“Whatever any one does or says, I must be good, just as if the gold, or the emerald, or the purple were always saying this, Whatever any one does or says, I must be emerald and keep my color.”–Marcus Aurelius Meditations Book 7
Whenever I need straightforward Stoic guidance, I turn to Marcus Aurelius. Epictetus can be direct, but sometimes you really have to be alert and concentrate to get the point. At times, Epictetus’ wisdom requires an investment of deep thought. At night, when your brain is tired, it can be particularly demanding. This is especially true of The Discourses more than The Enchiridion.
However, Marcus I believe to be a simple man in nature. He is always direct and to the point (I think that’s redundant but I don’t care). His meditations were intended to directly help him along his way. So now, let’s examine the words above.
The advice in the quote above is a PERFECT example of a task that is simple, but not easy. Do you see the difference? “Be good…period!” is what Marcus is telling himself. Simple, direct advice that is absolutely true. Now, just do it. Be good.
Therein lies the rub. It might be very simple to understand that you should be good no matter what, but it is certainly not easy. Sometimes, we get confused about what being good is. For example, should I ALWAYS tell the truth? Answer these questions truthfully if somebody asks you:
- Does this dress make me look fat?
- How did you like the dinner I made?
- Are you hiding Jews (or maybe it’s escaped slaves) in your basement?
Other times, we know what the right thing to do is, and we lack the strength and discipline to do it. How many have cheated on their spouse even though they knew it was wrong, and they knew it would cause pain. How many of us have lost our cool when we knew that it would make things worse? Have you ever flipped another driver off in traffic? These are things that people do. Maybe you have done one of them. We’ve all done something that wasn’t virtuous. We fail…nobody is perfect.
The point here is that being good takes effort. It takes discipline and awareness. To make progress toward virtue I must eternally be aware of my actions, analyze them, and then have the discipline to do the right thing. If I do this, I can take pride in my efforts.
Like gold is gold and an emerald is an emerald, we must be good. We must steadfastly remain so. This requires vigilance and effort.