Webinar: Marcus Aurelius on Anger

This is a Facebook Live webinar I did on Stoicism and Anger, based on The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius.  The audio is good (remember to turn up the volume) but a bit out of synch with the video so I’ve published the transcript of the main section below…

So let’s dive right into the topic of anger… The Stoics were very interested in anger. We actually have an entire book by Seneca called On Anger. However, I’m going to be talking today about what another famous Stoic, the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, has to say about managing anger. We know Marcus himself initially struggled with angry feelings, because he tells us so. He was worried at times that he’d lose his temper with those close to him and maybe even do something he regretted. He probably knew the notorious anecdote about his adoptive grandfather Hadrian, who lost his temper with a slave and stabbed the man in the eye with a metal stylus used for writing. Later, when Hadrian had calmed down and come to his senses, he felt deeply ashamed and asked the slave what he could do to make amends. The man said all he really wanted was his eye back. Of course, even the Emperor Hadrian couldn’t fix that. The Stoics believed that anger is essentially a form of temporary madness. And they were right about that, in a sense. We know today that anger tends to distort and bias our thinking, which explains why we often do things when angry that we regret later – anger literally makes us stupid. And sometimes what we do in anger can’t be undone, it can often cause lasting damage, as in the story about Hadrian. Marcus, by contrast, was renowned for his composure in the face of provocation. We hear several anecdotes about him keeping his cool under pressure, where other people would have been furious. And we never hear of him actually losing his temper, although he tells us he wasn’t just calm by nature, he had to work on it, through years of rigorous training, with the guidance of his Stoic tutors.

Marcus GraffitiNow, I should emphasise that the Stoics have a whole system of psychological training. So they would approach anger using a variety of techniques and we can only touch on a few of those today. Stoic therapy of the passions is about overcoming pathological or unhealthy passions, including anger, which Stoics interpreted as the desire to harm others. For instance, Stoics would train themselves to carefully monitor their feelings, catching anger early before it has a chance to escalate, so they could easily nip it in the bud. Marcus like other Stoic students had a mentor, in this case Junius Rusticus. He probably underwent this training under the close personal supervision of Rusticus whose job it was to observe his character and actions, and gently point out his errors. The Stoic teacher Epictetus told his students that when they spot a passion like anger they should challenge their underlying thinking, asking themselves whether it’s about something that’s actually up to them or something not up to them.

The Stoics believed that external things, things not under our direct control, are neither good nor bad in themselves. So we should address our own initial impressions saying “You are just an impression (of something being bad) and not really the thing you represent” – “You are just a thought and not the thing itself.” Values like that don’t really exist in things, we just project them onto things. However, Epictetus also says that if a passion is very strong we may find it difficult to challenge our thinking until we’ve recovered our composure, so we should postpone doing anything until we’ve calmed down and can think clearly and rationally about the problem. That’s a well-known ancient strategy for dealing with anger. Today therapists do similar things for anger management, and we might call it a “time out” or “postponement” strategy in modern CBT. So the Stoics trained themselves very rigorously in these and many other psychological skills for coping with anger. Today we’re going to look at just some of the additional cognitive or thinking strategies described by Marcus Aurelius.

Overcoming anger is actually one of the main themes that runs throughout The Meditations. The very first sentence of the book opens with Marcus reflecting on the example his natural grandfather Annius Verus provided. Verus was someone who seemed to be totally free from anger, in stark contrast to his adoptive grandfather, Hadrian, who was a slave to his own temper. There’s one passage in particular about anger that I want to look at, though. Marcus lists ten gifts from Apollo, or from Apollo and his nine Muses. Apollo was the god of healing so it’s appropriate that Marcus would dedicate these psychological remedies to him. So what are they? Well Marcus says that when we begin to grow angry we should do one or more of the following things:

  1. Remember that you were meant to live in harmony with other people – that’s the goal of life
  2. Think of their character as a whole, particularly their flaws, their ignorance and how they are misled by their own value judgements
  3. Either what they do is right or wrong. If it’s right, you should accept it and learn from it. If it’s wrong, however, then it’s surely not intentional, as nobody is willingly deceived or deprived of the truth, according to Socrates. (Epictetus tells his students to say: “It seemed so to him.”)
  4. Pause to recognize your own flaws – you’re no different from the people you’re angry with: none of us are perfect
  5. Remember you can’t read their mind, and people often do the wrong thing for the right reason, and vice versa – you can’t be sure of their motives
  6. Remember that all things are transient, including both yourself and the other person
  7. Realize that you’re not harmed by their actions but only by your own value judgements, and it’s those that are making you angry
  8. Remember that anger hurts us more than the things we’re angry about do
  9. Ask yourself what virtue, resource, or ability Nature has given you to respond to the other person – Stoics call the virtue of “kindness” an antidote or remedy for anger because anger wishes harm on others whereas kindness, or goodwill, wishes them well
  10. To expect bad men never to do bad things, is both naive and foolish – it’s feigned surprise, we should be more prepared than that

Marcus actually returns to the topic of anger many times throughout The Meditations and gives several shorter lists of techniques, so in addition to this nice overview of ten gifts from Apollo, Marcus basically tells us which ones are his favourites and his various remarks help to clarify what he means. So let’s just briefly recap the five strategies we’re going to talk about and then go into them in more detail.

The two he seems to place most emphasis on here and elsewhere are the first one and the last one:

  • We’re naturally social creatures and flourish when we try to live in harmony
  • The misdeeds of others are as inevitable as the seasons and the wise man is never surprised by foolish or vicious people’s actions because he anticipates them.

However, three others are also particularly emphasized by him.

  • That it’s not other people’s actions that upset us but our judgements about them, which comes mainly from Epictetus.
  • That everything is transient and when we remember this and look at the bigger picture we typically feel less attachment and distress, an idea derived from Heraclitus.
  • That our anger is itself a vice and does us more harm than the external things we’re angry about.

So let’s look at those one at a time in more depth…

1. We’re naturally social creatures

The Stoics believed that the distinguishing feature of human beings is that they’re language using, self-conscious, thinking beings. They’re rational in the sense of having the capacity for reason. They believed that to reason at all is to wish to reason well, and that we therefore have a duty to make good use of our capacity for thinking rationally. When we reason well we become wise, and so that’s basically the goal of Stoicism. The other virtues consist in wisdom applied to our actions, or to our fears and desires. So we’re capable of reason, we have a duty to reason well and become wise. But the Stoics also argued that human beings are inherently social creatures, like ants or bees. We’re inclined by nature to form bonds of natural affection with our partners and offspring, our families, and also with our circle of friends – we care about these people. We’re also naturally inclined to form communities and to want to live with other human beings in villages, towns and cities. (At least that’s generally true.) The Stoics therefore argue that man is by nature both rational and social. We should cultivate reason so that we become wise but we should also cultivate social virtues like justice, fairness, and kindness to others, so that we’re better able to live in harmony with other people. Even if we encounter vicious or foolish people, or people who act like our enemies, there are good and bad ways of dealing with them. The Stoics thought we should try to educate our enemies and turn them into our friends wherever possible, or learn to tolerate them insofar as that’s appropriate, rather than becoming frustrated with them and alienated from them. That doesn’t mean the Stoics were pushovers, Marcus presided as a judge and sentenced people for their crimes, but he was generally perceived as doing so after very careful consideration of each case, and to lean toward more lenient penalties where appropriate. He didn’t get angry with people, though. (Likewise, as military commander, he exiled enemy leaders, for instance, rather than executing them – but he also fought tenaciously against them.)

So, in a nutshell, Marcus repeatedly tells himself to remember that humans are naturally social and that nature intended us to work together rather than to be in conflict. So he’s reminding himself that he sees it as his duty to try to live with other people, without becoming angry toward them, which he sees as unnecessary and unhelpful. He wants to avoid being alienated from others, by learning to forgive them or at least tolerate them, while nevertheless asserting himself and opposing their behaviour, where necessary.

In 175 AD, Marcus was faced with a civil war when his most powerful general in the eastern empire, Avidius Cassius, had himself acclaimed emperor by the Egyptian legion. The Senate’s knee-jerk reaction was to declare Cassius public enemy and seize his property and that of his family. This threw the whole of Rome into total panic because people feared Cassius would retaliate by marching on the city of Rome and sacking it. Marcus was several weeks away, fighting a major war on the northern frontier, but when he heard the news he shocked everyone by announcing that he was prepared to forgive Cassius and the others involved. Ironically, that probably led to Cassius’ death because he refused to stand down but his legions no longer had any motive to fight, knowing that they were facing a superior force, so they beheaded Cassius and surrendered to Marcus. Marcus was as good as his word and actually protected Cassius’ family from persecution following the end of the rebellion. He considered it his duty to try to understand his enemies and defuse conflicts where possible, and that worked out pretty well for him in practice. So remember that we’re naturally social creatures, not antisocial.

2. Bad people inevitably do bad things

Although Marcus begins by emphasising that we’re naturally social creatures, paradoxically, he also emphasises that the majority of people inevitably act in antisocial ways. The Stoics believed that by granting us the ability to reason, nature has given us the potential to become wise, but nevertheless we’re all fools, the wise man is as rare as the Ethiopian Phoenix. Like most of Marcus’ strategies for coping with anger, this is a special application of a general Stoic principle. The Stoics astutely observed that when people are upset they tend to say things like “I can’t believe you’re doing this” or “I can’t believe this is happening”, as if they’re shocked or surprised. However, they shouldn’t be. We all know what sorts of things happen in life. We all know that other people often do foolish or selfish things. So why should we act surprised when these things happen. Acting surprised exaggerates our feelings – it makes us more angry – and it’s kind of phoney if you think about it. The Stoic wise man says “I saw this coming” or at least “I should have seen this coming – it’s no surprise.” Shit happens. That’s life. When someone else’s house is burgled we think: “These things happen sometimes.”

When I worked in central London, I saw pickpockets every single day. They used to stand facing the barriers in the underground station at Oxford Circus. When someone used their ticket to open the barrier, they’d watch them take out their wallet or purse and put it back again. If they put their wallet in an outside pocket they’d follow them upstairs. Then when they were crossing the street in the crowds, at the traffic lights, someone would bump into them – they’d turn round and go “Hey, watch where you’re going!” While they were distracted doing that, an accomplice, walking on their other side, would be picking their pocket. So I was more careful but I told myself I was bound to get my wallet stolen eventually. I had my mobile phone stolen once and my wallet twice, in about ten or fifteen years of working there. When it happened, though, I was able to say “Oh well, I knew it would happen eventually.” There’s no point being angry about it. That’s life. These things happen. To pretend otherwise would just be a form of self-deception, playing dumb. But people deceive themselves in this way all the time in order to amplify their anger. The Stoic wise man tries to view life rationally and that means accepting that all people are flawed, and selfish, to some extent, so it’s inevitable that sometimes they’ll lie, steal, cheat, betray, etc. It would be foolish to think otherwise. So Stoics are ready for these things when they happen – they’re prepared for them emotionally and refuse to act surprised. That’s just what it means to view life realistically, as far as they’re concerned. So remember that bad people inevitably do bad things.

3. It’s our own judgements that upset us

Again, this is a general Stoic principle. Epictetus famously said that it’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things. That quote has been taught to many thousands of clients at the beginning of cognitive therapy, following Albert Ellis. So it’s become almost a cliche in modern psychotherapy. However, here Marcus applies it specifically to anger. Anger is the desire to harm others, according to the Stoics, typically because we believe they’ve somehow harmed or threatened to harm us. But Marcus says that it’s all in our minds, ultimately. Other people can’t harm us as much as we can harm ourselves. They can insult us, but we don’t have to take offense. They can steal from us, but we don’t have to be shocked or dismayed at the loss. They can lie to us, but we don’t have to trust them in the first place, or be surprised when they let us down. Thrasea used to quote a saying attributed to Socrates, which he modified slightly: “The tyrant Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” He can destroy my body but he can’t degrade my character, unless I allow him to, which is the most important thing to a Stoic.

The real harm comes from our own judgment that we’ve been harmed, ironically. We’re upset, at least to some extent, because we choose to be upset. Now the Stoic position is actually much more nuanced than this slogan implies. They recognize that we all have natural automatic, reflex-like reactions to external events. So we’re bound to feel upset and angered if someone punches us in the face, that’s just natural. However, the difference between the fool and the wise man, is that the fool continues to be angry about it whereas the wise man steps back from his initial impressions, his feelings of anger, and questions them, telling himself that the thing he’s angry about only seems bad because of his value judgements and not because it’s intrinsically bad. “There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so”, as Hamlet says. We’re naturally predisposed to take offence or be angry about certain things but as the Stoics put it, we don’t need to then give our assent to those initial impressions and go along with our angry reaction. We can pause and rethink our response. Remember that it’s our own judgement that upsets us.

4. Everything is transient

The previous strategy is very much associated with Epictetus whereas this one seems very aligned with the thought of the presocratic philosopher Heraclitus, who said that you can’t step into the same river twice because new waters are constantly flowing in. His philosophy was summed up as “everything flows”, nothing lasts forever, everything is continually changing around us. Nothing remains the same. Marcus very frequently makes use of this strategy in The Meditations, contemplating the transience of material things but also his own mortality and that of the other people who offend him. When we view the bigger picture in this way, and realize that things are transient, we tend to feel less upset and less attached to them. Once again, though, anger tends to do the opposite and amplify itself by focusing on the most upsetting part of a situation, narrowing our attention, concentrating itself, and ignoring the bigger picture. When we think about the span of events – beginning, middle, and end – and their place within the bigger picture of our lives, and the history of life on earth, then our feelings are diluted and weakened. Things seem more trivial and less worth getting upset about. But that’s the truth. The totality is reality.

When we focus on events in isolation we’re committing a lie of omission, taking them out of context. That’s the very nature of anger, though. We do it every day. It’s selective. It focuses on isolated events or aspects of a situation, or of a person’s character, as opposed to the whole picture. There’s a famous Stoic technique called The View From Above that encourages us to imagine events within the totality of space and time. However, Marcus is here just referring to one aspect of that: the realization that things don’t last forever. This too shall pass, as the saying goes. Likewise, cognitive therapists often ask clients “What next?”, “And then what?” over and over, to encourage them to get beyond the worst part of an upsetting event and think also about how it will de-escalate and things will inevitably move on, eventually. That tends to make us less upset but, once again, it’s just the truth – it’s just being honest with ourselves, and looking at things more objectively and in a more complete manner. Anger is selective attention, which ignores the transience of events. Marcus even reminds himself that one day he will be dead, and long forgotten, as will the person with whom he’s angry, so there’s no point dwelling on it and aggravating himself further. Remember that everything is transient.

5. Anger does us more harm than good

Anger is temporary madness. It skews our thinking and makes us stupid. Seneca actually began his therapy for anger by drawing attention to the ugliness of anger, how unnatural it looks when someone grimaces, scowls, their temples throb, and their face turns purple. How their voice becomes ugly and it’s very unpleasant to listen to an angry person speaking because their voice grates. Anger makes monsters of us, they might say. It harms our thinking and our character more than the very things we’re angry with ever could. Other people’s vices are their problem, not ours, ultimately. However, when we get angry, we’re committing a vice ourselves, and then it becomes our problem because we make it so.

If every morning someone told me I was an idiot, would that in itself do me any harm as long as I learn to view them with indifference? Sticks and stones may hurt my bones but words will never harm me, right? But if I go along with my first impression that I’ve been insulted or harmed in some way, and get angrier and angrier, how much harm will I be doing to myself? Anger does us more harm than the thing we’re angry about. It makes our soul shrink. Marcus says that people think anger is a show of strength, but they’re wrong. Anger is every bit as much a form of weakness as weeping and cowering in self-pity. Marcus says true strength consists in overcoming our anger, and employing the antidote to it, by having the courage to treat other people with kindness and understanding, even when they appear to be our enemies. Marcus says that’s what he admires: the strength to forgive others and exhibit goodwill toward them unconditionally, rather than being angry with them.

Now, I should say that the Aristotelians had a different view. They believed that moderate anger could be healthy and it could motivate us to do certain important things in life. The Stoics dispute this, though. They argued that anger isn’t just a feeling, it’s also a value judgement that underlies the feeling. The judgement is that something intrinsically bad has happened but the Stoics argue that’s an error, it’s a mistaken judgement because the badness is merely projected onto things by us – it doesn’t really exist independently of our minds. So all anger is fundamentally misguided in that respect – it places too much value on things outside of our control. Moreover, the Stoics point out that anger distorts our thinking, as we’ve seen, so love and reason are much healthier attitudes that better motivate us to make sound decisions in life. The Stoic soldier doesn’t fight because he hates the enemy, and wants to destroy them, but because he loves his family and his country, and wants to protect them – and those are two very different things. So remember that anger does us more harm than good.

Conclusion

So those are just five of the ten gifts from Apollo that Marcus described, and just one small part of the Stoic therapy of the passions. Let me recap them briefly:

  1. We’re naturally social creatures
  2. Bad people inevitably do bad things
  3. It’s our own judgements that upset us
  4. Everything is transient
  5. Anger does us more harm than goodSo I hope you’ve found that helpful, please post your comments and questions and I’ll try to respond to them in the thread as soon as we’ve finished.

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One thought on “Webinar: Marcus Aurelius on Anger”

  1. I missed the live Webinar so I was so happy to receive the transcript, and moreover, now have this document to refer back to, time and time again. It contains very enlightening and useful advice for our times. Though we’ve come a long way in in science, technology etc., obviously human nature is not very different than is was almost 2,000 years ago and our unbridled emotions quickly reduce us to uncivilized creatures! Thank you for reviewing the stoic teachings on this important topic.

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