People have contemplated anger—and how best to deal with it—for thousands of years. While typical anger management techniques include breathing deeply and taking a walk to calm down, ancient Greek and Roman philosophers offered their own take on the topic. Some, though not all, of their advice remains surprisingly useful. The next time you’re stuck in traffic or waiting in a long line, consider these anger management tips from Seneca and Plutarch.
1. FIRST, UNDERSTAND THAT ANGRY PEOPLE ARE TEMPORARILY INSANE.
Seneca, a Roman writer and Stoic philosopher, explored what anger is and how to control it in his essay De Ira (On Anger), written around 41 CE. Addressing the essay to his politician brother Novatus, Seneca begins by defining what anger is, explaining that anger is the most hideous emotion and that angry people are temporarily insane. In De Ira, he writes:
“Certain wise men, therefore, have claimed that anger is temporary madness. For it is equally devoid of self-control, forgetful of decency, unmindful of ties, persistent and diligent in whatever it begins, closed to reason and counsel, excited by trifling causes, unfit to discern the right and true … But you have only to behold the expressions of those possessed by anger to know that they are insane.”
2. DON’T GET MAD WHEN PEOPLE MAKE MISTAKES.
Seneca explains that because all of us are imperfect and flawed, no one should get mad when mistakes are made. Just as we shouldn’t get angry at deaf people because they can’t hear or elderly people because they’re aging, we shouldn’t get mad at people who make mistakes. As he writes in De Ira:
“This rather is what you should think—that no one should be angry at the mistakes of men. For tell me, should one be angry with those who move with stumbling footsteps in the dark? With those who do not heed commands because they are deaf? With children because forgetting the observance of their duties they watch the games and foolish sports of their playmates? Would you want to be angry with those who become weary because they are sick or growing old? ... That you may not be angry with individuals, you must forgive mankind at large, you must grant indulgence to the human race.”
3. IF YOU CAN’T COMPOSE YOURSELF, RUN AWAY AND HIDE.
Around 100 CE, Plutarch wrote De Cohibenda Ira (On Controlling Anger). A historian, philosopher, and writer, Plutarch was born in Greece but later became a Roman citizen. He structures his essay as a dialogue between two friends, named Sulla and Fundanus. According to Plutarch, preventing angry outbursts is important because we’re most likely to lash out at those closest to us, such as our friends and family. If we can’t compose ourselves before we let anger overtake us, we should get away from the situation, as he explains in De Cohibenda Ira:
“The best course, therefore, is for us to compose ourselves, or else to run away and conceal ourselves, and anchor ourselves in a calm harbor, as though we perceived a fit of epilepsy coming on, so that we may not fall, or rather may not fall upon others; and we are especially likely to fall most often upon our friends.”
4. REMEMBER THAT PETTY THINGS CAN LEAD TO ANGER.
Investigating the causes of anger, Plutarch acknowledges that people can become angry for petty reasons. A simple joke or even laughter can make certain people angry, depending on the context, as he writes in De Cohibenda Ira:
“For anger does not always have great and powerful beginnings; on the contrary, even a jest, a playful word, a burst of laughter or a nod on the part of somebody, and many things of the kind, rouse many persons to anger.”
5. TRY TO GET A HANDLE ON YOUR ANGER BEFORE IT BUILDS.
Seneca analyzes the differences between reason and anger, concluding that anger that arises automatically, against our will, is impossible to fight with reason. Just as we can’t control that we shiver when cold, we can’t use reason to control anger that instinctively rises up in us. Seneca advises, therefore, that we must devote our energy to preventing this type of anger before it gets out of control:
“With the mind—if it plunges into anger, love, or the other passions, it has no power to check its impetus; its very weight and the downward tendency of vice needs must hurry it on, and drive it to the bottom. The best course is to reject at once the first incitement to anger, to resist even its small beginnings, and to take pains to avoid falling into anger. For if it begins to lead us astray, the return to the safe path is difficult, since, if once we admit the emotion and by our own free will grant it any authority, reason becomes of no avail.”
6. DON’T HAVE A WEAK SOUL.
According to Plutarch, weak people are more likely than strong people to have bad tempers and want to get revenge on people who wronged them. As he explains in De Cohibenda Ira, the weakest people are women, the sick, the elderly, and the poor:
“For just as with the flesh a swelling results from a great blow, so with the weakest souls the inclination to inflict a hurt produces a flaring up of temper as great as the soul's infirmity is great. That is also the reason why women are more prone to anger than men, and sick persons than healthy, and old men than men in their prime, and the unfortunate than the prosperous.”
7. AVENGE YOUR FATHER’S MURDER … BUT ONLY IF YOU DO IT CALMLY.
Seneca elucidates his view that good men should seek revenge on people who have seriously hurt them. So, a good man should avenge the murder of his father, but he shouldn’t let anger and bloodlust compel him to seek revenge. Instead, good men should act out of a sense of duty to retaliate against people who have hurt their families, as he discusses in De Ira:
“‘What then?’ you ask; ‘will the good man not be angry if his father is murdered, his mother outraged before his eyes?' No, he will not be angry, but he will avenge them, will protect them … My father is being murdered—I will defend him; he is slain—I will avenge him, not because I grieve, but because it is my duty … For a man to stand forth as the defender of parents, children, friends, and fellow citizens, led merely by his sense of duty, acting voluntarily, using judgment, using foresight, moved neither by impulse nor by fury—this is noble and becoming.”
8. DON’T DRINK WINE BECAUSE IT KINDLES ANGER.
Seneca argues that just as climates may be hot, cold, dry, or moist, humans also have varying proportions of fiery or cold dispositions. Because drinking wine increases heat in the body, it leads to anger. According to Seneca, varying amounts of wine can make men angry, based on their differences in disposition. From De Ira:
“The fiery mind is by its nature most liable to wrath … A fiery constitution of mind will produce wrathful men,—for fire is active and stubborn; a mixture of cold makes cowards, for cold is sluggish and shrunken … Wine kindles anger because it increases the heat; some boil over when they are drunk, others when they are simply tipsy, each according to his nature.”
9. EXERCISE CAN HELP REDHEADS, WHO ARE NATURALLY HOT-TEMPERED.
Seneca asserts that people with red hair have active, restless blood, which leads to anger. His advice? Redheads and people with fiery temperaments should avoid wine and overeating, get enough exercise, and play games to relax. From De Ira:
“And the only reason why red-haired and ruddy people are extremely hot-tempered is that they have by nature the color which others are wont to assume in anger for their blood is active and restless … Neither should such men gorge themselves with food; for their bodies will be distended and their spirits will become swollen along with the body. They should get exercise in toil, stopping short of exhaustion, to the end that their heat may be reduced, but not used up, and that their excessive fever may subside. Games also will be beneficial; for pleasure in moderation relaxes the mind and gives it balance.”
10. BEFORE REACTING IN ANGER, LISTEN TO THE OTHER PERSON.
As Plutarch shares, one way to get over anger is to listen to what the other person is saying. Instead of getting angry with someone and lashing out at him, take a little time to cool your jets. Stopping to think can even make you realize that you’re not angry anymore, as Plutarch writes in De Cohibenda Ira:
“I try to get rid of my anger, if possible, by not depriving those who are to be punished of the right to speak in their defense, but by listening to their plea. For both the passage of time gives a pause to passion and a delay which dissolves it, and also the judgment discovers a suitable manner of punishment and an adequate amount.”
11. DON’T SPOIL YOUR KIDS.
Unspoiled kids are less likely to be hotheads, Seneca writes in De Ira.
Giving his advice on child rearing, Seneca tells parents to be firm and to not give in to their kids’ temper tantrums:
“Childhood, therefore, should be kept far from all contact with flattery; let a child hear the truth, sometimes even let him fear, let him be respectful always, let him rise before his elders. Let him gain no request by anger; when he is quiet let him be offered what was refused when he wept. Let him, moreover, have the sight but not the use of his parents' wealth. When he has done wrong, let him be reproved … Above all, let his food be simple, his clothing inexpensive, and his style of living like that of his companions. The boy will never be angry at some one being counted equal to himself, whom you have from the first treated as the equal of many.”
12. REPRESS YOUR ANGER.
One technique for squashing anger that Seneca offers is to use willpower to hide your anger. It’s difficult to do, but if you focus all your energy on concealing your anger, you might just conquer it. Fake it 'til you make it! From De Ira:
“Fight against yourself! If you will to conquer anger, it cannot conquer you. If it is kept out of sight, if it is given no outlet, you begin to conquer. Let us conceal the signs, and so far as it is possible let us keep it hidden and secret … It should be kept hidden in the deepest depths of the heart and it should not drive, but be driven; and more, all symptoms of it let us change into just the opposite. Let the countenance be unruffled, let the voice be very gentle, the step very slow; gradually the inner man conforms itself to the outer.”
13. IF YOU’RE AN EVIL SERIAL KILLER, TOUGH LUCK.
Seneca makes a distinction between men who are merely angry and men who are truly evil. Using Hannibal and Volesus as examples, Seneca describes how Hannibal loved seeing a trench filled with human blood and how Volesus proudly beheaded 300 people in one day. Arguing that cruelty is much worse than anger, Seneca writes that evil, unlike anger, is unable to be cured:
“When Hannibal saw a trench flowing with human blood, he is said to have exclaimed, "O beauteous sight!" How much more beautiful would it have seemed to him if the blood had filled some river or lake!...Only recently Volesus, governor of Asia under the deified Augustus, beheaded three hundred persons in one day, and as he strutted among the corpses with the proud air of one who had done some glorious deed worth beholding, he cried out in Greek, "What a kingly act!" But what would he have done if he had been a king? No, this was not anger, but an evil still greater and incurable.”
All photos via iStock unless otherwise noted.