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Anger ...

1) Given how well we manage anger in some social settings, shouldn't that be much easier to handle? I mean by transferring our attitudes.

For example: In 30+ years of work I've not been angry with anyone (alone, yes, but not face to face or in a meeting) (I've witnessed a fistfight once!) while at home, it's been worse.

In my car I'm 15+ years post anger but on my bike, I'm badly upset and shouting too often (maybe not a great comparison - facing a thoughtless driver when biking is dangerous).

2) Long before I became aware of stoicism, I would reduce or eliminate anger in circumstances when I could blame ignorance of whomever I could be upset with (don't expect the person who cleans your house to understand some of the chemistry and physics of cleaning - they wouldn't clean your house, at least not for $10/h).

The ignorance line turned out to be very stoic. When I explained my Zen-like reaction to some non-quarrel to my son, he asked me, at age ten or so, if I thought most people were idiots. Good question and not necessarily great for the Stoic Weltanschauung, at least as tentatively formulated by my son.

3) To avoid making decisions when angry is great advice but it's more general: don't make decisions when you're tired, drunk etc.

4) Btw, you sometimes complain that ethicists don't live up to their own theories. At least the people you quarreled with on Substack Notes (was that Twitter for sane people?) about anger are consistent - I mean by getting angry and screaming. Not so much by their physical threats, I suppose.

(I've not gotten onto Substack notes but it's sad to hear that one more social medium is going to pieces)

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Maurits, all good points.

In response to your son's question, no, most people are not idiots, but they are ignorant, in the Socratic sense of the term. That's why compassion, not anger, is the right attitude.

Yes, Seneca also advices us not to tackle complex issues and discussions when we are tired, thirsty, hungry, and so forth. It took psychologists two millennia to rediscover the notion that someone who is hungry is more prone to anger...

Yeah, Substack Notes went down the drain very quickly, as far as I'm concerned. That's because it is an example of social media, regardless of what Substack claims. The newsletter and chat, by contrast, are a different beast, because they are limited to one's subscribers.

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An eminently rational philosophy regarding emotions. It might also be applicable in instances of overindulgence of positive emotions - for instance in a gushing of what is considered love but is usually infatuation or an intense desire bordering or identifying as lust as their very nature is out of proportion to the circumstances and their rejection by the object of their fervent desire can, and often does, lead to infuriation or despair.

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Thomas, absolutely! Though the Stoics distinguished love (a healthy emotion) from lust (an unhealthy one).

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Wonderful - thank you, Massimo. As an aside, before becoming interested in the Stoics (though following a long interest in Buddhism), I was impressed by an insight from a British comedian, Dave Gorman.

Essentially, he pointed out that when somebody is insulting you, they’re stepping up and saying “I want to upset you!” And how can anyone take that seriously?

So obvious, yet I’d not considered it in quite those terms.

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Richard, exactly! When we get angry because of an insult we are doing exactly what the other person wants from us.

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Perhaps drifting a little off-topic, but I was thinking recently of a line from Leonard Cohen’s song “Steer your way”:

“...steer your way past the pain, which is far more real than you...”

It interested me afresh that hard physical reality can so quickly puncture the ego. Then, I recalled the character “Long” John Sheddon saying in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Passenger”:

“Suffering is a part of the human condition and must be borne. But misery is a choice.”

This is very much the sharp end of Stoic practice, I think.

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Richard, I like the distinction between suffering and misery. Yes, very Stoic. Epictetus at one point says, if I have to die I will, but do I have to do it moaning and complaining?

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“Since It’s time for lunch...” paraphrasing a great ‘line’.😎

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Aug 27, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

Yes, I recall that now - I’ll have to go and re-read it. Thanks again!

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My thoughts on this have evolved a bit over the years.

For me this is the key passage:

“What is both understandable and actually useful is to allow yourself to feel indignation, a signal that a wrong has been done and that justice demands it to be corrected. But anger is destructive, of self and of others, and thus an unhealthy emotion.”

Displaying some of the signs of anger (*some*!) can be useful in certain situations where you need people to act, and there isn’t time to have a reasoned debate. Just last year I found myself in such a position, and I genuinely wasn’t angry, but I realised that I had to pretend to be a bit angry to get someone to do something that was absolutely necessary and had to be done right then (for their own good, I should add).

But the key thing is that I wasn’t actually angry. Arguably what I was displaying would not even properly be described as the signs of anger, but it’s something that we’re so familiar with that it serves as a good shorthand. (Maybe “assertiveness” with a sense of urgency.)

So... where my thoughts have evolved is that in the past I would’ve argued that there are some extreme situations where anger is useful in the purely physical sense. Someone attacks you suddenly, and you get the adrenalin rush that enables you to fight more effectively. But I now think (partly through reading Stoic texts and commentaries, but also other sources) that this isn’t really anger per se. This is the more base level physical reaction which is pretty much unavoidable. Anger, rather, is a higher-level response which involves more of a judgement of what’s happening. That’s why it’s possible to get angry about a verbal insult, a purely human problem. (If you didn’t understand the language, the same sounds would have less or no impact!)

In fact, I now think it would be a very unhelpful response to get angry while under attack. The last thing you need right then is for your brain to be distracted from the fight by pondering utterly unhelpful matters such as the outrage that the attack has happened. And I don’t believe that anger is in any way involved at the time of the incident. “Fight or flight” is not anger.

Later, after the fight is over (or avoided by running away) you might feel anger that the person attacked you for no reason. I’m not saying you should, but that’s where I now think the anger comes into it. It’s not in the moment; it’s the response.

So that’s a long way round of saying that I agree that anger is not useful, even in situations that look like it might be helpful, because the thing that actually can help is not actually anger at all.

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Actually, this is probably a more pertinent quote from your piece:

“This is not to say that anger cannot be effective. Of course it can. It may motivate people to act and to stand up for their rights or those of others. But if you need to feel anger in order to do the right thing you are like someone who needs a crutch in order to walk: you won’t be able to do it as well.”

I reminds me of the bit from (I think) Epictetus where he says about comforting a grieving friend by joining in with their grief... as long as you don’t overdo it inside yourself. Same thing with anger. Use a bit of the signs of anger if reason tells you that will be effective, but don’t be angry on the inside.

(And of course I’m not suggesting going into a full-on rage while being calm inside. It’s more like talking with more assertiveness, urgency and passion.)

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Wellington, all excellent points!

Seneca explicitly says that sometimes you have to pretend to be angry in order to get thins done, for instance when a child is being capricious. But you should not be angry inside.

He also mentions that what he calls the "first movement" of anger, like the fight or flight response, are not under our control and are not really anger proper. As you say, anger develops once we add our cognitive assessment of a given situation.

And yes, this has parallels with what Epictetus says about grief and how to behave toward grieving people.

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founding

This clarifies a recent discussion I had over dinner with a friend. You have broken down into parts and phases what we define as a process getting angry. It is the “cognitive assessment” phase where we best, or positively, frame the situation, and thus our emotion, which will not be anger. It’s scientific.🤔

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Exactly. This isn't just about one ancient dude arguing. It's about the evidence from modern cognitive science.

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Aug 26, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

Ah, “first movement of anger”. That’s a great way to put it. I’ll remember that.

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founding
Aug 26, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

Couldn’t agree with you. I was of the Freudian belief but I soon realized the anger upset a lot of people around you especially the lived ones& of course it shows your own character. I have read this version of Seneca. Thanks for sharing your comments. Always a pleasure to read it.

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founding

What an outstanding analysis and commentary. Your arrow hit the mark! I have had issue with anger in the past--and still do, to a much lesser extent. My friends and family have particularly seen marked change for the better of me in just the past few years. I see it, too. Rather than reiterate what you have covered, the emotion of anger must biochemically affect us (just, as say, a drink does); and when it does it can be difficult to use your intelligence to best assess and respond to the circumstance when imbued with that emotion--thus the justification of the waiting and cooling periods. I will make my strongest point: In hindsight, I find those responses that were done with reason have been better resolved than those done in anger. It is the moment versus the "look back." I never actually liked trying to destroy someone's reputation, anyway. I found that people were fearing me rather than respecting me. And, that is no way toward being a better person in the cosmopolis.

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Thanks Mike, appreciated!

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Seneca has always been my favorite Stoic... I know, plenty of personal flaws, reportedly; and M Rufus, Epictetus, Marcus A are all nice too-just saying. But as with all, who write of things/life/“philosophy”as if writ in black or white, I still find myself agreeing with him, with a few “yah, but(s)” That said, he is fundamentally right on anger, in my experience/opinion. Anger has always hurt much more than helped, in my life.

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Yes, Seneca wasn't perfect (as you probably recall, I've recently written about that: https://figsinwinter.substack.com/p/in-defense-of-seneca), but I agree, on the subject of anger he was pretty much on target.

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Leaving aside personal offenses (which have no importance in many circumstances), what would Seneca recommend in cases where one person was literally being tortured? Would a Jesus-like attitude of loving the torturer be appropriate? Is that attitude physiologically or cognitively possible or does it only happen to people with considerable asceticism or capability of not feeling their own body? Could be a decision not to feel pain especially inflicted in sensitive parts of a person's body? Haven't read anything about something like that (I think just two examples in literature).

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I would imagine (in terms of cause and effect) that various 'uncontrollable' states would ensue that experience/s. Once the physical/psychological shock/trauma/dissociation had passed later emotional states such as anger and revenge might be forthcoming, depending on the level of damage. Ascetics/yogis/specially trained individuals/soldiers might be able to survive those states better than others. Sitting on a rock in the cold Himalayas for many hours/days might be useful training to achieve a transcendent state, but being brutalised into 'not feeling' over a period of time seems to be the way of the world, as we have 'evolved' to know it. It's odd that the first two emails today led me to mention of torture, here's the other one https://seymourhersh.substack.com/p/the-inspector-of-abu-ghraib

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Sally, we don't need to be ascetics or to sit on the Himalayas. All we need is to nurture our compassion and rationality as human beings. And this isn't about suppressing feelings, it's about consciously reframing our experiences and how we see the world.

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True, we don't or maybe even could, but what exactly is consciousness..... and are we actually 're-framing' anything other than an illusion?

https://youtu.be/hkW0oma44uU

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Sally, the issue of consciousness is, as you know, a highly debated one, though I personally don't think there is any such thing as the "hard problem" (see: https://philosophynow.org/issues/99/What_Hard_Problem).

But for the purposes of practical philosophy and everyday discourse we are simply talking about our deliberate thoughts, of which we are aware, as distinct to our autonomic thinking, which goes on below the radar of our awareness.

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Ana, you cannot decide not to feel pain. That's impossible even for a sage. But you can decide how to frame the experience in your mind. So, yes, the Stoics would say that even in the face of torture one ought not to hate one's torturer. Difficult, but not impossible. Mandela did it, for instance, after reading Marcus Aurelius's Meditations.

But I honestly think that taking extreme situations like those is a distraction. Most of us are very unlikely to be tortured. But we are very much likely to be insulted or subjected to a number of everyday abuses. Let's start with those, which are much easier to handle, and much more pertinent to our actual life, than torture.

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Great. Yes, it would not be usual in contemporary life. Anyway, it is something possible, depending on what part of the world you are, I suppose. I find it interesting because of the possible origin of moral and religious systems, which most likely have suffering (and in particular that inflicted by others) as one possible motivation for their creation and institutionalization in moral or religious laws, philosophy of life texts, etc. I will read a little more about Mandela. Thank you

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Aug 25, 2023Liked by Massimo Pigliucci

What a great summary of Seneca on anger! Thank you, Massimo.

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