Controlling Our Anger

Approaching this heated emotion Stoically

It is a myth that the Stoic sage doesn’t have emotions. Instead, the Stoic sage has no negative emotions — a state of being referred to as “apatheia”. Apatheia is, of course, part of the history of the word “apathy”, so one can see why people might read the word “apatheia” and think, “Oh, that means apathy. The Stoics were apathetic and emotionless.”

This a reasonable conclusion to come to if your interest in Stoicism is shallow. It is an unreasonable conclusion to come to, however, if your understanding of emotions includes the explanation of the Stoic’s understanding of emotions which I’m going to share with you today.

Emotions exist, and we’re meant to experience them.

Of the emotions which exist, there are two sorts: (1) proto-emotions and (2) assented-to emotions. Knowing the difference between these two types of emotions is necessary in order for us to learn how to manage our anger and any other emotions we find ourselves wanting to manage.

An example of a proto-emotion could be the feeling of fear you get when a friend, playing a practical joke, jumps out from around a corner and scares you half-to-death. Your sudden fright is a base response of your primal nature — it is the result of eons of evolutionary biology.

An example of an assented-to emotion is the feeling of fear you get when imagining the monster under your bed. This is a fear that arises from your own reasoning and not your primal nature.

Proto-emotions cannot be controlled (rather, prevented), and, importantly, everyone expresses these emotions differently because everyone is different.

Regardless of how one expresses proto-emotions, however, everyone has one thing in common: they are not actively reasoning to these emotional states. An individual expressing them is not, in a word, choosing to do so. Any emotion that is not chosen, cannot be controlled.

Assented-to emotions, on the other hand, can, in theory, be controlled.

If you’re afraid of a monster being under your bed, you’ve reasoned yourself to the conclusion that monsters exist in the first place and that one is very likely to be under your bed. This, of course, is illogical. Monsters don’t exist and, even if they did, what are the chances you’re important enough for those monsters to bother with you specifically?

It is this latter sort of emotion that the Stoics want us to learn how to deal with, and quickly. Enter the concepts of…

Impression and assent

An “impression” is a kind of unqualified input that our mind wants to form a belief about. The impression could be the smell of apple pie, a loud crash in the next room, or a sudden flash of light. If we smell something that smells like apple pie, that smell is impressed upon our mind and we are presented with the opportunity to form a belief about the smell. If we’re not being intentional, we might immediately assent to the belief that our neighbour is baking an apple pie.

The Stoics ask us to be on constant guard for this sort of thing because an impression isn’t a fact. We might be mistaking the smell of cinnamon for apple pie, for example. Maybe it’s not an apple pie at all. Maybe it’s a cinnamon-scented candle that my neighbour recently lit, the fumes of which have drifted out of their opened kitchen window, into mine, and then into my nostrils.

This seems like a pretty trivial and unimportant mistake, doesn’t it? After all, what damage is done by making such an unimportant error in judgment? Fair question, as the Stoics aren’t exactly desperate to make sure we don’t mistake the scent of melting wax for tasty food!

What about when we’re talking about the sight of smoke, though? Or a strange text on our spouse’s cell phone? Or that suspicious-looking guy across the street? What happens when the belief we’re reasoning ourselves toward is something of higher stakes?

To live excellently, one cannot be running around town mistaking wax for pie, fog for smoke, surprise birthday planning for spousal impropriety, or innocent men with weird faces for criminals. If we start eating candles, screaming fire when there isn’t any, chastising our spouse when they’ve done nothing wrong, and reporting weird-looking innocent men as criminals, we’re not going to be living excellently. Instead, we’re going to be living like fools.

Suppose we continue down a many-forked path of choices, always choosing to assent to impressions that aren’t true. In such a scenario, we wind up very far from an accurate interpretation and understanding of the world within which we live.

This is not where the Stoics want us to be

The Stoics want us to withhold assent until assenting makes logical sense and to, in a word, remain impartial until such time arrives. This is the difference between someone who accuses their spouse of cheating based on one mysterious text, and someone who doesn’t and is pleasantly surprised, a week later, on their birthday, to find that one mysterious text was, in fact, part of the planning of their surprise birthday party.

“Surprise! You didn’t accidentally file for divorce!”

At the outset of this issue, I told you it wasn’t true that sages are without emotion. That was the truth, but it wasn’t the whole truth. There are some emotions that the Stoic sage would not have, the so-called “negative” (or unhealthy) emotions — pathos. Pathos are, loosely defined, excessive or irrational emotions.

As an example: if you’re so hopelessly in love that you can’t eat well or take care of your body, that’s a pathos of excess.

Another example: If you’re in a rage because someone cut you off in traffic, that’s a pathos of irrationality.

Although, technically speaking, both are pathos of unjust reasoning and so both are pathos of irrationality — I am creating two breeds of negative emotions for the sake of talking more easily about them. Most people probably think of infatuated love as being in a different family of “problems” than road rage. Rather than argue technicalities, at least for this, it’s easier to agree with them.

I’ll save pathos of excess for another issue and, for now, turn my attention to pathos of irrationality since that’s the sort of pathos I’m classifying anger as.

The Ancient Stoics believed that the only good in the whole world was Virtue (the attainment of the knowledge of how to live excellently). The opposite of Virtue was Vice. Virtuous behaviour was behaviour that was sage-like. Vicious behaviour was behaviour that was not sage-like. One could act virtuously without being a sage, but one could not be virtuous without being a sage. This meant that all men (and women) were vicious since the Sage was not believed to be a truly attainable state and was instead an ideal to model our behaviour after (in our attempts to become better people).

Only one thing can make us vicious: our choices

When we choose, we show the knowledge we possess.

If we choose viciously, we demonstrate that we do not possess the knowledge of how to live excellently for, if we did, we could not have avoided choosing virtuously. For this reason (and some others) the Ancient Stoics believed everything but choice was an indifferent. Not indifferent as in “doesn’t matter” but indifferent as in “has a null impact on our ability to choose virtuously.”

To the Stoics, the only bad was to be vicious and the only good was to be virtuous. Plenty of other things mattered to the Stoics, but nothing else was the central focus of their philosophy.

And it is here that I must introduce you to a fundamental concept in Stoicism: the idea that no one ever willingly does evil or wrong.

According to this idea, when a person acts viciously they are acting in a way they truly believe to be appropriate — for why else would they act that way? I’ll take the worst person anyone can think of as an example: Hitler.

Remember, a moment ago, when I wrote the bit about traveling down a many-forked path, always assenting to the incorrect impression, and eventually winding up extremely far from an accurate perception of reality? That’s Hitler: a man who reasoned poorly (consistently), and all the while believed he was reasoning well.

According to the Ancient Stoics, all vice, and all evil, results from ignorance. No one can do anything they truly believe is wrong; they always have the justification of subjective context. “Yes I know it’s wrong to drop a nuclear weapon on a bunch of innocent people, but if I do it, I will end the war and save countless other lives.” Anyone saying this doesn’t believe dropping a nuclear bomb on a bunch of innocent people is, in their subjective context, wrong — on the contrary, they believe it is right.

What does this have to do with anger? Everything.

Whatever the person you’re angry with has done to draw your ire, you now understand that they’ve done it believing it to have been the appropriate thing to do. If it wasn’t, in actuality, the appropriate thing to do, they’re guilty of nothing but ignorance.

Is it reasonable to be angry with someone who is ignorant? For this, you must be introduced to another Stoic concept: the Dichotomy of Choice (usually known as the Dichotomy of Control — I use the word “choice” because “control” invokes ideas of power and authority, and the concept wasn’t ever meant to do that).

Epictetus, arguably the most famous of the Ancient Roman Stoics, was the biggest advocate of the Dichotomy of Choice. The Dichotomy of Choice describes the phenomenon that things can either be within our ability to choose or beyond our ability to choose.

If something is within our ability to choose, it is internal to us, it exists in our minds.

If it is beyond our ability to choose, it is everything else.

We can choose most of our thoughts and emotions, and we can choose our attitudes, decisions, and actions. We cannot choose anyone else’s thoughts or emotions, nor can we choose anyone else’s attitudes, decisions, or actions.

Epictetus would tell us that the root of all suffering comes from mistaking that which we cannot choose for that which we can. We suffer when we believe we should be able to choose how others behave, because we become emotionally troubled when the way we wish someone would behave is not the way they do behave. Extrapolate this to anything that we cannot choose and you’ll see what a rampant problem it.

We don’t want to experience traffic on the way home from work, we don’t want to be sick, we don’t want our pets to die, we don’t want our homes to be broken into, we don’t want to be mugged; we don’t want a great many things.

In the same way, we want to win the lottery, we want to get a raise at work, we want people to appreciate us, we want people to respect us, we want our children to be successful; we want a great many things.

And whether we don’t want or do want, the reality is the same: we can’t choose things that aren’t ours to choose, and if we spend an entire life believing otherwise, then we spend an entire life lusting after a degree of choice we cannot ever have.

When we’re angry at someone else’s ignorance, we’re necessarily angry about not being able to choose whether or not they are ignorant. This means the reason we’re angry isn’t the result of someone else’s actions or behaviours, it is, instead, because we have chosen to desire a degree of choice over others which we cannot ever have. We have chosen to be angry.

If you don’t want to be angry, you must first realize the truth of what you’ve just read, and, only then, can you choose to choose differently.

Take care,

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