Marcus Aurelius Blog 4 Be critical of yourself, be gracious towards your neighbor

Stoic philosophers believe in living right, living a godly life.

Marcus Aurelius asks us to consider, “when you are offended at any man’s fault, immediately turn to yourself and reflect in what manner you yourself have erred,” perhaps you harmed your neighbor in your pursuit of money or pleasure or reputation are good things in themselves, perhaps these things have become idols in your soul, idols you value over your neighbor, things you wish to deny your neighbor.  You will quickly forget how took offense at your neighbor’s fault when you consider what compels him to do what he does, that he is not that much different from you.[1]

Marcus Aurelius Blog 1
YouTube video:

This also parallels this verse from the Sermon on the Mount:
“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.”[2]

Marcus Aurelius begins Book IX with “Injustice is impiety.”  Since universal nature has made rational animals to help one another rather to attack each other, “he who transgresses her will is clearly guilty of impiety toward the highest divinity.  And he who lies is also guilty of impiety towards the highest divinity. . . He who lies intentionally is guilty of impiety inasmuch as he acts unjustly by deceiving.”

The best example is Psalm 51, when David repents of his adultery with Bathsheba, the sin that was a pivotal event in both his reign and the history of Israel, where he was guilty not only of adultery but also murder, theft, and deceit, the sin that caused a split in his family during his life and the split between Israel and Judah after his death, a saga both of repentance and redemption and how sin can have consequences for many generations:
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to thy steadfast love;
according to thy abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!
For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against thee, thee only, have I sinned,
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that thou are justified in your sentence
and blameless when you pass judgment.”[3]

Marcus Aurelius warns us that though nature has endowed us with the power to distinguish right from wrong, if we neglect to use this power, if we seek to deceive others and thereby deceive ourselves, then we risk losing the ability to discern right from wrong.  And also, “he who pursues pleasure as good and avoids pain as evil is guilty of impiety.”  It is interesting that he pairs these observations together, as if they are two strands of the same thought.  Perhaps we deceive ourselves when we expect a reward for our good actions, when we expect God to bless us with health, wealth and recognition for a godly life, and are angry when the virtuous suffer misfortune and poverty and death.

Marcus Aurelius has an interesting observation about prayer.  Why are we so eager to pray that God grant us health and wealth and happiness, why are we so eager that God protect us from strife and suffering and sadness?  Perhaps we should be more eager to pray that God grant that we be more trusting and less fearful and anxious, to remember “the birds of the air, they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them.”[4]  Perhaps we should be more eager to pray that God will remove from us the desires that tempt us, and to remove from us the anger we feel when life does not go our way.[5]

Marcus Aurelius in Book XI celebrates the rational soul, the rational soul that separates mankind from the beasts, the rational soul that “sees itself, analyzes itself, improves itself as it chooses, reaping its own fruits,” in contrast to the fruits of the field that are reaped by men, and beasts who are incapable of moral improvement.  “This is a property of the rational soul, love of one’s neighbor, and truth and modesty.”

Love of neighbor is not selective, you cannot really elect to love one neighbor and hate another.  Marcus Aurelius compares this to a branch that wishes to cut itself off from another branch, but a branch cannot be cut off from another branch without being cut off the tree.  “When we separate ourselves from our neighbor by hating him and turning away from him,” we at the same time cut ourselves off from the whole social system.  The reminds us Jesus’ exhortation after the Lord’s Prayer: “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.”[6]

Marcus Aurelius proposes, “Suppose any man shall despise me,” let him worry about that.  But my concern is rather that I not do or say anything in response that is contemptible.  “Shall any man hate me?  That will be his affair.  But I will be mild and benevolent toward every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully, not yet as making a display of my endurance, but nobly and honestly, like the great Phocion.”  So always we must examine our motives, not only should we love our enemies, and forgive our enemies, but our love should be genuine, and we should be eager to forgive, and if we should publicly correct or forgive our enemies, we should do this in a loving manner, with good motives.[7]

This reminds me in the Divorce Care video about forgiveness that cautions that forgiveness does not always mean public forgiveness, that forgiveness is more interior than exterior.  There was a dramatization where this Christian woman makes a big show of verbally forgiving her divorcing husband, but she sounded so resentful that everyone who sees it sympathizes with the less than sympathetic response from her hen-pecked husband.

When people offend you, what should you think, what should you say, what should you do?  Sometimes you do need to react quickly, but usually you should not be quick to say or do anything you should consider what is really happening.  Marcus Aurelius suggests a moral discipline we should follow when contemplating the motives of others.

We should try to see life through their glasses while standing in their shoes.

Marcus Aurelius Blog 5

Book Reviews: Greco-Roman Stoic and Cynic Philosophers, and Epicurus


[1] Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” translated by George Long, revised and updated (Dover Publications, 1997), Book X, 82.




[5] Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” Book IX, 67-75.


[7] Marcus Aurelius, “Meditations,” Book XI, 85-92.

About Bruce Strom 185 Articles
I was born and baptized and confirmed as a Lutheran. I made the mistake of reading works written by Luther, he has a bad habit of writing seemingly brilliant theology, but then every few pages he stops and calls the Pope often very vulgar names, what sort of Christian does that? Currently I am a seeker, studying church history and the writings of the Church Fathers. I am involved in the Catholic divorce ministries in our diocese, and have finished the diocese two-year Catholic Lay Ministry program. Also I took a year of Orthodox off-campus seminary courses. This blog explores the beauty of the Early Church and the writings and history of the Church through the centuries. I am a member of a faith community, for as St Augustine notes in his Confessions, you cannot truly be a Christian unless you worship God in the walls of the Church, unless persecution prevents this. This blog is non-polemical, so I really would rather not reveal my denomination here.