There’s a common argument in favor of the emotion of anger that suggests it’s a useful propellant to prompt action.
The claim, in other words, is that it can motivate us to do things we would otherwise have hesitated to do or not done at all.
While that may be true in some cases, it’s debatable as to whether those resulting acts led by anger would very often be constructive ones (especially when other people are involved) and whether there might not be less stressful ways of building the courage to take on intimidating tasks.
For Stoics like Seneca, there was no gray area on this matter: “anger overtakes rational thinking” was his unconditional belief—it leads us into danger and inflicts harm on ourselves and others.
If we’re in agreement with Seneca’s line of thinking about anger, and there’s plenty of evidence to convince us we should be, then we need to prepare ourselves for its arrival. Because while we’ll never be able to fully eradicate its threat, we can improve our ability to resist its influence.
As emperor, dealing with many different types of people on a daily basis, Marcus would surely have been tempted constantly to give in to anger as a response to the provocations he faced. We have to assume then that it’s testament to how hard he worked to apply reminders like these that he gained the reputation of being a good and even merciful emperor.
If we remind ourselves of these kinds of perspectives regularly enough, we might just be able to invoke them when we next feel anger bubbling up, and by doing so, block its destructive potential.
Here are the ten reminders Marcus Aurelius gave himself:
Marcus’s 10 Steps to Stop Being Angry With Other People
First, remember the various kinds of relationship I have with them: we were born to help one another; from another point of view, I was born to be their custodian, as a ram is of a flock or a bull of a herd.
Second, remember how they behave while eating, while reclining on their couches, and so on, and most importantly how their principles leave them no choice, and yet how they preen themselves on what they do.
Third, remember that there’s no need to complain if what they do is right, and that if it’s not right, they’re acting involuntarily and out of ignorance. For no soul is voluntarily deprived of the truth, and by the same token no soul is voluntarily deprived of the ability to deal equitably with anything according to its worth.
Fourth, remember that you yourself often do wrong and are no better than them. Even if you refrain from certain kinds of transgressions, you still have the capacity to commit them, and it’s just cowardice or a concern for your reputation or some other equally bad reason that keeps you from committing the same kind of wrongs as them.
Fifth, remember that you can’t be quite sure that they are doing wrong, because many actions serve some further purpose. Generally speaking, a great deal of experience is needed before one can confidently express an opinion about what someone else is doing.
Sixth, when you’re too angry or impatient, remember that human life is fleeting and before long all of us will have been laid to rest.
Seventh, remember that it’s not people’s actions that disturb our peace of mind (because their actions are the business of their own command centers), but our own opinions of their actions. At any rate, eliminate the judgment that they’re doing something hurtful, and be willing to let go of it, and anger comes to an end.
Eighth, remember that we suffer more from getting angry and upset about such things than we do from the things themselves that are making us angry and upset.
Ninth, remember that kindness is irresistible if it’s genuine, not phony or feigned. After all, what can even the most abusive person in the world do to you if you keep on being kind to him and, if the opportunity arises, gently offer him advice and take the time to show him the error of his ways right when he’s trying to do you harm?
Tenth, remember that it’s insane to expect bad men not to do wrong, because that would be a case of desiring the impossible. But to concede that they wrong others, while expecting them not to wrong you, would be unfeeling and tyrannical.
Thus completes Marcus’s ten anger commandments and as he further reminds himself in relation to these perspectives, every time you lose your temper, make sure you have readily available the thought that anger is not a manly quality and that in fact gentleness and calmness are more manly.
In place of “more manly” we can of course substitute the phrase “more humane” if we wish.
Fortitude, strength, and courage are attributes of a calm and gentle person, Marcus goes on to say, not one who’s irascible and easily offended, because the closer a person is to being impassive, the closer they are to being a person of power. Anger is just as much a sign of weakness as suffering is, because both an angry person and a person in pain have surrendered to a wound they’ve incurred.
So the practical task for us, while anger (hopefully) currently isn’t threatening, is to prepare. To build our defenses. To ready ourselves for its inevitable return, at which point we can call upon our well-rehearsed responses and exhibit the fortitude, strength, and courage of a calm and gentle person.