Were the Stoics Right About Anger?
The Stoics overwhelmingly considered anger to be the most toxic emotion, even going so far as to say that it was never — never — a good thing. They believed that any form of anger is a vice. Other philosophers such as Aristotle thought, on the other hand, that there was a place in life for virtuous anger. Is anger always vicious, or were the Stoics a bit too absolutist in this particular view?
The Stoic Reasoning
The Stoic reasoning behind why anger is always vicious is simple: they believed that anger clouds reason. The idea of a Universal Reason shared among all humans is central to Stoicism. They deem this part of humanity “divine”. This can certainly be well understood if someone is in a fit of rage. A lot of scientific literature details the cognitive disadvantages we succumb to when we experience wrath, for instance.
There are, of course, more subtle versions of anger. Aristotle believed that a virtuous form of anger could, in fact, exist. For example, one could feel anger in response to an act of injustice. This emotional response is backed by good intentions and a good heart because it is aligned with the cardinal virtue of justice. In this form, anger can motivate a person into action which fights injustice. Hence, the end is a positive one, and the means would be fuelled by virtuous anger.
The Stoic response to this reasoning is that one could act virtuously — in other words, act in a way that someone with virtuous anger would act — while not feeling angry. After all, feeling angry in any form is unpleasant, and how could it possibly be better to act virtuously while feeling angry than to act virtuously while not?
“Anger brings about nothing grand or beautiful. On the other hand, to be constantly irritated seems to me to be the part of a languid and unhappy mind, conscious of its own feebleness.”
The Power of Emotion
I think the Stoics miss on anger because emotion can be very powerful. Sure, in a perfect world, it would be better if we could all act virtuously as if we were angered by injustice while not actually being angry. But this isn’t a perfect world. Fundamentally, we psychologically cannot help but be fueled by an emotion of some sort. The question is ultimately which emotion do we want to fuel us?
Of course, it is easy to consider acting virtuously while not being angered in normal day-to-day life. But what about if you are, say, in a concentration camp or a Soviet Russian gulag under extreme conditions?
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn — An Historical Example
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn authored The Gulag Archipelago, where he details the atrocities committed by the Soviet Union against its own citizens. He did so at extreme risk — opposition to the leading political parties was silenced in more ways than one. He also did so while being malnourished and physically exhausted. While reading Solzhenitsyn’s writing, it becomes very clear that he was fuelled by virtuous anger. Again, the Stoics would say that he could have written the same book while not actually being angry… but is that realistic?
Ultimately, we simply do not know if heroes of the highest magnitude who lived the most tragic lives, like Solzhenitsyn, would have taken on such risk without virtuous anger. If he was a sage, this may have been possible. But how many among us are sages? How many among us even have the potential to become sages?
Like many absolutist perspectives, we find ourselves in a bit of a conundrum: we have an ideal (the virtuous person acts virtuously while not being angry), and that idea has to contend with the reality that we live in: sages are either non-existent or extremely rare. At some point, we have to consider where the rubber meets the road with some of these idealist philosophical ideas.
Thanks for reading. If you’re interested in learning more, listen to similar reflections on The Strong Stoic Podcast wherever you listen to podcasts.