The Most Damaging Negative Emotion

The costs of anger

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

Alexander the Great killed the man who saved his life.

The man’s name was Cleitus the Black. Six years after Cleitus saved Alexander’s life, Alexander reduced his military responsibilities. Clietus reacted by insulting his leader and the two men began to fight. The quarrel quickly escalated into rage. Alexander demanded weapons, but his friends refused and restrained him. They tried to removed Cleitus from the room to save him from Alexander’s anger.

Imagine the situation like a modern-day bar fight, where friends hold two hotheads back. The scene could have been comic, but it turned to tragedy as Alexander found a javelin and threw it through his friend’s chest.

Both Alexander and Cleitus paid the costs of rage. Clietus, no longer living; Alexander, living with his mistakes.

In Seneca’s On Anger, he singles out anger as the worst emotion:

With regard now to its damaging effects: no pestilence has been more costly for the human race.

Seneca, On Anger

The Stoics taught that anger is the result of the belief that someone has harmed us and, as such, deserves to suffer. Yet, usually, no one has hurt us and no one deserves punishment.

If someone bumps into you, you may react angrily and spin around – only to see that it was a child who fell over. The feeling dissipates. Your emotion was groundless.

Moreover, being bumped does not rob you of happiness. It does not prevent you from living well. To paraphrase Marcus Aurelius, passion distracts us from doing the one thing we need to do: be excellent people in whatever situation we find ourselves in.

To become angry is to lose focus and give in to delusion.

It’s like strapping a rocket onto your car. Yes, sometimes you may end up where you want to go, but in a little while, you’ll end up hurting yourself and others.

This doesn’t mean one should passively accept mistreatment. Justice demands that we stand up for ourselves and others. But we can do this without entering a vindictive rage.

Hence, the Stoic view is that anger – as they define it – is always wrong.

Whether you agree with that philosophy or not, we can all agree that a less angry world would be a better one.

Why do we concern ourselves with conflict and plotting? That man you are angry with – can you wish for him anything worse than death? He is going to die without your doing a thing.

Seneca, On Anger

🎯 Action

Seneca advised stopping anger in its tracks before it could get going. Today, ensure you have a plan to notice when anger begins and move to avoid it spiraling out of control.

Many progress with the following actions: taking a few deep breaths, reciting a Stoic maxim, returning your focus on excellence, physical exercise.

🔗 Resources

🧘 If you’re looking to overcome anger, you may find this set of meditations in the Stoa app invaluable. They cover the Stoic view in more detail and practices for becoming 10% less angry.

🎧️ Michael Tremblay and I had a discussion on anger here. We used Seneca’s work On Anger as the starting point and discuss why the Stoics believed it is is always unnecessary. We wrap up the conversation by reacting to Seneca’s responses to common objections.

🎂 I recently turned 30. To celebrate, I shared 30 excellent, provocative, and inspiring quotes here. Don't worry, I also had Burmese food too.

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