In Book Nine of the Meditations, Marcus Aurelius has some useful advice–very hard to follow, but useful nonetheless–about what to do when people act badly. I have to say, this is nearly impossible to follow on the day after yet another mass shooting. But let’s see if we can bring Marcus into the 21st century. We need wisdom, in the worst way.
Marcus starts Meditations 9.42 by asking whether a world without shamelessness, or viciousness, or untrustworthiness, is possible. He answers: No. He adds that “Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members.”
It is hard to argue with his point that the human race is and has always been deeply flawed. Man’s violent nature is so embedded in our history that the Bible’s very early chapters present the allegory of Cain slaying his brother Abel. Is it depressing and disgusting? Of course. We cannot dream it away, though. To acknowledge it is far from rejoicing in it.
We have to be strong–mentally–for our own sake and our children’s sake.
And how does it injure you anyway? You’ll find that none of the people you’re upset about has done anything that could do damage to your mind. But that’s all that “harm” or “injury” could mean. Yes, boorish people do boorish things. What’s strange or unheard-of about that?
Marcus makes us turn the blame, uncomfortably, onto ourselves:
Isn’t it yourself you should reproach–for not anticipating that they’d act this way? The logos gave you the means to see it–that a given person would act a given way–but you paid no attention. And now you’re astonished that he’s gone and done it. It was you who did wrong. By assuming that someone with those traits deserved your trust. . . .
So we are aware that there are seriously disturbed individuals running around all over the planet. Knowing that, should we make assault rifles available for easy purchase? Is there a legitimate purpose for these weapons? We still possess our logos (translations include wisdom, moral principle, or reason): Let’s use it.
But immediately after seemingly casting us down, Marcus elevates us again by reminding us that only we are in control of our actions, the reasons for those actions, and what we gain from them. We have to be good for its own sake, because that’s what we were made for.
. . . Or by doing them a favor and expecting something in return, instead of looking to the action itself for your reward. What else did you expect from helping someone out? Isn’t it enough that you’ve done what your nature demands? You want a salary for it too? As if your eyes expected a reward for seeing, or your feet for walking. That’s what they were made for. By doing what they were designed to do, they’re performing their function. Whereas humans were made to help others. And when we do help others–or help them to do something–we’re doing what we were designed for. We perform our function.
Stoicism is not always the easiest philosophy to bear; it forces you to acknowledge discomfiting truths. Yet once it does that, it never fails to offer you a way to improve yourself, by highlighting a path that you alone may follow without anyone else’s help. It is not solipsistic, however; it affirms that our function is to help others.
Along these lines, Seneca advises us to
Praise in [a man] what can neither be given nor snatched away, what is peculiarly a man’s. You ask what that is? It is his spirit, and the perfection of his reason in that spirit. For man is a rational animal. Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he was born. And what is it that reason demands of him? Something very easy — that he live in accordance with his own nature.
But the struggle between man’s own nature and insane urges was recognized even then by Seneca, as he continues:
Yet this is turned into something difficult by the madness that is universal among men; we push one another into vices. Ep. 41.
Epictetus has also written about this tension in man, saying that “it is shameful for man to begin and end where irrational animals do”; see my post here.
Our hearts are heavy. We must press on. Our duty is to embrace our humanness and the best of what that entails.