Marcus Aurelius’ ten commandments to himself

Stoicism is a type of virtue ethics. As such, the focus is on the improvement of one’s character, not on telling others what to do or not to do. Contrast this with a typical deontological (i.e., duty-based) system, like the famous Ten Commandments of the Old Testament recognized by the three Abrahamic faiths. I’m not enamored with deontological frameworks in ethics, and I don’t believe in the Abrahamic god. Besides, I think Plato drove a mortal stake into the notion of a god-derived morality in his Euthyphro. Which is why the virtue ethical alternative looks promising to me.

Marcus Aurelius, the emperor-philosopher, wrote his Meditations as a personal philosophical diary, in which he repeatedly “preaches” to himself (the best kind of preaching!), in order to correct his own character while striving to become a better person. A particularly powerful passage in the Meditations is section 18 of book 11, to which I devote this essay. The translation I am using is the excellent one by Robin Hard (Oxford World’s Classics), but several of the ones in the public domain are also very good (like this one, by George Long).

First, consider how you stand in relation to them, and how we were born to help one another.

“Them” here refers to other people. According to Stoic cosmopolitanism, we are born in order to be helpful to each other, to use reason in pursuit of the betterment of the human cosmopolis. This is the meaning of the famous Stoic motto, “live according to nature.”

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

We always need to keep in mind that human beings frequently act as a result of impulse, not reason, and that their opinions are often badly formed. This should not be a reason to feel smugly superior, as we are made of the same stuff and subject to the same issues. Rather, it should lead us to compassion, to remember that we are all fallible, and that help offered to others is far better than ridicule or condemnation.

Thirdly, consider that if they are acting rightly in what they do, there is no reason for you to be annoyed, but if they are acting wrongly, it is plain that they are doing so involuntarily and through ignorance.

This is the crucial Stoic (and Socratic) concept of amathia, the notion that people don’t do bad things because they are evil, but because they are mistaken on what good is. This isn’t ignorance in the sense of lack of education, but rather in the sense of lack of wisdom. To adopt this attitude toward others - to hate the sin but not the sinner, as the Christians would say - is more humane and charitable than dehumanizing others by labelling them as “evil.”

Fourthly, consider that you for your own part also commit many wrongs, and are just the same as they are; and that even if you do refrain from certain kinds of wrongdoing, you have at least the inclination to commit such wrongs, even if cowardice, or concern for your reputation, or some other vice of that kind, saves you from actually committing them.

This is a beautiful passage in which Marcus not only reminds himself that he is just as labile to be at fault as others, but that at least sometimes he cannot take credit for not having done bad things, because he refrained not out of virtue, but of fear or concern for how people would look at him. Can we not all relate to this?

Fifthly, that you cannot even be certain that what they are doing is wrong; for many actions are undertaken for some ulterior purpose, and as a general rule, you must find out a great deal before you can deliver a properly founded judgement on the actions of others.

Wise words indeed, no? Far too often we rush to judge other people, at the same time that we plead with others not to rush to judge us. The reality, though, is that seldom we have enough information about the motives, history, and specific situations that lead others to do wrong. Lacking such information, why not suspend judgment instead?

Sixthly, when you are annoyed beyond measure and losing all patience, remember that human life lasts but a moment, and that in a short while we shall all have been laid to rest.

This is a standard Stoic mental exercise often referred to as the view from above. Whenever a situation seems unbearable, just bring your mind out of the specifics and invite her to contemplate the vastness and space and time, compared to which whatever is afflicting you right now is but a speck of dust that will be gone in an instant. There is comfort in that thought.

Seventhly, that it is not people’s actions that trouble us (for those are a matter for their own ruling centres) but the opinions that we form about those actions. So eliminate your judgement that this or that is of harm to you, make up your mind to discard that opinion, and your anger will be at an end. And how are you to do this? By reflecting that wrong done to you by another is nothing shameful to yourself.

This is another crucial Stoic doctrine: the only truly bad thing we can experience is to arrive at bad judgments, and the only truly good things for us are our own good judgments. The opinions of others are outside of our control, and therefore should not concern us. They are just a movement of air originating from other people’s mouths, and they cannot affect us, if we make up our mind accordingly. Especially in these days of facile outrage and widespread anger, this is golden advice.

Eighthly, that the anger and distress that we feel at such behaviour bring us more suffering than the very things that give rise to that anger and distress.

Not convinced by point 7 above? Then consider this pragmatic take on the same problem of anger. As Marcus says, anger actually causes us distress, often more distress than the perceived insult could possibly have manages in the first place. So why wallow in anger, the most self-destructive of all emotions?

Ninthly, that kindness is invincible, if it be sincere and not hypocritical or a mere façade. For what can the most insulting of people do to you if you are consistently kind to him, and, when the occasion allows, gently advise him and quietly put him on the proper course at the very time when he is attempting to do you a mischief. … You must do so in no sarcastic or reproachful spirit, but affectionately and with a heart free from rancour, and not as if you were lecturing him like a schoolmaster, or trying to impress the bystanders.

Again, a call for humility and a charitable attitude toward others. I know what some of you are thinking: but what about bullying? It should go without saying, but the Stoic virtue of justice means that whenever we witness bullying of another we are duty bound to intervene. But what Marcus is talking about is a situation when someone insults us, and not, say, attempts to beat the crap out of us. If physical violence is the issue, we should by all means defend ourselves (with restraint, according to the virtue of temperance), but there is no such thing as verbal violence against the trained Stoic. (Which, I hasten to say, does absolutely not license us to tell other people that they shouldn’t feel insulted or offended. This is about our own character, not that of other people.)

And if you will, accept this tenth gift from Apollo, the leader of the Muses, namely, that it is sheer madness to expect the bad to do no wrong; for that is to wish for the impossible. But to allow that they should do wrong to others, yet demand that they should do no wrong to yourself, is senseless and tyrannical.

This encapsulates both what I would call Stoic realism and Stoic justice. It is foolish to expect certain people not to do bad things. But it is unjust in the utmost degree to care only when bad things are done to us and not to others.

May I suggest we all try our best to stay away from the deontological approach of telling others what to do, and start focusing a bit more on Marcus’ self-improving commandments? Who knows, the world may become a slightly better place as a consequence. And that’s the whole point.

As a further aid, here they are again, in capsule form:

I. We are here to help each other, act accordingly.

II. Most people act from impulse or bad opinion, so be charitable with them.

III. When people act badly they do it out of lack of wisdom, so try to be helpful.

IV. You make just as many mistakes as others do, so don’t be cocky.

V. You don’t know why people do what they do, so don’t judge.

VI. Don’t get too worked up about things, you’ll soon be dead anyway.

VII. Other people’s opinions should not trouble you, since they are outside of your control.

VIII. Getting angry at an insult does you more harm than the insult could ever do.

IX. Be genuinely kind, not because you wish to impress others.

X. Expect certain people to do bad things, but act to prevent injustice toward others.

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