Negotiating with Anger

In the Stoic psychology, anger, like all of the passions, is a source of irrationality and vice. Seneca has the most complete treatment available to us, and it includes many descriptions of the undignified behavior of people in the thrall of this passion. The Stoic ideal was apatheia; the absence of passions. This did not mean the absence of emotion; the distinction between destructive passions on the one hand, emotions on the other, and reason, is a not entirely untenable taxonomy. That apathy has come to mean not only a lack of passion, but a lack of motivation, initiative, or willpower, is surely a mark of the triumph of Stoicism’s intellectual enemies.

Aristotle had a different take on anger. For him, all emotions were to an extent cognitive; they had intentionality and were based on beliefs. Moreover, having the right emotional response to the right degree for the right reason was an important part of a virtuous character. Erroneous of inappropriate anger was a sign of a character flaw.

Yesterday, I was very angry about something. It began to boil first thing in the morning, on my way to work. It hit me very hard for a duration of about 20 minutes later that afternoon. This anger is of a very particular kind. I remember the first time I felt it—it was, in fact, almost exactly ten years ago. Back then, I indulged in some very spiteful and nasty plans for the objects of my anger. Fortunately, my lack of self-restraint was coupled with a complete and utter cowardice, and so no rash actions were taken.

Yesterday morning, I had spent my commute talking myself down to a reasonable state of mind. Once at work, I threw myself into my responsibilities. When the time finally came to discuss the object of my anger, it went very well—I had less to be angry about than I thought I did, if it’s even appropriate to think of the situation in terms of what I have to be angry about.

Yet it was after that conversation that I was really overtaken by the anger. I very nearly saw red; it was all I could do to keep myself from screaming or thrashing about or otherwise making a scene. I did keep myself from such childish behavior, and thankfully the moment passed.

In Aristotle’s scheme, I exercised self-control but lack true temperance. In the Stoic binary of 0 = non-virtuous, 1 = virtuous, I am a clean 0.

For my part, I don’t know why I got so mad when I got so mad. Mostly, I am glad I weathered it without doing anything stupid. Maybe that’s the most that can be expected from someone so intemperate.

It’s certainly a start.


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4 thoughts on “Negotiating with Anger

  1. I find that I need an outlet for my anger: someone to listen. Then, as soon as I’ve vented, I somehow feel foolish. How embarrassing to have let myself be taken over by something so inconsequential. Yes, it’s very annoying in the moment…but will it really matter in a day, a month, a year? I wish I could learn to not need an outlet…I guess I am better now than I used to be, though.

    Man, I should really read Seneca.

    1. If you’re venting in a healthy way, and feeling that way after, it sounds to me like you’re already in a good place 🙂

      I agree though that the question of “how will I feel about this in a day, a month, a year?” is very clarifying. This is why I think there is something to Aristotle’s point of view. You *can* talk yourself down, to an extent, by shifting your perspective. Your emotions do respond to that somewhat.

      1. Thanks for your reply!

        It’s funny. I downloaded a mindfulness app, and every now and then in the middle of a crazy hectic day, I look down and see there’s a little alert asking me how I’m feeling, what am I sensing, am I living mindfully. And with a mental, “pfffft” I think, “I’m feeling like I don’t have time to be mindful, thankyouverymuch.” Maybe with more “mindfulness practice” I would be able to shift my perspective more easily. Practice, practice, practice…

  2. It takes practice to negotiate with your anger, but I do agree that a person has the capability to control it by shifting your attention to something else. I struggled to do that at first, it isn’t really consistent but mostly manageable.

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