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From Vol. 5, Issue 11, November 2023

Meditations on responsibility

Practicing Stoicism || ANDI SCIACCA

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A sense of gratitude

He taught me also to endure labour ; not to need many things; to ser ve myself without troubling others; not to intermeddle in the affairs of others, and not easily to listen to slanders against them. - Marcus Aur elius, Meditations, 1.5

If you’ve read the Meditations, you know that Marcus Aurelius begins by thanking individual members of his family for providing him with examples of admirable qualities – including good manners, modesty, restraint from anger, manliness, generosity, piety, and the wisdom to engage in private study. Marcus was shaped by these connections and he expresses gratitude for his parents, grandparents, and other family throughout. It’s clear that he felt love, care, and kindness in their interactions, and that these relationships positively influenced the choices he made at many points throughout his extraordinar y life.

Marcus also shares his g ratitude for several other people in his community – naming individuals and their skills, characteristics, and abilities as a way of paying homage to them for the wisdom they gave him. He mentions Sextus, Rusticus, and Apollonius of Chalcedon, among others – and includes his personal tutor, who specifically taught him “to endure labour; not to need many things; to ser ve without troubling others; not to inter meddle in the affairs of others, and not easily to listen to slanders against them.” These teachings provided Marcus with the foundation he needed to experience the world, to learn – and ultimately, to lead.

Living in our community

The Meditations also provide us with insight into how Marcus was inspired to conduct himself as a person living day-to-day in community with others. These scenarios include what might arise for us in our own interactions. After all, we know that on any given day, we, too, will “have to do with meddlers, with the ungrateful, with the insolent, with the crafty, with the envious and the selfish.” (Meditations, 2.1)

Fairness and kindness

Despite these challenges, we see examples of fairness and kindness throughout the Meditations, which serve as evidence of the many benefits of living a life in accordance with nature. These reflections provide us with practical examples of the Stoic Virtues – and demonstrate, concretely, what we could choose to do, or avoid doing, in our own efforts to be virtuous and to show kindness to others.

It’s no wonder that so many people love the Meditations as they do. It’s a text rich with history and good advice – but also a text written with love.

Our responsibility to others

As we think about how to apply these lessons to our own lives, and acknowledge the benefit of living this way, we might wonder if our intentions should go beyond reflection into something more resembling obligation. Specifically, we might ask ourselves if we have a Stoic responsibility to others to live virtuously and reflect on our own actions in similar ways to Marcus.

As Stoics, but also as caring persons, do we not have an oblig ation to provide for our fellow beings in ways that foster the happiness and well-being of others? Is it enough not to “inter meddle” or “listen to slanders” against those we know or encounter? Are we failing others if we don’t actively provide for them?

In other words, is it enough to simply live with our focus solely on ourselves and trust that others will benefit from us doing so? Or do we owe them more than that in some way? How do we act in alignment with encouraging their well-being without falling into the trap of control? And how do we know what is or isn’t enough?

I’m not sure how to answer those questions. I do know that I can choose to tr y to do the kinds of things that will help others – but I also know that it can be difficult to do so. For me, complicating the question of whether or not we are required to cultivate the conditions necessary for promoting the well-being of other people, is an acute awareness that we are living in times of both simultaneous detachment and overinvolvement with those with whom we interact.

As an example, I might think that I know some of the most intimate details of a colleague’s life based on their public social media posts – but it doesn’t mean I actually know them in any meaningful ways – at least not in ways that might afford me the opportunity to care for them or encourage their g enuine benefit. In today’s time of hyper-transparency and constant self-imposed sur veillance, we are often eng aging with others who over-share and still manage to underconnect.

So, perhaps it is enough to be “for med by nature to do kindness to [our] fellows, whenever [we act] kindly, or in any other way works for the common good,” – and if we do, to trust that we have “fulfilled the purpose of [our] creation.” (Meditations 9.42) At the ver y least, it’s a start.

Andi Sciacca is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where she is an Associate Professor II of Critical Studies at The Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD). She is also engaged in several nonprofit leadership roles – including serving as a member of the Modern Stoicism Steering Committee.