On prosocial behaviour (1)

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.

Be like the headland…

Marcus Aurelius has a mediation (4.49) related to Epictetus’ ideas of turning adversity to advantage. Rather than complaining about being subjected to trying circumstances, we should consider our good luck that we (thanks to our stoic training) are able to rise above them:

Be like the headland against which the waves continually break, but it stands firm and tames the fury of the water around it. Unhappy am I because this has happened to me. Not so: happy am I, though this has happened to me, because I continue free from pain, neither crushed by the present nor fearing the future. For such a thing as this might have happened to every man; but every man would not have continued to be free from pain on such an occasion. Why then is that rather a misfortune than this a good fortune? … Remember then on
every occasion which leads to vexation to apply this principle: not that this is a misfortune, but that to bear it nobly is good fortune.

NB: I prefer “headland” (the Maxwell Staniforth translation) to “promontory” (the George Long tranlsation) .

Making the most of every situation

In Discourse 3.20, Epictetus makes a powerful case that every situation can be turned to our advantage. As always it is a question of recognising that things external to us are neither good not bad:

No-one gives the name of good to the fact that it is day, nor bad to the fact that it is night…

Rather it is the way we react to circumstances that is good or bad. We can always turn a hindrance into a help:

…if a man helps me practice keeping my temper, does he not do good? … “Is my neighbour bad?” Bad to himself, but good to me: he exercises my good disposition, my moderation.


Expect the unexpected

…nothing ought to be unexpected by us.  Our minds should be sent forward in advance to meet all problems, and we should consider, not what is likely to happen, but what can happen.

Seneca, letter 91. The letter opens with the news of the unprecedented burning down of Lyons, so Seneca is referring here to what we might now call black swan events.

Stay calm

Meditation 11.11 preceeds the one I cited yesterday. Again it is about the soul remaining calm, dignified and intact:

These things may not come to you, the pursuits and avoidances of which disturb you, but in some sense you still go to them. So let your judgement about them be at rest, and they will remain quiet, and you will not be seen either pursuing or avoiding.

A fully rounded being

This is one of the most beautiful meditations (11.12) I think, evoking the image of the sphere as a symbol of perfection:

The spherical form of the soul maintains its figure, when it is neither extended towards any object, nor contracted inwards, nor dispersed nor sinks down, but is illuminated by light, by which it sees the truth, the truth of all things and the truth that is in itself.

The idea of the soul neither grasping at things nor recoiling, but keeping itself and its dignity intact, reminds me of the Buddhist  idea of craving as the source of suffering (although I know Buddhists don’t believe in a soul).

The road to happiness

There is only one way to happiness; keep it in mind morning, noon and night. The rule is not to look toward things which are out of the power of our will, to think that nothing is our own, to give up all things to the Divinity and to Fortune.

Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.39