Stoic Serenity 5.5.3: Marcus’ Ten Commandments

No, this is not a picture of me smuggling my guinea pigs. I only have three. That keeps me clear away from being a weird guinea pig lady, right?

Here’s the deal. Today, my apartment complex is replacing air filters, checking smoke detector batteries, etc. And a potential tenant is coming to look at my apartment this afternoon. The problem? I have guinea pigs. Haha. Usually “maintenance day” isn’t a problem, but since someone is also coming to see my apartment to possibly rent, I couldn’t hide the pigs securely. So I spent yesterday evening disassembling their cage, and I got up this morning at 5:00 to smuggle the pigs into my car under the cover of darkness. Is it going against Virtue to smuggle guinea pigs in and out of your apartment? Probably. Oh well, this is one thing Stoicism isn’t touching. 😀 So since I”m taking the pigs for a “field trip” around town today (this is what happens when you’re waiting for your first day at your new job.—Oh by the way, I got a job 🙂  )—so since we are on a field trip today, I’m currently at a coffee shop with a backpack full of books (story of my life since I was 3). But the catch is that I only have Gregory Hays’ “A New Translation” of the Meditations with me on my Kindle. I’m not a huge fan of this translation. It’s a bit too cryptic and mysterious for me. It sounds like Zen Buddhist writings, which is fine, but it’s very different from the more literal translations. So if you’re reading this post and wondering why Marcus seems to have a personality disorder today, that’s why.

Today we’re trudging through more of Marcus’ writings on dealing with other people. Bear with me. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.


The things that I do?—I act with the benefit of humanity in mind. That things that are done to me?—I accept it, and I attribute it to the gods and the source from which all things flow together.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.23)

Each person finds joy in different things. I myself find joy in keeping my mind clear; in not turning my back on any human being or on anything that befalls the human race; but to accept and welcome everything I see; and to make use of each thing according to its worth.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 8.43)

Have my actions contributed to the common good of humanity? Then I already have profited. Always keep this in mind, and don’t stop the good work.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.4)


Marcus’ 10 Commandments for Dealing with Difficult People

First, consider how you stand in relation to them, and how we were born to help one another, and, from a different angle, how I was born to preside over them, as the ram over his flock, or the bull over his herd. And then go back to first principles: if all things are not mere atoms, nature must be the power that governs the whole, and if that be so, lower things exist for the sake of the higher, and the higher for one another.

Second, consider what kind of beings they are, at table, in bed, or elsewhere. Above all, consider what compulsions they are subject to because of their opinions, and what pride they take in these very acts.

Third, consider that if they are acting rightly in what they do, then there is no reason for you to be annoyed, but if they are acting wrongly, then it is plain that they are doing so involuntarily and through ignorance. Just as a soul never willingly deprives itself of the truth, neither does a soul willingly deprive itself of the capacity to deal with each person as he deserves. Besides, people are upset if they hear others referring to them as unjust, heartless, greedy, or as acting wrongly toward others.

Remember that you are human, too. We all end up making mistakes.

Fourth, remember that you yourself make many mistakes, and are therefore just the same as they are. Remember that even if you do manage to refrain from these wrongdoings, that you at least had the inclination to commit these types of wrongs, even if cowardice, or concern for your own reputation, or some other vice, manages to prevent you from committing the wrong.

Fifth, remember that you can’t be completely certain that their actions are truly wrong. Many actions are undertaken for bigger purposes. It’s a general rule that you need to find out a great deal about the situation before you can properly judge the actions of others.

“It kind of feels like our lives are made up of a countless number of weeks. But there they are—fully countable—staring you in the face.” (Click the picture to read a really interesting post at WaitButWhy.com)

Sixth, when you have reached your limit, having been annoyed beyond all measure and completely losing your patience, remember the big picture: that human life lasts only a moment, and that in a short while we will all have been laid to rest.

It’s not the circumstances themselves that harm us, but rather what we make of them.

Seventh, remember that it is not the actual actions of others that trouble us—rather, it is our judgements of their actions that trouble us. So if you can eliminate your own judgement that this action has been a catastrophe and actually harmed you, and if you can toss all that type of irrational thinking away, then your anger will come to an end. How do you do that? By recognizing that you’ve suffered no disgrace. Unless disgrace is the only thing that can hurt you, you’re doomed to commit innumerable offenses—to become a thief, or heaven only knows what else.

The distress we give in to actually ends up causing us more harm than the bad behavior itself!

Eighth, keep in mind that the anger and distress we feel toward such behavior brings us more suffering than the actual things that led us to feel anger and distress.

Ninth, remember that kindness is invincible, as long as it is sincere, never hypocritical or fake. What can the most insulting person do to you if you are consistently kind to him?—and, when possible, you gently advise him and quietly put him on the proper course at the exact time when he is attempting to harm you. “No, my child, we were born for something other than this. It is not I who am harmed—it is you, my child, who are causing harm to yourself.” Show him tactfully the truth in this, and that not even bees, nor any other creature of a social nature, acts in such a manner. Make sure you do this with a clean spirit, free from sarcasm or reproach. Do this affectionately and with a heart free from bitterness, and not as if you were lecturing him like a teacher, or trying to impress bystanders, but simply as one person to another, even if others should happen to be present.

Remember these nine rules as if they were a direct gift from the Muses, and begin, finally!, to be a human being, while you still have life in you. But be careful not to flatter people just as you are careful not to become angry with them, because both of these faults go against the common good of humanity and thus lead to harm. When you do become angry, remember this thought:

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Don’t be stupid: flying into passion is NOT a sign of manliness.

Flying into passion is not a sign of manliness, but instead, to be kind and gentle. For just as much as these qualities are more humanlike, they are also more manly. And the man who possesses these virtues has strength, courage, and resilience; not the man who is bad-tempered and discontented. For the closer a person comes to being unable to suffer pain, the closer they come to strength. And as grief is a mark of weakness, anger is too. Those who give in to grief or anger have been wounded and have surrendered to the enemy.

And finally, accept this tenth gift from Apollo, the leader of the Muses:

It is outright madness to expect the bad to do no wrong; for that would be to wish for the impossible. But to think that the bad should do wrong to others, yet demand that they should do no wrong to yourself, is senseless.

(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 11.18)


Whew! That last one is noted as being the longest of Marcus’ Meditations, but it was chock-full of fantastic advice, just as Marcus’ writings always are (though cryptic in style they may be). Now that you’ve read through them, let’s put this last Meditation in a more annotated form.

Things to keep in mind when someone wrongs you:

  1. Humans were born to help each other.
  2. What does he/she value?
  3. People do bad things because they are misguided.
  4. You are human, too, and therefore no better than this wrongdoer.
  5. You don’t know if an action is truly wrong unless you know a great deal about the situation.
  6. Life doesn’t last very long; and shortly after this disturbance, all those involved will eventually die anyway.
  7. People’s bad actions don’t trouble us—our judgements about those actions trouble us. Stop thinking that this has been a catastrophe!
  8. Our anger and distress in response to the behavior brings us more suffering than the bad behavior itself.
  9. Respond to bad behavior with sincere kindness. Gently set the person straight, as one human being to another.
  10. Don’t think that bad characters will do wrong to everyone else but yourself.

 Assignment!

  1. In the First Rule, Marcus refers to his position as Emperor of Rome. Considering this lofty title, to what extent does this invalidate Marcus’ advice and inspiration for modern readers? Does it affect it at all?
  2. Looking back at the Seventh Rule, explain why Stoics say that “it is not people’s actions that trouble us.”
  3. Take a look closely at the “Ninth Rule” in the last Meditations (11.18). Marcus provides a number of attitudes we should take on when we advise others of their mistakes. Make a list of those attitudes, and make it your goal today to respond to bad behavior with a kind and sincere heart.
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