Stoic philosophy teaches us how to deal with emotions. In its teachings, we’re able to reflect on how to handle the state of sadness, anger, anxiety and much more. I think Marcus Aurelius is probably the best example when it comes to this matter; after all he was a great Emperor.
Aurelius encountered many problems during his Roman reign at the time. We know that he was facing issues such as hunger, plague, war, flattery, hypocrisy, as well as the problematic behavior of his son. Regardless of this he was a man of flesh and blood, just like you.
I would like to begin with one longer quote which refers to how the Emperor starts his day:
“When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surely. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood and birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are unnatural.” – Marcus Aurelius
This long quote can become a mantra to someone who has a job that entails high responsibility. The sad and disappointing tone is lifted in the second sentence. We can notice that Marcus Aurelius agrees that all human beings share something in common, and it seems like he’s redeeming them in his monologue.
Aurelius noticed that what connects him to others is a “share of the divine” which is actually reason. Yet, the usage of the same reason is what separates him from others in a matter of degree. The Emperor is aware that he stands on the higher ground, because his mind is calm and can easily pierce through others minds: as he states: “They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil”.
This higher ground enables him to stay on the right course, rather than succumb to emotions or bad decision making when the times are tough. Furthermore, it is worth noting that Marcus Aurelius manages to endure his stress by thinking deeply about how to manage misfortune.
One can say that even a stoic has his ups and downs, they’re a different kind of “ups and downs” because the difference lies in the perception one holds. Virtuous minds endure difficult situations with restraint, while untrained minds succumb and scatter without the lead.
Seneca On Anger:
Seneca is the second important stoic who will address this issue. Because he approached the problem more radically:
“Anger is like a ruin, which, in falling upon its victim, breaks itself to pieces.” – Seneca
“No plague has cost the human race more. We see all around us people being killed, poisoned, and sued; we see cities and nations ruined. And besides destroying cities and nations, anger can destroy us individually.” – Seneca
Anger is the most common emotion which we connect to the state of “being upset”, therefore stoics recognized its violent and destructive nature. The issue with anger is that it destroys everything around it.
It seems that Seneca had at least two contradictory approaches on how to deal with anger. Both are listed below:
“We shouldn’t control anger, but destroy it entirely — for what control is there for a thing that’s fundamentally wicked?” — Seneca
“Hesitation is the best cure for anger. The first blows of anger are heavy, but if it waits, it will think again”. – Seneca
Firstly, Seneca is eager to destroy anger, not to suppress it or conceal it, because he’s aware that it’ll burst at any given moment. You can notice the desperation and helplessness which proves to us that stoics can be upset. On the other hand, Seneca states the opposite, namely, anger can be pardoned if we make some space for hesitation to emerge.
These kinds of examples can show us how anger management, and how emotional distress can affect our thinking. Marcus tried to overcome this in meditations, but Seneca had differing views. Being upset is a state we encounter on a daily basis. And you can see how stoic philosophers dealt with it.
The best way to go about things if you’re angry, is to ignore the problem till your head cools off. It’s much easier to tackle the problem when it’s not boiling hot, with temperance and prudence. Two of the most important stoic virtues.