The Stoics were hard on themselves. No question about it. They knew what was right and they insisted on holding themselves to that. They were absolutists. Even if it meant death. Even if it meant avoidable suffering. Even if it meant passing on acceptable pleasures.
But what’s interesting is that as strict as this standard was, they applied it narrowly. Because while Marcus Aurelius was tough on himself—incorruptible, exhaustive, ceaselessly dedicated as emperor—he was said to be incredibly forgiving of his staff. Consider those first words in Meditations, where he describes the people he’s going to meet that day: surly, jealous, dishonest, arrogant, petty. Can you imagine him ever allowing himself to be those things? Not a chance, but there he was, reminding himself not to judge those folks too harshly.
So it’s not quite fair to say that the Stoics were absolutists. In fact, they were absolutists only to themselves. With everyone else, they were relativists. Marcus measured his staff and the strangers he encountered by whether they were trying their best. For them, he looked for excuses and silver linings. With himself? Totally different story. He drew clear lines—flat ass rules as General James Mattis has put it—and was hard on himself when he fell short.
“Tolerant with others,” he wrote, “strict with yourself.”
Is that a double standard? You bet. But there is no other way to live. Or rather no other way worth living.
P.S. This was originally sent on September 10, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.