When we hear about an athlete who was doubted and kicked around, or an entrepreneur who ends up buying the previously dominant company that once spurned them, we assume anger must have been the fuel that powered their comeback. When we hear about someone who spent years working in secret to right some long forgotten wrong, we think, “Oh that person must have been really angry.”
Think about the case of Peter Thiel, who spent ten years conspiring to take down the powerful gossip outlet, Gawker Media, after they outed him as gay. The knee jerk take from most critics, then and now, is that he should have let it go—that it’s not healthy to be that mad about anything.
But what if anger wasn’t the only fuel out there?
In his powerful essay, On Anger, Seneca pushes back on this idea that getting even requires getting mad:
“‘Does a good man not get angry? Even if he watches his father get killed or his mother raped?’ He won’t get angry, but he’ll avenge them or he’ll protect them. Why are you afraid that duty alone, without anger’s help, will be too little motivation for him?…The good man will carry out his duties without fear or turmoil; he’ll act in a manner worthy of a good man, such that he’ll avoid doing nothing unworthy of a man. My father is being killed; I’ll defend him. He has been killed; I’ll avenge him—but because it’s right, not because I’m grieved…”
This is essentially the argument in Conspiracy: A True Story of Power, Sex, and a Billionaire’s Secret Plot to Destroy a Media Empire (out today in paperback), which draws not only on Peter Thiel’s conspiracy but many historical and Stoic-driven conspiracies, like the plot to kill Julius Caesar and the failed Piso-conspiracy which ultimately cost Seneca his life.
Indeed, there is a rich history of Stoics plotting to overthrow tyrants and other evil-doers. Did they do this out of anger? Or was it, at least in their eyes, the pursuit of one of their most revered virtues? Justice.
Seneca said that we must pursue what is right—which might occasionally involve punishment or vengeance—calmly and rationally. That it was ok to plot and scheme for the right aims, provided it was done “judiciously and with foresight, not driven and raging.”
This is a controversial argument, of course, and not everyone will agree. But it’s worth thinking about and it’s worth understanding. Because life isn’t all sunshine and kittens. It’s not Plato’s Republic, as Marcus Aurelius reminds us. People do bad things. Organizations do evil. We will be doubted or held back. And that will require a response—from us—if it’s going to be overcome.
What is not controversial is that anger is not how to respond. But rather, with creativity, cunning, determination, courage and strategy. So study the greats, learn their lessons, good and bad.
P.S. Ryan Holiday’s book Conspiracy: A True Story of Power, Sex, and a Billionaire’s Secret Plot to Destroy A Media Empire is out in paperback today. The New York Times called it “one helluva pageturner” so if you’re looking for something to read this summer, give it a look.