The Stoics were learners. It’s hard to escape that conclusion when you read their writings. Marcus Aurelius begins Meditations by cataloging the lessons he learned from the many people in his life, big and small. Seneca was constantly looking at other people, studying their lives and what they did well and not so well. When Epictetus said that you can’t learn what you think you already know, he was describing his own worldview as well as the worldview of his hero—Socrates—who went around constantly questioning and putting things up to the test.
All of them would have agreed with Emerson’s observation that we can learn something from everyone we meet, because everyone is better than us at something. The trouble with that advice—which few would argue with—is how easily it can be inhibited by the self-righteousness that Stoicism can sometimes accidentally encourage. Right after Marcus Aurelius finishes thanking all those people in his life, what does he talk about? He talks about all the awful, stupid, mean, and frustrating folks he is going to see in the next 24 hours. Needless to say, such judgments close us off from opportunities to learn.
In her beautiful book, Memoirs of Hadrian, Marguerite Yourcenar has Hadrian try to instill in a young Marcus the antidote to that egotism. He explains to Marcus that he has actively looked at the strengths of the maligned emperors who preceded him and tried to find a virtue he could take from them.
“I looked for example even to those twelve Caesars so mistreated by Suetonius,” she had him write, “the clear-sightedness of Tiberius, without his harshness; the learning of Claudius, without his weakness; Nero’s taste for the arts, but stripped of all foolish vanity; the kindness of Titus, stopping short of his sentimentality; Vespasian’s thrift, but not his absurd miserliness. These princes had played their part in human affairs; it devolved upon me, to choose hereafter from among their acts what should be continued, consolidating the best things, correcting the worst, until the day when other men, either more or less qualified than I, but charged with equal responsibility, would undertake to review my acts likewise.”
This is the attitude we must take with us, day to day, in whatever position of leadership or followership we occupy. It’s not enough to just learn from history or to be grateful to the explicit lessons we get from our teachers. We must keep our eyes open always, and actively look for opportunities to learn from everyone, including people we know are flawed or even evil. We must not let our own moral progress block us from learning from those further behind us on the road. Because, as Emerson said, everyone is better than us at something—even if it’s a little thing—and if we want to keep getting better, we should focus on that more than anything else.