A Stoic Response to Being Punched or Insulted

 

“Who then is invincible? The one who cannot be upset by anything outside their reasoned choice.” — Epictetus

In his essay “Of Anger” Seneca relates a telling story about another prominent Stoic. Visiting the public baths one day, Cato was shoved and struck. Once the fight was broken up, he simply refused to accept an apology from the offender: “I don’t even remember being hit.”

Cato’s example is a good one for us to remember the next time we are slighted. Are we going to hold onto it? Are we going to demand that someone earn our forgiveness and pat ourselves on the back at how generous we are for giving it? Or can we just move on—like nothing even happened. Because honestly, nothing really did.

As Seneca would write,

“It is the part of a great mind to despise wrongs done to it; the most contemptuous form of revenge is not to deem one’s adversary worth taking vengeance upon. Many have taken small injuries much more seriously to heart than they need, by revenging them: that man is great and noble who like a large wild animal hears unmoved the tiny curs that bark at him.”

Cato and Seneca advise us to despise anyone who has slighted us. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius saw it as a lesson: who not to be. As he would write in his own journal, which would become known as Meditations, “The best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.” The best revenge is to let it go, and live a better life.

Because as Seneca said, anger always outlasts hurt. You wouldn’t return a kick to a mule, he said, or a bite to a dog. You’d just move on. You say, “Oh, that’s what dogs and mules do.”

Does this mean that if you are physically attacked and in danger you do not stand up for yourself? Of course not. But if they had the chance, a Stoic will always prefer tranquility over a fight.

This is something renowned self-defence expert Tim Larkin writes about, that it is always critical to de-escalate a potentially violent situation if possible. When your ego gets threatened and you feel like lashing out and getting in a fight, he says, employ the Three Day test: Three days from now, if you’re sitting in a jail cell or laying in a pine box, was the escalation worth it? Probably not, right? Why be one of those sad cases where someone just had to prove themselves—and ended up accidentally killing another person. The right approach is the opposite of Hamlet’s line about protecting one’s honor even at the smallest slight: “but greatly to find quarrel in a straw / when honor’s at the stake.”

But notice the caveat: If it is not possible to de-escalate, and you are in a situation that is threatening your life, when violence is the only answer, it must be given swiftly and devastatingly. The Stoics valued tranquility over petty fights but they also trained in wrestling and combat for a reason.

So how would a Stoic respond to a provocation? 99.99% of the time they wouldn’t. .01% of the time? You would not want to be on the other side of it.


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