On the Stoic Philosophy of Anger
On the Stoic Philosophy of Anger
I run a large Stoicism discussion forum and write books about Stoic philosophy. Periodically, we tend to get posts from people who think Jordan Peterson is a Stoic.
In a sense, that’s surprising. As far as I’m aware, Peterson’s never once mentioned Stoicism and there’s no hint in his talks or writings that he’s ever even read the Stoics. Despite this, some people clearly feel that they’re saying similar things. Then again, there appear to be just as many, if not more, people who have concluded that Peterson’s writings are fundamentally at odds with what Stoicism teaches. One of them is, Massimo Pigliucci, author of How to be a Stoic, who recently wrote an article called simply Nope, Jordan Peterson Ain’t No Stoic.
My personal area of specialism is the relationship between ancient Stoic philosophy and modern evidence-based psychotherapy. (I’m the author of six books on philosophy and psychotherapy, the latest being How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, about the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.) Peterson is a professor of clinical psychology; I’m a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. So we come, as it happens, from virtually the same professional field. I think it would be impossible to provide a comprehensive overview of Peterson’s writings from a Stoic perspective because there would, frankly, be far too much to address in a single article. Instead, I’m going to focus specifically on the topic of anger.
Anger is the emotion with which the ancient Stoics were most concerned. We have an entire book titled On Anger from the philosopher Seneca, which survives today. The Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius discusses anger so frequently throughout The Meditations that we might even say it’s one of the main themes of that book. Throughout the centuries, overcoming anger has been one of the main emotional challenges for people interested in self-improvement. Today, it’s a topic of central importance to research in the fields of clinical psychology and psychotherapy. Peterson says a number of interesting things about anger. His writings also happen to contain many examples of angry thoughts and feelings, which are worth evaluating from a Stoic perspective.
I think it’s self-evident that Peterson’s views and behaviour have become highly divisive. Although critics view him as an apologist for certain aspects of right-wing political extremism, such as Islamophobia, he has at times distanced himself from the alt-right, claiming to be a “classic British liberal”. Nevertheless, he often seems to deliberately court controversy. Earlier this year, for instance, he had a fellowship from the University of Cambridge rescinded because he posed for a photograph beside a man wearing an “I’m a proud Islamophobe” t-shirt, seemingly alluding to Peterson’s criticisms of the word. Peterson often uses provocative or quite emotive rhetoric in his talks and writings, which I’ll contrast with the Stoic philosophy of language below.
Most of the online discussions about Peterson I’ve witnessed tended to rapidly degenerate into mud slinging and name calling, etc., from both sides: fans and critics alike. Something about him, perhaps his provocative style, seems to evoke intense anger, which is bound to destroy the atmosphere required for rational philosophical debate. That’s my other reason for discussing this emotion: perhaps explicitly focusing on it will help provide an antidote to the anger that often spoils these discussions. Maybe if we’re talking about the pros and cons of anger, it will remind us to avoid letting anger get in the way.
Peterson on Anger
Peterson’s writings contain much that is obscure. However, he lays out his self-help advice on anger concisely enough in book one of 12 Rules for Life.
Psychological forces are never unidimensional in their value, however, and the truly appalling potential of anger and aggression to produce cruelty and mayhem are balanced by the ability of those primordial forces to push back against oppression, speak truth, and motivate resolute movement forward in times of strife, uncertainty and danger.
Peterson’s book subtitled “an antidote to chaos”, implies that anger is typically unhelpful and cruel when it’s chaotic (mayhem). However, he also says that there’s an orderly and righteous form of anger that can help motivate us to fight oppression, assert the truth, and face danger. This is actually a very old notion, which was mainly associated in the past with Aristotle’s philosophy. Anger that’s moderate, having been mastered and placed in the service of reason, is potentially a good thing. As we’ll see, the Stoics gave reasons for rejecting this whole idea.
Peterson believes that violent aggressive tendencies (“seeds of evil and monstrosity”) are an innate part of human nature. In fact, he says the weak acquire strength of character and self-respect precisely by awakening themselves to this realization.
When the wakening occurs — when once-naïve people recognize in themselves the seeds of evil and monstrosity, and see themselves as dangerous (at least potentially) their fear decreases. They develop more self-respect. Then, perhaps, they begin to resist oppression. They see that they have the ability to withstand, because they are terrible too. They see they can and must stand up, because they begin to understand how genuinely monstrous they will become, otherwise, feeding on their resentment, transforming it into the most destructive of wishes. To say it again: There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character. This is one of the most difficult lessons of life.
Whereas some people might say that we should get rid of our anger, in other words, Peterson suggests that it’s more important to harness our violent and destructive tendencies in the service of our major goals in life.
He says we need righteous anger, and even aggression, to protect ourselves as long as it’s “skillfully integrated” into our actions in an orderly manner.
With their capacity for aggression strait-jacketed within a too-narrow morality, those who are only or merely compassionate and self-sacrificing (and naïve and exploitable) cannot call forth the genuinely righteous and appropriately self-protective anger necessary to defend themselves.
He even claims that those who are capable of feeling righteous anger are, paradoxically, more likely to oppose tyranny and less likely to exhibit destructive or violent behaviour.
Peterson’s account of righteous anger seems to conflate feelings of anger with assertive speech and behaviour. He’s basically trying to argue (or rather he’s just assuming) that genuinely assertive behaviour has to be motivated by righteous feelings of anger. Psychologists have generally sought to avoid confusing these two things, though, since the heydey of assertiveness training in the 1970s. It’s possible to behave firmly, sternly, and even be forceful or aggressive, of course, without actually feeling much of the emotion called anger. Peterson doesn’t acknowledge this distinction. His assumption that assertive behaviour requires righteous anger might resonate with some individuals but it’s definitely not going to be everyone’s experience. It’s also not supported by any psychological evidence. Boxers and martial artists, for instance, may employ violent skills externally, with great success, while nevertheless feeling little or no anger internally.
Likewise, it’s easy to point to countless examples of people behaving confidently and assertively, even in the face of provocation, while remaining calm and without righteous anger. Sometimes people say that they feel certain anger is useful in particular situations. What they usually mean is that aggressive behaviour seems appropriate, again overlooking the fact that someone might speak or act “angrily”, just as actors do, without necessarily feeling angry emotions inside. Moreover, in many cases they’re also confusing anger or aggression with assertive behaviour and what they have in mind are situations where confident and assertive behaviour would be appropriate, which could be neither outwardly aggressive nor accompanied by angry feelings.
Throughout 12 Rules for Life, Peterson alludes to his own violent fantasies and feelings of anger. Sometimes these are on a cosmic scale…
Perhaps Man is something that should never have been. Perhaps the world should even be cleansed of all human presence, so that Being and consciousness could return to the innocent brutality of the animal. I believe that the person who claims never to have wished for such a thing has neither consulted his memory nor confronted his darkest fantasies.
Sometimes they’re generalizations about the burning resentment and feelings of revenge he and other men supposedly experience, by nature, whenever we’re spurned by a woman…
The first woman made the first man self-conscious and resentful. Then the first man blamed the woman. And then the first man blamed God. This is exactly how every spurned male feels, to this day. First, he feels small, in front of the potential object of his love, after she denigrates his reproductive suitability. Then he curses God for making her so bitchy, himself so useless (if he has any sense) and Being itself so deeply flawed. Then he turns to thoughts of revenge.
Sometimes they’re about specific incidents in his life… For example, in his chapter in parenting he describes a female psychologist whose toddler his family were looking after for a day. She said the child probably wouldn’t eat — because he’s fussy. Curiously, though, there’s no indication he was malnourished. Maybe she meant he snacks but won’t sit down for a proper meal. Perhaps he’s already eaten a lot before coming over and will eat again when he returns home. These details of the story remain unclear. Lots of normal kids are picky eaters — it’s usually just a phase. Peterson became extremely angry, though, and as he looks back on the mother collecting her child he fumes dramatically: “Then she departed, black, murderous heart unchanged, doomed child in hand.”
In the coda, Peterson wrote about his arguments with his wife:
On many occasions in our nearly thirty years of marriage my wife and I have had a disagreement — sometimes a deep disagreement. Our unity appeared to be broken, at some unknowably profound level, and we were not able to easily resolve the rupture by talking. We became trapped, instead, in emotional, angry and anxious argument. We agreed that when such circumstances arose we would separate, briefly: she to one room, me to another. This was often quite difficult, because it is hard to disengage in the heat of an argument, when anger generates the desire to defeat and win. But it seemed better than risking the consequences of a dispute that threatened to spiral out of control. Alone, trying to calm down, we would each ask ourselves the same single question: What had we each done to contribute to the situation we were arguing about? However small, however distant … we had each made some error. Then we would reunite, and share the results of our questioning: Here’s how I was wrong ….
What he doesn’t mention, though, is that not all couples argue like this. Some do, obviously, but others don’t. Many of his readers will be in relationships where they don’t frequently experience these intense “emotional, angry and anxious” arguments. If not they may notice that their own parents, or perhaps some of their friends who are with partners, don’t argue as much as Peterson describes. To state the obvious: his is not a universal experience.
Peterson suggests what looks at first like a constructive coping strategy: both parties in the argument try hard to identify what errors they’ve made and then share them with one another. (This sounds almost confessional, although he doesn’t use that word.) However, he warns readers that this only works, of course, if you’re really willing to admit a mistake and change. Strangely then he doesn’t point out that it presupposes the other person’s willingness to do the same. If your main strategy for resolving arguments is to admit mistakes to your partner but they refuse ever to do so then you’re potentially going to end up in a very submissive role, which could easily be used against you by a self-centred or narcissistic person. It’s very surprising that Peterson, of all people, would offer this as a coping strategy for resolving arguments without noting the (rather obvious) risk of it being exploited in this way.
Fans of Peterson often “appeal to authority” and say that he’s a “highly respected psychologist”. (Of course, quite often someone may be respected in one field while remaining unknown or being regarded as a crank in others.) He is, they say, basing what he says on rigorous scientific research and logical arguments. So it came as a surprise to me to read 12 Rules for Life and discover that, in reality, it’s largely based on Jungian psychoanalytic (“analytic psychology”) theories, originating in the early 20th century, before the advent of evidence-based practice in psychotherapy. Large tracts of the book contain what I can only describe as a sort of New Age Christian theology, e.g., his discussions of original sin, and so on. Believe it or not, it’s often these Jungian-inflected theological arguments that he appears to use to justify his conclusions. Indeed, little or no scientific evidence is actually cited by Peterson to support the majority of his claims. In particular, he doesn’t provide any psychological research to justify his main assertions about the psychology of anger. He makes no reference whatsoever to the cognitive theory of anger used in modern evidence-based psychotherapy. Often what Peterson says about emotion actually appears to be contradicted by modern research or clinical best practice.
When someone presents what they’re doing as scientific, and uses the jargon of science, but doesn’t actually provide scientific evidence capable of substantiating their claims we call that pseudoscience. It’s been made to look “scientific” but it isn’t scientific. In that sense, in all honesty, Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life is probably the most pseudoscientific self-improvement book that I’ve ever come across, and I’ve read many over the years.
The Stoics on Anger
So if that’s what Peterson says, what do the Stoics say? Well, for a start, the Stoics directly dispute the Aristotelian premise assumed by Peterson that anger can be used constructively and potentially motivates us to do good things. First of all, it’s very easy to demonstrate that anger isn’t actually necessary in this regard. Although people certainly do sometimes achieve positive things as a result of anger, it seems impossible to find examples of things that have only ever been done this way. Presumably righteous anger against the horrors of Nazism or Stalinism has at times motivated some individuals to take a stand against these forms of political tyranny. However, surely other people have done more or less the same things calmly, without having to draw substantially upon any feelings of anger. Individual boxers have perhaps won fights sometimes by allowing themselves to get angry. Surely, others have beaten them at times, though, while keeping a cool head.
That’s important because anger may be sufficient but not necessary to achieve good things, such as overthrowing a tyranny or winning a boxing match. In other words, there might be a better way of achieving the same result. Perhaps there’s always a better way of achieving the same result, without anger. People motivate themselves in lots of different ways, without having to draw upon anger. Moreover, if there were any disadvantages to anger that would tip the balance in favour of alternative ways of responding. Of course there are: anger, in several ways, dramatically impairs our capacity for clear reasoning.
By analogy, it’s certainly true that you can get energy by eating candy. However, you can also get energy from other sources, such as fruit or vegetables, which don’t have the health disadvantages. You might say that anger is an energy but nevertheless what if it’s one of our least healthy sources of energy or motivation? Candy sure gives you energy but it also rots your teeth. What if anger does motivate you but also rots your brain? Anger is a motivation but is it a healthy motivation?
Peterson appears to take for granted the Platonic view of anger as an emotion that’s separate and distinct from reason. The Stoics rejected this view and argued instead that anger wasn’t just a feeling but also a way of thinking about events. To be angry isn’t just to feel your blood pressure rise but it’s also to think something along the lines of “She’s done something really bad and deserves to be punished.” It’s usually also associated with the perceived threat of some injury whether physical or to our status, self-esteem, or other interests. Anger is therefore often the consequence, as the Stoics realized, of fear or perceived loss. Sometimes these fears can be realistic, however they’re very often imaginary — such as the person who talks as though all foreigners of a particular race or religion are potential terrorists threats. Anger, however, is often also grounded in petty misconceptions of this kind such as the belief that someone has deliberately insulted you when in reality they have not.
Stoicism was the original philosophical inspiration for modern cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy (CBT). Indeed, CBT shares with Stoicism the fundamental premise that our emotions are shaped by corresponding beliefs. Albert Ellis, one of the founders of CBT, used to explain this to students and clients by teaching them the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but our opinions about them.” The Stoics defined anger as “a desire to take revenge on someone who appears to have wronged you contrary to what is appropriate.” Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, defined anger, similarly, as the belief that someone has committed an offense against you (i.e., wronged you) by deliberately attacking the domain of your interests.
That’s the basis of the “cognitive model of emotion” used both in psychological research and in modern evidence-based psychotherapy. However we define anger, the basic idea that it’s shaped by our thinking is crucial because thoughts can be true or false. Suppose I’m angry because I believe that you’ve insulted me in front of my superiors. What happens if I discover that I’m wrong and you didn’t actually do that? What happens if I discover that you actually praised me instead? My anger will probably abate.
Peterson was furious with the psychologist mentioned earlier, for instance, because he believes she has a “black, murderous heart”. What if he’s mistaken about that? What if he’s overstating her level of malice to himself? What if he’s overlooking mitigating factors such as the possibility that the child had already eaten or that he’s misinterpreted her comment about food? Even uncertainty about these sort of beliefs can reduce the emotion of anger. Discovering that our presuppositions are false can eliminate it entirely.
One of the main practices of Stoicism was the description of events using plain language, without strong value judgments or emotive rhetoric — just sticking to the facts. This concept was called phantasia kataleptike, sometimes translated as “Objective Representation” although it literally means an impression of events that retains a firm grip on reality. You could describe this as a sort of anti-rhetoric or counter-rhetoric — an attempt to remedy the distorted thinking and emotional disturbance caused by our use of emotive language. I think that considered from this perspective it’s surely quite obvious that Peterson’s style is directly in conflict with Stoicism. He makes extensive use of emotionally charged language and strong value judgments throughout his talks and writings, something the Stoics thought is bound to lead to arguments, evoke irrational emotions, and distort our thinking. Whereas Peterson says the psychologist had a “black, murderous heart”, the Stoics would have said “the woman said her child doesn’t need to be fed”, sticking to the objective facts without embellishing them, and left it at that. The Stoic use of language was self-consciously at odds with the use of rhetoric associated with the ancient Sophists, who employed language carefully designed to inflame passions, such as anger, in their audience. Peterson’s use of language, very clearly, has more in common with the emotive rhetoric of ancient Sophists than with the rational, philosophical method of Socrates and the Stoics.
For Stoics, a deeper problem with anger comes into focus when we examine the underlying beliefs philosophically. To become angry we have to believe that the offense against us is very serious, as Beck notes, or even, as Ellis would say, that it’s “awful” or “catastrophic”. However, the Stoics reject the idea that anything external can genuinely be that “bad for me”. What matters is the use we make of the experience. It’s irrational, or unphilosophical, to place so much importance on things beyond our direct control. So, in their eyes, we’re always mistaken when we become angry with other people or external events, insofar as we’re necessarily placing too much importance on things that aren’t inherently up to us. We should focus instead, they say, on improving our own character and the way we choose to respond.
For instance, suppose someone else witnessing the incident Peterson describes with the psychologist’s child believes that it appears bad but, unlike Peterson, they remain uncertain about some of the details, such as the precise intentions of the mother. Suppose they consider their own way of responding more important and rather than getting angry with the mother they instead have a feeling that would be better described as one of determination to clarify things, help the child, and perhaps educate the mother if necessary, combined with a philosophical acceptance that the outcome might not be entirely under their control. We might describe that as a more “philosophical’ attitude toward the whole situation — it would be more in line with Stoic wisdom than the anger Peterson describes.
Indeed, the Stoics rightly argued that “anger is temporary madness” and that it tends to distort our ability to reason. Peterson doesn’t mention this as a disadvantage when employing anger as a source of motivation. Anger makes us stupid by narrowing our scope of attention and introducing pronounced cognitive biases into our thinking. We can’t think clearly when angry. Angry people are particularly inept at rational problem-solving, ironically, the very skill most in demand in the face of a crisis. That’s why we often prefer it if our leaders can remain calm in the face of adversity — they’re less prone to make mistakes and place everyone else in danger if they remain level-headed.
Let’s recap what Peterson says in 12 Rules for Life then, with these remarks derived from Stoicism and cognitive therapy in mind.
The Stoics on Peterson
Peterson claims that the risks associated with anger and aggression “are balanced by the ability of those primordial forces to push back against oppression, speak truth, and motivate resolute movement forward in times of strife, uncertainty and danger.” However, the Stoics would basically object that anything anger can do reason can do better. Plenty of people throughout history have fought oppression, spoken truth, and faced danger, without relying upon feelings of anger to motivate them. Anger can certainly be used to help us in these situations but it impairs our ability to reason calmly thereby introducing problems that are frankly unnecessary because we can always achieve the same things without anger. Peterson’s argument here seems obviously unsound. Just because anger is one way of motivating behaviour it doesn’t mean it’s the best way of doing it, or even a good way in most cases.
Peterson himself claims life’s most important revelation in this regard is: “There is very little difference between the capacity for mayhem and destruction, integrated, and strength of character.” Strength of character, in other words, is sublimated anger — anger we’ve somehow learned to channel in a constructive direction. The Stoics, of course, were particularly interested in this question of what constitutes “strength of character”.
And when you do become angry, be ready to apply this thought, that to fly into a passion is not a sign of manliness, but rather, to be kind and gentle, for in so far as these qualities are more human, they are also more manly; and it is the man who possesses such virtues who has strength, nerve, and fortitude, and not one who is ill-humoured and discontented; for the nearer a man comes in his mind to impassibility [i.e., freedom from unhealthy passions like anger], the nearer he comes to strength, and as [over-indulgence in] grief is a mark of weakness, so is anger too, for those who yield to either have been wounded and have surrendered to the enemy. — Meditations, 11.18
For Stoics like Marcus Aurelius, therefore, strength of character isn’t about learning to accept and channel our anger in a positive direction. It’s about completely uprooting anger by transforming the faulty beliefs upon which it’s based and replacing them with a more rational and coherent set of values. For instance, suppose you’re angry with someone for insulting you. If you truly accept that anger does us more harm than the things we’re angry about then your anger will inevitably dissipate because it no longer makes sense. There’s no such thing as “righteous” anger. (Arguably, we should be particularly wary of individuals who’ve somehow persuaded themselves to think of their own anger as “righteous”.) Strength of character comes from recognizing the supreme value of character, and achieving what the Stoics called magnanimity, literally greatness of soul, by which they meant the ability to rise above external misfortunes and view them as relatively trivial in the grand scheme of things.
This concept is largely alien to Peterson’s thinking. For him, anger is natural and there’s nothing intrinsically questionable about the importance it places on external events, such as perceived insults. At least, he doesn’t question the value angry people assign to externals anywhere near as deeply or systematically as the Stoics do. Peterson advises us to cultivate the capacity for “righteous anger” and thereby integrate our chaotic primal emotions. The Stoics would think that’s just more of the same because whether anger is “righteous” or not, either way it’s still an inherently neurotic, demanding way of thinking that places more importance on events that merely befall us than upon our own character and way of responding to events.
Peterson makes it clear that he takes his own “dark fantasies” to be universal, i.e., he’s convinced you’re a liar if you’ve never wished that “the world should even be cleansed of all human presence”. Well, I’m sure he’d just say that I’m self-deceived, but in all honesty, I don’t recall ever having genuinely wished for the destruction of the entire human race, myself, my loved ones, and even my daughter included. I’ve no doubt many people have thoughts like that at times but it’s nonsense to assume, on the basis of no evidence, that everyone shares those sort of dark fantasies, as he calls them, and that they’re somehow common to everyone. They’re not.
That point is crucial for the following reason. Peterson has a recurring habit of observing angry feelings or violent fantasies of his own and confidently asserting that they’re universal. I think it’s clear that he does this precisely because he ignores or minimizes the role of cognition in shaping emotion. He wants to assume that these sort of violent tendencies are just human nature rather than being the product of specific attitudes, beliefs and values, which he and others happen to hold. That’s precisely what the ancient Stoics and modern cognitive therapists would draw attention to, though.
When people said to Albert Ellis “I know it seems irrational but this is just how I feel”, Ellis would say “no, it’s also how you think.” It’s your philosophy of life we’re talking about here. Peterson’s philosophy implicitly assumes that external events justify our anger, and our desire for revenge. The Stoics think that’s total madness. For instance, a great deal of Peterson’s most influential advice about relationships has to do with his assumption that women are capable of “making” men “self-conscious and resentful” by rejecting their sexual advances.
This is exactly how every spurned male feels, to this day. First, he feels small, in front of the potential object of his love, after she denigrates his reproductive suitability. Then he curses God for making her so bitchy, himself so useless (if he has any sense) and Being itself so deeply flawed. Then he turns to thoughts of revenge. How thoroughly contemptible (and how utterly understandable).
Again, notice that Peterson is claiming this is how everyone, himself included, feels to this day. We can take it that he’s being honest if he is indeed including himself in this, and surely many other men have similar feelings to these, but he’s wrong to assume he’s describing the common experience of all men — he’s clearly wrong about that. There’s no way that “every spurned man” feels small, curses God or Being as flawed, condemns himself as useless, and desires revenge.
As noted earlier, Peterson seems to interpret his own angry and resentful feelings toward women as universal precisely because he ignores the cognitive model of emotion and minimizes the role of cognition in determining our emotions. As we’ve seen, Ellis liked to quote the central psychological precept of Epictetus’ Stoicism, which we could now paraphrase as follows: “It’s not being spurned by a woman that makes you angry but rather your opinions about the experience.”
Surely it’s obvious, though, that many men are spurned by women without feeling the sort of violent vengeful emotions that Peterson claims are universal? Sometimes men are spurned by women and they just think “It’s not a big deal, there are plenty more fish in the sea.” Or they think “That’s her loss not mine.” Or they think “I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.” There are as many emotional reactions as there are ways of thinking about the experience and that’s a big deal because the real revelation is that we can identify, evaluate, and transform our underlying beliefs.
Peterson’s writings lead in the opposite direction, though, further into the darkness of a sort of primitive ignorance concerning the nature of our emotions. In his philosophy, presumably like cavemen, we unthinkingly accept our angry and violent tendencies as human nature without questioning the values on which they’re based. Only when we confuse our thoughts with reality and lose sight completely of their cognitive aspect can we say along with Peterson: “this is exactly how every spurned male feels, to this day… then he turns to thoughts of revenge.”
We’ve seen how Peterson described “emotional, angry and anxious” arguments with his wife where “anger generates the desire to defeat and win.” His solution was for both parties to separate, identify areas where they could acknowledge their own errors, and share them with one another, like a sort of confessional. I mentioned my surprise at this strategy because it’s obviously hit and miss by nature, depending as it does on the behaviour of the other party.
However, it also surprised me because most modern therapists would, like the Stoics before them, begin by pointing out that the anger and anxiety are cognitively mediated. Again, to paraphrase Epictetus, “It’s not your partner’s behaviour that makes you angry and anxious but rather your opinions about what happened.” Peterson doesn’t mention anything like that, though. Perhaps there’s no point becoming angry in the first place because when we do so we fall into the fundamental philosophical error of placing more value upon external events than upon the use we make of them.
[When becoming angry with others remind yourself] that it is not people’s actions that trouble us (for those are a matter for their own faculty of judgement) but the opinions that we form about those actions. So eliminate your judgement that this or that is of harm to you, make up your mind to discard that opinion, and your anger will be at an end. — Meditations, 11.18
Marcus, of course, makes it sound easier than it is in practice. It’s good advice, though, and very consistent with the best research and evidence based practice in modern psychotherapy. Nevertheless, it’s virtually the opposite of the way Peterson talks about anger.
In a nutshell, Peterson’s idea is that anger is natural and inevitable. He wants to claim, for instance, that men inevitably feel enraged and want revenge when women reject them. Peterson has a lot more to say about relationships based on this, which we haven’t gone into here because the premise itself seems demonstrably false. Peterson is one of those people who believe that they know the minds of others better than they know themselves and he’s emphatic that even if you disagree with his interpretation of your motives, he’s right and you’re wrong — he’s the expert and you’re deluded. For instance, he thinks you all believe in God (Peterson’s concept of God, of course) whether you consciously admit it or not:
You might object, “But I’m an atheist.” No, you’re not… You are too complex to understand yourself.
That’s a remarkably dogmatic position for someone in clinical practice to adopt, to be honest — a context in which vulnerable clients are notoriously susceptible to pressure to agree with their therapist’s professed expert wisdom. Peterson consistently shows an unusual degree of confidence regarding his own insights into other people’s feelings. However, he also sometimes displays what I can only describe as a surprisingly grandiose vision of his own importance. For example, at the start of 12 Rules he explains how some of his major insights derive from a dream he had of himself suspended christ-like from a crucifix that forms the roof of a cosmic cathedral:
I dreamt one night during this period that I was suspended in mid-air, clinging to a chandelier, many storeys above the ground, directly under the dome of a massive cathedral. The people on the floor below were distant and tiny. There was a great expanse between me and any wall — and even the peak of the dome itself. […] I knew that cathedrals were constructed in the shape of a cross, and that the point under the dome was the centre of the cross. I knew that the cross was simultaneously, the point of greatest suffering, the point of death and transformation, and the symbolic centre of the world.
Some people are drawn to this sort of narcissism like moths to a flame. They like to be told what they’re thinking by someone who claims to be smarter than them. However, it’s difficult to know what to make of all this. Maybe Peterson is just trolling us about religion when he claims to know better than his readers do whether or not they believe in God. When writing of anger, though, he also appears to want to tell people exactly what they feel. They must, he thinks, be harbouring intense rage deep down about fairly common things — such as being turned down by a woman — whether they’re actually conscious of having such feelings or not. Of course, Peterson might be completely wrong about that — he says nothing to justify these sort of claims.
I should mention that in his introduction to 12 Rules for Life Peterson says “I wrote a list of rules, or maxims; some dead serious, some tongue-in-cheek”, speaking of his post on Quora on which the book was based. So by his own admission, some of what he’s saying is “tongue in cheek” — and designed, as he explains, to get maximum attention by provoking a reaction on social media. The contents of 12 Rules for Life, therefore, including his remarks about anger, are perhaps not meant to be taken seriously. Nevertheless, in my experience many of his supporters take his words extremely literally and assume that he’s being totally serious throughout.
Anyway, in contrast to Peterson, the Stoics and cognitive therapists argue that anger, like other emotions, is cognitively mediated. In other words, it’s not just how we feel it’s also how we think. Anger is an attitude, the product of our beliefs and values. That means it’s not inevitable that things like rejection should “make” us angry. Indeed, it should be obvious that people who experience the same setbacks in life often experience very different emotions.
To take responsibility for our emotions and desires the very first step is to be willing to accept that they do not necessarily reflect universal human nature. The next step is to identify the underlying beliefs that shape our feelings and critically evaluate them, which is what Stoicism tries to do on a grand scale, something that leads in a very different direction from Peterson’s philosophy.