Stoic Serenity 5.4: Equanimity

My apologies if this post ends up littered with mistakes… After wishing for sleep for the past four hours, I’ve decided to acknowledge that “the obstacle is the way” and utilize this time at 4:00 am to get back to the Stoicism studies, instead of becoming angry at the chronic pain that breeds insomnia. Chronic physical pain isn’t in my control anyway, right? So I’ll do what’s actually in my control and aim to publish this blog post. 🙂 Let’s see what we have scheduled for today…. Ah, a lesson regarding “The Equanimity of the Wise Person.”

equanimity – mental composure; “keeping your cool”

How do we maintain our mental composure when confronted with other people’s bad behavior?

We’ll be taking a quick look at six of Marcus’ Meditations today:


Keep Doing What’s Right…

Don’t look left or right. Continue your own run.

What ease of mind a person gains if he does not bother to even turn his eye to what his neighbor has said, done, or thought, but looks only to what he himself is doing, to ensure that his own action is Virtuous and good in every regard. Don’t look back to examine another person’s bad character, but continue your own run, straight towards the finish line, never glancing to the right or left.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.18)

As Stoics in the pursuit of Virtue, we must consider the big picture when we encounter people who think bad things about us or gossip about us. What difference does this make to you? We must first and foremost direct our attention to our own minds and actions, and ensure that whatever actions we take continue to be Virtuous actions.

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If you’ve already done what’s right, then there’s no need to tear yourself apart trying to appease someone.

When someone blames you or hates you, or when people agree with someone else’s opinion that is such, you should look to their souls, enter into them, and see what sort of people they are. You will surely see that there is no need for you to tear yourself apart so that they will form any specific opinion of you. However, you should still be friendly towards them; for by Nature, you and they are friends. Remember that the gods come to their aid, too, in a variety of ways, if nothing else than to help them to gain the things on which their hearts are set. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.27)

If we are truly striving to act Virtuously, and if we are confident in our efforts, then it should make no difference if anyone slanders you. Should you change your action simply because someone has chosen to speak wrongly about you? This is not to say that we should ignore all criticism—we should remain alert to the possibility that we have made a mistake and therefore we may need to do something differently. But if you adjust your actions, you should never do so in order to appease your criticizers. Your intent should always be focused on “doing the right thing.”

Consider the minds of these people! And the worthless goals they strive to achieve! And the unworthy things on which they bestow their love and admiration! Imagine that you were viewing their souls stripped bare. When they think that their criticisms harm, or that their praises bring benefit—why, what an absurd assumption! (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.34)

When a bad person supposes that their criticisms or praises bring harm and benefit, they are mistaken. We should not make the same mistake that they make—we should not believe that their criticisms or praises mean anything to us.


And Know Thyself.

Why do ignorant and untrained souls trouble one that is trained and knowledgeable? And what is a trained and knowledgeable soul?—That which knows the beginning and end, and knows the reason that permeates all things and assigns everything its own place, each within its own time, throughout all eternity. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.32)

When we acknowledge that we ourselves make mistakes, it’s pretty difficult to stay angry.

It’s pretty silly for those of us attempting to live philosophical lives to allow ourselves to be troubled by other “ignorant and untrained souls.”

When you are shocked at another person’s bad behavior, turn around and consider your own faults: such as when you have judged money, pleasure, or fame, to be a good. If you consider this, you’ll forget your anger, because you’ll also recognize that they acted under compulsion—what else could they have done? However, if you can, free him from this compulsion. (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 10.30)

Becoming angry with other people who display bad behavior is basically unacceptable. First of all, why should we become angry with souls that are untrained and ignorant? Wouldn’t that be taking a step backward? Second of all, as Marcus says here, consider your own faults. We need to acknowledge on a regular basis that although we strive to live philosophical lives and pursue Virtue as the only good, we are not perfect. We make mistakes, too. We fail, too. When we acknowledge our own shortcomings, we realize we’ve been ridiculous in our judging of other people’s characters. Thirdly, if we feel angry towards people who act badly, we are simply ignoring a large part of Stoic teaching—that basically, we really don’t have anything to be angry about.

Everything that’s worth our attention already lies within us.

Does someone despise me? That is his own problem. My only concern should be this: that I will never be found doing or saying something that is despicable. Does someone hate me? That is his own problem. But I will be kind and good-natured to everyone, including this person who hates me. For I must be ready to show him the nature of his error. Not in a critical spirit, of course, nor as if I were making a display of my own tolerance and self-control, but sincerely and kindheartedly, like the great politician Phocion, whose last words were instructions to his son to not hold a grudge against the Athenians for executing him. That’s how we should be within our own hearts, and present ourselves to God as someone who is neither ready to become angry nor complain. As long as you do what’s appropriate to your own nature, and accept what the Universal nature has in store—as long as you work, by one means or another, for the common benefit to be brought to reality—what can harm you? (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.13)

In this final Meditation, Marcus goes directly to the core of Stoic ethics, the “dichotomy of control.”

Does someone despise me? That is his own problem. My only concern should be this:…
Does someone hate me? That is his own problem. But I will be…

Someone else’s opinion of me is not within my power, but my own thoughts and reactions are within my power. Thus, the only rational course of action is to apply myself to what I have power over. To do anything else would be a waste of energy and time. Marcus directs his focus to himself, committing to make sure he never does anything that merits hatred. How do we do this? By striving on all occasions to do what is appropriate; to demonstrate Virtuous thoughts and actions; to aim to make progress in our development of an excellent character. While we don’t seek any external reward for this, if we are able to free ourselves from anger and complaint, we will receive serenity.


In Summary

How do we maintain our equanimity, or mental composure, when confronted with other people’s bad behavior?

  • Don’t look back to examine another person’s bad character, but continue your own run, straight towards the finish line.
  • Remember that if you have already acted Virtuously, there is no need for you to tear yourself apart so that they will form any specific opinion of you.
  • Remember that only Virtue is good, although humans mistakenly assign judgements to many other things:
    • When they think that their criticisms harm, or that their praises bring benefit—why, what an absurd assumption!
  • Don’t let silly stuff bother you:
    • Why do ignorant and untrained souls trouble one that is trained and knowledgeable?
  • Consider your own faults…and you’ll forget your anger.
  • Keep a clear focus on what is within your power and what’s not in your power:
    • Does someone despise me? That is his own problem. My only concern should be this: that I will never be found doing or saying something that is despicable. Does someone hate me? That is his own problem. But I will be kind and good-natured to everyone, including this person who hates me.

Seeing Results

Person considers me a failure. Evaluate own actions: I tried my very best, with only good intentions. What should I do to fix the problem, or to convince person that I’m not a failure? CANNOT COMPUTE.

Ok, honestly I struggled to get through this lesson. It just felt a bit dry (especially after all that amazing stuff about accepting others and forgiveness). But we’re chugging along here. The most encouraging thing for myself, however, is that I’ve noticed recently that when I’m in a “bad situation,” or if I start to feel bad, I’ve been able to sort of naturally distance myself from the situation, evaluate it (a bit more) objectively, and the result is something like this:

“__________ is mad at me and considers me a failure.
But what were my own actions? Why, I only tried my very best, with the very best intentions. So what should I do to “fix the problem?”
—CANNOT COMPUTE—“

Do you see what I’m getting at? At least for myself, studying these principles has led to a natural development of rationality. “Someone’s mad at me? I only tried my best—what else can I do? ERROR.” Because when we look at situations like this objectively, we realize that to become angry, hurt, or disturbed, is in fact what we’ve been learning all along: it’s irrational! Have you noticed a change in yourself such as this? Keep chugging along. We’ll get there. 🙂

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