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    Don’t Make This Mistake

    Daily Stoic Emails

    There is a repeated pattern of failure in Marcus Aurelius’s life, and no matter how much we might admire him, it’s hard to deny it. His step brother, Lucius Verus, who he elevated to co-emperor, was a ne’er-do-well who never proved himself worthy of Marcus’s respect. His wife, despite his praise for her, was probably unfaithful. His son, despite Marcus’s love for Commodus, was deranged and completely unfit to succeed him. His most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, considering his betrayal of Marcus and attempt to overthrow him, clearly was not deserving of the trust or faith Marcus put in him. These are just four examples, but they are revealing enough that we can assume it was a common pattern in his life. 

    Ernest Renan wrote that if the emperor had one flaw, it was that he was “capable of gross illusions when the matter in hand was rendering to others their proper meed of virtue.” It’s a common failing: Good people often assume that other people are like them. Sadly, this is far too generous of an assumption. The virtues of Marcus Aurelius–his honesty, his loyalty, his commitment to principles, his kindness–these are the exception, not the rule, when it comes to most people. (In fact, we even have a rule about rulers, that absolute power corrupts absolutely, to which Marcus is of course the exception). 

    If anyone should have known better and been able to see through the facade of someone like Commodus or Avidius or Verus, it was Marcus. After all, he wrote in his Meditations repeatedly about the idea. He warned himself about seeing people’s true nature. He wrote about seeing them as sparring partners. He reminded himself not to get too close in the ring to someone who cheated. And yet…

    We can’t go around thinking that everyone is virtuous, because this misplaced trust is a vice. At the very least, it has very serious consequences for innocent bystanders. The world would have been a better place if Marcus had not projected undeserved virtue on his brother or his son, if he’d had the courage to see them for who they were rather than who he wished they would be. In this sense, Marcus’s personal struggle with evaluating those closest to him is a microcosm of the struggle Stoicism is meant to combat for all of us–dealing with the world as it actually is, rather than how we wish it were.

    P.S. This was originally sent on October 17. 2018. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.