you to commit to  spending at least 10 minutes every  morning working on these.

Anthony:  It’s a deal, Prof.

Lucas:  Good. To clarify, Anthony, I see my role not so much as a professor who  lectures you about Stoicism  but more like  a sports coach who helps you to change. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sure, fire away, Prof!

Lucas: Seneca believes that anger is one of the greatest ills of humanity. He goes so far as to say that anger is temporary madness.  When angry, you  lose self-control, forget affection and friendship  and become  deaf to reason and advice. Anger conquers the warmest love. People have killed those they have loved and who would love again were they not in the midst of rage. Worse still, we injure ourselves. Angry people are like  rocks which smash on what they fall. Managing anger should be a top priority for everyone.

Anthony: Wow! Is anger really all that bad?

Lucas: Seneca gives many examples of how anger ruins lives. Perhaps the most memorable is how anger led  one Vedius Pollio to order a slave  be thrown into a pool of man-eating lampreys just because  the unfortunate slave had dropped a valuable crystal cup.  He also recounts about how many powerful men like  the Emperor Caligula murdered anyone who irritated them.

Anthony: But do you really believe that anger is such a problem for normal people in the twenty-first century?

Lucas: Anger  can transform us all into mini-Caligulas, it is a temporary madness You can read about it happening every day. The other day I saw a a story  about an ordinary Joe who was at the English seaside eating his fish and chips lunch by the beach.

Anthony: Sounds nice.

Lucas:  A cheeky seagull had the gall to try to steal a chip! Do you know happened next?

Anthony: He  tried to shoo  the bird away?

Lucas: No,  Anthony, he became so angry he battered the gull to death against a wall. The man was prosecuted for animal cruelty.  Think about it. One minute you are eating your lunch, a  minute later you are in a violent rage leading to death and disgrace.  Temporary insanity, don’t you agree?

Anthony:  In that case, for sure. But surely anger can  be a good thing, in moderation.

Lucas: That’s what Aristotle thought too. But Seneca believes that both you and he are making a big mistake. Anthony,  close your eyes for a moment and brainstorm all the reasons you can think of in favour of  anger being a good thing. All the reasons why you don’t want to give up anger.

Anthony (after a few moments thought) Anger gains me respect.  I don’t want to be a doormat. Anger gives me the energy to get off my backside.  I  want to fight injustices. I want to change people for the better. Anger gives me power. People take notice of me when I’m angry. That’s it– my anger motivates me to act and it makes other people take notice!

Lucas: Thank you, Anthony, for giving such a full answer. As it happens, Seneca gives strong arguments against each of these points. Do you want to hear what he says?

Anthony: Of course.

Lucas: Justice is important but, in one of Seneca’s most memorable phrases,  the sword of justice is ill-placed in the hands of an angry person.  Anger is in a hurry and does not give people (or seagulls) a fair trial. The type of justice provided by anger is that  of a vigilante squad – hurried, biased and extreme. We need  reason, not anger, to give each side time to plead so that the truth can be discovered.

Anthony: But something needs to be done! Should this ordinary Joe just have  smiled and  let the bird eat all his lunch? Should the slave have been allowed to break everything until there were no cups left?

Lucas: But, if we are after justice, is anger the answer? When we are angry we want to punish people, not help them. Seneca and the Stoics would say that we need to cultivate the virtues – wisdom, justice, courage and self-control – and have these to hand  when faced with life’s challenges. 

Anthony: So what would a Stoic have done with the bird?

Lucas: That’s quite a big question. I was planning us talking more about how to develop the virtues in a later conversation. Maybe he could have shown kindness, and thrown  a few chips for the bird before he used his wisdom to move elsewhere. He could certainly have benefitted from learning self-control ….

Anthony: And Vidius Pollo could have sent his slave on a  “how not to be so  clumsy course”? This Stoicism is beginning to sound a bit too idealistic. In the real world, people get angry and you just have to accept that.

Lucas: What would your wife say about that attitude?

Anthony: She wouldn’t agree.

Lucas: So business as usual isn’t an option for you. I  heard what you just said, though, Anthony, about Stoicism being too idealistic. The Stoics would  argue that in fact it is  the angry person who is being too idealistic.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Indeed. We get angry because we have too idealistic notions  about how the world operates. We over-optimistically think that people won’t break things and that animals won’t try to eat our lunch. If we had a more realistic view of how the world works, in particular about what we can and what we cannot control, then we would be much less prone to anger.

Anthony: But anger gives me energy, it motivates me, it makes me courageous.  Anger gives me the courage to do things I wouldn’t usually do, like standing up more for  myself and for what is right.

 Lucas:  Just like people need a drink so they can do courageous things like go to parties or ask someone out?

Anthony: Exactly.

Lucas: But have you known people who after a drink or two  do things that aren’t really wise at all, things they later regret?

Antony: Of course.

Lucas:  And isn’t the same thing true of anger. What you  need  to motivate you is  actual courage, not anger or alcohol. As Seneca says, anger does not come to assist courage, but to take its place. Put yourself in the hands of anger and you are on a precipice, a step away from catastrophe.

Anthony:  So  how do Stoics think  I gain true courage? I know!  “We will address that later ….”

Lucas: We will indeed. I sense your frustration, so let me give you a l sneak preview. Modern Stoics build into their routine a period of early morning and late evening meditation. In the morning they envisage difficulties and how they can respond virtuously to them – rehearsing wise living. In the evening they review how they have done that day in terms of acting virtuously.  In between times, they would be aware of what virtues were called for in a particular situation, perhaps by ask themselves “how would the ideal Stoic person approach this situation”?

Anthony: That sounds like a fair bit of work.

Lucas:  Think about how much time people spend working out or practising golf. Is how to be an excellent human being any less important?

Anthony: I f you are right about anger being bad, and if Stoic methods work, then it’s going to be worth the time.  But I’m not convinced yet about anger being all bad. If I give up anger, people might no longer respect me. When I walk in a room, I notice people look up with respect.

Lucas: Are you sure it’s respect?

Anthony: What do you mean?

Lucas: Everyone looked up when Caligula entered a room. But  was that respect or was it fear?

Anthony: In Caligula’s case, fear.

Lucas:  I’m sure you are right.  You fear people because they might punish you. You respect people when you admire them.  So could it be that  people fear you rather than respect you?

Anthony: I’d like to think they admire me. But is it such a bad thing if people fear you a little bit too?

Lucas: Not if you don’t mind being a mini-Caligula.

Anthony: OK, it’s respect I want, not fear.

Lucas:   And does anger really lead to respect?

Anthony: Why shouldn’t it?

Lucas: Well,  how do you feel someone is angry with you? When a driver has road rage at you?

Anthony: I think they are  being a dickhead.

Lucas:  So  you don’t respect people for being angry with you. Why should other people respect you for being angry?

Anthony:  Hmmm

There follows a period of silence …

Lucas: Anthony, you are looking very thoughtful. What’s running through your mind?

Anthony:  I’m still thinking about whether I’m a  mini-Caligula. I don’t like that idea at all.

Lucas:  No, I can see that. How can we find out whether you are like that at all?

Anthony (smiling): I don’t know, unless you follow me around all week.

Lucas: Well, it was your wife who said you needed to come here. How about asking her?

Anthony: Could do, I suppose.

Lucas:  I can understand your reluctance. No-one wants to hear uncomfortable truths. But I wonder whether we might be wasting our time here unless we hear her side of things. Can you ask her to write down for us why she insisted on you coming here and tell us both what you are like when you get angry?

Anthony: Is that really necessary?

Lucas: If I was your golf coach, would we get very far  without seeing how you actually played?

Anthony: No, you would have to see the true horror of my putting …. OK I will ask her.

Lucas: We have 5 more minutes today. Any more doubts about giving up anger?

Anthony: You are very good with words, Prof. I I will need some time to reflect on whether these arguments apply in the real world.

Lucas: Of course.  Here’s my summary for you to reflect on. I can email it to you if you like.

Anthony: Sure, that would help.

Lucas:   Here is a summary sheet for you to read on the train.

Anthony: Thanks, Prof, it’s been interesting,  I will look forward to seeing you again next week.

Meeting 2: The Three Stages of Anger

Lucas: Greetings, Anthony, good to see you.  How have you got on with your assignments?

Anthony: Well, Prof, as the football commentators say, it was a game of two halves.

Lucas: Meaning?

Anthony: Well over the first few days I did as you asked, and read over your email crib sheet about anger being a great ill, the sword of justice being unsafe in the hands of an angry person etc.

Lucas: What did you make of it?

Anthony: It all makes sense…

Lucas: But …

Anthony: But I still wasn’t convinced that anger in moderation isn’t a possibility Sure, don’t give me a sword – or a gun! – when I’m in a rage – but what if I’m just a bit angry?  Before yesterday, I was  planning to ask you how I could cultivate anger in moderation.

Lucas: What happened yesterday?

Anthony (sighing): Well, I wasn’t looking forward to asking my wife for feedback, so I left it to the last minute. When I did ask her, I got a bit of a shock.

Lucas:  What did she say?

Anthony (gets out letter)

Dear Anthony

I am so glad that you asked me  about why I insisted you sought help for your anger problem. I’m a bit surprised you haven’t asked before. That’s part of the problem. That you don’t think you have a problem. And nobody tells you about the extent of the problem because they are all so frightened of you. Even I wasn’t brave enough to confront you before Father’s Day.

Do you remember Father’s Day? You should, it was only a month ago. How the children were so excited, that they helped to make breakfast. How Robbie insisted on helping make your toast, then taking the tray to your bedside for your breakfast in bed, even though he is only 6. Do you remember what happened next?

I did talk to you about it that evening, and what you said was  was “Robbie was clumsy like he always is and spilt coffee over my new laptop causing untold damage”. Shall I tell you your 6 year old son’s version of events?

What happened was that, on the day that Robbie was showing so much love for you, you roared and raged at him like an angry lion shouting and calling him name like  “Clumsy” “An idiot and saying “How could you be so stupid”. Do you know what he did? He went to his bedroom, sobbing – and he actually peed himself! He hasn’t done that for years. Is that the father you want to be?  Terrifying and humiliating your children? Well its not the father I want for my children. That night that I decided something needed to be done. Its one thing to hear you shout at waiters or your work subordinates, another to do it to your child. You’d crossed a red line .

So that’s why I demanded that you seek a remedy for your anger problem. I hope that you get a remedy, because if this happens again, I will make sure it does not happen a third time.

Your ever-loving wife”

Lucas: Strong words.

Anthony: Yes, but at least she is being honest. Better than her packing her bags without giving me a chance. Maybe I do turn into a mini-Caligula after all!  So today I’m thinking that I do have a problem. I do need to change. But how?

Lucas (after a moment’s reflection): You know what, Anthony, I think that Seneca’s theory about the 3 stages of anger can help  us with both your questions. It will help us understand further why the goal of moderate anger is a treacherous one, and it will also will give us a framework to start working on managing your anger. Do you want to hear about it?

Anthony: Definitely.

Lucas: Seneca believes that there are three stages of anger. In the first instance, something triggers your initial reactions.  To go back to the ordinary Joe angry seagull-killer, the seagull swooping down triggered an initial reaction of surprise and an impulse to attack the gull.

Anthony: Sounds like the fight or flight reaction.

Lucas: Exactly. But this is just the beginnings of anger –  what Seneca calls the first movements towards anger. It’s not anger proper. Animals go directly to aggressive  fight behaviour (Seneca’s third stage), but we humans have a unique capacity, the ability to reason. That operates in  stage 2 of anger. That’s when  we can choose how to respond. When we are in stage 1, Seneca likens us to  someone on the edge of a cliff.

Anthony: Doesn’t sound good.

Lucas:  Indeed not. If we intensify anger by thinking irrational angry thoughts, we will  fall off the precipice and there is little or no chance of us returning to safe ground.

Anthony:  So Seneca would say that  Caligula, Vedius Pollo and the seagull-killer all got to this third stage of anger.  What happens then?

Lucas:  The red mist has descended, we see things totally in a different light. We use reason to plan wicked actions and justify them. We still reason, but in the service of anger.

Anthony: How exactly can understanding these 3 stages help us control anger?

Lucas: Would you agree that there are some things we can control and some things we can’t control.

Anthony: I guess so.

Lucas: And which category of things is it wise to focus on, what we can control, or what we can’t control?

Anthony: We need to focus only on what we can control.

Lucas: Yet when we are angry we often try to control things over which  we have little control. In fact there’s only a short time-window in the whole anger melodrama where we have much control.

Anthony: Really?

Lucas: Well that’s go through it.  Do we have control over the trigger, the prequel to the 3 stages. For example, the bird swooping down or the slave breaking the cup. Do we have control over that?

Anthony: Not once it’s happened.

Lucas: Exactly, we have no control over the past.  As we said at our first meeting,  there are a lot of things outside of our control and many people are too optimistic in this respect. Stoics believe that the roots of anger lie in  unrealistic expectations that the world behaves as we would like it to. So we need in general to lower our expectations about the world, we need to accept that a lot of events are outside our control.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas:  What about the first stage of anger, the Fight or Flight response, how much control do we have over that?

Anthony: Not much, because it’s like a reflex, right?

Lucas: Absolutely. Modern neuroscience backs up Seneca. The first movements towards anger correspond approximately to the automatic, non-conscious workings of the amygdala We have very little, if any, direct control over it.  What about stage 3 of anger, when the red mist has descended and we have fallen off the cliff edge?

Anthony: Not much control there either.

Lucas: You are right. What about stage 2?

Anthony: Remind me – that’s when the Fight or Flight reaction has kicked in but before we get to stage 3, full-on anger?

Lucas: Yes. Seneca asserts that there exists a  brief time-window when we can and should exert control through our ability to reason well. We have a choice of whether to resist or intensify anger. Does that make sense?

Anthony: Sounds like that might be quite tricky if we are already starting to get angry …

Lucas: Yes, so we need to develop what modern Stoics call Stoic Mindfulness so we are acutely aware of the dangerous territory we are in at that moment. So if you want to beat anger, where do you need to focus your efforts?

Anthony: It must be at stage 2!

Lucas: Yes, stage 2 is where you need to be like a sentry, on guard looking out for angry thoughts and challenging them. It will also help if  at all times  – we could call this stage 0 -you cultivate a general attitude of lowering your expectations about how the world fits in with your wishes.  Any questions?

Anthony: But is it really just my angry thoughts that make me angry? Aren’t some things bound to make anyone angry?

Lucas: Suppose our ordinary Joe had said to himself “That seagull must be hungry, let’s share my lunch with him”, how do you think he would have felt then?

Anthony: Much happier!

Lucas:  Exactly. How you think affects how you feel. As  another leading Stoic, Epictetus, put it “It is not events that affect us but our interpretations of events”.  

Anthony: It seems like we have covered a lot. Can you give me a crib sheet again  for me to look at on my commute

Lucas. Sure.

Again I would like you to agree to read this summary for 10 minutes every morning and memorise it. Any questions?

Anthony: I don’t think you’ve answered my  question about anger in moderation yet.

Lucas:  Fair point. Are we  agreed that the first movements make us strongly disposed towards anger – just like a snowball falling down a mountain will gather speed so the first movements are likely to make us angry?

Anthony: Yes

Lucas: So anger by its very nature will gain momentum unless we do something to stop it.

Anthony: Are you saying that unless we put a brake on anger, it inevitably grows into immoderate anger

Lucas: Precisely. How we think affects how we feel. We will think tell ourselves things that intensifies our anger by unless we resist it. Furthermore, the Stoics have a much better option than moderate anger, namely virtue. It is through virtuous action not anger that we can truly and reliably gain respect, change people and right injustices.

Anthony: OK.

Lucas: However, Seneca does make one allowance. He says that although we shouldn’t get angry, as it’s far too risky, some people do indeed seem  only to take notice when they think someone is angry with them.

Anthony: So I wasn’t completely wrong after all!

Lucas: Seneca says that in such instances its OK to pretend to be angry. But that’s very different from getting angry in moderation.

Anthony: Well, pretending to be angry is  an interesting idea but perhaps not one that will do me much good in front of my wife at the moment!

Lucas: I am sure you are right there. I have one more piece of home practice I would like you to do. To build on the work we have started today on the 3 stages and to make it much more real and concrete for us, please can you reconstruct what happened on Father’s Day for us in this format:

Event/Trigger:

  • Stage 1 – first movements towards anger (including fight or flight response and first thoughts)
  • Stage 2 – My  further thoughts and whether they resisted or intensified  anger
  • Stage 3 – What happened as a result

Anthony: Yes, that makes sense.  Email me your crib sheet as well so I can read it on the train. See you next week!

Tim LeBon is the author of Wise Therapy and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology. He is a philosophical life coach with a private practice in London and also an accredited CBT psychotherapist working in the NHS. He is a founder member of the Modern Stoicism team.

Stoicon, Stoic Week, and Stoicon-Xs 2019

Many people have been asking for details about Stoicon 2019, Stoic Week, and the smaller, local Stoicon-X events that will be taking place later on in the Fall. These sorts of matters, of course, take quite a bit of time and work to sort out – not least since Modern Stoicism is an organization staffed entirely by volunteers – so we appreciate your patience in awaiting the details. We’re happy to have quite a few details to announce at this time about all three matters. Further details will be forthcoming in the months ahead!

Stoicon 2019 Athens

The annual Stoicon conference is one of the main events organized by Modern Stoicism. Attendance in recent years has been between 300-400 (depending on the venue), and it provides an excellent opportunity not only to hear excellent talks by experts on Stoicism, but also to participate in workshops, and to get to meet, greet, and converse with others interested in Stoicism. If you’d like to see some of the talks and workshops from previous years, check out the playlists in the Modern Stoicism YouTube channel.

The theme of this year’s conference is “Stoicism Comes Home“, and it will be taking place in Cotsen Hall, at the American School of Archeology at Athens. The conference date is Saturday 5th October 2019.

The following speakers have provisionally confirmed that they will be presenting. These details may be subject to change.

  • Donald Robertson (host), author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor
  • Alkistis Agio (host), author of The Stoic CEO
  • Jonas Salzgeber, author of The Little Book of Stoicism
  • Thomas Jarrett LTC, creator of Warrior Resilience Training
  • John Sellars, Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, author of Stoicism and The Art of Living
  • Matt Sharpe, Associate Professor of Philosophy at Deakin University
  • Massimo Pigliucci, K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York, author of How to be a Stoic and A Handbook for New Stoics
  • Christina Kourfali, author of Live like the Stoics
  • Peter Limberg, organizer of Stoicism Toronto
  • Christopher Gill, Professor Emeritus of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, author of The Structured Self in Hellenistic and Roman Thought and Naturalistic Psychology in Galen and Stoicism
  • Gabriele Galluzzo, Lecturer in Ancient Philosophy at the University of Exeter
  • David Fideler, author of Restoring the Soul of the World and The Pythagorean Sourcebook (ed.)
  • Piotr Stankievicz, Lecturer at the University of Warsaw, author of Does Happiness Write Blank Pages? On Stoicism and Artistic Creativity
  • Katerina Ierodiakonou, Katerina Ierodiakonou (Greece), Professor at the University of Athens and at the University of Geneva, editor of Dialectic after Plato and Aristotle and Topics in Stoic Philosophy, etc

Tickets will go on sale for Stoicon 2019 in Athens very soon! For now, you should follow our event page on Facebook for updates

Stoic Week 2019

Every year, generally following Stoicon, we also host an international event of much wider scope – Stoic Week – which thousands of people participate in worldwide (more and more each year). We provide an online course, with a workbook, exercises, and all sorts of other resources designed to help participants “live like a Stoic” for a week. It is also a great way to meet and interact with other people who have an interest in Stoicism, both locally and in the larger Stoic community.

This year, Stoic Week is planned to run October 7-13. As always, much closer to the date, we will have a newly revised version of the Stoic Week Handbook available for participants, and a variety of other useful resources (I might even- as I have in previous years – shoot a new sequence of videos for the upcoming Stoic Week)

During and around Stoic Week every year, groups, organizations, and institutions plan and put on a number of Stoic Week events. We do our best to publicize all of them as Stoic Week approaches, so if you know of one, or plan to organize and host one, make sure to get that information to us, and we’ll put it into the master list and the posts. If you’re not sure whether there is a Stoic group or organization in your area, you might check the International Stoic Fellowship to see if there’s a local Stoa near you!

Stoicon-X 2019 Events

Stoicon-X events are sort of like TED-X events – smaller local events organized to bring engagement, conversation, and discussion of Stoicism to a number of other communities around the world. They have been held so far on five continents, and there are more and more of them each year!

We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!

We’ll have more about the Stoicon-X events closer to September and October when most of them are projected to take place. At this moment, we know about five being planned – so if you’re organizing one that’s not on the list below, get in touch and we’ll get it into the list!

Toronto, Canada – September 8, Toronto Reference Library, organized by Peter Limberg – more information to come

New York City, USA – September 19th, at the New York Society for Ethical Culture, organized by Massimo Pigliucci – information here

Athens, Greece – October 6, Cotsen Hall of the American School of Classical Studies, organized by Donald Robertson – information here

Madrid, Spain – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Kellys Rodriguez – more information to come

Milwaukee, USA – Date and Location: TBA, organized by Greg Sadler and Andi Sciacca – more information to come

So, mark your calendars for Stoicon and Stoic Week, and start thinking about any local events you might want to organize or host. We’ll have a lot more information coming your way as we get closer to the dates!