How Stoicism Cures Anger

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.

Stoicism

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?

Pursuit of Wonder New Pursuit of Wonder book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08D4VSD88 Stoicism is a potent ancient philosophy that remains extremely important in today’s age. In this video, we explore and interpret some of Stoicism’s teachings in attempt to better understand how we can try to find some happiness in a world of increasingly overt sadness, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. If you are interested in supporting the channel, you can contribute to our Patreon here: https://www.patreon.com/pursuitofwonder Or visit the shop here: https://www.pursuitofwonder.com/store Follow Pursuit of Wonder on: Instagram at: https://www.instagram.com/pursuitofwo… Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/PursuitOfWonder Recommended readings:  Letters From A Stoic by Seneca: https://amzn.to/2DTw4jQ Meditations by Marcus Aurelius: https://amzn.to/2H8zJMR
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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.

Moderate Anger

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.

Stoic Remedies

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.

Conclusion

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.

Marcus Aurelius mentions overcoming anger in the very first sentence of The Meditations…

Source: How Stoicism Cures Anger – The Good Men Project

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[…] of their ‘prestigious’ image they’ve been telling girls to keep quiet and to think of the accused’s mental health,” she said […]
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Suspect in anti-Asian attack against Guelph woman given warning by police | Globalnews.ca
globalnews.ca – Today
[…] Read more: ‘Emotional turmoil’: Managing mental health amid ongoing anti-Asian hate She said while driving on Tuesday evening, she spotted the man agai […]
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Psychologist | Diversified Staffing Services
[…] help, irrespective of faith, race, gender, lifestyle, or financial ability should have access to mental health care. Our diverse team of accredited professionals provides a wide range of mental health services for individuals, couples, families, teens, and children as young as four years old […] Enhance quality of psychological service offerings Assist in the planning and promoting community mental health programs Provide performances evaluations for the clinical staff Schedule clinical staff meeting […]
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New York is latest state to legalize recreational marijuana | Education
[…] drug treatment and prevention programs and a fund for investing in job skills, adult education, mental health and other services in communities that bore the brunt of the national and state drug war […]
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News in Brief | The Argonaut Newsweekly
argonautnews.com – Today
[…] for Los Angeles’ most vulnerable children, providing a range of exceptional programs in education, mental health, autism, adoption, residential care, prevention and early intervention […] It is one of LA’s most prominent resources for children’s mental health and is a Four-Star Charity Navigator rated organization […] Vista’s presence locally and nationally, shining the light on their unique and exceptional mental health, education and wraparound support programs and services […]
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Lockdown Legacy – 12 Positive Changes for Workplaces | theHRD
[…] 11 Wellness, self-care and mental health Key to getting through the last year has been the resilience shown by staff and employers acros […] Going forward? Much more mental health support in the workplace, with awareness days and training for staff at all levels to recognis […]
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HOT JOBS & COOL JOBS: ICU MICU MEDICAL INTENSIVE CARE UNITS TRAVEL RN LAFAYETTE LA USA
[…] Apply Now>> 20 Internal Medicine, PT Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Lafayette, LA, USA PRACTICE WITH ACADIA HEALTHCARE! Part-Time Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner Needed Vermilion Behavioral Health Systems * Children, Adolescents & Teenagers […]
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Speak Up for Ability 2021: Online Parents Forum Tickets, Sat, 24 Apr 2021 at 10:30 AM
[…] The topic this year is Catching Up and Moving Forward in Education and Mental Health for Students with Learning Disabilities […] get the Zoom link to attend any or all of the sessions you are interested in! Sessions include: – Mental Health and Learning Disabilities, tips and strategies from the Integra Program at CDI (Child Developmen […] to overcome challenges for students with learning disabilities, apply skills to promote the mental health of children/youth with LDs, and better understand how to navigate the current educational climat […]
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HOT JOBS & COOL JOBS: PHYSICAL THERAPIST OUTPATIENT PERMANENT LOUISVILLE KY USA
[…]  therapists, certified alcohol and drug counselors, activity therapists, mental health techs and  […]
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New York is latest state to legalize recreational marijuana
medicalxpress.com – Today
[…] drug treatment and prevention programs and a fund for investing in job skills, adult education, mental health and other services in communities that bore the brunt of the national and state drug war […]
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Mayim Bialik Keynote Speaker
[…] As the Lead On A New TV Show, Call Me Kat on Fox Comedy MAYIM BIALIK just launched a new podcast on mental health called Mayim Bialik’s Breakdown […] The podcast uses her Neuroscience PhD as well as her personal experience with mental health to take a comedic lens to an important topic […] Audiences rave about Bialik, appreciating her commentary on the science of the human experience, mental health, and more […]
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National Alliance Releases Purchaser Survey – National Alliance Website
[…] 2021 – Over the next few months employers are looking at better delivery reform strategies such as mental health access with a growing number focused on advanced primary care and centers of excellence […] delivery reform-based strategies with the most common being virtual care delivery and improving mental health access Related to payment reform – significant focus is being invested in hospital pricing an […] as well as bundled payment There is a significant focus on Total Person Health as it relates to mental health integration, people with multiple chronic conditions, recognizing diversity within the employe […]
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AP Recommends – what’s kept us positive in March?
blog.activeprofile.co.uk – Today
[…] Emergency Available on BBC iPlayer, Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency is a moving documentary about mental health and the suicide crisis affecting young men […] Although this documentary is hard hitting, it’s refreshing to see the stigma around mental health being lifted as it’s openly talked about more and more […]
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Lady Gaga Teams Up With Dom Pérignon –
wwd.com – Today
[…] has a charitable component: supporting Lady Gaga’s Born This Way foundation, which promotes youth mental health initiatives […]
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It’s Okay Not to Be Okay
[…] Pre-pandemic was no picnic: we were already dealing with a global mental health crisis and significant disparities with regards to race, class, gender, sexual orientation, age and […] Many of us are reeling as we experience a catastrophic impact on our mental health, and those we love […] Relationships are protective elements for our mental health […]
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Covid-19 Live Updates: Pfizer-BioNTech Vaccine Is Highly Effective in Adolescents, Study Suggests – The New York Times
[…] classrooms safer, the district should prioritize live time with teachers, increase counseling and mental health services and accelerate classwork to get students caught up, rather than get bogged down in mor […]
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Cookie dough features upcycled brewers’ grains | 2021-03-31 | Food Business News
[…] Doughp donates a portion of sales to support mental health and addiction recovery […]
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How employee benefits can support organisations’ strategic objectives
reba.global – Today
[…] The attention being given to employee wellbeing and mental health is unprecedented, and is perhaps finally gaining the recognition it deserves as being integral t […]
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HBP Call for Expressions of Interest (CEoI): COVID-19 and its impact on the brain and mental health
digital-strategy.ec.europa.eu – Today
[…] to support COVID-19 research, in particular in the field of COVID-19-related brain-disorders and mental health issues, by building on the strengths of EBRAINS research infrastructure […]
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Referendums on April Ballot
[…] tax that is currently imposed in Logan County at a rate of 1% for school resource officers and mental health professionals?”   IASB will report results of school referenda and tax proposals after the April […]
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The Health Benefits of Socializing
Socializing can provide a number of benefits to your physical and mental health […] You will enjoy better mental health […]
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Attention and working memory: Two sides of the same neural coin? –
bioengineer.org – Today
[…] This research was supported by by the National Institute for Mental Health (R01MH115042 to TJB) and the Department of Defense (a National Defense Science and Engineerin […]
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Nicola Sturgeon announces virtual election tour of Scotland | Daily
[…] – not least to pay for long-term policies on free school meals, public transport, council tax and mental health services, that this year will be paid for using temporary Covid-19 funding […]
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Sonia.cc
sonia.cc – Today
VIDEOS Lose Weight – How To Lose Belly Fat For Physical And Mental Health GARRY BLAKE MAR 31, 2021 COMMENTS OFF Whether for health or self reverence and trust, we all hav […]
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