Reputation is a powerful thing. The desire to keep it, maintain it, to not betray it, was a force that made someone like Cato unstoppable. On the other hand, the desire to make it—to have a name that people know—can just as easily be a kind of deceiving, seductive distraction. Marcus Aurelius warned against chasing fame, because of how worthless it was and how easily it could be achieved by ignoble means. Yet that’s precisely what motivates most of us: We want to do great things so people will think we’re great, so they’ll remember us for forever.
Blaise Pascal sounds like he was channeling Marcus and the Stoics when he pointed out that we “do not care about our reputation in towns where we are only passing through.” Isn’t that what life is? Aren’t we all just passing through? Some of us for a little longer than others, of course, but none of us are truly here to stay.
Realizing that what other people think about you is not important—because we’re all just passing through—is freeing. It’s not a hall pass for bad behavior. On the contrary, it frees you to do the right thing regardless of the criticism that may come from it. It frees you from the petty squabbles and gossip of the town you’re in and lets you think about what really matters. In the end, we suspect that’s what Cato was actually doing. That people happened to respect him in his own time, that his unbending moral strength earned him fame that survived far beyond his life—that was not the end goal. The goal was doing the right thing and not giving a damn what other people thought. If they’d showered him with stones instead of praise, he’d have kept doing what needed to be done.
Because what should he care—what should you care—of the opinions of people in a town you’re only passing through?