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A Stoic Response To Betrayal


Late in his reign, sick and possibly near death, Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius received surprising news. His old friend and most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, had rebelled in Syria. Having heard the emperor was vulnerable or possibly dead, the ambitious general declared himself Caesar and assumed the throne.

Marcus should have been angry. After all, this man was trying to take his job and possibly his life. If we think about what other emperors did to their rivals and enemies, for instance Nero killed his own mother and Otho had Galba murdered in 69 A.D. and paraded his head around Rome, it makes Marcus’s response all the more unusual. Because he didn’t immediately set out to crush this man who had betrayed him, who threatened his life, his family, and his legacy. Instead, Marcus did nothing. He even kept the news secret from his troops, who might have been enraged or provoked on his behalf—and simply waited: Would Cassius come to his senses?

The man did not. And so Marcus Aurelius called a council of his soldiers and made a rather extraordinary announcement. They would march against Cassius and obtain the “great prize of war and of victory.” But of course, because it was Marcus, this war prize was something wholly different.

Marcus informed them of his plan to capture Cassius, but not kill him. Instead, he would, “. . . forgive a man who has wronged one, to remain a friend to one who has transgressed friendship, to continue faithful to one who has broken faith.”

In a true Stoic fashion, Marcus had controlled his perceptions. He wasn’t angry, he didn’t despise his enemy. He would not say an ill word against him. He would not take it personally. Then he acted—rightly and firmly—ordering troops to Rome to calm the panicking crowds and then set out to do what must be done: protect the empire, put down a threat.

As he told his men, if there was one profit they could derive from this awful situation that they had not wanted, it would be to “settle this affair well and show to all mankind that there is a right way to deal even with civil wars.”

Of course, as so often happens, even the most well-intentioned plans can be interrupted by others. For both Cassius and Marcus, their destiny was changed when a lone assassin struck Cassius down in Egypt, three months later. His dream of empire ended right there. Marcus’s initial hope to be able to forgive, in person, his betrayer ended as well.

Arriving in the provinces shortly after the death of Cassius, Marcus refused to put any co-conspirators to death. He declined to prosecute any of the senators or governors who had endorsed or expressed support for the uprising. And when other senators insisted on death sentences for their peers associated with the rebellion, he wrote them simply: “I implore you, the senate, to keep my reign unstained by the blood of any senator. May it never happen.”

Marcus chose to forgive essentially everyone involved. He wouldn’t take any of it personally. He’d be a better person, a better leader for it.

Your average person is likely not to be betrayed by a trusted general and be faced with a civil war. But all of us are going to face betrayals—big and small in life. From friends, co-workers, spouses, even total strangers and contractors and companies. To think you’re not is naive and delusional. As Marcus would write in Meditations, “to expect a bad person not to harm others is like expecting fig trees not to secrete juice, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh—the inevitable not to happen. What else could they do—with that sort of character?”

The question then is how will this affect you? Will it make you angry? Ruin your life? Make you hate everyone?

Hopefully not.

In another passage, Marcus would again write how inevitable is that he would bump into people who would betray his trust and act poorly: “The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly.” What follows however, is remarkable, and what sets Marcus apart. He says, “I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine.” One can presume that such thoughts have been running through his head when dealing with Cassius.

A very high standard of behavior is also introduced by the Stoic philosopher Musonius Rufus who essentially believed that for a philosopher it is expected to pardon offenses against him as a philosopher cannot be harmed! As he put it, writing how a philosopher shouldn’t bring charges to a fellow who hurt him, “a good man cannot be wronged by a bad man, and yet he brings charges as if he believed that he, though a good man, were being wronged by people who are wicked.” That you were betrayed, he is saying, is not bad because that is simply impossible to happen. A good man cannot be harmed a bad one.

It also brings to mind a line from another Stoic, Seneca: “Bestow pardon for many things; seek pardon for none.” This is a common theme in Stoicism, one we hear often in the writings of Marcus Aurelius: Hold yourself to a very high standard, and don’t make excuses when you fail to meet it. Meanwhile, leave other people to their standards and make every excuse you can when they fail. Be tough on yourself; be understanding to your fellow citizens.

Nonetheless, a question that often arises when one is betrayed is obvious: Do I continue spending time with this person? Do I keep them in my life? Epictetus’s take here is straightforward: “If a companion is dirty, his friends cannot help but get a little dirty too, no matter how clean they started out.” It is on you to decide if you want to keep someone with such a character in your life and you need to heed Epictetus’s advice. And Seneca offers us a way to evaluate the response through the following lens: “It is not right to pardon indiscriminately,” and that “we must therefore take care to distinguish those characters which admit of reform from those which are hopelessly depraved.” Marcus would remind himself that “we need to excuse what our sparring partners do, and just keep our distance—without suspicion or hatred.”

In summary, in response to betrayal, the Stoic is first, not surprised, because they understand the vicissitudes of life and know that betrayals are part of life. Second, they respond with grace—without anger, but with understanding. Third, they look inward: Not allowing external events to upset them and if they do, they work on that. And finally, they decide whether that person should be pardoned and what role they should have in one’s life—if any—going forward.

The thought here is to remember Marcus’s tool for dealing with shameless people, which applies as much to betrayers as anyone else. Going through life and never meeting or dealing with a shameless person would be impossible, right? We know they exist and that they make up a certain percentage of the population. Ok, so when you are betrayed, tell yourself that.

This is one of those betraying people. They exist in the world and it was inevitable that I would bump into one them eventually.

Then go on about your life. Because it’s too short to carry anger around.

The above post is adapted with permission from The Obstacle Is the Way, the cult Stoic classic with over 500,000 copies sold.