So it is no surprise to find in his Meditations various reflections on how a rational person—the type of person the Stoic strives to be—must react to disagreements with others.
Though no one reading this is an emperor, we face disagreements everyday with our family, friends, and even strangers on social media. There’s no avoiding that (not that you have to argue with people on social media, but it will be difficult to avoid seeing things posted on there by family and friends that you don’t agree with!).
What we can try to avoid, however, is having these disagreements in an unhealthy manner, and in a way thats gets us nowhere.
Bust of Marcus Aurelius.
One could spend a lifetime learning from the wisdom contained in the Meditations (I know I plan on it!).
Yet, I’ve taken up the much smaller task of providing you with just three pieces of advice from Marcus Aurelius that will, hopefully, allow you to begin having healthier, more productive debates.
1. Being open to change
If anyone can refute me—show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective—I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance. Book VI, 21
The first thing is to begin any debate or argument with a devotion to truth. You must say to yourself, “It’s the truth I’m after.” With the truth as your aim, you’re prepared to see where someone might be wrong, where you might be wrong, or where you both might be wrong.
And, of course, sometimes there may be no “Truth” with a capital “T” to the issue in question, in which case the intellectually honest thing to do is to simply say, “I don’t know.” Being able to say those three words is not something everyone has the humility and honesty to do, but it is required more often than not, given how nuanced the world is.
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
The next thing is to keep in mind that “the truth never harmed anyone.” Now, you might say, doesn’t it often hurt to hear the truth? Yes, it definitely can hurt!
But Marcus is working within the Socratic framework which holds that the truth, however painful (in Plato’s analogy of the cave, the truth is portrayed as the sun, which pains the eyes of the man who has lived his life in the shadows of ignorance), is a good in itself worthy of striving after.
Whatever seems “harmful” or painful about the truth, in reality is good, whereas the only true harm comes from persisting in “self-deceit and ignorance.”
Once you’ve devoted yourself to the truth, and recognized that true harm only comes from persisting in one’s own ignorance, then you’ll be open to change, which is a prerequisite for any healthy debate.
First English translation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; 1634.
2. Be patient :
The only thing that isn’t worthless: to live this life out truthfully and rightly. And be patient with those who don’t. Book VI, 47
So, great, now you’re open to change. But your interlocutor isn’t. What do you do?
Well, it should not be a shock to learn that most people aren’t open to changing their minds. Reading any Facebook thread serves as a great example of how futile it can often be to try to change someone else’s mind, no matter how many facts or sources you provide that back up your own view.
In fact, sometimes, simply showing someone that they’re wrong can make them more zealous about their beliefs!
This doesn’t mean you should just give up. There is definitely some amount of discerning you must do when deciding who to get into an argument with. If they’re not devoted to the truth, you might be best off to leave it alone. After all, if you’re going to play chess with someone, there’s not much of a point in playing someone who has no interest in playing by the same rules as you.
Cicero attacks Catilina at the Roman Senate, from a 19th-century fresco.
However, if you do choose to debate this person, you must do so with patience.
Sure, it might be frustrating. But weren’t you, at some point, resistant to change, ignorant of the facts regarding some issue or other, or in a situation where you felt your beliefs threatened and so clinged to them tighter?
If you’ve devoted yourself to truth, then all that you need to be concerned with is your own disposition, living “life out truthfully and rightly.” Regarding those who haven’t done so, be patient.
As Marcus writes later on, People exist for one another. You can instruct or endure them. Book VIII, 59
3. Be kind, humble, and consistent
Remind yourself that your task is to be a good human being; remind yourself what nature demands of people. Then do it, without hesitation, and speak the truth as you see it. But with kindness. With humility. Without hypocrisy. Book VIII, 5
“Be a good human being”: simple enough, right? Well, not quite.
When someone you love is espousing views you detest, it can be easy to get angry, to lose your place, and to forget what nature demands of you. That is, it can be easy to forget your duties as a rational creature.
Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio, with copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius. The original is displayed in the Capitoline Museum.
Now, perhaps speaking “the truth as you see it” doesn’t sound too difficult. But it’s how you do it that’s important.
You must speak it with kindness. No one wants to hear what you think if you say it with disdain or contempt. When you speak with kindness you separate yourself from those who speak with anger or hatred, and you let the truth of what you have to say stand out more.
You must speak it with humility. People are more likely to be receptive to what you have to say when you speak your mind acknowledging that you could be wrong, that you are open to changing what you believe if good evidence or reasons are provided.
You must speak it without hypocrisy. Be consistent, apply the same standard to yourself that you do to others. Don’t get angry with someone who is being stubborn about changing their mind, when you’ve been stubborn in the past yourself. If you would have wanted someone to be understanding and patient with you then, be understanding and patient with others now.
Marcus Aurelius and myself, taken at the Metropolitan Museum of New York.
Some concluding reflections
These are just some of the many bits of advice Marcus Aurelius has to offer us when it comes to dealing with our fellow human beings in a healthy and productive way.
Those familiar with the Meditations will know that what I have listed above is a mere fraction of what Marcus had to say.
Yet, I think you’ll agree that it is very helpful advice.
Whether it’s your family, a friend, or a stranger on social media, the words of Marcus Aurelius can guide you to having healthier and more productive debates.
You’re not always going to win everyone over. You’re not gonna change everyone’s mind. Nor should that be your goal, since sometimes it is your own mind in need of changing.
The point is to try to get closer to the truth, or to realize how far away from it you are.
At least, that was what the great minds of the classical world hoped to do.