Marcus Aurelius: Anger & fear

Stoicism is not about repressing emotions — it’s about not allowing emotion to override reason. But emotions such as anger and fear most easily override reason.

Olive tree, Queens Creek, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Put it in perspective

Why feel anger at the world? It’s not like the world would notice (7.38).

When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated, remember that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid out side by side. Remember how much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them (11.18).

And expecting bad people not to injure others is to ask the impossible. Further, to let them treat other people like that but expect them to exempt you is arrogant — the act of a tyrant (11.18).

It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22, see also 8.47).

The world does not revolve around you

To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. For the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence and respect for the divine, no less than to act justly (11.20).

To feel grief, anger or fear is to try to escape from something decreed by the ruler of all things — now, in the past, or in the future. And that ruler is law, which governs what happens to each of us. To feel grief or anger or fear is to become a fugitive from justice (10.25).

To be angry means you’ve forgotten that everything that happens is natural; that the responsibility is theirs, not yours; and that whatever happens has always happened, always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. What links one person to all people isn’t blood or birth but mind. An individual’s mind is God and of God. Further, nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself — all of them come from the same source. It’s all in how you choose to see things. The present is all we have to live in — or to lose (12.26).

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) There is nothing bad in undergoing change — or good in emerging from it (4.42).

My only fear is doing something contrary to human nature — the wrong thing, the wrong way, or at the wrong time (7.20).

Get a grip

When jarred unavoidably by circumstances, come back to yourself at once. Don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it (6.11).

It’s the pursuit of things, and your attempts to avoid them, that leave you in such turmoil. And yet they aren’t seeking you out — you’re the one seeking them (11.11).

The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all, and before long you’ll be no one, nowhere. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being. Remind yourself what nature demands of us, and then do it without hesitation. Speak the truth as you see it, but with kindness, with humility, and without hypocrisy (8.5).

Forget the future. When and if it comes, you’ll have the same resource to draw on — reason (7.8). Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present — and even that can be minimized. Isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it tries to claim it can’t hold out (8.36).

The mind is a fortress

The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever (8.48).

Realize that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet. What’s in my thoughts at this moment? Fear? Jealousy? Desire? Feelings like that? (12.19)

None of the people you’re angry with have done anything that could damage your mind. It is only your mind that can harm itself. Where’s the harm or surprise in ignorant people behaving ignorantly? Think about it. Shouldn’t you admonish yourself for failing to anticipate that they’d act this way? (9.42)

Dealing with other people

It’s cruel to forbid people from striving for what they think is good for them. And yet that’s just what you do when you get angry at their misbehavior. Are they drawn toward what they think is good for them even though it’s not good for them? Then show them that. Prove it to them instead of losing your temper (6.27).

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake — not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).


When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27).

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)

Think about people who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend — or not even a legend. How trivial are the things we want so passionately. It’s much more philosophical to take what we’re given and show uprightness, self-control, and obedience to God, without making a production of it. There’s nothing more insufferable than people who boast about their own humility (12.27).

Honey tastes bitter to a man with jaundice. People with rabies are terrified of water. And a child’s idea of beauty is a ball. Why be angry over that? Do you think falsehood is less powerful than bile or a rabid dog? (6.57)

You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it (8.4).

Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor. But don’t they have a brain? Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem? So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your reason to awaken theirs. Show them. Make them realize it. If they’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem without anger (5.28).

Take care of your soul

When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (10.30).

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy (6.6).

The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world, when it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do (2.16).

No time for reading. For controlling your arrogance, yes. For overcoming pain and pleasure, yes. For outgrowing ambition, yes. For not feeling anger at stupid and unpleasant people — or even caring about them — for that, yes (8.8).

Your relationship to society

Like a branch cut away from a tree, people cut themselves off from the whole community through hatred and rejection. But they don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the community. Yet we have a gift given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours, to reattach ourselves and rejoin the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated it makes the severed part hard to reconnect (11.8).

When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I. And if it is, anger is not the answer. Show the offender where he went wrong (5.22).

What’s worse than anger?

In comparing sins (the way people do), Theophrastus says the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger. Which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked to anger by pain. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire (2.10).




Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence



Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind


Virtue, good, & evil


Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear



I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Anger’s Antidote: Getting In Touch With Your Inner Jerk

A recent discussion about Donald Trump’s hair (which fascinates me because it seems to defy the laws of physics and fashion) led to something more serious: there’s a lot of anger out there, which is maybe why Trump’s popularity increases when he says bigoted things about Mexicans, women, and others.

Anger is nothing new. But certain situations seem to draw it out. My mother asked me, Why are some people so angry when they’re driving, honking and flipping the bird? But when they’re walking down the street they seem friendly?

Perhaps it’s the question du jour. Not long after our discussion, Hank Garfield wrote an op-ed for the Bangor Daily News asking why there’s no pedestrian road rage. Hank’s conclusion:

The inside of a car straddles the line between public and private space; we’re on our best behavior in one but not the other. When you’re stuck in a traffic jam, you’re stuck, unlike pedestrians and cyclists, who can simply go around; impotence leads to frustration. Drivers can’t directly communicate with each other beyond easily misconstrued gestures; it’s easier to apologize or express good will face-to-face and on foot. Driving is stressful; walking releases stress. And so on.

In brief, it’s the lack of direct human contact when we’re in a car.

Thing is, we’re not as moral as we think. The self-serving bias is well documented, and apparently intractable. Morality is about how we treat others, and it’s socially enforced. In isolation (in a car, online, etc.) there’s no accountability, and our inner jerk has a greater opportunity to make an appearance.

And there’s more bad news. Anger spreads faster than anything else. A lot faster than joy, which takes a distant second place.

Why? It is because anger is a negative emotion? Sadness isn’t so popular, so that can’t be it. But anger is intense and energizing, unlike a downer like sadness. But joy also is intense and energizing, so why would joy fall so far behind?

In The Happiness Hypothesis Jonathan Haidt points to evolution. The consequences of finding food aren’t as significant as missing a predator. You can find more food, but if you’re dead you are food. Haidt cites research which finds that it takes five good things to outweigh one bad thing.

Humans no longer live in our evolutionary environment. We have few natural predators, and those that exist (such as bears and lions) are not an everyday concern. But being stuck in traffic, immobilized with no options, still triggers an unconscious fear.

Haidt writes:

Research shows that when we are under extreme time pressure, we are more likely to behave unethically. When we operate in isolation, we are more likely to break rules. When incentives are very steep (we get a big reward if we reach a goal, but much less if we don’t), we are more likely to try to achieve them by hook or by crook.

Plato’s story of the Ring of Gyges (from the Republic) is a great metaphor. Do people really value goodness, or merely the appearance of goodness? What if you had a magic ring that made you invisible? Would you use it like a superhero to defend the innocent? Or would the lack of accountability corrupt your best intentions until you became a totally selfish asshole?

Plato’s musings helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkein to write The Lord of the Rings. A wicked long answer to Plato’s questions. But such a fun answer!

The Internet is the Ring of Gyges, the one ring to rule them all. Another interesting study found that after five days offline, teenagers’ emotional awareness notably improved. Maintaining niceness requires social interactions with immediate emotional feedback from others.

Anonymous, invisible, and unaccountable on the Internet, it’s surprising that there aren’t more trolls out there. When I see an anonymous person kindly disagreeing with someone online I think, there’s a person of character.

A while back a friend told me about a book called Radical Honesty. AJ Jacobs interviewed its author, Brad Blanton, for Esquire. Blanton told Jacobs that “I appreciate you for apparently having a real interest and hope you’re not just doing a cutesy little superficial dipshit job like most journalists.”

Jacobs, of course, did a superficial dipshit job. He missed Blanton’s central point: radical honesty starts with admitting to ourselves all the stuff that we try so hard to deny. In contrast, being blunt with others without being blunt with ourselves just makes us bigger assholes.

So that’s one (though certainly not the only) antidote to anger: getting in touch with your inner jerk. Or as atheist Jonathan Haidt (channeling Jesus) more tactfully puts it, focusing on the beam in your eye and not the speck in your neighbor’s.

This doesn’t mean being down on yourself. That’s just a passive-aggressive gambit for attention. Granted, you’re not better than the average person. On the other hand, you’re no worse than the average person either.