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.”
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.”
However, Seneca, who wrote a book on anger, 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, 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
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:
- Cicero, Tusculan Disputations
- Epictetus, The Enchiridion and Discourses
- Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
- Seneca, Dialogues (includes De Ira)
Seneca 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.
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 (CBT) looks promising. That approach involves carefully investigating the triggers that reevoke the grudge, and deliberately working to replace your grudge-reinforcing responses to those triggers with more consciously-chosen and rational ones until this becomes habitual. There are therapists who specialize in CBT who can help walk you through the process.
The classic cure for holding a grudge is forgiveness, though this can also be easier said than done, and may not always be appropriate.
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the Younger), Hercules Oetaeus
William Shakespeare, The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (~1600), act Ⅳ, scene 4
Edwin Abbott, Bible Lessons (1870)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (the Younger), De Ira
Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics Ⅳ.5
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅰ.18
See also: Duncan A Sabien, “Anger as evidence” Jan 18, 2020
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations Ⅱ.1
David Hanscom, “The Connection Between Anxiety, Anger, and Adrenaline” Psychology Today (15 December 2019)
I have similar claims many times but they are usually asserted without evidence. What's the case for believing this happens at a significant amount?
As one often accused of good temper, I'm always amused by the fact that it often makes people angrier when you don't get (as) angry as they think you should. (And, of course, this amusement makes the situation worse)
What I sometimes find overlooked in discussions about whether you should or should not get angry is whether your anger is constructive. Some people seem to thrash and wail and accomplish nothing to address the source of their anger, and others who calmly address the problem.
I do not find credible the claim that anger is a necessary prerequisite to address (some) wrongs. It may be for some, but I think motivation-to-address-injustice is not inextricably linked to anger. Of course, as someone who seems to be naturally good tempered, this belief is self-serving...
Anger is like a precommitment to get revenge, even if the cost of seeking justice is greater than the expected outcome of seeking justice, so in short term it might seem more rational to just accept your loss. The problem is, being known as someone who accepts their loss in such situations, makes you a more attractive target in such situations; and that kind of reputation may cost you even more in long term.
Are we talking about a situation when someone hurt you and others (or when someone hurt you in a way that makes others also feel like potential targets)? In that case, your reaction makes you a worse ally, because it means you will not participate at mutual defense if the cost of seeking justice is too high.
Or is it a situation when someone tried to make you angry, without doing you any substantial harm? And the person who failed to make you angry is the one who gets angry in turn? In that case, congratulations, you won!
Yes, I agree that anger serves that purpose and I think a person should be aware of that. However,
Despite being a friendly person that people generally like (I think!), I'm a fairly solitary individual (by choice!) (I hope!). In my experience it's been 95% situations wherein I do not need to signal to any group that I'm a reliable member and those who would be on the receiving end of my anger if I had any are people I'll never see again.
Usually it's something like the most recent situation I was in wherein I think people would have expected me to react with anger...
There was a young man and woman having a huge screaming fight outside a 4-plex apartment building my parents own. It'd been going on for like 15 minutes so I went over there and told them to keep it quiet and please leave the property. They both got very belligerent with me, and I felt nothing approaching anger. Just amusement evidenced by a smirk. That guy in particular didn't like the smirk.
I'll never see those people again. But, if I was going to, or if there were people around to make a mental note about whether I'm a reliable group member, they'd have just seen the guy whom they couldn't get a rise out of.
There's been maybe 5 instances in the past 15 years similar to that wherein a person or small group of strangers that I'll never see again and who were directing their anger at me specifically while I was by myself or with my wife. There's been one time in the same time period wherein it was prudent to think about signaling to others that I was a reliable group member.
I'm just not so sure that anger is actually more useful than harmful.
I agree that we are probably miscalibrated by nature -- adapted to the ancient jungle.
But in certain jungle-like environments, such as high school, it is a good advice to always punch the bully, no matter how rational it seems (i.e. even if you are obviously weaker). Otherwise you get bullied a lot.
I agree with you.
However, in case my last comment wasn't clear on the subject: I do not think anger is required to punch the bully. I'm not sure anger is required in any circumstance and I'm sure anger has negative consequences no matter the reason for it.
I'm really impressed by how consistent these posts are, both in terms of content and frequency. Thanks for the good work!
For personal injustice, like someone being unfair or mean specifically to me, I agree wholeheartedly. Yet couldn't you make the same argument as for anger in the general injustice case? That "holding grudges" against racist discrimination for example is necessary in some sense to take action against it?