Sunday, September 24, 2017

An ancient text teaches us that life's too short not to get along

"Soon you will be dead," can be a great admonition to yourself when trying to put things in perspective. It's also a common refrain in Marcus Aurelius' Meditations, the first offering of our ethics book of the month.

Stay with me. While Meditations was originally written in Greek by a first century Roman Emperor, it's highly readable and seems wildly relevant to a modern audience trying to cope with day-to-day ethical decisions. It's likely Marcus never intended his words to be read by others, but instead used his written observations to help himself gain perspective and keep on going even when all about him seemed filled with obstacles.

Several accessible translations are available in paperback. While I'm no Greek scholar, nor an expert on Marcus Aurelius, I'm a fan of Jacob Needleman and John P. Piazza's The Essential MarcusAurelius, (Tarcher/Penguin, 2008) for its language, although it does not feature all of the meditations. There's something therapeutic about making your way through the entire litany, recognizing that Marcus' struggles in dealing with people and leadership were consistent and ongoing. For a complete translation, Gregory Hays' (Modern Library, 2002) is a good read and the language quite accessible. (It's also fun to toggle back and forth between editions to glean the subtle differences in translations.)

Each meditation is short and can provide some perspective that the woes and travails we face today might not be all that different from those faced almost a couple of thousand years ago.

"When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly," Marcus writes in meditation 2.1. "They are like this because they can't tell good from evil." Yet, Marcus copes with this observation by recognizing that no matter how flawed other people are, they are still people. "No one can implicate me in ugliness," he continues. "We are born to work together like feet, hands and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural."

Marcus recognizes in meditation 7.22 the power of forgiving others their mistakes and that feeling "affection for people even when they make mistakes is uniquely human." You can do it, he writes, "if you simply recognize that they're human too, that they act out of ignorance, against their will, and that you'll both be dead before long."

The right thing, Marcus suggests (and the only sane thing), is to take responsibility for our own actions. "Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do," Marcus writes in meditation 6.51. "Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions."

As the first pick of "The Right Thing Ethics Book Club," it's an ancient text that can help to remind us that life's too short not to recognize that while we all may be flawed, the right thing is to find a way to work together by remembering we are all human beings, even if some of us are more meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly that others. 

Jeffrey L. Seglin, author of The Simple Art of Business Etiquette: How to Rise to the Top by Playing Nice, is a senior lecturer in public policy and director of the communications program at Harvard's Kennedy School. He is also the administrator of, a blog focused on ethical issues. 

Do you have ethical questions that you need answered? Send them to 

Follow him on Twitter: @jseglin 


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

If you think life is too short, think about how short a school year is. I teach middle grades mathematics. I assure you, I only want what is best for each and every student. There are the traditional 5%, however, who seem to think its us versus them. They want to blame me for their shortcomings as a student, and some of their parents do, as well.

I never understood why two students could be sitting side-by-side, one has an A, one has a D, one loves me, and one hates me. I'm only one person, and I have to treat everyone equally. The closest I can come to understanding why a student wouldn't like me is that I won't allow him or her to break the rules...