Book: A Guide to the Good life by William Irvine Art: Ixion précipité dans les Enfers by Jules-Élie Delaunay Reading time: 3 mins
As discussed in a previous post, the philosophy of Stoicism focuses on minimising the amount of negative emotions in the mind. One of these undesired emotions is anger, which followers of Stoicism, known as Stoics, believed to be a state of brief insanity because of the damage it does to our mental health. Everyone experiences anger and there are some situations where anger seems the only way to react. Anger is thus an emotional reflex that comes naturally to us, but one that causes more problems than it solves.
The Stoics believed that the random nature of life will thrust us into many situations which will cause us to be angry; but that we must adapt to these situations. We should realise that most of the things that anger us are mere annoyances and cause no real harm. Anger, from situations like losing a game or getting enraged at other drivers, puts us in a state of agitation that lasts longer than the actual event which caused it. In more serious situations too, anger should be unwelcome, and in its place should be serenity which enables you to do a better job in dealing with the situation. For example, if someone hurts a member of your family, you could make better decisions about how to punish them when you are calm.
The Stoic philosopher Seneca devised a number of ways to minimise anger, which can be seen as Stoic strategies for anger management. When angry, Seneca says that we should take steps to turn our anger into the opposite state. We should force ourselves to relax our face, soften our voice and think wholesome thoughts. Even with these techniques, however, anger is hard to control and the behaviour of other people will routinely be unavoidables sources of anger in our lives. The Stoics thus recommended that we also shift the way we think of others and their actions.
There may be people who, for some reason or other, do not like us and will act to cause us harm. The most common way they may anger us is by insulting us. The Stoics bring to attention the fact that insults themselves are harmless, and it is our interpretation of them which provokes us. We must, therefore, change the way we view the insulter’s actions. Seneca recommends that we laugh off an insult or refuse to respond. By doing this, our response implies that we do not take the insult seriously. This can be quite disconcerting to the insulter and will rob them the pleasure of having upset us. Instead, it is likely that we have upset them in our response and as a result, we have insulted the insulter without directly doing so.
“Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed.
Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.”Marcus Aurelius
There may be times when life places in our path a person who is nothing but an antagonist. These are people who hurt you, your family or your friends for reasons you can’t understand. These people will arouse in us a level of anger which will either make us think dark thoughts about them or act violently towards them. These thoughts are pointless as they just disturb us, and the actions will most likely just add to our suffering than eliminate it. For this reason, the Stoics propose that we adjust our perceptions of these people.
“Any person capable of angering you becomes your master.”Epictetus
The Stoics suggested that we recognise that some people are fated to behave a certain way. These individuals act in an antagonistic way because they live in anger, even when nothing provokes them. At the same time that their anger is sustaining them, they are also consumed by it. Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman Emporer, says that if we find ourself wanting to seek revenge on someone, one of the best forms of revenge is refusing to be like them. It should be gratifying enough knowing that they will never achieve tranquillity but you will.