Anger, Grief, and Stoicism
In my last post, I talked about why I find Stoicism to be more helpful to me than Christianity. I ended the post highlighting the fact being a Christian changes the way I deploy Stoic tools and strategies.
What I want to do in this post is talk about what I perceive to be some shortcomings of Stoicism, shortcomings other philosophical schools were aware of and used to attack and mock Stoics. Even Stoics criticized Stoics! Seneca and Epictetus dared to moderate and innovate as they saw fit. Stoicism is a philosophy, and as such it is subject to thoughtful correction and innovation from its adherents. The Modern Stoic movement does just this.
Before going any further, though, I want to make sure we understand that not everything that is a labeled a Stoic shortcoming is actually one. The idea, for instance, that Stoicism is a hyper-individualistic self-improvement project is wrong. The idea that Stoicism is a collection of life hacks that will help you be a better venture capitalist is also wrong. Just because Stoicism bros do this kind of thing doesn’t mean that Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius would approve! We cannot equivocate Stoicism malpractice with the official, received dogmas and practices of Stoic philosophy.
Seneca, in particular it seems to me, is the more humane of all the Stoics. He really did humanize the philosophy. Many Christians throughout the centuries have found his teachings spiritually beneficial.
Even so I still believe that Stoicism falls short when it comes to strong negative emotions, and really has no tool or practice for them other than the complete avoidance of them. Let’s just talk about two emotions for now: anger and grief.
Anger to the Stoics is something to be avoided at all costs. They believed that when anger takes over a person really does become temporarily insane. Thus the advice to managing anger was as follows: monitor yourself through the day. As soon as you notice anger swelling up, immediately do something to cut it off or else it will take over. There is often not much time to do this. But as soon as you notice the physical sensations and thought patterns that appear when anger begins to settle in, the Stoic practitioner is to take quick action. The best thing to do according to Seneca is to remove yourself from the situation at hand. To go out for walk, and to begin to mull things over in your mind with reason as your guide until the anger subsides and dissipates. Then you are to go back to the situation that needs your rational, cool response.
In sum, the Stoics did not believe in the possibility of righteous anger. They believed that whatever good thing an angry person could do another person could do better fueled by the virtue of justice. Christianity holds that it is possible to be angry and not sin. Christianity and Stoicism are at odds on this. I think the Stoic position is very extreme (but understandably so). When push comes to shove, I admire the Stoic ideal but function with the Christian ideal instead. I don’t like anger. I avoid it. I do all I can to manage it. But there are situations where anger seems unavoidable to me. What matters then is that you use it, and that you don’t let it control you. This is one area where we could probably say that Stoic anthropology is more pessimistic than Christian anthropology, with the caveat that the latter always presupposes the empowering grace of God.
Easier said than done to do as Seneca suggests, but it works. I failed to do just that this morning. I honestly ruined the morning for the whole family. I did not do something outrageous like breaking/throwing a plate, punching a wall, slamming a door, etc. But I did do this: expose my wife and son to the angry vibes and presence of their husband/father. Just being in the presence of anger is something that you can feel. It’s palpable. It’s not at all enjoyable. You cannot wait to be out of that situation as soon as possible. That was the case for me, my wife (who left to go to work as soon as possible), and my son, whom I promptly dropped off at his summer camp. In the aftermath, I apologized to my wife and agreed that I was insufferable this morning. That I allowed little things to upset me and rob me of peace and joy. Even I don’t like myself when I am stressed, angry or frustrated. I do feel bad about what happened. I will make things right with my wife and son. I will also figure out what else I need to do to make sure this doesn't happen again tomorrow.
What is the Stoic counsel when it comes to grief? I don’t have time here to deal with the Stoic phenomenology of emotions, which I find to be right by the way. Just as with anger, Seneca is probably our best guide with grief, too. First, he rebukes the earlier Greek Stoic idea that the ideal Stoic sage would never feel grief because he would never give assent to wrong judgments, thereby producing grief. Second, he moderates and humanizes such a godlike, lofty, unreachable ideal. Seneca says that the good man, the wise man, the philosopher should mourn! he should mourn because he is not just a rational being, but a social being first and foremost. We should mourn, but we should not mourn excessively. We should grieve, but we should not grieve excessively. It is understandable that we are often sad, but we should seek to overcome it. How do you do this? The advice is as follows: let go of the past, surrender the future to providence, and live in the moment. Again, easier said than done. But the recipe does work. The difficulty comes when you are in the midst of a present moment you hate. What then? You remind yourself then that whatever you are going though is temporary. It will end. Better times are probably just around the corner. Even now there are good things for which you could and should be grateful. Focus on such things. Also, you can always interpret the situation at hand in way that motivates you to not give up, but instead fuels you in your pursuit of virtue.
To me Stoicism is the best philosophy to embrace and follow, but it is not without need at times for ressourcement. For me Christianity complements and improves upon Stoicism when its ideals are just too impractical or near impossible to follow.