March 3: Maybe They’re Not Always Right?!?
Quotes for the day:
“Another has done me wrong? Let him see to it. He has his own tendencies, and his own affairs. What I have now is what the common nature has willed, and what I endeavor to accomplish now is what my nature wills.” Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 5.25
“These things don’t go together. You must be a unified human being, either good or bad. You must diligently work either on your own reasoning or on things out of your control — take great care with the inside and not what’s outside, which is to say: stand with the philosopher or stand with the mob!” Epictetus, Discourses, 3.15.13
These quotes are both complementary and contradictory. I like that. It makes me think. I’m not a big one for following anyone blindly — unless you want to be blind.
I really like the first one. Aurelius is basically saying, “Mind your own business” on a very deep level.
Sure, there will always be people out there we don’t like, and there are people that do annoying and hurtful things. Big shock, I know. I can guarantee you that’s never going to change.
But we can choose how we deal with them. Do we let their problems clog up our minds? Do we have to “fix” them? No.
The universe, divine intelligence, god — whatever — has given us limited power and scope of control. What we mostly have the power to do is tend to our own business, and, in fact, our primary responsibility is to manage, monitor, and take care of ourselves. So let’s make sure we’re headed in the right direction and let others chart their own path. If they don’t do it, or go in the wrong direction, they actually suffer the consequences of their faults far more than we do.
The second quote complements this by saying, “Take control over yourself, your own mind, and don’t focus on things — like other people — you can’t control.” In this sense, the two quotes are very much in agreement.
But here’s how they aren’t in agreement.
Marcus Aurelius is saying, I think, that each person has his own character with its own quirks. Because we’re all different, we can’t always solve our problems or reach our goals in exactly the same way someone else would. Therefore, we should know ourselves and act on that knowledge, but we should also let others do things differently if they choose because they are different in many ways. That’s perfectly fine — they can do what’s right for them even if that’s not what works for us. Forcing them to do otherwise would actually be a form of tyranny, wouldn’t it? See yesterday’s comments and quotes for more on that.
I think Aurelius is also suggesting something else: we can change our actions according to the circumstances. Just as one path does not work for everyone, one rule does not work for every situation. Thinking that is kind of like, “One ring to rule them all and in the darkness bind them.”
Sadly, the quote of Epictetus seems a bit “tyrannical” in that regard. He’s very much suggesting a sort of “one size fits all” solution — everyone has to do things exactly the same way all the time or they are, and I quote, “bad.”
I don’t agree. I think that what works well — or is “good” — in one situation can work very poorly in another. I think we need the skill, intelligence, and awareness to realize that and act accordingly. Sometimes you have to deal with groups of people, “the mob,” and other times you just have to sort yourself out. Categorically condemning one or the other is extreme and unwise.
The same applies to human character. I don’t think anyone who has every lived has been “all bad” or “all good.” In fact, I think the “all bad or all good” view is an extremely poor way to look at people. Thinking of them in that way turns them all into enemies or friends. In truth, all of us are varied amalgamations of characteristics, habits, traits, experiences, and ideas, and this variability can actually be one of our greatest strengths. Without the flexibility provided by those varied traits, we’d be much worse off. The reality is: flexibility and variability are great virtues.
So, expecting people to be totally consistent is not consistent with reality or goodness. In fact, it’s kind of a like a “philosopher’s dream world” — something that looks perfect on paper but is anything but — like Orwell’s 1984. In this case, I think the storied philosopher needs to learn from the practical, worldly thinkers like Aurelius.
You know, I think it get Epictetus’ overall gist: don’t let your mind be too focused on externals. But I wouldn’t recommend taking this quote too literally or rigorously. Stoicism and other philosophies are there to help us cope with life, not to “hide in the clouds,” run away from life, or pretend its a way it’s actually not. As Aurelius said, we need to deal with our own stuff according to the particular circumstances — not do what doesn’t work simply because it fails to accord with some abstract principle.
So, there it is: I disagreed with a “master”! Or, at the very least, I have a modification of what he has to say.
Any thoughts on this?