Taming Fire: The Stoics On Anger

At some point today, you will likely feel the jolt of anger. It might be on your commute home when someone cuts you off in traffic, or during an unpleasant interaction with your boss. Anger, in a primal sense, is a defense mechanism. It accelerates us to action during emergencies or ignites us with the courage to defend those closest to us. But it is also a trap. Rather than observe our emotions during small inconveniences and daily mishaps, we are instead consumed by anger. And while our circumstances have evolved, ancient Stoic insights on managing and understanding anger remain as relevant as ever.

Seneca: The Rationality of Rejecting Anger

Seneca spoke widely and eloquently on the subject of anger. In his writings, he boldly claims, “Anger is a brief madness, and it is more harmful than the one which is permanent.” Seneca challenges us to recognize the disproportionate damage a fleeting moment of anger can inflict. His advice? Counteract it early: “The best plan is to reject straightway the first incentives to anger.” In today’s terms, before escalating that heated email exchange or office dispute, take a step back, breathe, and approach with reason. When you react out of anger, you’re only creating problems for the future you.

Marcus Aurelius: Finding Strength in Perception

Marcus Aurelius exemplified leadership under pressure, leading a life of immense civic responsibility that few could withstand. In ‘Meditations’, he draws attention to the repercussions of yielding to anger, stating, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” A missed deadline or a contentious meeting might trigger frustration, but the fallout of reacting in anger is far more detrimental. Marcus emphasizes our inner power with: “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.” This underscores the need to focus on our internal reactions rather than external triggers.

Epictetus: Adjusting Our Lenses

Epictetus, with his unique background as a slave, teaches that our disturbances come not from external events but our judgments of them. “Men are not disturbed by things, but by the views they take of them.” This is a call for introspection. When faced with setbacks, reassess your perspective. Is the situation itself problematic, or is it our interpretation that needs recalibration? In most cases, anger is simply the easiest emotion to fall into, not the one that yields the desired outcome. Take a view from above when you sense encroaching frustration. What is it that you’re frustrated at and how can you respond in a way that mitigates your frustration instead of feeding into it?

The Timeless Application

While the Stoics grappled with the challenges of their era, their wisdom transcends time, offering invaluable guidance for professionals today. In navigating our modern world, we can leverage Stoic teachings as a compass. The goal? Respond with reason, maintain equanimity, and harness the power of perspective to avoid and understand our angry impulses.