Are we in control of our emotions or are they in control of us? Short answer: you can lessen their control over you.

We’re always told to be mindful of the people around us.  Don’t hurt other’s feelings, or offend, we’re told.  Well, there’s truth to this.  As members of society, we’ve been taught that people are responsible for how they act based on their feelings or how they manage those feelings.  But we’re also taught to not stir up people’s feelings.  We kind of have it both ways.  People can choose to act or not act based on their feelings but at the same time, we shouldn’t push people’s buttons because people are only human.

That’s really not too far away from Stoicism.  Stoics were radical in the belief that we could individually learn to manage our emotions far better but they were also mindful of the fact that we’re only human.  It’s just not nice to try to injure someone even if they’re the best Stoic you ever crossed paths with.

So are we, for better or worse, at the mercy of our emotions?  We are somewhat at their mercy but, with practice, we can lessen their hold on us and their efficacy.  The Stoics realized long ago that by judging externals to be morally neutral, we can deescalate our passions such as hate, jealousy, and lust.  By deliberately and mindfully discarding the moral importance of all things external, we can free up a lot of our mind from emotions reacting to external events.  Also, we can refocus our mind by turning it inward, toward our virtuous character.  By working on our character and perfecting it, we can be more relaxed, chill, and logical.

Society almost has it right in the way we should hold ourselves accountable for our own behavior despite having strong passions.  And society definitely has it right that we really shouldn’t try to push people’s buttons, at least, if it’s not for the betterment or for some more important effort than mere pushing people’s buttons for buttons’ sake.  One thing that all societies throughout time have gotten wrong though is the obsession over externals.  Externals are valuable but they’re not the most important thing ever.  Also, society is right to say that we should take responsibility for our emotions and not act out on them every time we become angry.  But the Stoics offered a better solution to this problem, and that was to pretty much kill off any kind of negative passion.  That way you’d be insured to not easily cave to whatever passion you might have.  Neutering a passion really goes a long way, it gives someone a freedom they didn’t once have.  They don’t have to feel like the dam holding back all that water.  The Stoics said to just reduce the level of the water in the first place so that no possible instances of leaking or rupture is even possible.

Gray Dam Under Blue Sky

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Is any judgment that inflames our anger acceptable in Stoicism?

Most people understand that you don’t want to be angry most of the time.  Aristotle agrees but he thinks we should sometimes show show anger as long as it’s the right amount of anger at the right time at the right person in the right situation for the right reason.  The Stoics disagree.  But why?

The reason is largely that anger usually relies on the judgment that externals are bad, which is a misjudgment since externals are neither good nor bad.  But here’s a tough question:  what about people?  Aren’t people either good or bad according to Stoicism?  Well, we need to have the proper judgments about people as well.  But wouldn’t judging someone as a bad person make us mad?  No, because we know that someone who is bad is just ignorant and misguided.  If the bad person knew that the virtuous life led to eudaimonia and had that wisdom to guide them, they would no longer be bad because being bad never pays.  If being bad never pays, then obviously people only do bad things out of ignorance.

What about people who suffer from injustices?  Well, that’s a situation that is bad but even then it doesn’t call for anger but for action.  Yes, it’s understandable that people get angry at injustice but the Stoic knows that even anger as a proto-passion needn’t turn into an anger passion.  The Stoic knows that anger is a temporary form of madness and that it interferes with objective thought processes.  So the Stoic may feel anger at first but will let it pass.  Continuing to be angry after the initial anger at injustice is no longer necessary as it’s time to develop an action plan to help put an end to injustice.

So in conclusion I’d like to say most situations that piss people off aren’t even bad.  They’re just dispreferred indifferents.  And the situations (like an injustice) that do piss people off because they’re bad aren’t even reasons enough to stay mad but to act and plan and to act and plan.  So just remember if you start letting yourself get angry after an initial injury, just quickly let the anger blow over and carry on.  Don’t feed the anger, just let it pass.

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