Stoic Philosophy and Anger
by Greg Sadler
Anger has been one main subject of my philosophical research, writing, and practice for roughly a decade. Several different motives steered me in that direction, one of which, I must admit, is a particularly personal one. From childhood on, I found myself struggling with my own anger. Studying what other people had observed, argued, mulled over, and advised in dealing with this difficult emotion proved useful for me, when I could put into practice. Attaining something like a virtuous disposition with respect to anger remains, for me, a “work in progress.”
Back when I was in graduate school, studying philosophy in a pluralistic department – which meant that there was quite a bit of discussion and debate not just between people who shared a common project and perspective, but between philosophers and philosophers-in-training working and arguing from very different bases – I found another motive for examining philosophical approaches to anger. I was surprised by how frequently anger and other rancorous emotions arose – and then were displayed, acted upon, or even (rather implausibly) denied – not only among my fellow graduate students, but even among the professors.
Knowing that I experienced problems in addressing my own emotions well, I imagined that in a field in which rationality is so highly valued, and ethical comportment and critical (including self-critical) thinking were routinely espoused as ideals, the other members of the department would be much better off than I with respect to anger. A much longer and more detailed story could be told about how I learned this, but suffice it to say, that assumption was not borne out. So, that presented me with a sort of paradox, one I wanted to explore and understand.
Another motivation for focusing a considerable portion of my attention upon anger coalesced through the process of studying what classic philosophical texts, thinkers, and even schools had to say about anger. Many of them situated that emotion in particular, and the emotions, desires, and drives more generally, within a broader philosophical framework focused upon providing a fuller understanding of human nature, particular human beings, the broader social world, and ethical concerns.
I found myself drawn in to study of these more comprehensive philosophical perspectives, in part because they often offered quite complex and sophisticated views to explore, and in part because they proved very suggestive and insightful, but often fragmentary and unsystematic. Much of my academic writing involves what I like to call jokingly “philosophical detective work”, in which I attempt to reconstruct a systematic perspective through exegesis of a body of philosophical work. Put in a different way, I try to assemble a puzzle in which only a portion of the pieces are present, and I need to fabricate some of the missing pieces based upon the materials available.
The Stoics were in certain respects latecomers to the scene of Ancient Greek philosophy, emerging as a distinct school after other main schools – whether Socratic (Plato’s Academy, the Cynics, Aristotle’s Lyceum) or non-Socratic (Pyrrho’s Skepticism, Epicurus’ Garden) – at the very least had a significant head start. But they quickly developed into a distinctive philosophical school of their own, with substantive contributions to make. More importantly here with respect to anger in particular, they articulated what would become one of the main philosophically-focused positions on that emotion in ancient Greco-Roman culture (one which would also go on to inform late ancient and medieval Christian discussions of anger as well).
This post will be the first in a series I intend to write – making use of my prerogative as editor of Stoicism Today to contribute entries to the blog – focused specifically upon what Stoics thought and taught about the emotion of anger. As a side note, I intend to alternate these upcoming discussions about Stoics on anger with more or less monthly posts attempting to address matters that people find obscure or problematic about Stoicism (for example, what Epictetus has to say about “general conceptions” and how they don’t conflict with each other – or a recent complaint made in the Stoicism Group in Facebook that classic Stoics provide no way of addressing moral dilemmas).
It is indeed unfortunate that we possess such a small portion of the ancient Stoics’ texts. Imagine if we could read through Zeno’s work On the Emotions, or his Ethics, or perhaps even his On Duty – all lost to us, but known to have existed at one time through the listings Diogenes Laertes provides us. We might also find relevant and useful discussions in his student, Cleanthes’ On The Virtues, On The End, On Conduct, and On Friendship – who knows what we might have to work with and consider, since we possess only the titles? Imagine what interesting passages we might find within Chrysippus’ massive catalogue of works!
We do get some doctrines of key Middle Stoa representatives like Panaetius and Posidonius mediated through Cicero’s surviving writings (as well as a few other authors), but it would certainly be preferable to possess the originals. Who knows what insights about anger we might find in the full text of Hierocles’ Elements of Ethics, or in his other writings? Given how many Stoic writers and teachers there were in antiquity, one could go on and on with this line, which risks transforming into a dismal litany of loss.
On the brighter side, we do at least have a good representation of works from the Late Stoa – Seneca’s various works and letters, the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, supplemented by Musonius Rufus’ own Discourses (or Lectures) – and those do comprise substantial bodies of philosophical literature. Among those, we are fortunate enough to have one work specifically devoted to the topic of anger by Seneca. There are a number of discussions bearing on anger, either directly or by implication, contained within the other texts of the Late Stoa.
The Stoics staked out a rather uncompromising but coherent position grappling with the emotion of anger, viewing it as a passion that could never prove good, rational, or morally legitimate. In this, they set themselves at antipodes from the wider culture of antiquity, which occasionally glorified instances of anger, at other times saw it as a sign of virility or spiritedness, but also worried about its tendencies towards excessiveness.
The Stoics also ended up distancing themselves from other main philosophical schools, in particular the Aristotelians, since Aristotle himself had articulated a conception of a right mean with respect to feeling anger, the virtue of “mildness” (praotes). Epicureans developed what they took to be a middle position between the Aristotelians, who gave far too much legitimacy to a troublesome emotion and the Stoics, who declared that anger always represented or stemmed from a moral failure.
Cicero himself, who develops an eclectic position that differed from the Stoics at multiple points, did nevertheless adopt a Stoic position on anger. The Stoic position represented what many regarded – then and perhaps even now – as an extreme one , but they provided powerful and persuasive reasons for the stance that they adopted.
I should make clear at this point that my own stance, as a philosopher, is an eclectic position resembling the one Cicero works out. While not a Stoic in an orthodox sense, I draw extensively upon Stoic thinkers on many topics where I find their doctrines and overall system useful. On this particular topic of anger, though, I do part company with both Cicero and the Stoics, and tend more towards the Aristotelian position on the emotion. Still, I view what the Stoics have to say as well worth taking into consideration – as valuable, and on some points superior to what Aristotle and his successors have to say. You might say that I see them as not merely useful, but essential, dialogue-partners as I continue to think out – and live out – a philosophical perspective on this all-too-human emotion.
In the months to come, I plan to author a series of posts here in Stoicism Today setting out and explaining some of the key contributions that Stoic philosophers have to make in understanding anger, starting out with Epictetus’s discussions of anger in his Discourses in early May.
I realize that in this post, while I’ve considerably talked up the Stoics as a particularly useful resource for understanding the anger, at this point I have yet to provide any detailed or substantive discussion of their positions on the emotion. Until the next installment in this series, for those who are particularly interested in the topic, I have several video lectures available discussing the Stoics’ positions on the emotion of anger.
- Emperors and Slaves Above the Passions: Stoic Philosophers on Anger (1:40:15)
- Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Anger (42:00)
- Epictetus, Discourses – Rightly Understanding Anger (28:53)
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations – Rightly Understanding Anger (35:06)
Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog. He is also the president and founder of the company ReasonIO. the producer of the Half Hour Hegel series, a team member of (Slow) Philosophies, and a member of the Center for Contemporary Aristotelian Studies in Ethics and Politics.