Monday, March 30, 2009

The Presumption of Innocence - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. XII.16

Meditation XII.16 - The Presumption of Innocence - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil

When a man has presented the appearance of having done wrong,1 say, How then do I know if this is a wrongful act?2 And even if he has done wrong, how do I know that he has not condemned himself? and so this is like tearing his own face.3 Consider that he, who would not have the bad man do wrong, is like the man who would not have the fig-tree to bear juice in the figs and infants to cry and the horse to neigh, and whatever else must of necessity be. For what must a man do who has such a character?4 If then you are irritable, cure this man's disposition.5


(1) The key word here is "appearance." The Stoic never presumes that the wrongful actions of others are willful. Wrongful actions may indeed be wrong, or they may only appear to be wrong. If they are wrong, the Stoic presumes always that they are done out of ignorance, not malice.

(2) This reinforces the possibility that what seems wrong, might in reality only appear to be wrong, because we are unaware of mitigating circumstances.

(3) If the action was wrong, the perpetrator may have observed this, and self-corrected or condemned the action himself. If this is so, little is to be gained by feeling irritation over the wrong act.

(4) Fig trees, infants and horses do these things because it is in their nature to bear juice, to cry, or to neigh. By the same token, a man who is bad by nature will generally always do wrong (or act contrary to nature). In other words, if we see wrong done by a bad man, we ought not be surprised. Doing wrong is what those who oppose nature will do. So in these cases, we ought not feel irritation either.

(5) In the case of someone who really does have a bad character, we must always presume that the wrong actions are done from ignorance. This will always trigger a duty in us to correct, not the wrong action, but the character of the bad man. How to do this requires tact and wisdom. These are virtues, and the very act of correction - or the considered attempt to correct - will remove the irritation and give us satisfaction and joy.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing. The unpublished selections presented in this Blog are provided as supplemental material to the published selections which are annotated and explained in the book. The published selections are referenced in this Blog by page number and section.

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