Understanding the Stoic Response to Anger
by Greg Sadler
In one manner or another, struggling with anger – my own and that of others — has been a component of my life nearly as far back as I can remember. I first became interested in philosophical accounts about – and resources for dealing with – anger two decades ago, in graduate school, for several reasons. The analyses and advice provided by several classic philosophical schools seemed far more plausible, interesting, and effective for me than what therapy had provided. There was a possibility, even a promise of valuable insight. I was also struck by how acrimonious and bitter so many discussions among professors and fellow graduate students could quickly turn, and wanted to make sense of that as well.
The perspectives afforded by two ancient schools have been particularly illuminating for me on topics involved with understanding and managing the emotional response of anger – Aristotle’s Peripatetic school and the school of the Stoics. On this issue, they were in fact great rivals, setting forth two powerfully and systematically articulated positions on many counts incompatible with each other. Even a philosopher who was an eclectic in the best sense of the term, considering the contributions made by multiple schools, working them at times into a productive synthesis – Marcus Tullius Cicero – found himself having to come down definitively on one side. He picked that of the Stoics, who consistently argued that there was no right amount or response of anger, that anything that anger might accomplish or facilitate could be done better and with less problems by rational choice.
This year, I’ve been providing monthly lectures – to be honest, more discussions than simply lectures – in a year-long series hosted by the historic Kingston Library. Last year, the series was called Glimpses into Existence (if you’re interested, you can see the playlist of lectures here), and this year, we settled on Understanding Anger, in which we’re looking at perspectives on that emotion coming from ancient and medieval sources ranging from philosophy to epic poetry, from drama to religious texts. We just had a session specifically on the Stoics a little over a week ago. Here’s the video from the session:
While we did end up in quite a few interesting and on the whole worthwhile digressions, we made it through much of what I’d wanted to present: the origin and historical development of the Stoic school; their views on emotion, rationality, and the good life; their general views on anger; and then specific teachings about the emotion from Seneca’s On Anger, Epictetus’ Discourses, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (less on this, unfortunately due to time-constraints).
As a side-note, for those who are interested in these three texts and their discussions of anger, I created several videos last year’s Stoic Week:
- Stoicism Week 2014: Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On Anger
- Stoicism Week 2014: Epictetus, Discourses – Rightly Understanding Anger
- Stoicism Week 2014: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations – Rightly Understanding Anger
The Understanding Anger series continues in the coming months, where the views of Epicureans, Plutarch, and early Christian thinkers are next on the docket – and we’ll actually finish the year with Chaucer and Dante. Doubtless there will be some additional discussion referencing the Stoics, partly because some of the other perspectives take the Stoics as their opponents, and partly because certain perspectives actually end up developing disciplines quite similar to the Stoics. If you’re in the Hudson Valley in New York, or even in the City and inclined to take a drive, you’re quite welcome to attend and participate!
Gregory Sadler is a philosophy professor, author, speaker, and philosophical counselor. He also directs the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences for the Global Center for Advanced Studies, and is the president and cofounder of ReasonIO, a company devoted to putting philosophy into practice. He produces popular YouTube videos on philosophy, and his main academic channel recently passed 20,000 subscribers and 1.8 million views.