Sep 3, 2012

Epictetus on Anger (part 2)

Over a year ago -- when I was in the process of writing a number of blog posts discussing how particular moral theorists regarded anger -- I wrote the first installment about what one Stoic philosopher had to say about that emotion:  Epictetus on Anger (part 1).  There, I started bringing together his remarks about the topic -- scattered in various places throughout his Discourses -- and I focused primarily on discussing how the limping philosopher viewed anger.  If I wanted to be flip, I could simply say:  he disapproved of it, as a good Stoic would with most if not all emotions.  But, we want to know more than simply that he thought anger was wrong, bad, beneath or an impediment to a fully human existence -- we want to know why he views anger that way -- what it is about anger that makes it bad.

To understand these sorts of matters about anger -- and this goes not just for Epictetus or for other Stoics, but for moral theorists in general -- you've also got to look at their broader perspectives on human nature.  What the fundamental good is for human beings, how we should order the multiplicity of goods, the difference between the real and merely apparent goods, whether reason is merely a slave to our passions and desires or whether it can play a more determinative role, what is needed for reason to fulfill its function and for us to flourish, what goes on when we feel and act on emotions -- all of these, and more, are the sorts of matters one has to inquire about.


What Has Been Discussed Up to This Point

In that previous post, I talked first about what Epictetus thought the point of philosophy was.  We start doing philosophy because things matter to us, we're not entirely happy about how things are going and how we fit into it, and we're confronted with a multiplicity of viewpoints in disagreement with each other.  So, we desire some clarity, we want to make sense of things.  Some sort of systematic perspective, more and more coherent as it develops, based on and providing us criteria, is needed.  We don't have to start from nothing, or reinvent the entire universe.  We can -- and should -- start with the general notions we've got, the experiences and observations we've accumulated -- and with anger, we're already fairly well-supplied in those respects.

I also talked quite a bit about what Epictetus calls the "governing part," rationality or the faculty of reason, moral principle or (in Greek) prohairesis. This is, in his view, the best and highest part of ourselves, the little portion of divinity we possess, and for a Stoic, it ought to be dominant, calling the shots, controlling the other parts of the person -- like the desires and emotions, but also opinions, judgements, assumptions. This rational part, entangled with all the parts of the human soul, requires some disciplining of its own, some purification, a gradual process of changing a habit here, scrutinizing and replacing a belief there, getting some control over (or at least some insight into or awareness of) this or that emotional response.

Then I discussed anger more specifically, noting that Epictetus treats it in three different but complementary ways -- as emotion or affect itself, as a product and producer of habits, and as a semi-rational process of inference embodied in certain characteristic thoughts, both general ones and others specific to the particular situation and object of anger.  As I wrote there, anger seduces and subverts rationality -- so the task of the Stoic, and one purpose of their moral theory, is to reassert reason's right rule over anger.

I left off by promising to revisit Epictetus' views on anger on a few other points.  One of these is the question of whether something like anger might ever be appropriate, perhaps because of the social role or relationship one occupies, and the duties it involves.  I also want to explore further Epictetus' views on how we become angry and how we extricate ourselves from it, particularly through understanding not only ourselves, but also other people.

A Social Role for Anger?

Back this Spring, I wrote a set of posts (part 1 and part 2) discussing a closely related topic to this one, Epictetus' views on personal relationships and whether they admit of some sort of exception to his Stoic cautions against -- or perhaps even require of a person -- allowing oneself to feel emotions and respond to others from emotion.  There, the emotion in question was not anger, but rather concern, fear, or grief over one's child -- and by extension those within the ambit of one's own personal relationships.  Epictetus himself upbraided a man for not feeling and acting towards his child as he ought to, particularly when his wife and houseservants were by contrast acting appropriately.  Could there be room for something like this in the case of anger?

It must be admitted from the start that Epictetus is not likely to accord much space to an emotion as troubling, as prone to affect and even to provoke our perceptions, assumptions, inferences, and thereby our actions.  Anger is a much more active affective state or emotion than is concern or grief.  It has a tendency not only towards the kind of echo or contagion that other emotions possess -- by which when we place ourselves in a crowd of happy people we tend to catch some of that positive mood, and likewise for fear, grief, even surprise -- anger in one person also is easily productive of anger in another, by counter-shock, you might say.  This is illustrated by an anecdtote which Epictetus brings up precisely to emphasize the greater duty of those in power or with public presence to set a good example.
The Procurator of Ephesus took the side of a comic actor in a somewhat undignified manner and was reviled by the people for doing so. . . .[He] became angry (aganaktountos) with the men who had so reviled him.
He complains to Epictetus, who responds by pointing out that they were all taking sides, and that if he doesn't want the people taking side, he'd better show them his own example.
If they should,  why are you angry (khalapaineis) if they imitated you? For whom do the people have to imitate but you, their superior?  Whom do they look to but you, when they go to the theater?  "See,"  says one of them, "how the Procurator of Caesar acts in the theater; he shouts; very well, I'll shout too.  He jumps up and down; I'll jump up and down too."
Epictetus takes him to task for setting such an example, including behavior characteristic not only of partisanship and excitement, but also anger.  He also points out a related failure:
Why, then, did they revile you?  Because every man hates what gets in his way. . . They were standing in your way, and you in theirs.  You turned out to be the stronger; they did what they could, and reviled what was standing in their way.  What, then, do you wish?  that you should always be able to do what you wish, but that they should not even say what they wish?
The superior ought to know better than to allow himself to get drawn into the play and feedback, the back and forth, of anger responses -- and particularly to keep himself from engaging in the behavior typical of anger: trying to silence or to punish those keeping him from what he wants, those who have offended him -- who are also those he has offended, and offends all the more by following his own anger's dictates, showing them in the process how he thinks one ought to act.

At most, I think one might try to argue that there could be certain social roles where externally, in how matters appear to other people -- one's expression, choice of words, actions -- it could be necessary for a person to seem to exhibit and act from anger.  Even in such cases, where someone was steered towards some good or retrained from some greater evil, feeling the emotion of anger would still be something bad for the person feeling it, a sign that they were not as far along, that their moral purpose was not as well-structured, as is desirable, and if they were a Stoic, should desire.

On the other hand, given a social existence in which --by Epictetus' lights -- most people have got moral matters mixed up, if not entirely wrong -- there is something to be said for presenting a different example to those with whom one interacts, an example of not becoming angry, or not acting upon anger, even in circumstances where that would seem the normal response -- a kind of experiment in taking a different path.

Avoiding Anger in Social Roles

Socrates, one of the main heroic figures to Stoics, provided such an example to Epictetus, one which he recommends:
Now this was the first and most characteristic thing about Socrates, that he never got wrought up (medepote paroxuthenai) during an argument, never used any term of abuse or insolence, but endured the abuse of others, and put an end to strife.
He tells us in another chapter -- one specifically about contentious people:
The good and excellent man neither contends with anyone, nor, as far as he has the power, does he allow others to contend.  We have an example before us of this . . . in the life of Socrates, who did not merely himself avoid contention on every occasion, but tried to prevent others as well from contending. . . .[See] how patient he was with Thrasymachus, Polus, and Callicles, and habitually so with his wife, and also with his son. . . For Socrates bore firmly in mind that no one is master over another's governing principle.
This realization is central to the Stoic ethic -- that one does not, and cannot really or reliably have control over the workings of another person's mind.  One can provide another counsel, discipline, education, resources, a model, or right affection, but ultimately the shaping of their character, their desires, their habits, even their rationality lies in their hands, and within the scope of their own will.  Knowing the difference between what lies within one's own power and what is subject to another's -- and even more acting in accordance with that distinction -- is another key element of Stoic ethics.  Both of these have important implication in understanding and living out one's social roles -- a third key aspect of Stoic morality is in fact fulfilling duties implied within those roles and relationships.
Your father has a certain function, and if he does not perform it, he has destroyed the father in him, the man who loves his offspring, the man of gentleness within him.  Do not seek to make him lose anything else on this account.  . . . .[I]t is your function to defend yourself firmly, respectfully, without passion.  Otherwise, you have destroyed within yourself the son, the respectful man, the man of honor.
From Epictetus' point of view, the bad father -- the man who does not act in accordance with the role of father towards a son, the man who fails to fulfill the duties partially defining that role -- does not really harm the son, but himself.  If the son realizes where genuine value, his true good lies -- in a well-ordered moral purpose or will (prohairesis), he sees and senses that his father's bad actions, though perhaps paining or disappointing him, don't really harm him, don't take anything away from him -- not even the possibility or the power to choose to fulfill his own duties as a son, regardless of his father's choices.  If the son were to become angry because of his parent's failure to behave like a parent ought to -- something I think we can all at least understand, and have some of us perhaps unfortunately experienced -- then he chooses to harm himself, with his father as something like the instrument by which that harm is done.

This extends even to cases when the other person in the relationship becomes angry at the would-be Stoic, as an interesting passage shows:
When someone consulted Epictetus as to how he could persuade his brother to cease being angry with him, he replied:  Philosophy does not profess to secure for man any external possession. . . each man's own life is the subject-matter of the art of living. -- Well what about my brother's life?  -- That again is the subject-matter of his own art of living, but with respect to your art of living it comes under the category of externals. . . . -- How then, shall I keep my brother from being angry at me?  -- Bring him to me and I will tell him, but I have nothing to say to you on the subject of his anger.
One can sense a genuine need residing in those questions -- even a frustration on the questioner's part -- particularly in his followup, in which he worries how he can keep on the Stoic track, maintaining himself in accordance with nature, if his brother will not reconcile with him.  He seems sincerely troubled, feeling a wound, a rupture in the relationship, unsure about how to fix it, or about what it means that it cannot be remedied, even by the philosopher of whom he has come to ask advice.

What resources does one possess?  What responses ought one make? What occurs if one gives in to, or instead resists, one's anger?  Is this option a momentous, character- and contentment-determining one?  Let's consider both possibilities from Epictetus' perspective.

Effects of One's Anger Against Others

What happens when we get angry?  I'm not asking about the physiological account of the anger response -- a topic in which some Stoics, but not Epictetus, were admittedly interested.  Instead, let's focus on what goes on in terms of parts or functions of the human soul.  As  I noted in the earlier post on this topic, anger adopts a certain analogue of rational structure, but it subverts rationality -- the better, higher, distinctively human portion of a person.  Instead of the "rational," ruling part maintaining -- or at least making progress towards aligning -- the moral purpose of the person in accordance with nature (as reason reveals that nature), that rational portion is made to serve the emotion of anger, to answer to the desires and aversions unfolding from or embodied in that affect, to reason out how anger is to rise to the level of response in expression or action.

An angry person subverts reason within him or herself in two other important ways.  First off, anger is not simply an affect, an emotion, a passion, merely a matter of feeling or desire as opposed to beliefs, assumptions, judgements, even (mistaken) general conceptions.  While it is true that "a strong emotion does not arise unless a desire fails to attain its object or aversion falls into what it would avoid," the Stoics regarded all of the emotions as also involving some sort of intentional, conceptual content.  One becomes angry because one has got some things wrong.  And, here's anger's first reason-subverting effect -- the angry person not only has some things wrong, but precisely because they are angry, they will to continue to keep thinking wrongly, judging wrongly, applying general conceptions to particular situations or phenomena.  Anger makes it more difficult for reason to suggest, let alone indicate, how the angry person is getting matters wrong.

Second, Like every emotion and response, anger can also congeal or crystallize into a disposition, into a pattern pervading the personality, into an ease of inference and irascibility consolidated by habit.  We employ reason practically in order to determine how best to modify our habits:
[S]ince habit is a powerful influence, when we have accustomed ourselves [badly]. . . we must set up a contrary habit to counteract this habit. . . . I am inclined to pleasure;  I will betake myself to the opposite side of the rolling ship, and that beyond measure , so as to train myself.  I am inclined to avoid hard work; I will strain and exercise my sense-impressions to this end, so that my aversion from everything of this kind shall cease. . . .  And so different men will have to practice particularly to meet different things.
In the case of anger, Epictetus gives advice -- and issues challenges -- in a number of passages.  Here are just a few:
Do you suppose you can do the things you do now, and yet be a philosopher? . . . give way to anger and to irritation, just as you do now?

[W]hen you say, "Tomorrow I will pay attention," I would have you know that this is what you are saying: . . .  I will get angry today. . . . But if it is good for you to pay attention tomorrow, how much better it is today.  If it is to your interest tomorrow, it is much more so today, that you may be able to do the same tomorrow also, and not put it off again, this time to the day after tomorrow.

If you wish not to be hot tempered, do not feed your habit, et before it nothing on which it can grow,  At the first step, keep quiet and count the days on which you have not been angry.  . . . If you go as many as thirty days without a fit of anger, sacrifice to God.  For the habit is first weakened, and then utterly destroyed.
So, feeling and acting on anger is bad for oneself, and lowers the better part of one's person, turning over the human to the merely animal, the rational to the sub-rational.  Epictetus asks: "when we act pugnaciously, and injuriously, and angrily, and rudely, to what level have we degenerated? To the level of wild beasts.”  But, what of its effects on others?  Perhaps there are some who need to be treated in such a brutal manner: yelled at, attacked, insulted and denigrated, even punished physically -- at the very least threatened by the aspect of anger in others?

This might be temporarily effective on some level -- after all, people who do value and desire things which from a Stoic perspective are outside of their power do make themselves vulnerable to those who actually do exercise some control over those things, placing themselves, placing their will in the hands of the other person.  But, this can't produce genuinely positive changes within the structure of one's character and personality.  Epictetus asks:
Whom did anger ever teach the art of steering, or music?  Do you think then, that your anger will make me learn the art of living?
This rhetorical question arises within the context of a passage about knowledge of the good and ensuing responsibility.
I go astray, not knowing what is incumbent upon me or what my duty is.  Now if this is a thing that can neither be taught nor learned, why do you reproach me?  But if it can be taught, teach me; and if you cannot do this, allow me to learn from those who profess to know.  Really, what is your idea? That I intentionally fall into evil and miss the good?  Far from it!  Well, then, what is the cause of my going astray? Ignorance.  Very well, do you not want me to put away my ignorance?
Having wrongheaded conceptions of good and evil, right and wrong, of duties and what is appropriate, a person is likely to choose or simply fall into the kinds of actions which tend to provoke anger in the other -- but that anger in its turn will not remedy the wrongheaded person's state of ignorance.  Instead, such a view -- that anger might make a person better -- is itself a sign of wrongheaded conceptions on the part of the person who takes offense and gets angry.  Epictetus counsels a fundamentally different attitude:
If the loss of the greatest things is the greatest harm that can befall a man, while the greatest thing in each man is a right moral purpose, and if a man is deprived on this very thing, what ground is left for you to be angry with him? Why man, if you must needs be affected in a way that is contrary to nature at the misfortunes of another, pity him rather, but do not hate him; drop this readiness to take offense and this spirit of hatred.

Understanding Error in Others and Ourselves

One basic tenet of Stoicism, particularly the Late Stoicism of Epictetus, is the notion that most human being have got moral matters wrong in fundamental ways.  They labor in the grips and guided by misconceptions about what the good is and where it lies.  They develop complex habits of assumption and interpretation, passion and action, which come to structure their prohairesis into misshapen, badly oriented and orienting patterns of desire and aversion.  Along with this goes another tenet, that the Stoic process of realigning and purifying one's moral purpose or will, one's reasoning faculty -- and at the same time the other parts of one's soul (as much as they will accept this) -- requires an ascesis, a constant and repeated discipline, whose effects and successes only become apparent and lasting over time.

This requires not only changing one's behavior, and gradually reworking one's habits of behavior.  It also just as much involves altering the very emotional, affective, desirous manifold within a person.  It demands that one quite literally change one's mind -- reflecting on, judging, accepting and reinforcing, or rejecting and replacing ones conceptions about basic moral matters.  All of this should then play itself out within the matrix of one's relationships and roles.  Tackling anger will be no exception.  The Stoic will not just constrain his or her responsive action and expression of anger, but will work to understand why he or she becomes angry, why others do the things that tend to make one angry, and whether it is rational to become angry, let alone maintain one's anger towards them.

Well-developed understanding gradually dissolves the assumptions, arousal, affects, and activity comprised under the name "anger."  Understanding not only of oneself, what is genuinely one's good, what one actually has power over, and what one ought to do -- but also of the workings of other people's desires, emotions, thoughts, habits.
When, therefore, a man assents to a falsehood, rest assured that it was not his wish to assent to it as false. . . . Well now, in the sphere of actions what have we corresponding to the true and the false in the sphere of perceptions?  Duty and what is contrary to duty, the profitable and the unprofitable, that which is appropriate to me and that which is not appropriate to me, and whatever is similar to these. . . . . whoever remembers this, I say, will not be enraged at anyone, will not be angry with anyone, will not revile anyone, will not blame, nor hate, nor take offense at anyone.
There's much more to be said about these matters, but I'll end here with two other passages in which Epictetus sets these sorts of matters into perspective.  The first focuses on getting our own conceptions about moral matters right:
Am I not to injure the man who has injured me? -- First consider what injury is, and call mind what you have heard the philosophers say.  for if the good lies in moral purpose, and the evil likewise in moral purpose, see if what you are saying does not come to something like this, "Well, what then?  since so-and-so has injured me by doing me some wrong, shall I not injure myself by doing him some wrong?" 
The second tries to effect a shift from anger to pity, and a realization of one's own role in the anger one feels:
Ought not this brigand, then, and this adulterer be put to death?  you ask.  Not at all, but you should ask rather, "Ought not this man to be put to death who is in a state of error and delusion about the greatest matters, and is in a state of blindness. . . . in the judgement which distinguishes between the good and the evil?"  . . . Why then are we angry?  Because we admire the goods of which these men rob us.  for, mark you, stop admiring you clothes, and you are not angry at the man who steals them; stop admiring your wife's beauty, and you are not angry at her adulterer. . . . If you give these things up and count them as nothing, at whom have you still ground to feel angry?  But so long as you admire these things, be angry at yourself and not at the men I have just mentioned.  For consider. . .  he does not know wherein the true good of man consists, but fancies that it consists in having fine clothes, the very same fancy that you also entertain.  . . . Why, when you show a cake to gluttonous men and then gulp it down to yourself, are you not wanting them to snatch it?