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.
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?
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?
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.
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)
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?
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.
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.
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
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?
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.
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:
- 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.