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Love Part 4: Marcus Aurelius's Reason to Love Enemies

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Going even beyond the Golden Rule, Aurelius says love your enemies:

“Shall any man hate me? Let him look to it. But I will be mild and benevolent towards every man, and ready to show even him his mistake, not reproachfully…but nobly and honestly.” 


"pass they life in truth and justice, with a benevolent disposition even to liars and unjust men."

Marcus Aurelius, a Roman Emperor and Stoic philosopher, spent his career on a battlefield and yet managed to write the most tender, tranquil, and compassionate Meditations that I've read; I am pleasantly surprised every time I read his little handbook on living.

Why should we love our enemies?
We are given several reasons:

(1)  they don’t know what they are doing: “if they do not right, it is plain that they do so involuntarily and in ignorance. For as every soul is unwillingly deprived of the truth, so also is it unwillingly deprived of the power of behaving…” This reminds me of the Jesus on the cross saying “forgive them Father, for they know not what they do.” It is the same principle.
(2)  you’ve been there before: “thou also doest many things wrong.”
(3)  you might be wrong about them: “consider that thou does not even understand whether men are doing wrong or not, for many things are done with a certain reference to circumstance…a man must learn a great deal…to pass a correct judgment on another man’s acts.”
(4)  life is short, and even shorter when you are mad: “when thou art much vexed or grieved, man’s life is only a moment.” Indeed, stress is one of the major killers of people.
(5)  because what is it that bothers you? We’ve all heard “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Same thing here. Sometimes it is not your enemy’s behavior that really bothers you, but rather how you think about it and react to it. “Take away these opinions then, and resolve to dismiss thy judgment about an act as if it were something grievous, and thy anger is gone.” And: “consider how much more pain is brought on us by the anger…caused by such acts than by the acts themselves.”
(6)  “a good disposition is invincible.” In other words, “kill him with kindness,” but not fake kindness. Nobody can continue to do bad things to a person who remains truly compassionate and calm. Love overwhelms any darkness.

Aurelius likens humanity to a tree; we are all connected branches:

“A branch cut off from the adjacent branch must of necessity be cut off from the whole tree. So too a man when he is separated from another man has fallen off from the whole social community.” And “a man…separates himself from this neighbor when he hates him and turns away from him, and he does not know that he has at the same time cut himself off from the whole social system.” It is difficult to be “brought to unity” and “restored” afterward.

We do not know the magnitude of separation, of hating one person; it sends shockwaves through the human community.

What connects us all?
Reason (I imagine this will come up later in my studies): 

"If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, in respect of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do...if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow citizens."

This, perhaps, is a nutshell of enlightenment thought (1,000 years yet to come). Reason, like the idea of the soul (might come up later), is the great equalizer and gives us...reason to love.

Why should I love my life?
He gives three answers, all reminiscent of his predecessor Epictetus (who he quotes often): First, because I'm in control of my life, and I can seek things that are good. Second, because the gods control the other things--"and as to doing me harm, why should they desire towards that?" Well, maybe they don't care about me, he concedes; but even still they must care about "the whole" [the universe]. Third reason: even if the gods don't exist, my small life is enough.

Related Posts
Love Part 1: Platonic Love
Love Part 2: Aristotle
Love Part 3: Epictetus and stoic love



Posted by Matt Smith at 06/13/2011 05:20:25 PM