How to Cope with Anger, the Stoic Way

Aeneas and Turnus, by Luca Giordano.

The emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid, which came to be regarded as the foundational myth or national epic of Rome, and Virgil’s finest work. The poem tells the story of Aeneas, the son of Venus by the Trojan prince Anchises, as he flees burning Troy and struggles to fulfill his destiny, which, as oft foretold, is to reach Italy and sire the line of the Romans, who will come to rule all the known world.

After escaping the clutch of Dido, Aeneas finally arrives in Italy, to be betrothed to Lavinia, daughter of King Latinus—who had, however, been promised to Turnus, King of the Rutilians. War breaks out, culminating in a duel between Aeneas and Turnus. Aeneas has Turnus on his knees, pleading for his life, but then sees that he is wearing the belt of his fallen friend and kills him in a furious rage.

Although Aeneas eventually surrenders to his fate and fulfills his destiny, he is constantly overwhelmed and waylaid by his emotions, even to the very end when he slays Turnus. This very Stoic conflict is the source of some of the most resonant lines in the Aeneid, such as this one: “Fear is the proof of a degenerate mind” [Degeneres animos timor arguit].

It is worth remembering that the Aeneid was written for the benefit of Augustus, who was, if not quite a Stoic, then at least a friend of Stoicism. Before he became emperor, Augustus was tutored and mentored by the Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites. Now in his dotage, Athenodorus begged to be dismissed from the emperor’s service. As he was taking leave of Augustus, he reminded him, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet.” At this, Augustus seized him by the hand, and said, “I still have need of your presence here.”

Seneca on Anger

How, using Stoic principles, might Aeneas have controlled his anger? And how might we? The expert here is Stoic philosopher Seneca, who wrote a substantial work on anger, apparently, after his brother Novatus asked him, “How anger may be soothed.”

Anger, says Seneca, is a bad habit that people tend to pick up from their parents. When a child who was raised at Plato’s house was returned to his parents and saw his father shouting, he said, “I never saw this at Plato’s house.” More generally, anger is transmissible: if we are around angry people, it is hard not to lose our temper, however, temperate we may normally be. For this reason alone, we ought to prefer the company of mild, level-headed people. Even wild animals become gentle in the company of the calm.

We should also resist our egocentric tendency to believe the worst about others. Often, the people at whom we are most liable to get angry are those who are in fact trying to help us. Although, of course, not as much as we would like. In their minds, they are only trying to do what they think is best for them, and we, by our anger, are trying to interfere with that—which is why they tend to return our anger. If what they are doing is not in their best interests, then we should calmly explain that to them, rather than losing our temper and, with it, their ear.

As for the things that anger us, they are often mere slights or annoyances that do not do us any real harm. Luxury debilitates the mind and undermines our sense of perspective so that people who are accustomed to luxurious living are more prone to anger over trivial things. Even if someone kills our father or our daughter, anger is not required to honour their memory, seek out justice, and, more generally, do the right thing. Many people think that anger is a show of virtue or a spur to virtue; at most, it can substitute for virtue in those who lack it.

Anger and grief only add to our existing pain, and often do more harm than the things out of which they were born. It is out of anger that Alexander the Great killed the friend who had saved his life—that great conqueror of kings, himself brought low by anger. And it is also out of anger that Medea slaughtered her own children. According to Seneca, anger is a short-lived madness, and differs from the other vices in this, that “whereas other vices impel the mind, anger overthrows it.” The angry person, he continues, is “like a collapsing building that’s reduced to rubble even as it crushes what it falls upon.”

Human beings are born to provide and receive assistance. Anger, which on the contrary seeks to arrogate and annihilate, is so inimical to our nature that some angry people have benefited from looking in a mirror. Those who are unwilling to check their anger and work with others for the common good are like wasps in a beehive, gorging on the honey of others without making any of their own.

For all these reasons, the Stoic should never get angry: she might feel the beginnings of anger, but then reject this passionate impression that threatens to overthrow her reason and tranquillity and the dignity that follows in their train. To regain perspective when angry, to reclaim our sanity, we might ask ourselves: “Am I expecting too much of the world?” Or, “How is getting angry going to help me?” Or again, “Who will remember this in a day or in a year, or in a hundred?” But the surest cure for anger is delay because it gives us a much better chance of rejecting our passionate impression.

“Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet.”

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories