A Simple Guide to Stoic Anger-Management
What Marcus Aurelius Says in a Nutshell
I recently shared An Illustrated Guide to Stoic Anger Management on Medium, which describes in detail the ten cognitive strategies listed by Marcus Aurelius in the Meditations. The article includes original artwork illustrating each strategy from our graphic novel, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.
In this post, though, I’m going to provide a more concise outline of these anger-management strategies, which Marcus calls ten “gifts” from Apollo, the Greek god of healing, and patron of philosophy. I’ll summarize each one in plain English, in a more simplified form, but you can always read the original article if you want more.
Ten Gifts from Apollo
1. Remember that humans are social creatures
This is possibly the strategy Marcus employs most often, reminding himself to focus on our natural capacity for forming families and communities. Greek philosophers had long argued, like modern evolutionary theorists, that our ancestors survived primarily by working together, and eventually building cities for protection. Marcus tells himself that because we’re naturally designed for cooperation, we have a duty to fulfil our potential by forming alliances rather than creating enemies.
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2. Consider their character as a whole
When we’re angry with someone we tend to focus selectively on the most annoying aspects of their behaviour. Marcus, however, had studied law and served for many years as a magistrate. He tells himself that in order to understand others we have to consider their whole character. Doing so often moderates our feelings of anger, by placing their behaviour in a wider context.
3. No man does evil willingly
This was a famous paradox of Socrates. Marcus tells himself that everyone naturally wants to grasp the truth, rather than fall into error. Likewise, we naturally want to do what’s rational, and in our interests. The Stoics argue that doing evil is against our true interests, which means that wrongdoing only occurs because of errors of judgment, about right and wrong. Of course, people commit crimes knowing that others consider them to be morally wrong but they don’t typically agree with that judgment — they believe what they’re doing is right and in their own self-interest. Marcus views this as an ethical mistake on their part rather than an act of genuine malice.
4. Realize that we all have similar flaws
Modern psychotherapists have often argued that anger is a form of “projection”, meaning that we get angry with other people for having flaws that we possess ourselves. Realizing that, though, can often moderate our feelings of anger, and it shifts the focus of attention on to the improvements we could make in our own character. Marcus tells himself to pause when becoming angry so as to ask himself whether he’s guilty, actually or potentially, of similar moral wrongdoing.
5. Keep an open mind about their motives
As a magistrate, Marcus knew that it’s often difficult to look into people’s hearts and ascertain their motives. People often do the right things for the wrong reasons, and vice versa. Some people are not even clear about their own motives, and may find them hard to articulate. When we become angry, though, we tend to jump to conclusions about what other people are thinking. Marcus tries to prevent himself from rushing to judgment, by pausing to consider whether he really understands why others have acted as they did.
6. Remember that you both must die
Reminding ourselves of the transience of material things in general, and even of our own lives, is a common Stoic strategy. When growing angry, Marcus also reminds himself that the other person will be dead before long, and shortly thereafter forgotten forever. The reason for the argument will likewise soon be lost in the mists of time. Focusing on the transience of these things can make getting very angry feel pointless.
7. It is your own opinions that anger you
This saying, derived from Epictetus, is the most famous Stoic psychological strategy of all, and the inspiration for modern cognitive psychotherapy: “It’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions about them.” Here Marcus specifically applies it to anger. We tend to say “He is making me angry” but Epictetus wants us to say “My opinions about him are making me angry”, because other individuals confronted by the same sort of behaviour might feel and respond very differently.
8. Anger hurts you more than the thing you’re angry about
Although less well-known today, this also seems to have been a common strategy in ancient Stoicism. For Stoics, all of our irrational “passions” (the pathological desires and emotions) do us more harm than the things they’re supposedly about. Fear does us more harm than the things of which we’re afraid, they say, and anger does us more harm than the people do with whom we’re angry. Focusing on the harmful consequences of anger, particularly the damage it does to our moral character, can help motivate us to change our response.
9. Kindness is the antidote to anger
This resembles a simple concept from modern behaviour therapy called the principle of reciprocal inhibition. Emotions that are genuine opposites, and mutually exclusive, can potentially be used to replace one another. You can remove anger, in other words, by focusing on cultivating its opposite. For Stoics, anger is typically the desire for revenge, i.e., the desire for others to be harmed or punished, because of some perceived injustice they’ve committed. In that regard, its opposite would be the desire to help others, which the Stoics call kindness. By making a conscious effort to respond with genuine kindness to others, instead of anger, we can create new habits, and eventually change our own character in a positive direction.
10. Realize the folly of expecting everyone to be wise
Marcus concludes with what he says is the most important strategy of all for coping with anger. The Stoics noticed that, paradoxically, when people are upset they usually talk as if they were shocked by events which are actually quite normal. “I can’t believe that traveling merchant lied to me about these magic beans!” We all know that people lie and steal every day, and seemingly foolish, vicious, behaviour, is very common. Reacting with surprise is quite irrational. A wise person cultivates a more philosophical attitude toward human behaviour, accepting in advance that people aren’t perfect, and that they often do things that seem unjust. Stoic philosophers try to view the wrongdoing of others calmly and dispassionately, as a natural phenomenon, like the behaviour of nonhuman animals. There’s a story that once when angry man attacked Socrates in the street, kicking him, an onlooker said the philosopher should sue him for assault. However, Socrates thought doing so would be ridiculous. He felt no more offended, he said, than if a donkey had kicked him.
Of course, you don’t need to master all ten of these strategies. You only need to find one of them that works for you in order to overcome feelings of anger. Most people, though, will find that they can relate to several, perhaps even most, of the Stoic strategies described by Marcus. If you want more vivid examples of how Marcus struggled with his own anger, until he learned to master it through Stoicism, please take a look at our graphic novel about his life, Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, which was chosen by Amazon editors as an Editor’s Pick for Best History Book, and has just reached 150 reviews on Amazon US.