To continue the series of the Nine Rules from Meditations Chapter 11:
“Fifth, consider that thou dost not even understand whether men are doing wrong or not, for many things are done with a certain reference to circumstances. And in short, a man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgement on another man’s acts.”
Consider this. You see a man entering a window in a house in your neighborhood, and you assume the man is a burglar. Do you call the police and give them the address? Do you stop the man? You may very well be right in your guess that he is a burglar. Possibly, though, it could be that it is the owner of the house who has locked himself out. I myself have broken into my own house when I was a teenager, when my parents were both out and I didn’t have a key. Less likely but still a possibility, the man could be someone in distress trying to get to a phone. Maybe, after being robbed or in an accident, he is just trying to get help. Nowadays that possibility is more remote than 20 years ago since nearly everyone owns a cell phone. But what if the man was robbed, or his cell phone went dead? Now, in this case I don’t claim that this is the most prudent course of action (to break into a house), but it is possible that this is what is occurring. While this would certainly be breaking and entering, and probably a demonstration of poor problem solving skills, it is not a burglary. In any case, it certainly would change your judgment of what you are seeing.
There is almost always more than meets the eye. I met a man at work the other day. My first impression was that he would be rough and grumpy. I had plenty of time to get to know him, and as we were working on a project together, I soon realized that my initial impression was wrong. We got to know each other enough that he told a story of his 9-week motorcycle expedition across North America…a ride that he made by himself. I had to ask him, “Did you quit your job?” “No,” he said, “my wife had just died of cancer and I was on leave of absence from work.” So much in his story, such an interesting journey he took, and such raw life experience. He told me of a journey where he first visited places where he and his wife had been together, where he revisited places of old memories, then how he continued his journey beyond those places and created new memories. Certainly he still grieves, but his journey was a story of life, of strength, and of transcendence. As Epictetus reminded us, our loved ones are on loan to us, this is the plain truth. I hope my friend at work sees it that way, even in his grief. Had I not taken the time to get to know him a little, I may never have heard this story, and may never have known his deeper existence, and his all too human journey.
So, as Marcus reminds himself, be careful about judging too quickly. The motivations beneath may reveal a truth you were not ready for.
In his last line Marcus writes, “a man must learn a great deal to enable him to pass a correct judgement on another.” There are two ways to read this. First, we should know about a particular circumstance before we can judge one’s actions. That’s what I was writing about earlier. Maybe more important though is a second way to read this: that when we pass judgment, we presuppose we are superior both in judgment and in knowledge than the judged, and that we may be considering ourselves wiser than we actually are. Aren’t we considering ourselves quite wise indeed when we pass judgment on another in general? Who do we think we are, that we know so much about what’s right and wrong, that we can judge? I think I might need to learn a whole lot more before I consider myself worthy to judge.
Marcus is not encouraging a valueless world, where we have such moral relativism that anything is OK. We should make judgments of right and wrong (I’m making one now, after all). However, he is encouraging himself to have enough humility to realize that he tends to judge too quickly. As for me, I also tend to rush to judgment. I tend to want to fall into a world of black and white, where “my” right is right and “my” wrong is wrong. Maybe there are absolutes in morality, but it is my tendency to race to “my” absolutes too quickly, without first considering how little I may know about a situation AND how little I actually know in general.
That’s a lot to take from this little excerpt. I could be wrong. Maybe the message is more simple than that, something like, “Don’t lose your cool.”