How To Control Your Anger (Lessons from Marcus Aurelius)

This is a guest post by Donald Robertson. Donald is a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, trainer, and writer. Robertson has been tirelessly researching Stoicism and applying it in his work for twenty years. He is also the author of the remarkable new book on Marcus Aurelius, How To Think Like a Roman Emperor

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How do we cope when we begin to feel anger?  This was one of the most important questions addressed by ancient Stoicism.  We have an entire book that survives today by Seneca called On Anger, which describes Stoic self-help using a repertoire of psychological therapy techniques for overcoming that particular emotion.  However, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius also focuses on applying Stoicism to this problem.  In one remarkable passage, Marcus provides a list of ten distinct strategies for overcoming anger, which he learned from his Stoic teachers.  He calls them gifts from the nine Muses and their leader Apollo, the Greek god of healing.  

Marcus returns to these ten gifts from Apollo and his Muses over and over again throughout The Meditations, often listing 2-3 of them, in different combinations, but always drawn from the comprehensive list he provides in this key passage, Meditations 11.18.  He even describes how he deals with other angry people by gently encouraging them to think the same way. Perhaps he’s recollecting a difficult conversation with his wayward son Commodus when he imagines himself saying: “No, my son, we were born for something other than this; it is not I who am harmed, it is you who are causing harm to yourself.”

The second piece of advice there is a very common Stoic strategy: reminding ourselves that our unhealthy passions, such as anger, actually do us more harm than the things we’re upset about.  It is not I who am harmed by your anger, ironically, it is you who are causing harm to yourself. However, it’s the first part of Marcus’ advice that I want to focus on where he imagines saying “we were born for something other than this.”  Although it’s easy to overlook this brief remark, Marcus intended it as an allusion to a very important Stoic teaching, one to which he refers many times throughout The Meditations.  

For example, Book Two opens with one of the text’s most loved and widely-quoted passages:

Say to yourself at the start of the day, I shall meet with meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and unsociable people. They are subject to all these defects because they have no knowledge of good and bad. But I, who have observed the nature of the good, and seen that it is the right; and of the bad, and seen that it is the wrong; and of the wrongdoer himself, and seen that his nature is akin to my own—not because he is of the same blood and seed, but because he shares as I do in mind and thus in a portion of the divine—I, then, can neither be harmed by these people, nor become angry with one who is akin to me, nor can I hate him, for we have come into being to work together, like feet, hands, eyelids, or the two rows of teeth in our upper and lower jaws. To work against one another is therefore contrary to nature; and to be angry with another person and turn away from him is surely to work against him. (Meditations, 2.1)

Notice what Marcus says here, as in the previous passage, he cannot be harmed by those who are angry with him or even betray him.  Moreover, he cannot be angry with someone he views as his own kin, as long as he bears in mind the Stoic principle that Nature intended them to work together. We’re all kin in the brotherhood of mankind, and fellow citizens in the universal city of Nature, according to Stoic cosmopolitanism.  Like pairs of eyes, hands, feet, or our two rows of teeth – it is as though Nature designed us to work in harmony and thereby achieve, through cooperation, more than we ever could by working alone or in conflict with one another.     

This is what the Stoics meant by saying that humans are naturally both rational and social animals.  From this premise, they conclude that we have a duty, to ourselves, both to reason well and to live in harmony with others.  Of course, as Marcus recognizes, often people don’t want to live very harmoniously and they may become angry with you, lie to you, betray you, and treat you like an enemy.  Nevertheless, according to the Stoics, we shouldn’t reciprocate by returning hate for hate. The wise man, or woman, is unfazed by insults or attacks and deals wisely with others, regardless of the circumstances.  As Socrates explains in Plato’s Crito, lovers of wisdom allow themselves to indulge neither in anger nor the desire for revenge:

Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return. (Crito, 49c)

Marcus likewise begins his list of anger management strategies by stating “First, consider how you stand in relation to them, and how we were born to help one another…” Whenever I think of this part of Stoicism, it always reminds me of a famous speech from the time of Socrates, known as the Great Discourse of Protagoras.  Protagoras was the first of the Sophists.  Although the Sophists are criticized by Socrates, he also admired and respected those like Protagoras who spoke well about virtue.  In Plato’s dialogue named after him, Protagoras delivers a remarkable speech, the Great Discourse, which was meant to inspire listeners with the same sense of natural kinship that Marcus Aurelius wrote about nearly six hundred years later.  

Protagoras argues that when the gods, or rather the titan Prometheus, created all creatures they were given special capabilities required for self-preservation.  Large animals can protect themselves by virtue of their size, and small ones by burrowing underground or flying away from danger. Some animals are given sharp teeth or claws, and others hard shells for protection.  Every animal has its way of surviving the changing seasons and other challenges of its environment. As we’d say today, each is well-adapted in its own way – due to the evolutionary principle of “survival of the fittest”.  However, Protagoras imagines that human beings were left until last and therefore missed out on wings, claws, hard shells, and other advantages when it comes to self-preservation.

After observing for a while, and noticing how human beings were struggling to survive, Zeus decided to help them out by granting them the gift of justice so that bonds of friendship would have the opportunity to form between them. Protagoras claims that Zeus planted the capacity for social virtue, or justice, in every human heart. He argues that this is proven by the fact that if someone is incompetent at any normal skill—such as dancing or playing the flute – it’s treated merely as a joke.  By contrast, if someone appears incapable of observing the law and justice it’s taken extremely seriously. They would be banished from society or even executed by the Athenians. Indeed, someone who knows that he is unjust he would be foolish to admit the fact in public because it is considered profoundly shameful by every other citizen.

Whether or not he’d read the Great Discourse of Protagoras, Marcus would have been familiar with similar arguments from later philosophers.  All humans naturally have the potential for social virtues like justice, kindness, and fairness. In order for families or communities to exist, we each need to exhibit at least a minimum degree of friendship and social virtue in our relationships with one another.  However, the finest among us, great heroes and enlightened philosophers such as Pericles and Socrates, have developed their natural capacity for justice and friendship to its highest level and are rightly admired for doing so.  

This was Marcus’ first gift from Apollo and his Muses, when it comes to healing our anger: reminding ourselves that Nature intended us to help one another.  The list of ten strategies he provides can be summarized as follows and I think it’s well worth learning:

  1. We are naturally social animals designed to help one another.
  2. Consider the character of others as a whole.
  3. Nobody does wrong willingly.
  4. Nobody is perfect, yourself included.
  5. You can never be certain of other people’s motives.
  6. Remember we all will die.
  7. It’s our own judgement that upsets us.
  8. Anger does us more harm than good.
  9. Nature gave us virtues such as kindness to counteract anger.
  10. It’s madness to expect others to be perfect.

I’ve only touched on the first of these here, because in some respects it’s the most fundamental for Stoics.  However there’s a more in-depth discussion of the other nine in How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.  


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