An Underrated Approach For Overcoming Anger

Stoic humor for hecklers

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

Every week we share two emails to help you build resilience and virtue with ancient philosophy. Each email includes one meditation on Stoic theory, one action to do in order to become more Stoic, and links to the best resources we’ve found.

🏛️ Theory

A philosopher spends his days wandering through the market square. One day, without any provocation, a fellow citizen insults him.

The philosopher isn’t bothered in the slightest.

This disturbs the heckler. Why isn’t his target at least a little shaken up?

The philosopher sees the man’s discomfort, walks over to him, and says “Hey, let me show you something.”

He takes the heckler to his house. Once there, he ruffles through his cloaks and picks out the dirtiest one. He tells the heckler to wear it.

The heckler says “No. No thanks.”

The philosopher says, “Likewise, I choose not to wear your thoughts.”

Undoubtedly, that reply gave our philosopher satisfaction. Wit defuses any power others have over us.

Channeling this approach, Epictetus advised using humor to alleviate anger:

If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’

Epictetus, Handbook 33.9

And Seneca gave us this amusing image:

Anger always outlasts hurt. Best to take the opposite course. Would anyone think it normal to return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog?

Seneca, On Anger

Insults are only damaging if we agree with them. If we do not, they have no power over us. There’s some amount of truth in most verbal barbs. Someone truly vicious will target another's insecurity. The sense of inadequacy is likely – but not always – grounded in some fact and an interpretation of that fact. It’s our opinion that contains the mistake. Usually, it is some variant of the idea that some defect is an obstacle to happiness. This, of course, is an incorrect belief, one that levity can successfully address.

As an example, consider this line from a reader:

Yes, I am bald, but no, that doesn't ruin my my chance at happiness. Anyway, God made a finite number of perfect heads, most need to rely on hair to complete the look.

🎯 Action

Use a Stoic mantra when encountering anyone rude today:

  • If they knew more, they surely would have spoken worse of me.

  • There’s no need for me to wear another’s thoughts.

  • They do not know what they do.

If you have any stories of humorous responses to the invectives of others (or yourself), let me know by replying to this email. I’d love to hear them.

🔗 Resources

💬 Another reader, John, shared his favorite line on Anger in response to Monday’s email on anger:

How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.18

🎧️ Listen to author and psychotherapist Donald Robertson on Stoicism’s Cure for Anger

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