Epicurean Views On How To Integrate "Anger" Into A Healthy Life

  • I have long suspected that a number of people who come to Epicurus from other philosophies or religious backgrounds tend to presume that Epicurus was very passive and frowned on all forms of anger. This topic comes back to mind after our most recent A Few Days In Athens Discussion (on Chapter Eight ) in regard to the exchange between Metrodorus and Epicurus on the subject near the end of the Chapter.

    Frances Wright does not develop this issue very far, but I think it's important for us to bring out that Epicurus did not rule out all forms of anger from his philosophy. There's a hint of that already in several aspects of Diogenes Laertius's biography (such as in the passage that the wise man will experience his emotions more deeply than others) and probably in other places at all. But maybe the most extensive material will be found in the surviving portions of Philodemus "On Anger."

    I feel sure that some of our other readers (particularly Scott ) will find this material interesting too, especially passages that bear on anger as a motivating force, such as : " (natural anger) is a feeling that is more than enough to motivate a forceful and decisive response (41.2–8)." (from page 40 of the Armstrong / McOsker book).

    It looks like the best collection of surviving texts is here: https://www.amazon.com/Philode…roman-World/dp/1628372699

    Here is the table of contents:

    This is not material I am familiar with, and I need at least a passing understanding of the main topics. I will post here as I go through it and of course I invite others interested in the topic to do the same.

  • In terms of commentary, the Preface helpfully suggests that those wanting an immediate overview should refer to sections 4 and 5 of the Introduction. I see that section 3 discusses the prior position of Plato and Aristotle, so that looks good too.

    Here is a good baseline for comparison with the stoics: The Stoics held that there is no such thing as any kind of rational or natural anger, and this will be different from the Epicurean position, who are apparently going to focus on "vengeance" as a bad thing, but who don't consider all types of anger as bad:

    And this is what I expected to find - the Epicurean will take action against the offender (of course this is commentary, so we need the backup to confirm):

    I don't know that I agree with the following in its opinion that "punishment for harm done is itself not harm..." -- it may be simply that the harm done to the offender is justified -- I would expect this to be an issue of definitions of "harm"

  • Verification through a cite to the text - that the wise man will be "insane" not to "grit his teeth and come back at him (the offender) in one way or another."

  • Couple more quotes from the Philodemus text:

    From page 41 of the Armstrong book:

    37.24–39: “the emotion itself, taken in isolation, is an evil, since it is painful or is analogous to something painful, but if taken in conjunction with one’s disposition, we think that it is something that may even be called a good. For it (anger) results from seeing what the nature of states of affairs is and from not having any false beliefs in our comparative calculations of our losses and in our punishments of those who harm us.”

    From page 42:

    Philodemus explicitly says in On Anger that anger is an evil that is “inescapable, and therefore called natural” (ἀνέκφευκτον καὶ διὰ τοῦτο φυϲικὸν λεγόμενον, 39.29–31; cf. 40.18–26). It is something “most necessary and most unpleasant” (ἀναγκαιότατον, ἀηδέϲτατον δέ, 44.19–21), and it cannot be entirely rejected by anyone. Natural anger can suit the third and fourth categories also: it is advantageous, since it prods the Epicurean to self-defense, 111 and it is so-called because the name has the characteristic of “first utterances” or “primal appellations”: “direct, one-to-one correspondence with their objects.” 112

    From page 43 (this is commentary but apparently a high-level summary:

    The main thrust of On Anger’s argument is that anger for its own sake is never compulsory merely because one supposes oneself intentionally harmed. In a person of reflective disposition, suppositions of intentional harm are always contextualized and submitted to symmetrēsis, which requires knowledge and experience of the world and the possible consequences of anger. Only these can tell us whether our anger is natural and whether we can punish the offender (see 37.32–39). If the answer is no, we can simply profess ourselves “alienated,” hate and avoid the person who wronged us, and drop the relationship (see 42.1–4); hatred and avoidance are available to the sage who has suffered harm but cannot punish the wrongdoer and guarantee her continuing security. If the answer is yes to both questions, then the anger becomes necessary and inescapable in a completely different way: it would be absurd not to punish the wrongdoer.

    As we gain wisdom, anger does not disappear from our lives any more than grief or love, but it is more and more framed in protective layers of cognition and reflection; we are more likely to feel natural anger. Of course, there are various ways in which this ideal progression can go astray: most people do not have the calm and awareness of circumstances and causes that the Epicurean sage does, and even sages can make mistakes. That said, a reflective and aware person, and the sage most of all, can reluctantly “accept” (ἀναδέχεϲθαι) anger, however strong one’s resistance to it, and can certainly retaliate under the right conditions with confidence.

  • Cassius

    Changed the title of the thread from “More Discussion of "On Anger"” to “Epicurean Views On How To Integrate "Anger" Into A Healthy Life”.
  • I think of the Oscars last week,

    Just to document the thread that's the "assault" incident. I didn't fully read into the details but my first impression was that it would be very hard to analyze the action taken there to have been worthy of an Epicurean sage :-). The motivation for the action seems to have been very slight and the ramifications far worse than any benefits from the action.

  • I've now read to the end of the preserved texts described in the book, and I am reminded of my usual caveat to the Philodemus material: In many cases the text is so damaged that it's little short of speculation to try to derive any meaning from it. Even longer sections that appear to be well preserved could in many cases be sections where opinions he is writing *against* are being stated.

    But all in all I am impressed with what I read in the introductory and summary material. The authors are frank in their disagreement with what other authorities (such as Asmis) have written and construed from the material. It appears to me that I am personally in the unusual position of finding commentators (other than Dewitt) with whom I agree - Armstrong and McOsker seem to agree with my take that Epicurus was in many was an "activist" and was much less a passivist as some (including Asmis) make him out to be. The introduction lays out these disagreements pretty clearly.

    The conclusion of all this seems to be about as is stated on page 301 of the text (Column 46 of the roll):

    So, then, having laid down these things on our own behalf and concerning us, with arguments that prove it, in support of there being a natural kind of anger, we have [indeed] replied that the sage will become angry.

    (my emphasis on the last six words)

    The main distinction seems to be that the wise person will in fact become angry when the situation calls for it, and will in fact act on his anger, but only after evaluating the situation coolly so as to determine if he does have the capacity to act in a way that will deter future conduct of the same sort. The other significant premise seems to be that the wise man will not let his anger turn into "rage," with the point apparently being that the wise man will feel his emotions deeply, but will not let those deeply-felt emotions interfere with his clear thinking.

    All this may appear simple and straightforward enough, but if flies in the face of the Stoic or the "emotion-suppression" model that a lot of people seem to attribute to Epicurus. And it also flies in the face of the view that the Epicurean will above all avoid disturbance. But that should surprise no one, since it is elementary Epicurean doctrine from Menoeceus that:


    Every pleasure then because of its natural kinship to us is good, yet not every pleasure is to be chosen: even as every pain also is an evil, yet not all are always of a nature to be avoided. Yet by a scale of comparison and by the consideration of advantages and disadvantages we must form our judgment on all these matters. For the good on certain occasions we treat as bad, and conversely the bad as good.

  • A rather sage therapist friend of mine (who both helped me through a really rough patch, and helped me to look into myself), said that anger and fear arise from the survival/defense response - fight, flight or freeze. And thus, in appropriate context, can be very helpful emotions. This seems to me to accord with your analysis here - of "natural anger".

    But, partly through layers of socialization, many of our emotions can become maladapted: anxiety over future events that may never come to pass, anger at perceived slights, and the like.

    The trick is to recognize the difference. And to practice "calm and awareness" before we get caught up, so that it is available to us when needed. (Still working on that ...) I have sometimes used a simple gesture: raising my hand in a ward-off position - just like a batter stepping out of the box - and sometimes actually say to myself "step out." If in the company of others, I might make the gesture very slight as to be unnoticeable (but I still feel it). The idea is just to create some mental/emotional space. (But, as I say, still working on it all ...)