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 fruition—what can harm you?
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.13)
Indifferent vs. Ignoring
In this final Meditation from yesterday’s lesson, Marcus pointed out that we should be “kind and good-natured to everyone, including this person who hates me. [And we] must be ready to show him the nature of his error.”
“Show him the nature of his error?” But I thought Stoics were supposed to be indifferent to other people’s bad behavior.
Yes, that’s true. But I venture to say that there is a difference between being indifferent and ignoring someone’s bad behavior. If Stoics strive to act with Virtue at all times, how can we justify going about ignoring all the bad behavior and Vice (greed, injustice, cowardice, foolishness) in the world? if we were to ignore Vice that is present and allow it to run rampant and unchecked without any effort on our part, are we being Virtuous? Part of a Stoic’s responsibilities, as we are aware at this point, is our duty to promote a “well-ordered and harmonious society.”
But how can I both remain indifferent and “get involved” at the same time?
I see “indifference” as the value you ascribe, and the effect that you allow to externals, including other people’s bad behavior. As stated earlier, there’s a difference between being indifferent and ignoring. “Ignoring” implies that the Stoic simply looks the other way when bad behavior happens, and plods along steadily at his own life, giving no thought at all to the bad behavior of others. But “indifferent” implies that we acknowledge the bad behavior, but we do not allow ourselves to be harmed at the core. We strive to make society better without allowing our passions to take over us, while acting with reservation, while acknowledging what is beyond our control. Still seem a bit blurry? Indeed, there is a fine line to walk.
Citizens of the World
Let’s see what we can deduce from Marcus’ writings today:
If intelligence is something we share, then so is the reason that makes us reasoning beings. And if that’s true, then we also share the reasoning that tells us what we should do and what we should not do. And if that’s true, certainly we share a “common law” as well. And if indeed there is a “common law,” then we are fellow citizens. And if we are all fellow citizens of each other, then the world is a state of some kind. What other entity could all of humanity belong to, other than this “World State”? And it is this “World State” from which our intelligence and sense of law derive.
I am part of the reasoning Human Race.
Where else could they come from? The earth that composes me derives from earth; water derives from some other element; the air from its own source—for nothing comes to be from nothing, just as nothing returns to nothing—so our intelligence also derives from some particular source.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.4)
Stoics believe that we should treat all people with fairness and consideration at all times. We should not get angry or reprimand other people without at least first making an honest attempt to correct their error and teach them better ways. Why can’t we get angry and just be done with people who have done terrible things? Because the truth is that we are all “fellow citizens.” We are all part of this state comprised of rational beings.
Everything you do in life should contribute to the “perfection of society” in our beloved human race.
Since you yourself are one of the parts that serve to perfect a social system, let your every action contribute to this duty of perfecting the social life. Any action of yours that has no reference to these social ends (whether directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, prevents you from being whole, and creates division, just as the citizen in his state who cuts himself off from his fellow citizens for his own sake.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9.23)
As rational beings, we are not subject to every blast of wind—no, we are able to take negative situations and make something of them. With our reasoning abilities, we have a duty to “contribute to the perfecting of social life.”
So how did the Stoics come up with this idea of a “duty to society”? Did they actually have any reasons? Or did it just seem like an altruistic idea that looked pretty?
As Stoics, we strive to live by the Virtues, correct? Consider this: what good are the virtues if you live isolated in a mountain cave, with no contact or interaction with any other human being? If no other people are involved in your life, then what is self-restraint? What is justice without another human to place the measure? What is courage with no adversity to face? What is wisdom with no one else to reason? I can sit at home for a month reading philosophy books, and if I examine my progress superficially, I’ll determine that because I haven’t gotten drunk, haven’t lied to anyone, haven’t avoided any situations, and haven’t been outright foolish, that I must be making progress, right? Wrong! I’d venture to say that Virtue is not developed through the absence of Vice—it must be developed through outright actions of, well, Virtue. And the truth is, as much as our own minds and pursuit of the Virtues are within our own power, Virtue is understood and developed more fully in the presence of other human beings.
Whenever you become angry at something, it means you have forgotten that:
— everything that happens is the will of Nature,
— whatever wrong has been committed is the responsibility of the other person—not your responsibility, and that
— whatever happens has always happened this way, will always happen this way, and continues to happen this way at this very moment.
When you become angry with another person, you forget how close is this brotherhood that unites each human being as part of the human race; for this link is not from blood or ancestry, but from our common share in reason.
You’ve also forgotten that our individual intellects are fragments of God that have flowed from the divine and rational nature of the Universe. You’ve forgotten that nothing is our own: our children, our bodies, life itself has come to us from there. You’ve forgotten that everything depends on how you choose to see things. You’ve forgotten that the only life we have is in this present moment; we have nothing else.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 12.26)
“How close is this brotherhood that unites each human being as part of the human race.” Virtue is brought to light and developed more fully in the presence of other human beings.
The beauty I see in Stoicism is that it aims to both develop the individual as well as society at the same time. As the individual’s behavior and character improves, so does society as a whole. As “fragments of God,” if each of us 7 billion+ humans on earth truly improved our own characters and behavior, then one by one, society as a whole, the human race as a whole, would certainly improve.
Remember this one?:
When someone does something ridiculous or even “harmful” to you, remind yourself that they are simply pursuing what they believe is best for them. True, they might be misguided, so you should “show them the truth, without becoming annoyed.”
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.27)
It’s not enough to avoid other humans in order to avoid pain and potential pitfalls to our philosophical progress. It is our duty to be actively engaged in society and contribute to its improvement.
Marcus said that every single one of our actions should contribute to society.
Think about every single thing that you’ve done in the past 24 hours. Make an itemized list. Go through the list and ask yourself: “Did this action contribute positively to society? How?” If you can’t answer “yes” to this question and provide a reason for some activities, re-evaluate those activities and consider if there’s any way that you could be more efficient with a different activity by contributing not only to your own personal development, but also to society.