Marcus then responds positively to the question:
Must a man then be one of these, who act like this without observing it?
The next part of the text is not completely clear and seems to differ subtlely between the Long, Hard and Staniforth translations. My interpretation is that Marcus deals with an objection from his interlocutor, that as a social being one necessarily knows one is behaving prosocially:
But this very thing is necessary, the observation of what a man is doing: for, it may be said, it is characteristic of the social animal to perceive that he is working in a social manner, and indeed to wish that his social partner also should perceive it.
Marcus acknowedges this as true, yet claims it still falls short of the full truth.
It is true what you say, but you do not rightly understand what is now said: and for this reason you will become one of those I spoke of before, for even they are misled by a certain show of reason. But if you choose to understand the meaning of what is said, do not fear that for this reason you will omit any social act.
In other words (I think) we have a delicate balancing act to perform. Prosocial behaviour is a conscious philosophical choice, yet we need to get into the habit of doing it unconsciously – or perhaps not let it “go to our heads”?
Marcus Aurelius holds us to quite high standards when it comes to prosocial behaviour. He develops what I think is quite a subtle argument in Meditation 5.6. I will deal with it in a couple of posts. First, he presents three prototypical motivations for prosocial acts:
One man, when he has done a service to another, is ready to set it down to his account as a favour conferred. Another is not ready to do this, but in his own mind he still thinks of the man as being in his debt, and he knows what he has done. A third, in a sense, does not even know what he has done, but he is like a vine which has produced grapes, and seeks for nothing more after it has once produced its proper fruit. Or like a horse when he has run, a dog when he has tracked the game, or a bee when it has made the honey. Therefore such a man, when he has done a good act, does not call out for others to come and see, but he goes on to another act, as a vine goes on to produce more grapes next season.
Thus there are three types of people: those who expect to be repaid for their good deeds; those who don’t expect a reward but still regard others as in their debt; and those who do good deeds as part of their nature without giving it a second thought.
The final lines of Seneca’s letter 90:
A soul cannot be virtuous unless that soul has been trained and taught, and by unremitting practice brought to perfection. We were born without virtue but we live to reach it. Even in the best of people, before you refine them by instruction, there is but the stuff of virtue, not virtue itself.