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13 Anger Management Tips From Ancient Philosophers

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CHLOE EFFRON // WIKIMEDIA COMMONS (PLUTARCH), ISTOCK (SMOKE)

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.

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10 Facts About the Battle of Bunker Hill
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The battles of Lexington and Concord—which kicked off the clash between Great Britain and the colonies—were historically and politically important, but relatively small in scale. The battle of Bunker Hill, however, was another story: Fought on June 17, 1775, it had a sky-high body count. Though the colonies were defeated, American forces performed so impressively and inflicted so many casualties on their powerful opponent that most rebels took it as a moral victory. Here’s your guide to the Bay State’s most storied battle.

1. ITS NAME IS A MISNOMER.

Massachusetts's Charlestown Peninsula, located just north of Boston, was a strip of land with great strategic value. In June 1775—less than two months after the bloodshed at Lexington and Concord—word was circulating that the British aimed to seize the peninsula, a move that would strengthen their naval presence in the area. To prevent this, the Massachusetts Committee of Safety (a patriot-run shadow government organization) ordered Colonel William Prescott to build a fort on Bunker Hill, near the peninsula’s northern shore.

On the night of June 16, Prescott marched 1000 men south of Charlestown Peninsula. Whether because he was intentionally disobeying orders or simply couldn’t find the right hill in the dark, he had his men fortify Breed's Hill rather than Bunker Hill. Toiling through the night, the militia men dug a wide trench surrounded by 6-foot dirt walls. In retaliation, the Brits attacked the next day. Following a barrage of cannonballs launched by His Majesty’s ships, hundreds of Redcoats landed on the peninsula and repeatedly charged the makeshift fortress.

The vast majority of this action took place on or around Breed’s Hill, but the name “Battle of Bunker Hill” remains in use. In the 1800s, Richard Frothingham theorized that the 110-foot Bunker Hill was a “well-known public place,” while the smaller Breed’s Hill was a less recognizable landmark, which might be the reason for the confrontation’s misleading moniker.

2. ONE PARTICIPANT WAS THE FATHER OF A FUTURE U.S. PRESIDENT.

America’s fourteenth Commander-in-Chief, Franklin Pierce, is primarily remembered for signing the controversial Kansas-Nebraska Act during his one-term White House stint. Pierce’s father, Benjamin, fought on the rebellion’s side at Bunker Hill and later became Governor of New Hampshire. Another noteworthy veteran of that battle was Daniel Shays, after whom Shays’ Rebellion is named.

3. THAT FAMOUS ORDER “DON’T FIRE UNTIL YOU SEE THE WHITES OF THEIR EYES!” MIGHT NOT HAVE BEEN SAID.

According to legend, this iconic order was either given by Prescott or Major General Israel Putnam when the British regulars first charged Breed’s Hill in the early afternoon. Because the rebels had a gunpowder shortage, their commanders instructed them to conserve their ammunition until the enemy troops were close enough to be easy targets.

But as author Nathaniel Philbrick pointed out in this interview, there’s no proof that anybody actually hollered “Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes,” which has been quoted in countless history textbooks and was even riffed in one of Gary Larson’s Far Side cartoons. “We know that someone said ‘Hold your fire until you see the whites of their half-gaiters,' which [were] the splash guards on the regulars’ feet,” Philbrick said. “That doesn’t have the same ring to it.”

4. OVER 100 BLACK SOLDIERS TOOK PART.

An estimated 150 African-Americans, including both slaves and freemen, fought the British at Bunker Hill. Among them was Salem Poor, an ex-slave who bought his freedom in 1769 at the price of 27 pounds. During the battle, he fought so valiantly that many of his white peers later petitioned the Massachusetts General Court to reward Poor for his heroism [PDF]. Another black combatant, Peter Salem, is sometimes credited with shooting Major John Pitcairn, a British marine whose commanding role at Lexington had earned him notoriety in the colonies—though other sources cite Poor as the infamous redcoat’s killer. Salem himself had fought at Concord and would later see action in Saratoga and Stony Point.

5. WHEN THE PATRIOTS RAN OUT OF AMMUNITION, MANY RESORTED TO CHUCKING ROCKS.

The British's first march on Breed’s Hill quickly devolved into a bloody mess. Rather than spreading themselves out, the advancing infantry arrived in a tightly-packed cluster, making it easy for rebel gunmen to mow them down. The redcoats were also hindered by the rough terrain, which was riddled with rocks, holes, and fences. These factors forced the British into an inglorious retreat. After regrouping, the infantrymen marched on the hill once again—and, just as before, they were driven back.

The first two assaults had thoroughly depleted the colonists’ supply of ammunition, leaving them vulnerable. When the redcoats made their third ascent that day, the rebels had nearly run out of bullets. Struggling to arm themselves, some colonists improvised by loading their muskets with nails, scrap metal, and broken glass. As a last-ditch effort, several dropped their firearms and hurled rocks at the invaders. Such weapons proved insufficient and the Americans were finally made to abandon the hill.

6. THE REDCOATS SET FIRE TO NEARBY CHARLESTOWN.

Charlestown, now one of Boston’s most historic neighborhoods, was originally a separate village seated at the base of Breed’s Hill. Once a thriving community with 2000 to 3000 residents, the locals—afraid for their safety—started abandoning the area after that infamous “shot heard round the world” rang out at Lexington. By June 17, Charlestown had become a virtual ghost town. During the Battle of Bunker Hill, American snipers took to stationing themselves inside the empty village. So, to protect his own men, British General William Howe ordered that Charlestown be burned. The troops used superheated cannonballs and baskets filled with gunpowder to lay the town low.

The inferno didn’t spread to Breed’s Hill, but its effects were most definitely felt there. “A dense column of smoke rose to great height,” wrote an eyewitness, “and there being a gentle breeze from the south-west, it hung like a thunder cloud over the contending armies.”

Some 380 buildings went up in flame. Such destruction was without precedent: Although the British had torched some isolated homes at Lexington, this was the first occasion in which an entire village or town was deliberately set ablaze during the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, the colonies hadn’t seen the last of these large-scale burnings.

7. BRITAIN SUFFERED A DISPROPORTIONATE NUMBER OF CASUALTIES.

Though the redcoats prevailed, their victory was a Pyrrhic one. Nearly half of the estimated 2400 British troops who fought at Bunker Hill were killed or wounded. How many men did the Americans lose? Four hundred and fifty—out of an overall force of 1200. The rebels may have been bested, but they’d also put on an impressive showing against some of the most feared and well-trained troops on Earth. Bunker Hill thus became a morale boost for the patriots—and a cause for concern back in England.

One day after the showdown, a British officer lamented “We have indeed learned one melancholy truth, which is that the Americans, if they were equally well commanded, are full as good soldiers as ours, and as it is are very little inferior to us, even in discipline and steadiness of countenance.”

8. PAUL REVERE LATER CONDUCTED SOME FORENSIC DENTISTRY AT THE BATTLEGROUND.

Fun fact: On top of being a silversmith and perhaps the most famous messenger in American history, Paul Revere was a part-time dentist. He learned the trade under an Englishman named John Baker in the 1760s. Revere’s mentor taught him the art of forging replacement teeth out of ivory and other materials, and the future rebel eventually established himself as an in-demand Boston dentist. One of his clients was Dr. Joseph Warren, the man who would dispatch Revere—and fellow rider William Dawes—to warn some Massachusetts statesmen that British troops were headed towards Lexington and Concord on a fateful, much-mythologized night in April 1775.

During the Battle of Bunker Hill, Warren, a Major General, decided to fight right on the front line with patriot volunteers despite his rank and was killed. When the battle was over, Warren's body was dumped into a shallow grave with another slain American..

When the British pulled out of the area in 1776, Warren’s kin finally had the chance to give him a dignified burial. But there was a big problem: Several months had elapsed and the corpses were now rotted to the point of being indistinguishable from each other.

Enter Revere. The silversmith joined a party of Warren’s family and friends in searching for the General’s remains. They knew they'd found the right body when Revere identified a dental prosthetic that he had made for Warren years earlier.

9. THE MARQUIS DE LAFAYETTE LAID DOWN THE CORNERSTONE OF THE BUNKER HILL MONUMENT.

The Bunker Hill Monument Association wanted to create a grand memorial honoring those who’d given their lives in the Revolution’s first major battle—and on June 17, 1825, 50 years after Putnam and Warren’s men squared off against the British, the monument’s cornerstone was laid at Breed’s Hill. Putting the rock into place was the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, a hero of the Revolution who was, as the musical Hamilton put it, “America’s favorite fighting Frenchman.” (For the record, though, he personally didn’t fight at the battle site he was commemorating that day.) Due to funding issues, this granite structure—a 221-foot obelisk—wasn’t finished until 1842. As for Lafayette, he was later buried in Paris beneath soil that had been taken from that most historic of battle sites, Bunker Hill.

10. “BUNKER HILL DAY” IS NOW A MAJOR HOLIDAY IN BOSTON.

In 1786, Bean Town began the tradition of throwing an annual parade in honor of the patriots who saw action on the Charlestown Peninsula. It takes place the Sunday on or before June 17—which itself is celebrated throughout Boston and its home county as “Bunker Hill Day.”

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