Stoic compassion

Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.

© Dave DuBay

Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.

After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:

When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”

At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.

Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.

This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.

By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.

Marcus says we should

See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.

This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.

Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.

Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.

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Book review: How to Be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci

Sedona, Arizona

If you’re interested in the philosophy of Stoicism, Massimo Pigliucci’s How to Be a Stoic is the place to start. Don’t let the fact that it’s philosophy stop you – Pigliucci’s conversational, straightforward writing style makes Stoicism easily accessible.

Donald Robertson’s Stoicism and the Art of Happiness is also a good introduction. But while Robertson is more detailed on the the finer points of Stoicism, Pigliucci focuses on general concepts.

If you like what you read from Pigliucci then read Robertson next. The reason I put William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy third is that Irvine modifies Stoicism somewhat – and being a philosophy rather than a religion you can do that. But to understand Irvine’s perspective it helps first to have a good understanding of Stoicism.

And if you’re still with us after these books then it’s time to delve directly into Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other classical writers.

But back to Pigliucci. He describes Stoicism as a philosophy that

is not about suppressing or hiding emotions – rather, it is about acknowledging our emotions, reflecting on what causes them, and redirecting them for our own good. It is about keeping in mind what is and what is not under our control, focusing our efforts on the former and not wasting them on the latter. It is about practicing virtue and excellence and navigating the world to the best of our abilities, while being mindful of the moral dimension of all our actions.

Throughout the book Pigliucci uses anecdotes to illustrate Stoic ideas. He lucidly explains Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Discourses, often framing it as a conversation between Epictetus and himself. But Pigliucci never overdoes it. The effect makes Stoicism feel more like a way of life than abstract musings.

For example, at one point Pigliucci paraphrases Epictetus as saying to him, “Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens.”

Pigliucci saves the best for last. Chapter fourteen, “Practical Spiritual Exercises,” provides the reader with twelve actions we can undertake daily so we can actually practice Stoicism rather than just read about it.

But before he details these twelve actions he provides a succinct summary of Stoic philosophy (pages 204 and 205):

  • “Virtue is the highest good, and everything else is indifferent” because “nothing is to be traded against virtue.”
  • “Follow nature. That is, apply reason to social life.”
  • “Dichotomy of control. Some things are under our control, and others are not (though we may be able to influence them).”

And the four cardinal virtues of Stoicism:

  • “(Practical) wisdom: Navigating complex situations in the best available fashion.”
  • “Courage: Doing the right thing, both physically and morally, under all circumstances.”
  • “Justice: Treating every human being – regardless of his or her stature in life – with fairness and kindness.”
  • “Temperance: Exercising moderation and self-control in all spheres of life.”

Marcus Aurelius: Kindness

Human nature, according to Stoic philosophers, is not only rational but social.

Scottsdale, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

We are social beings

You participate in society by your existence. Then participate in its life through your actions — all your actions. Any action not directed toward a social end (directly or indirectly) is a disturbance to your life, an obstacle to wholeness, a source of dissension — like the man acting as a faction unto himself, out of step with the majority (9.23).

In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks they become indifferent to us — like sun, wind, or animals. They impede our actions, but they can’t impede our intentions or our dispositions because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts its purposes to the obstacle, and what stands in the way becomes the way (5.20).

People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them (8.59).

Wash yourself clean with simplicity, humility, and indifference to everything but right and wrong. Care for other human beings. Follow God (7.31).

Don’t turn away from others

To move from one unselfish action to another with God in mind. Only there is delight and stillness (6.7).

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own. So none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry or hate them. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions. (2.1).

People find pleasure in different ways. I find in in keeping my mind clear. In not turning away from people or the things that happen to them. In accepting and welcoming everything I see. In treating each thing as it deserves (8.43).

Kindness is its own reward

Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. Some don’t, but they privately think they’re owed something. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return. They are a human being helping others (5.6).

You’re no different from anyone else

When you deal with irrational animals, or with things and circumstances, be generous and straightforward. You are rational, but they are not. When you deal with your fellow human beings, behave as one. They share reason with you. And invoke the gods regardless (6.23).

Practice really hearing what people say. Do your best to get inside their minds (6.53).

Speak the truth as you see it, but with kindness, humility, and without hypocrisy (8.5).

Take care that you don’t treat inhumanity as it treats human beings (7.65).

Be gentle with others

When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them. But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends (9.27).

It’s cruel to forbid people from striving for what they think is good for them. And yet that’s just what you do when you get angry at their misbehavior. Are they drawn toward what they think is good for them even though it’s not good for them? Then show them that. Prove it to them instead of losing your temper (6.27).

If they’ve made a mistake, correct them gently and show them where they went wrong. If you can’t do that, then the blame lies with you. Or no one (10.4).

Kindness is invincible

Kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight (if you get the chance), correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. Show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately — with no hatred in your heart. Speak directly even if there are other people around (11.18).

When you need encouragement, think of the qualities the people around you have: this one’s energy, that one’s modesty, another’s generosity, and so on. Nothing is as encouraging as when virtues are visibly embodied in the people around us, when we’re practically showered with them. It’s good to keep this in mind (6.48).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius: Anger & fear

Stoicism is not about repressing emotions — it’s about not allowing emotion to override reason. But emotions such as anger and fear most easily override reason.

Olive tree, Queens Creek, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Put it in perspective

Why feel anger at the world? It’s not like the world would notice (7.38).

When you lose your temper, or even feel irritated, remember that human life is very short. Before long all of us will be laid out side by side. Remember how much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them (11.18).

And expecting bad people not to injure others is to ask the impossible. Further, to let them treat other people like that but expect them to exempt you is arrogant — the act of a tyrant (11.18).

It’s all in how you perceive it. You’re in control. You can dispense with your judgments at will (12.22, see also 8.47).

The world does not revolve around you

To be drawn toward what is wrong and self-indulgent, toward anger and fear and pain, is to revolt against nature. For the mind to complain about anything that happens is to desert its post. It was created to show reverence and respect for the divine, no less than to act justly (11.20).

To feel grief, anger or fear is to try to escape from something decreed by the ruler of all things — now, in the past, or in the future. And that ruler is law, which governs what happens to each of us. To feel grief or anger or fear is to become a fugitive from justice (10.25).

To be angry means you’ve forgotten that everything that happens is natural; that the responsibility is theirs, not yours; and that whatever happens has always happened, always will, and is happening at this very moment, everywhere. What links one person to all people isn’t blood or birth but mind. An individual’s mind is God and of God. Further, nothing belongs to anyone. Children, body, life itself — all of them come from the same source. It’s all in how you choose to see things. The present is all we have to live in — or to lose (12.26).

Frightened of change? What can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart? Can you eat food without transforming it? (7.18) There is nothing bad in undergoing change — or good in emerging from it (4.42).

My only fear is doing something contrary to human nature — the wrong thing, the wrong way, or at the wrong time (7.20).

Get a grip

When jarred unavoidably by circumstances, come back to yourself at once. Don’t lose the rhythm more than you can help. You’ll have a better grasp of the harmony if you keep going back to it (6.11).

It’s the pursuit of things, and your attempts to avoid them, that leave you in such turmoil. And yet they aren’t seeking you out — you’re the one seeking them (11.11).

The first step: Don’t be anxious. Nature controls it all, and before long you’ll be no one, nowhere. The second step: Concentrate on what you have to do. Fix your eyes on it. Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being. Remind yourself what nature demands of us, and then do it without hesitation. Speak the truth as you see it, but with kindness, with humility, and without hypocrisy (8.5).

Forget the future. When and if it comes, you’ll have the same resource to draw on — reason (7.8). Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer. Then remind yourself that past and future have no power over you. Only the present — and even that can be minimized. Isolate it and accuse your mind of weakness if it tries to claim it can’t hold out (8.36).

The mind is a fortress

The mind without passions is a fortress. No place is more secure. Once we take refuge there we are safe forever (8.48).

Realize that you have something in you more powerful and miraculous than the things that affect you and make you dance like a puppet. What’s in my thoughts at this moment? Fear? Jealousy? Desire? Feelings like that? (12.19)

None of the people you’re angry with have done anything that could damage your mind. It is only your mind that can harm itself. Where’s the harm or surprise in ignorant people behaving ignorantly? Think about it. Shouldn’t you admonish yourself for failing to anticipate that they’d act this way? (9.42)

Dealing with other people

It’s cruel to forbid people from striving for what they think is good for them. And yet that’s just what you do when you get angry at their misbehavior. Are they drawn toward what they think is good for them even though it’s not good for them? Then show them that. Prove it to them instead of losing your temper (6.27).

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake — not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

 

When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27).

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)

Think about people who felt intense anger at something: the most famous, the most unfortunate, the most hated, the most whatever. And ask: Where is all that now? Smoke, dust, legend — or not even a legend. How trivial are the things we want so passionately. It’s much more philosophical to take what we’re given and show uprightness, self-control, and obedience to God, without making a production of it. There’s nothing more insufferable than people who boast about their own humility (12.27).

Honey tastes bitter to a man with jaundice. People with rabies are terrified of water. And a child’s idea of beauty is a ball. Why be angry over that? Do you think falsehood is less powerful than bile or a rabid dog? (6.57)

You can hold your breath until you turn blue, but they’ll still go on doing it (8.4).

Don’t be irritated at people’s smell or bad breath. What’s the point? With that mouth, with those armpits, they’re going to produce that odor. But don’t they have a brain? Can’t they figure it out? Can’t they recognize the problem? So you have a brain as well. Good for you. Then use your reason to awaken theirs. Show them. Make them realize it. If they’ll listen, then you’ll have solved the problem without anger (5.28).

Take care of your soul

When faced with people’s bad behavior, turn around and ask when you have acted like that. When you saw money as a good, or pleasure, or social position. Your anger will subside as soon as you recognize that they acted under compulsion (10.30).

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy (6.6).

The human soul degrades itself when it becomes an abscess, a kind of detached growth on the world, when it turns its back on another person or sets out to do it harm, as the souls of the angry do (2.16).

No time for reading. For controlling your arrogance, yes. For overcoming pain and pleasure, yes. For outgrowing ambition, yes. For not feeling anger at stupid and unpleasant people — or even caring about them — for that, yes (8.8).

Your relationship to society

Like a branch cut away from a tree, people cut themselves off from the whole community through hatred and rejection. But they don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the community. Yet we have a gift given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours, to reattach ourselves and rejoin the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated it makes the severed part hard to reconnect (11.8).

When you think you’ve been injured, apply this rule: If the community isn’t injured by it, neither am I. And if it is, anger is not the answer. Show the offender where he went wrong (5.22).

What’s worse than anger?

In comparing sins (the way people do), Theophrastus says the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger. Which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked to anger by pain. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire (2.10).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius: Praise & criticism

Stoic advice not to value people’s praise or criticism doesn’t mean disdaining others.

Mohave Desert in western Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

What other people think is not your problem

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake — not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

When you face people’s insults or hatred, look at their souls. Get inside them. Look at what sort of people they are. You’ll realize there’s no need to impress them (9.27). What are their minds like? What evokes their love and admiration? Imagine their souls stripped bare. And their vanity. It’s their conceit to suppose their disdain could harm anyone, or their praise help them (9.34). But you should still be kind to them. They are by nature your friends (9.27).

Do you want praise from people who kick themselves every fifteen minutes, or the approval of people who can’t please themselves? Is it a sign of self-respect to regret nearly everything you do? (8.53)

Listen only to those whose lives conform to nature. And the others? Bear in mind what sort of people they are — both at home and abroad, by night as well as day, and who they spend their time with. Care nothing for the praise of men who don’t even live up to their own standards (3.4).

Take the high road

Take Antoninus as your model: his steadiness in any situation, his sense of reverence, his calm expression, his gentleness, his modesty, the way he put up with unfair criticism without returning it; how he would not listen to gossip, was slow to criticize, immune to rumor and suspicion, devoid of pretense, and not prone to backbiting, cowardice, jealousy, or empty rhetoric (6.30).

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision and your own mind (8.16).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius: Pleasure & pain

Stoics and Epicureans have serious disagreements about pleasure and pain. Marcus Aurelius articulates why the Stoic view is best for human flourishing.

Balance rock, Lincolnville, Maine

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Don’t fear pain or seek pleasure

The human soul degrades itself when it is overpowered by pleasure or pain (2.16). To fear pain is to fear something that’s bound to happen. And with the world being what it is, that’s impious. If you pursue pleasure you can hardly avoid wrongdoing — which is manifestly impious (9.1).

Even pirates, perverts, parricides, and tyrants enjoy pleasure to the full (6.34). When I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

Remorse is annoyance at having passed up something to your benefit. But if it’s to your benefit it must be something a virtuous person would be concerned about. But no virtuous person would feel remorse at passing up pleasure. So pleasure cannot make you more virtuous (8.10).

Watch out for desire

In comparing sins (the way people do), Theophrastus says the ones committed out of desire are worse than the ones committed out of anger. Which is good philosophy. The angry man seems to turn his back on reason out of a kind of pain and inner convulsion. But the man motivated by desire, who is mastered by pleasure, seems somehow more self-indulgent, less manly in his sins. Theophrastus is right, and philosophically sound, to say that the sin committed out of pleasure deserves a harsher rebuke than the one committed out of pain. The angry man is more like a victim of wrongdoing, provoked to anger by pain. The other man rushes into wrongdoing on his own, moved to action by desire (2.10).

Keep it simple

You don’t need much to live happily. Just because you’ve abandoned your hopes of becoming a great thinker or scientist, don’t give up on attaining freedom, achieving humility, serving others, and obeying God (7.67).

Non-attachment

Don’t dream of possessing what you don’t have. Reflect on the blessings of what you do have, and how much you’d miss them if they weren’t there. But be careful. Don’t become so dependent on this pleasure that it would upset you to lose them (7.27).

Character is most important

It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you inside or out (4.8). And what can guide us? Only philosophy. Which means making sure that the power within stays safe and free from assault, superior to pleasure and pain, doing nothing randomly or dishonestly; and with integrity, not dependent on anyone else’s doing something or not doing it (2.17).

What’s truly harmful is compromising your character

For animate beings, “harmful” is whatever obstructs their senses, or the fulfillment of what they intend. So too for rational creatures. Anything that obstructs the mind is harmful. Apply this to yourself. Do pain and pleasure have their hooks in you? Let the senses deal with it. Are there obstacles to your action? That would harm you if you failed to recognize this possibility. But if you use common sense, you haven’t been harmed or even obstructed because no one can obstruct the operations of the mind (8.41).

Nothing that goes on in anyone else’s mind can harm you. Nor can the shifts and changes in the world around you. Then where is harm to be found? In your judgment of it. Stop doing that and everything will be fine. Keep the judging part of you quiet even if the body it’s attached to is stabbed or burnt, or stinking with pus, or consumed by cancer. Or to put it another way: It needs to realize that what happens to everyone — bad and good alike — is neither good nor bad {i.e. it doesn’t affect your character unless you let it}. What happens in every life — lived naturally or not — is neither natural nor unnatural (4.39).

The existence of evil does not harm the world. And an individual act of evil does not harm the victim. Only the perpetrator is harmed by it — and he can stop being harmed as soon as he decides to (8.55).

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you (9.4).

Think it through

It’s normal to feel pain in your hands and feet, if you’re using your feet as feet and your hands as hands. And for a human being to feel stress is normal — if he’s living a normal human life. And if it’s normal, how can it be bad? (6.33)

Choose not to be harmed, and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed, and you haven’t been (4.7, see also 7.14). Remove your judgments of anything that seems painful and you’ll remain completely unaffected. Don’t let reason be injured. If any other part of you is in trouble it can form its own judgments for itself (8.40).

Enduring pain

Either pain affects the body (which is the body’s problem) or it affects the soul. But the soul can choose not to be affected, preserving its own serenity, its own tranquillity. All our decisions, urges, desires, aversions lie within. No evil can touch them (8.28).

Unendurable pain carries us off. Chronic pain can be endured: the mind preserves its serenity by withdrawing from the body – reason is not impaired by pain. The parts injured by pain can protest if they can (7.33).

Everything that happens is either endurable or not. If it’s endurable, then stop complaining and endure it. If it’s unendurable also stop complaining. Your destruction will mean its end as well. But remember: you can endure anything your mind can make endurable by treating it as in your interest or nature to do so (10.3).

Forgive

To feel affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human. You can do it, if you simply recognize: that they’re human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you’ll both be dead before long. And, above all, that they haven’t really hurt you. They haven’t diminished your ability to choose (7.22).

Where’s the harm or surprise in ignorant people behaving ignorantly? Think about it. Shouldn’t you admonish yourself for failing to anticipate that they’d act this way? (9.42)

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake – not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don’t denounce them or get upset with them. We just keep an eye on them after that – but not out of hatred or suspicion, just keeping a friendly distance. We need to do that in other areas as well. We need to excuse what our sparring partners do, and just keep our distance without suspicion or hatred (6.20).

___________________

Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

___________________

I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.

Marcus Aurelius: Virtue, good, & evil

Reason and mindfulness must have a focus. That’s why virtue is Stoicism’s centerpiece. Virtue as the ultimate good, rather than being subordinate to pleasure,  is a key point of disagreement between Stoics and Epicureans.

South Mountain, Phoenix, Arizona

From Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

What is good or bad?

Good or bad for rational and social beings lies not in feeling but in action. Virtue and vice show not in what you feel but in what you do (9.16).

You take things you don’t control and call them “good” or “bad.” So when “bad” things happen, or “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible — or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies (6.41).

Never regard something as doing you good if it makes you betray a trust, or lose your sense of shame, or makes you show hatred, suspicion, ill will, or hypocrisy, or a desire for things best done behind closed doors (3.7).

When you have to deal with someone, ask yourself: What does he mean by good and bad? If he thinks this or that about pleasure and pain (and what produces them), about fame and disgrace, about death and life, then it shouldn’t shock or surprise you when he does this or that (8.14).

Suppose you take certain things as touchstones of goodness: prudence, self-control, justice, and courage. If you understand good in this sense then the saying, “Too much of a good thing” makes no sense (5.12).

Be realistic

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own. So none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry or hate them. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions. (2.1).

Justice is the cornerstone of virtue

Justice is the source of all the other virtues. For how could we do what justice requires if we’re distracted by things that don’t matter, if we are naive, gullible, or inconstant? (11.10)

To do harm is to do yourself harm. To do an injustice is to do yourself an injustice — it degrades you (9.4).

When I look at the human character I see no virtue placed there to counter justice. But I see one to counter pleasure: self-control (8.39).

Injustice is blasphemy. Nature designed rational beings for each other’s sake: to help, not harm, one another. To transgress its will is to blaspheme against the oldest of the gods. And to lie is to blasphemy too (even to lie without realizing it) because nature is synonymous with truth. And to pursue pleasure as good, and flee from pain as evil — that too is blasphemous. Those who do that are bound to find themselves constantly reproaching nature, complaining that it doesn’t treat the good and bad as they deserve. Moreover, to fear pain is to fear something that’s bound to happen, the world being what it is — and that again is blasphemy. If you pursue pleasure you can hardly avoid wrongdoing — which is manifestly blasphemous (9.1).

Characteristics of the rational soul: Affection for its neighbors, truthfulness, humility, not placing anything above itself — which is characteristic of law as well. No difference here between reason and justice (11.1).

Perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy, or sloth, or pretense (7.69).

Just do it

Stop talking about what the good man is like, and just be one (10.16). No matter what anyone says or does, my task is to be good (7.15). If it’s not right, don’t do it. If it’s not true, don’t say (12.17). It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character. Otherwise it cannot harm you, inside or out (4.8). Just do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter (6.2).

Practice the virtues you can show: honesty, gravity, endurance, austerity, resignation, abstinence, patience, sincerity, moderation, seriousness, high-mindedness. Don’t you see how much you have to offer beyond excuses like “can’t”? And yet you still settle for less (5.5).

You are much mistaken, my friend, if you think that any man worth his salt cares about the risk of death and doesn’t concentrate on this alone: whether what he’s doing is right or wrong, whether his behavior is that of a good man or a bad one (7.44).

No one but you can injure your character

No one can stop you from being honest or straightforward. The responsibility is all yours. Simply resolve not to go on living if you aren’t. It would be contrary to reason (10.32).

Like a branch cut away from a tree, people cut themselves off from the whole community through hatred and rejection. But they don’t realize that they’re cutting themselves off from the community. Yet we have a gift given us by Zeus, who founded this community of ours, to reattach ourselves and rejoin the whole. But if the rupture is too often repeated it makes the severed part hard to reconnect (11.8).

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions (6.51).

When you wake up, ask yourself: Does it make any difference to you if other people blame you for doing what’s right? It makes no difference. Have you forgotten what people who are so vociferous in praise or blame of others are like as they sleep and eat? (10.13)

Let it go

So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine. What is done to me is ordained by nature, what I do what my nature wishes for me (5.25).

Don’t be disturbed. Uncomplicate yourself. Someone has done wrong — to himself. Something happens to you. Good. It was meant for you by nature, woven into the pattern from the beginning (4.26).

When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard? (7.26)

Look at who they really are, the people whose approval you long for, and what their minds are really like. Then you won’t blame them for their mistakes, and you won’t feel a need for their approval. You will have seen the sources of both their judgments and their actions (7.62).

The best revenge is not to be like your enemy (6.6).

How to treat other people

In a sense, people are our proper occupation. Our job is to do them good and put up with them. But when they obstruct our proper tasks they become indifferent to us — like sun, wind, or animals. They impede our actions, but they can’t impede our intentions or our dispositions because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts its purposes to the obstacle, and what stands in the way becomes the way (5.20).

When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself: Is a world without shamelessness possible? No. Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them. The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. But bear in mind the qualities nature has given us to counter that defect? As an antidote to unkindness it gave us kindness. And other qualities to balance other flaws (9.42).

Accept it without arrogance, let it go with indifference (8.33).

Leave other people’s mistakes where they lie (9.20). It’s silly to try to escape other people’s faults. They are inescapable. Just try to escape your own (7.71).

How to act

We have the potential to lead a good life. Learn to be indifferent to what makes no difference (11.16).

Epictetus said, “We need to master the art of acquiescence. We need to pay attention to our impulses, making sure they don’t go unmoderated, that they benefit others, that they’re worthy of us. We need to steer clear of desire in any form and not try to avoid what’s beyond our control” (11.37).

When you’ve done a good deed and someone has benefited, why do you look, like a fool, for credit in return? (7.73)

When you feel pain be sure it doesn’t disgrace you or degrade your intelligence — that it doesn’t keep you from acting rationally or unselfishly (7.64).

Someone despises me? That’s their problem. I should not do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me? That’s their problem. I should be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them, but ready to show them their mistake – not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way (11.13).

Wash yourself clean with simplicity, humility, and indifference to everything but right and wrong. Care for other human beings. Follow God (7.31).

Remember that to change your mind and to accept correction are free acts too. The action is yours, based on your own will, your own decision and your own mind (8.16).

Have I done something for the common good? Then I share in the benefits. To stay centered on that (11.4).

Salvation is seeing each thing for what it is — its nature and its purpose. Doing only what is right, saying only what is true without holding back. (12.29).

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Summary

Metaphysics

Nature & the universe

The gods

The soul

Justice & Providence

Impermanence

Death

Reason & Virtue

Reason & the mind

Mindfulness

Virtue, good, & evil

Psychology

Pleasure & pain

Praise & criticism

Anger & fear

Kindness

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I’ve shortened and arranged the quotations for readability. Quotations are from Gregory Hays translation published by Modern Library, a translation by Francis Hutcheson and James Moor and published by the Liberty Fund, Inc, and the Penguin Classics translated by Martin Hammond.