by Alex Barrientos
As a Roman Emperor,
Marcus Aurelius faced many
instances of adversity, not only from the Germanic tribes to the
north, but from his generals and members of the Roman Senate as
So it is no surprise to find in his
Meditations various reflections on
how a rational person - the type of person the
Stoic strives to be - must react to
disagreements with others.
Though no one reading this is an emperor, we face disagreements
everyday with our family, friends, and even strangers on social
There's no avoiding that
(not that you have to argue with people on social media, but it will
be difficult to avoid seeing things posted on there by family and
friends that you don't agree with!).
What we can try to avoid, however, is having these disagreements in
an unhealthy manner, and in a way that gets us nowhere.
One could spend a lifetime learning from the wisdom contained in the
'Meditations' (I know I plan on it!).
Yet, I've taken up the much smaller task of providing you with just
three pieces of advice from Marcus Aurelius that will, hopefully,
allow you to begin having healthier, more productive debates.
1. Being open to
anyone can refute me
- show me
I'm making a mistake
at things from
truth I'm after,
truth never harmed anyone.
us is to persist
self-deceit and ignorance.
Book VI, 21
The first thing is to
begin any debate or argument with a devotion to truth.
You must say to
"It's the truth
With the truth as
your aim, you're prepared to see where someone might be wrong,
where you might be wrong, or where you both might be wrong.
And, of course, sometimes there may be no "Truth" with a capital
"T" to the issue in question, in which case the
intellectually honest thing to do is to simply say,
"I don't know."
Being able to say
those three words is not something everyone has the humility and
honesty to do, but it is required more often than not, given how
nuanced the world is.
The Equestrian Statue of Marcus Aurelius
in the Capitoline Museum in Rome.
The next thing is to keep in mind ,
"the truth never
Now, you might say,
doesn't it often hurt to hear the truth? Yes, it definitely can
But Marcus is working
Socratic framework which
holds that the truth, however painful (in
Plato's analogy of the cave,
the truth is portrayed as the sun, which pains the eyes of the
man who has lived his life in the shadows of ignorance), is a
good in itself worthy of striving after.
Whatever seems "harmful" or painful about the truth, in reality
is good, whereas the only true harm comes from persisting in,
Once you've devoted
yourself to the truth, and recognized that true harm only comes
from persisting in one's own ignorance, then you'll be open to
change, which is a prerequisite for any healthy debate.
First English translation of
only thing that isn't worthless:
to live this
life out truthfully and rightly.
patient with those who don't.
Book VI, 47
So, great, now you're
open to change. But your interlocutor isn't. What do you do?
Well, it should not be a shock to learn that most people aren't
open to changing their minds.
Facebook thread serves as a
great example of how futile it can often be to try to change
someone else's mind, no matter how many facts or sources you
provide that back up your own view.
In fact, sometimes, simply showing someone that they're
wrong can make them more zealous about their beliefs...!
This doesn't mean you
should just give up.
There is definitely
some amount of discerning you must do when deciding who to get
into an argument with. If they're not devoted to the truth, you
might be best off to leave it alone.
After all, if you're
going to play chess with someone, there's not much of a point in
playing someone who has no interest in playing by the same rules
Cicero attacks Catilina
the Roman Senate,
from a 19th-century fresco.
However, if you do choose to debate this person, you must do so
Sure, it might be frustrating. But weren't you, at some point,
resistant to change, ignorant of the facts regarding some issue
or other, or in a situation where you felt your beliefs
threatened and so clinged to them tighter?
If you've devoted yourself to truth, then all that you need to
be concerned with is your own disposition, living,
truthfully and rightly."
Regarding those who
haven't done so, be patient.
As Marcus writes later on,
People exist for
one another. You can instruct or endure them.
Book VIII, 59
3. Be kind,
humble, and consistent
yourself that your task
is to be a
good human being;
yourself what nature demands of people.
Then do it,
the truth as you see it.
kindness. With humility.
Book VIII, 5
"Be a good human
Simple enough, right?
Well, not quite...
When someone you love is espousing views you detest, it can be
easy to get angry, to lose your place, and to forget what nature
demands of you.
That is, it can be
easy to forget your duties as a rational creature.
Rome, Italy. Piazza del Campidoglio,
copy of equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius.
original is displayed in the
Now, perhaps speaking
"the truth as you see it" doesn't sound too difficult.
But it's how you do
it that's important...
You must speak it with kindness. No one wants to hear what you
think if you say it with disdain or contempt. When you speak
with kindness you separate yourself from those who speak with
anger or hatred, and you let the truth of what you have to say
stand out more.
You must speak it
People are more
likely to be receptive to what you have to say when you speak
your mind acknowledging that you could be wrong, that you are
open to changing what you believe if good evidence or reasons
You must speak it
apply the same standard to yourself that you do to others.
Don't get angry
with someone who is being stubborn about changing their
mind, when you've been stubborn in the past yourself.
If you would have
wanted someone to be understanding and patient with you then, be
understanding and patient with others now.
These are just some of the many bits of advice Marcus Aurelius
has to offer us when it comes to dealing with our fellow human
beings in a healthy and productive way.
Those familiar with the
will know that what I have listed above is a mere fraction of
what Marcus had to say.
Yet, I think you'll agree that it is very helpful advice.
Whether it's your
family, a friend, or a stranger on social media, the words of
Marcus Aurelius can guide you to having healthier and more
You're not always going to win everyone over. You're not going
to change everyone's mind. Nor should that be your goal, since
sometimes it is your own mind in need of changing.
The point is to try to
get closer to the truth, or to realize how far away from it you are.
At least, that was what the great minds of the classical world hoped