Ancient philosophy—it’s the future! Or at least it’s currently experiencing a resurgence in popularity. That started back in the 1960s with the development of what was to become modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). CBT originally drew inspiration from an ancient Greek philosophy called Stoicism, which—believe it or not!—developed its own therapeutic concepts and techniques 2,300 years ago. Now CBT is the leading evidence-based form of psychotherapy and its growing popularity and influence over the past half-century has helped to ignite interest in the philosophy that came before it—the great-grandaddy of modern self-help literature.
The Stoic school of philosophy was founded in Athens at the end of the fourth century BC and it survived for nearly 500 years. The Stoics drew heavily upon the earlier teachings of Socrates. However, they focused mainly on the practical side of his philosophy. They were interested in how philosophical concepts and related psychological strategies could be used to develop greater self-discipline and emotional resilience.
Stoicism’s most famous adherent was the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, who died in 180 AD. (You might have seen Richard Harris portraying Marcus in the Hollywood movie Gladiator.) His personal journal of philosophical reflections, The Meditations, is still one of the most widely-read spiritual and self-help classics today. It contains dozens of examples of psychological exercises employed by the emperor to maintain his inner sense of equanimity throughout the Marcomannic War he was fighting along the banks of the River Danube, against hordes of invading barbarian tribes.
Marcus Aurelius famously struggled to control his own temper. He returns to this problem time and time again in his book as he reminds himself of various ideas that he’s found helpful in managing anger. At one point he actually lists 10 Stoic anger management strategies, which he describes as “gifts from Apollo,” the god of healing. Here are five of them:
Strategy #1: Remember that you’re not perfect either.
The Stoics thought it was important for us to recognize our own flaws. When someone offends you, pause and ask yourself whether you perhaps do similar things yourself, or at least have the potential to do things that others might find offensive. When you point a finger in blame at another person, as therapists like to say, you should notice the three fingers on the same hand pointing in your own direction. Admitting that we’re capable of committing similar offences to the ones we’re upset about can often moderate our anger, helping us to view the situation more rationally.
Admitting that we’re capable of committing similar offences to the ones we’re upset about can often moderate our anger.
Strategy #2: It’s not the behaviour that upsets you, it's your opinions about it.
This is one of the most fundamental precepts and psychological strategies of Stoicism. Are you always equally upset by the same behaviour when it happens in different contexts or is done by different people? Are other people equally upset when they witness the sort of things that are making you angry? If there’s some variation in the way people respond, it’s arguably because they hold different attitudes and opinions about the situation. It’s ultimately our value judgements that determine how angry we get about whatever befalls us in life. So it’s worth bearing that in mind, according to the Stoics, and then questioning whether we’re placing too much importance on things beyond our direct control.
Strategy #3: Your anger does you more harm than what you’re angry about.
This is also a very common Stoic teaching. Anger distorts our features—the Stoics say it looks ugly and unnatural. It also distorts our minds, though, by clouding our ability to reason. Anger is temporary madness, they say. Other people’s actions just harm external things—our possessions, our reputation, or maybe our physical bodies—but our own anger actually strikes deeper by injuring our moral character, according to the Stoics. We can often weaken the hold anger has over our minds by thinking about what it costs us: the negative consequences of indulging in it.
Strategy #4: Consider the possibility that they don’t really understand why it’s wrong.
Socrates taught the striking but controversial doctrine that no man does evil knowingly. Marcus notes that everyone defends their actions when challenged—we’re all offended if told we’re doing something morally wrong. Even monsters like Hitler and Stalin believed what they were doing was justified. Criminals who know that what they’re doing is illegal still find ways to excuse that in their own minds. Ancient philosophers debated ethics rigorously with ordinary people and so they were very familiar with the ways we deceive ourselves about what’s right and wrong. We’re all relatively confused about life. Marcus reminds himself of this as a way of tempering his anger with others.
We can often weaken the hold anger has over our minds by thinking about what it costs us.
Strategy #5: Don’t stoop to their level. Respond to anger with compassion.
In addition to challenging their own feelings of anger, the Stoics also tried to encourage a healthier alternative way of looking at things. Stoicism is actually a very compassionate philosophy. Anger, they said, is typically based on the belief that someone has done something unjust and that they deserve to be punished. The opposite would be the belief that they deserve to be helped, or perhaps educated. Marcus said that when he was offended with another person’s hostile behaviour, after addressing his own feelings of anger, he’d take them gently aside and, without condescension, explain to them why they were just harming themselves more than him.
Those are just five of the ten anger management strategies he lists in The Meditations. It sounds as though his training in them worked. Later in life, Marcus was known for his exceptional calm in the face of provocation. In one dramatic incident, a notoriously volatile billionaire called Herodes Atticus lost his temper with Marcus, who was presiding over a court hearing in which Herodes was involved. Herodes did the unthinkable and lunged at the emperor as if to strike him. The praetorian prefect—the imperial bodyguard—immediately reached for his sword and was about to run the man through but Marcus quickly signalled for him to stand down. The emperor rose from his chair completely unfazed and said only “My good fellow, an old man fears little," before declaring the hearing adjourned. He meant that having come to terms with his own mortality he wasn’t easily flustered by threatening behaviour. I think it was his lifelong training in Stoic philosophy, using the techniques described above, that helped Marcus keep his head without becoming angry even in tense situations like this.
If you want to learn more about the life and Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, and how techniques from Stoicism and CBT can help you to deal with bad habits, manage anger, overcome worry and anxiety, cope with pain and illness, and even come to terms with your own mortality, check out How to Think Like a Roman Emperor.