Ancient Philosophy as a Therapy for Violent Passions
Ancient Philosophy as a Therapy for Violent Passions
One of the most celebrated physicians and medical researchers of the ancient world, Galen of Pergamon, wrote a book about mental illness, called On Passions and Errors of the Soul. The passion considered most dangerous by Galen and other ancient writers is anger. That’s because anger is, in a sense, the most interpersonal of emotions. It poses a threat not only to the angry individuals themselves but to others around them, and even to society as a whole.
Galen’s most striking case study for anger is that of the Emperor Hadrian, who had a violent temper tantrum one day because an unlucky slave did something to annoy him. Hadrian was writing at the time and happened to have a stylus in his hand — the Roman equivalent of a fountain pen. In a moment of madness, he stabbed the slave right in the eye with it, blinding him. Later, when Hadrian had calmed down, and was feeling highly ashamed of himself, he summoned the man and asked what he could do to make amends. The slave was silent for quite a long time but eventually found the courage to speak frankly to the emperor: “All I want”, he said, “is my eye back.”
The consequences of anger are often very destructive. Sometimes they cannot be reversed. Even the most powerful man in the world may be unable to undo the harm he’s done in a fit of violent rage.
Marcus Aurelius mentions overcoming anger in the very first sentence of The Meditations…
Galen is famous in his own right but he also happens to have been court physician to an even more famous historical figure, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius. (You might have seen Marcus Aurelius portrayed by Richard Harris in the Ridley Scott movie Gladiator, although that’s going back a few years now.) Marcus is well-known today, though, as the author of one of the most influential self-help classics of all time, a book which we call The Meditations.
He was the last famous Stoic philosopher of antiquity. Like Galen, the Stoics also believed that anger is one of the biggest psychological threats that we face. In fact, Marcus mentions overcoming anger in the very first sentence of The Meditations, and it’s one of the main themes running through the rest of his much-loved book.
The Stoics agreed with Galen that we should take care to contemplate the dangerous consequences of anger, picturing them in our mind’s eye. As we get older, and hopefully wiser, we can look back on our lives in this way, and learn from our experience. What have been the consequences of our own anger in the past? How has the anger of others affected our lives or the lives of those we care about?
The Stoics also liked to discourage anger by contemplating its consequences closer to home: how it contorts our face. Anger is ugly and, in a sense, unnatural, because, as though in a trance, we seem to abandon reason when we’re in the throes of rage. We’re thinking creatures and yet when anger takes control of us we become mindless and stop thinking. We’re therefore less human when enraged — that’s what the Stoics found most unnatural about it. Anger, hatred, and the desire for revenge, potentially turn us into animals.
One of the most famous Stoic slogans says that: Anger does us more harm than the things about which we’re angry. We eat our own hearts when we give in to anger, as philosophers used to say. It’s self-destructive. The consequences of our anger might harm others but we also harm ourselves. Modern research in cognitive psychology has shown that people who are very angry tend to underestimate risk. For that reason, they often expose themselves to danger. Anger makes us vulnerable, in other words.
That’s why Mohammed Ali tried to provoke George Foreman, for example, during the Rumble in the Jungle by taunting him in the boxing ring. Ali realized that anger was Foreman’s greatest weakness. When Foreman became angry he became reckless, threw too many punches, tired himself out, let his guard down, and made himself vulnerable as a result. He underestimated the risk of exhausting himself early in the fight.
The consequences of yielding to our anger can be harmful. Ask George Foreman — he ended up flat on his back, handing a knockout victory to Ali, and the heavyweight championship of the world. However, the Stoics were actually concerned about an even deeper kind of injury: the harm that anger does to our very character. They called anger “temporary madness”, and they were right. In addition to causing us to underestimate risk, strong emotions such as anger introduce many cognitive biases into our thinking. We start to make sweeping generalizations, we jump prematurely to conclusions, we struggle to empathize with others or to understand their motives accurately, and our problem-solving abilities are seriously impaired.
Even in the ancient world, there were those who tried to argue that, in moderation, anger could be useful. Most notably, the followers of Aristotle believed that anger sometimes helps to motivate us to do good things such as addressing genuine injustice in society. We call this righteous anger. The problem with this idea is that every tyrant, every brutal dictator, believes his anger is justified and righteous.
On the other hand, we can all think of examples of individuals, such as Gandhi, who achieved social change through peaceful means, without giving way to feelings of anger. Anger clearly isn’t necessary as a form of motivation. Anything anger can do, love and reason can arguably do better. For instance, a soldier motivated by anger may fight very courageously against an enemy he hates. However, so may one without hatred and anger, who fights only to defend the country, and kinsmen, that he loves. Even if you believe that anger can sometimes be helpful, it’s clearly not the only option, and the motivation it provides comes at a terrible cost. Anger blinds us and makes us stupider, by undermining our ability to think clearly and make rational decisions about complex social problems.
Get angry — do stupid things faster and with more energy!
People who say that anger motivates them remind me of the Internet meme that says: Drink coffee — do stupid things faster and with more energy! Getting angry motivates you, sure, by making you do stupid things faster and with more energy. We can’t think clearly when we’re angry, though. That’s why we make mistakes and end up doing things we regret later.
Think about it this way. If you’re trying to fix a leaking tap and bang your thumb with a spanner, you’ll maybe get all angry and frustrated. Suddenly it becomes ten times harder to do what should be a really simple repair job. If you don’t take a break to calm down, you’ll perhaps end up losing your temper and throwing the spanner across the room. We can’t even fix a broken tap when we’re angry. How much more difficult, though, is it to fix a broken relationship, or a broken society?
The most difficult problems we face in life are the ones involving other people — and that’s where being motivated by anger can become particularly dangerous. The fact is that very few complex social problems, throughout history, have ever actually been solved, in the long-run, by angry mobs. That’s because anger seriously impairs our ability to engage in rational decision-making and problem-solving.
Worse, anger has a tendency to escalate. People who end up losing their temper, and regretting it, almost always started off by thinking they were on safe ground indulging in feelings of moderate anger. They’re playing with fire because anger likes to deceive us into thinking that it’s under our control but we all know how quickly it can spiral out of control once it gets started.
So what do the Stoic philosophers think we should do about it? Well, of all the schools of ancient philosophy, Stoicism is the one that placed the most emphasis on self-help and psychotherapy. Although many people assume that psychotherapy is a modern concept that’s just plain wrong. The Stoics thought of philosophy as a form of therapy, therapeia in Greek, therapy for the soul or psyche.
They wrote influential books on the subject such as the Therapeutics of Chrysippus, the third head of the school. Most of these books are sadly lost today. Nevertheless, we do have many scattered references to their therapy techniques and even an entire book by Seneca called On Anger, which describes in great detail Stoic psychotherapy for this particular problem. Indeed, Stoicism was the original philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioural therapy or CBT, the leading evidence-based form of modern psychotherapy.
Now, the Stoics describe many techniques for managing anger. At one point, Marcus Aurelius actually gives a list of ten different strategies. They often bear a striking resemblance to methods found in modern cognitive-behavioural therapy. For example, one of the best-known and most fundamental Stoic techniques is simply to remind yourself “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” This is the basic idea that cognitive therapy inherited from Stoicism and in modern psychology we call it the cognitive theory of emotion — it says that our emotions, including anger, are shaped largely by corresponding, underlying beliefs.
When a therapy client arrives for their first session they’ll often spend a while describing how negative feelings like anger are causing them problems in life and making them miserable. They explain that anger is ruining their health, affecting their work, damaging their relationships, and so on. As they’re listing all the problems caused by their anger, it seems glaringly obvious why they’re desperate to change. Finally, though, in total frustration, they’ll say “I know my anger is causing all of these problems, and that it doesn’t make any sense, but I can’t help it, it’s just how I feel!” So they’re stuck — there’s nothing they can do to help themselves. A good cognitive therapist would lean forward, smiling, at that point and reply: “Yes but it’s not just how you feel, is it? — it’s also how you think!”
That’s important because most of our thoughts are propositional — meaning they’re either true or false. Once we recognize that our feelings are caused by our thinking we gain more control. We can question the evidence for and against the thoughts that are making us angry, check them against the facts of our experience, highlight contradictions in our thinking, and look for alternative perspectives on the same events, which might be more rational, realistic, and helpful. In other words, when we really understand the cognitive theory of emotion, it suddenly opens up a whole toolbox of cognitive therapy techniques for us. That’s a big deal because it often seems difficult, or even impossible, to change strong emotions such as anger directly. However, it can be easier to change angry emotions, indirectly, by learning to question our angry thoughts and beliefs.
It’s not other people who make us angry, therefore, but rather our opinions about them, especially our strongly-held value judgments. Marcus Aurelius tends to describe this as separating our opinions from the external events, or people, to which they refer. The Stoics like to follow this by asking themselves how someone wiser and more patient would respond to the same situation. They actually asked themselves: what would Socrates do? We might ask: what would Marcus Aurelius do?
However, the Stoics realized that in many cases it’s already difficult to think clearly once we’re in the grip of a violent passion, such as anger. So they recommend postponing our response until we’ve had time to calm down. This is actually a very ancient technique, which goes all the way back to the pre-Socratic philosophers, known as the Pythagoreans. In modern anger management, we call it the “time out” strategy. If you can walk away from an argument, for example, and wait until you’ve settled down again it’s easier to think things through more rationally and make better decisions about how to respond.
For Marcus Aurelius, as for other Stoics, the most important thing was a sense of connectedness. Humans were clearly built for cooperation, he says, like pairs of feet, hands, eyelids, or jaws working together. Acting against one another’s interests is contrary to nature, he adds, and it is against nature to become angry with our neighbour or to desert them.
Stoics were ethical cosmopolitans, in other words, who saw the whole of humankind as fellow-citizens of the cosmos. When we’re angry, though, we alienate ourselves from other people. The Stoics tried to conquer anger precisely because they wanted to restore our sense of oneness.