Anger & Sadness: How Do Stoics Handle These Emotions?

Stoics are well-known for their practical and logical approach to life, but how do they react to feelings like anger and sadness?

Jan 8, 2024By Natalie Noland, BS Politics, Philosophy, and Economics


Stoicism was founded in the third century BCE by a Hellenistic philosopher named Zeno of Citium. It quickly became popular and spread throughout the ancient world. Nowadays, Stoics are known for their rational mindset and calm, collected approach to life. But when it comes to emotions, rationality and calmness can fly out the window, especially when dealing with anger and sadness. So how, exactly, do Stoics reckon these emotions with their core principles? 


Stoics Believed in Four Main Emotions

chrysippus bust
Bust of Chryssipus, 3rd-2nd century BCE. Source: British Museum


Although many of Zeno’s original writings have been lost, his words and teachings live on in other Stoic scholars, such as Chrysippus, who became the third leader of the Stoic school. One of Chrysippus’s most enduring lessons was that of the four passions, which he defined as distress, pleasure, fear, and desire. These four can be broken down in two ways: either present (distress and pleasure) and future (fear and desire) emotions or positive (pleasure and desire) and negative (distress and fear) emotions. Chrysippus argued that all other emotions fit into one of these categories. Anger and sadness would fall under his definition of distress because they are negative emotions that affect someone in the present moment. 


Feelings Are Fleeting

Stańczyk by Jan Matejko, 1862. Source: Wikipedia
Stańczyk by Jan Matejko, 1862. Source: Wikipedia


Emotions are temporary, and Stoics argue that remembering this is essential to dealing with anger and sadness. Although it can feel natural to sit in these feelings and let them permeate other aspects of your life, Stoics believe you should acknowledge their fleeting nature. Focusing on the emotion itself only lengthens the period you will have to deal with it. Instead, you should recognize that the sadness or anger is only momentary; once you’ve done that, you can begin to move past it. 


Emotions Aren’t Rational

Zeno of Citium engraving by Thomas Stanely, 1656. Source: Science Photo Library
Zeno of Citium engraving by Thomas Stanely, 1656. Source: Science Photo Library

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Zeno’s original belief — the one that spurred ancient Stoicism and everything that came after — was that the Universe is rational. The key to living a good life, then — one in accordance with nature and filled with virtue — was to live rationally. But as anyone who has ever felt them knows, emotions are not always rational, especially when we talk about sadness and anger. Since sadness and anger are not rational, Stoics believe we shouldn’t care about them. If the ultimate goal in life is to live virtuously, and virtue depends on rationality, then we should discard all irrational actions, including emotions. 


Indifference Toward Emotions is Key

Boethius and Philosophy by Mattia Preti, 1600s. Source: Fine Art America
Boethius and Philosophy by Mattia Preti, 1600s. Source: Fine Art America


Stoics divide the world into three categories: the good, the bad, and the indifferent. Virtue is the only thing that’s good; vice is the only thing that’s bad; everything else is indifferent — from health and success to poverty and suffering. Emotions like sadness and anger are indifferents. They are neither good nor bad, neither virtuous nor vicious. They should not be sought after nor avoided. Stoics acknowledge that they might have their pros or cons depending on the situation, but ultimately, they do not help nor hinder the path toward virtue, and so, they do not matter. 


They Believe Imagining the Worst Makes It Better

A Netherlandish memento mori engraving print, 1520, by Master S. (Sanders Alexander van Brugsal). Source: Bowdoin College Museum of Art
A Netherlandish memento mori engraving print, 1520, by Master S. (Sanders Alexander van Brugsal). Source: Bowdoin College Museum of Art


One of the Stoic’s most infamous practices is memento mori, or “remembering death” in Latin. Here’s how it works: imagine the absolute worst outcome of a situation. (For many, this results in picturing death.) Once you’ve come to terms with what you’ve imagined, one of two things will happen — the actual outcome is better, or it’s exactly as you thought, and you’ve already accepted it. Stoics believe this practice helps to develop a more balanced mindset and lessens the force of emotions. When it comes to intense emotions like anger and sadness, this is a particularly beneficial exercise, as it can put the emotions – and the situations that led to them – into perspective, allowing you to accept what has happened and move on from it. 


Situations Aren’t Controllable, But Your Response Is

raphael school of athens painting
The School of Athens, Raphael, 1509-11. Source: The Vatican Museums


In Stoicism, things are either controllable (your thoughts and actions) or uncontrollable (everything else). Although feelings can sometimes feel uncontrollable, Stoics recognize that it is not the emotions themselves that are uncontrollable but the things that prompt them. You might feel like you can’t help how mad you are that your coworker got promoted over you, but it’s not the anger that can’t be helped but the promotion itself. You can’t control who your boss chooses to promote, but you can control how you react to it. Stoics advocate prioritizing what’s in your control and dismissing what isn’t. Instead of being angry or sad about things outside of your control, recognize that you can’t do anything about it and focus instead on how to manage your emotional responses.

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By Natalie NolandBS Politics, Philosophy, and EconomicsNatalie is a freelance writer from Rhode Island. She has a BS in Politics, Philosophy, and Economics from Northeastern University with a minor in Writing. Her academic interests include ancient philosophy, logic, and game theory. She enjoys reading, watching movies, and kayaking in her spare time.