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Good Men Can’t Just Do Nothing

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Around 1998, Miep Gies supplied a small note to be appended to the end of a forthcoming biography of Anne Frank. It was completely fitting that Gies have the last word on Anne Frank, given all that she had risked and sacrificed between 1942 and 1944 to provide for and supply Frank’s family as they hid from Nazis in an attic in the Netherlands.

In her note, Gies makes an essential point—one of the most essential and undeniable hard-won lessons from the Holocaust—that good people must not stand by as bad people do bad things. Gies writes that while it was her “great and abiding sorrow” that she was not able to save Anne Frank’s life, she takes real solace in knowing that she was able to prolong Anne’s life by two years and, in the process, lead to saving the journal, which would reach and help so many millions of people. “It confirms my conviction,” she wrote, “that any attempt at action is better than inaction. An attempt can go wrong, but inaction inevitably results in failure.”

To read Stoicism as a philosophy of resignation is a profound mistake. Because it is no such thing. Miep Gies may never have read a page of Marcus Aurelius, but she understood his philosophy at a level that scholars who have dedicated their life to the classics seem to miss: That the trying is what counts. That doing the right thing is all that matters, whatever the condition, whatever the risk, however unlikely the desired outcome. That talk about what a good person is or should be is worthless, what matters is whether you are one when it counts.

The Stoic doesn’t stand by and do nothing. Not today. Not ever.