Simple Stoic Advice

The Struggle with Ourselves

Photo by Armin Lotfi on Unsplash

The beautiful thing about Stoic philosophy is the advice contained within it is just as applicable today as it was when it was first written all those many years ago. We can learn a great deal from interpreting the advice provided and using it to our advantage as we go throughout our own lives.

Today’s quote comes to us courtesy of Seneca’s On Anger, from the recent translation by James Romm and Princeton University Press entitled How to Keep Your Cool:


“Struggle against yourself; if [you want] to conquer anger, you can’t allow it to conquer you. You’ll begin to conquer it if it stays hidden, if no exit is permitted to it…”


Anger, according to Seneca, is the most destructive of all emotions. This is partly due to the fact that once anger begins, it is like a boulder running down hill, unable to stop. As he says:

“[On Anger] the ugliest and most savage of all emotions. The others have some measure of peace and quiet in them, but this one rages, in turmoil and furious movement-with an eagerness hardly human-for pain, weapons, blood, and torture, until it harms others while discarding its own good.”

Anger truly is a battle within ourselves. And, according to Seneca, this arises from the fact that we have felt wronged by another. The goal, according to the Stoics, is to never get to the point where anger takes over.

The Stoics believed that it was through our wisdom and ability to reason that we could prevent ourselves from becoming upset. The philosophy focuses on the need to shift perspective and, in the case of anger, that means shifting from “I have been wronged” to “does this really harm me?”

Some of us become angered and upset when someone questions us. If someone can refute our argument or logic, we tend to become angry. Why? Because we feel as though that person is somehow stating we are inferior to them as our logic is flawed.

Marcus Aurelius, however, who was known to have a temper at times, tried to prevent himself from becoming angry in situations like this by writing to himself in Meditations. Here, he attempts to reframe his perception:

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’II gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.”

When we become angry, we become someone we’re not. And by giving way to the emotion of anger, we lose control of ourselves. While Epictetus preached about what we do and do not have control over, Seneca is preaching that what we normally would have control over, such as our actions and reason, immediately become uncontrollable when we allow anger to dig its teeth into us.

“This will be only with great exertion, since anger longs to leap out, set the eyes blazing, and contort the face; but if it’s allowed to project beyond us, it will have gotten above us…”

So how do we attempt to bring ourselves back down to the present moment and release anger’s grip over us? He continues:

“…let’s change all its manifestations to their opposite: relax the face, soften the voice, slow the step; bit by bit, inner feelings will conform to outer signs.”

Once we allow anger to take hold, there is no stopping it and it truly becomes a battle with ourselves, the rational brain attempting to stop the swelling of the emotion, while the anger quickly tries to demolish all in its path.

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