These are angry times… with plenty to be angry about. From politicians that have failed us to systemic evils that have gone on for too long. Maybe you’re someone who was conned, pressured into spending money you didn’t have with the hope of promises someone didn’t keep. Maybe you were hurt in an accident. Maybe you were wrongly deprived of your liberties or fair share.
It makes sense that you’re angry. It makes sense that you’d want to get even.
But the Stoics would urge you to question that anger. Not because they think you should “accept” this ill-treatment, but because they think that getting revenge is not the right response. First, they would say that anger rarely leads to well-thought out responses. Second, because there is something better out there than getting even.
When Marcus Aurelius wrote “the best revenge is to not be like that,” he wasn’t precluding other actions, you know. Given that he held up justice as a cardinal virtue and adjudicated many legal cases, we know that he was also a strong believer in holding people accountable. Musonius Rufus has a whole lecture entitled, “Will the philosopher prosecute anyone for personal injury?” which argues against holding personal grudges. Yet he also famously prosecuted several major cases in Rome against people who had committed grievous wrongs against other Stoics. He wasn’t doing this out of animus—he was doing it because he wanted justice. He wanted to prevent it from happening again.
So as we sit here today reflecting on a great laundry list of crimes and failures and misdeeds from people who were supposed to be serving the people, who were charged with following the law and protecting the common good, we should remember: It’s not revenge we’re after. Anger won’t help. What we need to get, at the ballot box, in the courts, in public, is not comeuppance, but justice.
We need to make sure these things can’t happen again.