Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Empathy
(Excerpt from Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book 11 §18)
This is a brief excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for pre-order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.
Marcus Aurelius on Stoic Empathy
When offended by other people’s actions,
- Remember the close bond between yourself and the rest of mankind…
- Think of the characters of those who offend you at the table, in their beds, and so on. In particular, remember the effect their negative way of thinking has on them, and the misplaced confidence it gives them in their actions.
- If what they’re doing is right, you’ve no reason to complain; and if it’s not right, then it must have been involuntary and unintentional. Because just as “no-one ever deliberately denies the truth,” according to Socrates, so nobody ever intentionally treats another person badly. That’s why these negative people are themselves insulted if anyone accuses them of injustice, ingratitude, meanness, or any other sort of offence against their neighbours -they just don’t realise they’re doing wrong.
- You yourself, are no different from them, and upset people in various ways. You might avoid making some mistakes, but the thought and inclination is still there, even if cowardice or egotism or some other negative motive has held you back you from copying their mistakes.
- Remember, you’ve got no guarantee they’re doing the wrong thing anyway, people’s motives aren’t always what they seem. There’s usually a lot to learn before any sure-footed moral judgements can be made about other people’s actions.
- Tell yourself, when you feel upset and fed up, that human life is transient and only lasts a moment; it won’t be long before we’ll all have been laid to rest.
- It’s not the actions of these men that upsets us that’s their own problem but the colour we put on them ourselves. Get rid of this, make a decision to quit thinking of things as insulting, and your anger immediately disappears. How do you get rid of these thoughts? By realising that you’ve not really been harmed by their actions. Moreover, unless genuine harm to your soul is all that worries you, you’ll wind up being guilty of all sorts of offences against other people yourself.
- Anger and frustration hurt us more than the things we’re annoyed about hurt us.
- Kindness is an irresistible force, so long as it’s genuine and without any fake smiles or two-facedness. Even the most stubborn bad attitude is nothing, if you just keep being nice to the person concerned. Politely comment on his behaviour when you get the chance and, just when he’s about to have another go at you, gently make him self-conscious by saying “No, my son; we’re not meant for this. I’ll not be hurt; you’re just hurting yourself.” Subtly draw his attention to this general fact; even bees and other animals that live in groups don’t act like he does. Do it without any hint of sarcasm or nit-picking, though; do it with real affection and with your heart free from resentment. Don’t talk to him harshly like a school teacher or try to impress bystanders but, even though other people may be around, talk as if you’re alone together in private.
Keep these nine pieces of advice in mind, like nine gifts from the Muses; and while there’s still life in you, begin at last to be a man. While guarding yourself against being angry with others, though, be just as careful to avoid the opposite extreme, of toadying. One’s just as bad as the other, and both cause problems. With bouts of rage, always remind yourself that losing your temper is no sign of manhood. On the contrary, there’s more strength, as well as more natural humanity, in someone capable of remaining calm and gentle. He proves he’s got strength and nerve and guts, unlike his angry, complaining friend. Anger’s just as much a sign of weakness as bubbling with tears; in both cases we’re giving in to suffering.
Finally, a tenth idea, this time from the very leader of the Muses, Apollo himself. To expect bad men never to do bad things is just madness; it’s asking the impossible. And to let them abuse other people, and expect them to leave you alone, that is arrogance.