Notes on Good Temper

This post examines the virtue of good temper. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what other people have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.

What is good temper?

“To bear trials with a calm mind /​ robs misfortune of its strength and burden.” —Seneca, Hercules Oetaeus

Good temper is the proper regulation of anger in particular. It may be best described by contrasting it with its opposite, which goes under names like “volatility,” “fury,” “hot-headedness,” “seething,” “flying off the handle,” and such. If you suffer from any of that, then even if you are generally level-headed, when you are provoked to anger you no longer make wise and sensible decisions but instead act rashly in ways that you would otherwise avoid.

If you have good temper, you keep your wits about you even when you are angry or have cause to be angry, and the quality of your decisions does not suffer as a result.

(Something about on-line interactions seems to easily provoke “flame wars” and other counterproductive displays of anger. Internet trolls play social media like a video game in which they score points by provoking other people into pointless displays of rage. So we would be wise to be especially on our guard about letting our anger interfere with the wisdom of how we behave on-line.)

Good temper is related to poise, in the sense of being unflappable. Someone with good temper is well-composed, stays cool, rolls with the punches, and doesn’t get thrown off their game.

Sometimes good temper is subsumed under temperance and self control — in such a scheme the temperate person is not prone to extremes of anger, and the person with self control does not let anger run away with them even if it does rise to extremes.

The pros and cons of anger

“Rightly to be great
is not to stir without great argument
but greatly to find quarrel in a straw
when honour’s at the stake.”

There are disagreements over whether anger itself is a useful thing or whether it should be suppressed. Some philosophers recommend cultivating a stance of equanimity and serenity, and treating others’ faults with charity and forbearance, and so they see anger as a pathology. On the other hand, righteous anger or indignation can help prompt your concern for justice, and so a lack of anger might indicate that you are unhealthily indifferent to injustice, or perhaps a push-over who is vulnerable to being taken advantage of.

Edwin Abbott (of Flatland fame) wrote: “There is an anger that is always right, such as one feels at the sight of cruelty, injustice, and oppression, a moral recoil of sentiment from evil… Resentment then is a Virtue, and a man who feels no resentment at the sight of injustice is destitute of a true sense of sin. There is almost as great a deficiency of resentment in the world as there is an excess of vindictiveness.” (Bible Lessons, 1870)

However, Seneca, who wrote a book on anger (De Ira), thought anger didn’t have a place in justice: “It is not for the dignity of a judge, when he comes to pronounce the fatal sentence, to express any emotions of anger… for he condemns the vice, not the man… nor is there any need of an angry magistrate for the punishment of foolish and wicked men.” He thought that philosophers had tried anger and found it useless: “Democritus laughed, and Heraclitus wept, at the folly and wickedness of the world, but we never read of an angry philosopher.”

Aristotle went for the middle ground (of course), finding a golden mean of good temper in between the opposite extremes of wrathfulness and indifference (Nicomachean Ethics Ⅳ.ⅴ), though he believed that people more often err on the wrathful side and that this is the more harmful of the two extremes.

These days I can imagine a good argument for the other side: that a “deficiency of resentment” (as Abbott put it) is more common and more corrosive. There is a lot of stupid belligerence around, to be sure, but on the other hand, I’m amazed at the variety and severity of insults to dignity that people routinely put up with without complaint. The commonplace mendacity of politicians or advertisers is such a variety of insult — accepting it without complaint has become so typical that it looks eccentric to behave as though one took offense at being lied to or treated like an idiot.

The Stoic approach: do not get angry

“How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!” —Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅰ.18

The Stoics believed that anger was unpleasant, unhealthy, undignified, uncivil, unhelpful, and unnecessary, and that with training in philosophy you could rid yourself of it. Anger, according to the Stoics, is caused when you condition your peace of mind on something that is not in your control turning out a certain way, and it doesn’t cooperate in turning out that way. For instance, you get angry because someone else divulged a secret or parked in your parking place, or because the store was out of your favorite brand of coffee or the weather spoiled your picnic.

The solution is to stop conditioning your peace of mind on things that are out of your control. Those things are just the background against which you live your life; let them do what they will, and concentrate instead on the things that are in your control (for instance your attitudes and choices).

If you go along with this prescription, the Stoic philosophers have some sensible advice to go along with it. For example, this from Epictetus: “Start with small things. For example, you have spilled something on the carpet or something small is stolen from you. [Instead of getting angry] Say to yourself, ‘This is such a small price to pay for tranquility and peace of mind.’ ”

Or this, from Marcus Aurelius: “Say to yourself in the early morning: today I shall meet meddling, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, and uncharitable men.” (That way you will be prepared to meet them gracefully, and when you do meet them, you won’t get bent out of shape, but you’ll just say “aha, there you are; I was expecting you.”)

“The greatest remedy for anger is delay,” says Seneca. “Beg anger to grant you this at the first, not in order that it may pardon the offense, but that it may form a right judgment about it: — if it delays, it will come to an end.”

Some free Stoic ebooks:

Seneca’s De Ira suggests that anger be approached in two ways: by trying to avoid becoming angry in the first place, and by avoiding doing wrong if one nonetheless becomes angry. The second of these ways is the modern discipline of “anger management.”

The anger management approach: be angry skillfully

I am encouraged to see that for this virtue at least there is a scientific discipline devoted to it. Anger management is more of a psychological than philosophical discipline. Because anger is at the root of a lot of violent crime, professional anger management counselors are now deployed in the service of criminal rehabilitation and crime prevention. Because of this, the main focus of anger management is on helping people who have excessive anger and/​or who behave unwisely under its influence (not, in other words, people who have insufficient anger or who suffer quietly while nursing a grudge).

The anger management discipline typically disagrees with the Stoics about whether anger is something that can be or should be entirely avoided. It sees anger as a natural and unavoidable emotion, and tries to teach ways to react to the arising of that emotion that are relatively harmless.

Anger management is a complex subject: There are a variety of possible causes for why people react to anger poorly, a variety of ways in which such people misfire when angry, and a variety of techniques deployed by anger management counselors to try to improve matters. I don’t have any particular expertise here, so I’ll just link to Wikipedia and be done with it.

A web search for the term “anger management” will lead you to a multitude of sites with tips for the layman. Seneca’s advice of delay seems to still be very popular: count to ten, take a deep breath, etc. Dispelling the adrenaline of anger by means of innocuous physical activity like exercise is another popular gambit.

Anger is apparently physiologically similar to anxiety and fear. These share at their root a feeling of being out of control and an urge to regain control, and the physiological promptings are those that make you more alert and eager to take physical action. Displays of rage can be ways of trying to manage an out-of-control situation: You make everyone else freeze in place as your histrionics take center stage, and in this way you exert some temporary control. This suggests that the more chaotic a situation appears to you, the more likely you will go into rage mode to try to confine it. Noise, crowds, and the presence of other stressors can exacerbate this. So there may be some environmental changes that you can make that will make it easier for you to avoid extremes of anger.

Holding grudges

Most of what I’ve found about anger and about responding to anger skillfully has to do with acute anger: the immediate insult, the sudden rush of blood to the face, the struggle to resist the urge to flail out without thinking. But there is also the phenomenon of the simmering grudge, the gnawing complaint, the all-consuming vindictive crusade. If you have been treated unjustly and you never feel like this was addressed properly — you never got justice, or revenge, or vindication — you may have a hard time letting go. It may feel like unfinished business and may continue to bother you long after there is practically anything to be done about it.

If you’ve ever dragged around the rotting carcass of a grievance like this, you’ll know how unpleasant it is and how little good it does. Over time the harm caused by the original insult can be dwarfed by the harm caused by how rotten you feel every time you return to dwell on it. But in spite of this it can be frustratingly difficult to just drop it and move on.

The Stoics would argue that you are making the classic mistake: conditioning your peace of mind on things outside of your control. You cannot force the person who wronged you to become contrite and offer restitution, or for the insult to be undone, or for the world to admit that you were wronged. You feel terrible because you are out of control; you have no influence over these things that you are allowing to tug your emotions this way and that. What you can control are your own attitudes and choices, and if you want to feel better, you need to exercise that control.

Well, thank you Stoics, but all that is more easily said than done. Once you have developed the habit of chewing on the bone of an old complaint, it can take a lot of persistent effort to break that habit. For an approach that is less philosophical and more methodical, rumination-focused cognitive behavioral therapy looks promising, but I don’t know enough about it to say for sure.