Thursday, June 4, 2009
Intolerance - The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius - Unpublished Selections Explained, Med. IX.42
Meditation IX.42 - Intolerance - Translated by George Long and rewritten by Russell McNeil
When you are offended by shameless conduct, immediately ask yourself, Is it possible, then, that shameless persons should not be in the world? It is not possible. Do not, then, require what is impossible. For this is one of those shameless men or women who must of necessity be in the world. Let the same considerations be present to your mind in the case of the knave or the faithless, and of anyone else who does wrong in any way. For at the same time that you do remind yourself that it is impossible that these men and women should not exist, you will become more kindly disposed toward each of them individually.1 It is useful to perceive this too: immediately when the occasion arises, what virtue nature has given to us to oppose every wrongful act. For she has given to us, as an antidote against stupidity, mildness - and against other wrongful acts, she gives us other powers. And in all cases it is possible for you to correct every wrong by teaching those who have gone astray;2 for anyone who errs misses the object and has gone astray. Besides, in what way have you been injured by those errors? For you will find that among those who irritate you, not one of them has done anything that could worsen your mind; but that which is evil or harmful has its foundation only in your mind.3 And what harm is done or what is so strange, if someone who has not been instructed does what an uninstructed person can do? Consider whether you should not rather blame yourself, because you did not expect such an error. For you had the means given to you by your reason to suppose that it was likely that such an error would occur, and yet you have forgotten and are amazed when it does occur.4 But most of all when you blame the faithless or the ungrateful, turn to yourself. For the fault is manifestly your own, whether you did trust that anyone who had such a disposition would keep their promise, or when conferring your kindness you did not confer it absolutely, or in such a way as to have received from your very act all the profit. For what more do you want when you have done anyone a service? Are you not content that you have done something conformable to your nature, and do you seek to be paid for it? Just as if the eye demanded a payment for seeing, or the feet for walking. For as these parts of the body are formed for a particular purpose, and by working according to their purposes obtain what is their own; so also as we are formed by nature to acts of benevolence, when we have done anything benevolent or in any other way conducive to the common interest, we have acted conformably to our constitution, and we get what is our own.5
(1) This meditation focuses on intolerance and self-righteousness. Shameless behavior is a fact of existence. It has always occurred. It will always occur. It is something that we must always expect and always be prepared to meet. More than this, the meditation teaches us to respond to shameless behavior not with outrage or surprise, but with kindness and understanding.
(2) Human beings can do awful things to each other. Many of us respond to wrongs with self-righteousness. Marcus advocates another strategy. First of all, we need to be constantly on our guard. When we witness or experience injustice, appreciate that mildness is not only an effective antidote, it is totally unexpected. We can react with mildness when we understand that offensive behavior is generally rooted in stupidity and ignorance. Man's inhumanity to man is just that - the acting out of our raw self-serving animal nature in response to emotional triggers. Every time these things occur we can respond in kind, by meeting force with force, by exacting eye-for-eye revenge. Or - and this is the way of the Stoic - we can appreciate that every injustice we witness offers us a unique teaching opportunity. In meeting injustice in this way there is a chance that we will not only mitigate the damage, we might also show the offender that there is a better way to live.
(3) The most powerful tool that a Stoic can use turns on the idea of harm. No injustice, no matter how severe, need touch the mind. The human mind is immune to injustice. If we accept this fact of existence - that we are invulnerable - no act, however outrageous, should trigger intolerance. There is nothing the mind cannot withstand when we assume this posture.
(4) Marcus is reminding us that it is irrational not to expect offense. Many if not most people are uninstructed. They are unaware of their true nature. They will generally behave in foul ways. Expect this. Be on guard. Fend it off as needed. Use these acts as opportunities to exercise our responsibility to teach. We are social. Our first duty is always to the betterment of community.
(5) In meeting injustice it is critical to look at ourselves. When we witness wrong ought we not actually first blame ourselves? Why are our neighbors acting in these ways? Have I not actually failed them? What past opportunities have I missed to show them what I understand about our nature? Why should I expect others to behave rightly? Life is never about me. Life is always about others.
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.