Marcus Aurelius on Overcoming Anger and Developing Empathy

Men have come into being for one another; so either educate them or put up with them. (Meditations, 8.59)

Here are my attempts to (partially) retranslate, from ancient Greek into more contemporary English, some key passages from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius dealing with Stoic strategies for overcoming anger and cultivating empathy.  Marcus wrote two elaborate lists of Stoic formulas intended as remedies for interpersonal conflict, the first is in a more polished style, the second presents a slightly more technical philosophical response to the same sort of problems.

The Meditations, Book 11 §18

[When offended by other people’s actions:]

  1. Remember the close bond between yourself and the rest of mankind and that we came into the world for the sake of one another; and taking another point of view, that I have come into it [as Emperor] to be set over men, as a ram over a flock or a bull over a herd.  Start at the beginning from this premise: If not atoms, then an all-controlling Nature.  If the latter, then the lower [animals] are for the sake of the higher and the higher [i.e., human beings] for one another.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. Anger and frustration hurt us more than the things we’re annoyed about hurt us.
  9. 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.

The Meditations, Book 9 § 42

When you are offended by anyone’s shameless lack of conscience, put this question at once to yourself: “Can it therefore be possible that men without conscience do not exist in the world?”  No, it is not possible.  Therefore do not ask for the impossible.  For the individual in question is just one of the conscienceless people that necessarily exist in the world.  Have the same reflection ready-to-hand for the rogue, the deceiver, or any other wrongdoer whatsoever.  For the recollection that this sort of man cannot but exist will bring kindlier feelings towards individuals of this sort.  It’s also very useful to immediately think this to yourself: “What virtue has Nature given humanity as a counter-measure to the wrong-doing in question?”  For as an antidote against the unfeeling man she has given gentleness, and against another person some other resource.

In any case, it is in your power to teach the man that has gone astray the error of his ways.  For everyone that errs misses his true mark and has gone astray.  But what harm have you suffered?  You will find that not one of the persons against whom you are exasperated has done anything capable of making your mind worse; but it is there in your mind that what is evil for you and harmful have their whole existence.

What is harmful or strange about the uneducated man acting like an uneducated man?  Look and see whether you aren’t more to blame yourself for not expecting that he would act wrongly in this way.  For your own faculty of reason too could have given you means for concluding that this would most likely be the case.  Nevertheless all this is forgotten, and you are surprised at his wrongdoing.

But above all, when you find fault with a man for untrustworthiness and ingratitude, turn your thoughts to yourself.  For the fault is evidently your own, whether you trusted that a man with such a character would be trustworthy, or if in granting a kindness you did not bestow it absolutely and so that from the very act of doing it you immediately had the reward in full.

For when you had performed a kindness, what more do you want?  Is it not enough that you have done something in accord with your nature?  Do you seek compensation for it?  As though the eye should claim a payment for seeing, or the feet for walking!  For just as these latter were made for their special work, and by carrying this out according to their individual constitution they come fully into their own, so also man, formed as he is by nature for benefiting others, when he has acted as benefactor or as collaborator in any other way for the common welfare, has done what he was constituted for, and has what is his.