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.
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.
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.