Meditations: on character and expectations

A colleague recently gave me some advice that reminded me of the words of Marcus Aurelius. They didn’t use the same words, but the message was essentially the same. Their words actually reminded me of a part of Meditations that I thought I would never blog about — not necessarily because I disagree with it, but because it never sat quite right with me.

When I first read it (a few years ago), I remember that I felt a bit… uncomfortable about it, I suppose is the best way to describe it. But I think, for the most part, I’ve come to terms with it now. I’m sure there is still some part of me that is bothered by it in a way I cannot quite articulate, but maybe acceptance will come with time.

Anyway, the part in question is Chapter 42, at the end of Book 9, most notably this sentence:

The fault is clearly your own, if you trusted that a man of that character would keep his trust, or if you conferred a favour without making it an end in itself, your very action its own and complete reward.
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9, Chapter 42, sub-section 4)

I completely agree with the second part of this sentence — I don’t think it requires much explanation or justification. It is only the first part that has bothered me this whole time, and I think it’s because it implied, to me, that I’m either too trusting or a bad judge of character (or both). It also seems to be running against my philosophy of “love regardless” (love and trust are not the same, I know).

The advice my colleague gave me was essentially along the lines of, “It’s your own fault if you trusted that someone would act in a way not congruent with their character.” (Again, not in those exact words, but I’m paraphrasing. This is actually how I usually remember the above passage of Meditations, and I suppose it’s just a generalisation of the original text.) It has echoes of what my manager told me earlier this year — stuff about human nature, something I believe he intended as words of warning.

It was only today, searching for this passage, that I realised my colleague’s advice is better presented in an earlier part of the same chapter:

Anyway, where is the harm or surprise in the ignorant behaving as the ignorant do? … Should you not rather blame yourself, for not anticipating that this man would make this error?
(Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book 9, Chapter 42, sub-section 3)

I think all this stuff about “blame” and “fault” is another reason why this particular part of Meditations always felt a bit off to me. It all sounds so negative. And then there is the implication that ignorant people will always behave ignorantly, and they are not at fault for ignorant behaviour even if it is wrong. On the surface, the statement is logical (and hence acceptable) but it is still frustrating.

But then I remembered another mantra from Marcus Aurelius: teach or tolerate (Chapter 59, Book 8)

These two concepts (first, that you should not expect someone to act in any way other than in accordance with their nature; and second, in all cases, to teach or tolerate), although not presented together, when they are taken together, the first becomes more agreeable to me.

The passages from Book 9, to me, sound like they’re trying to foster acceptance of a fact for which there is no recourse. “Teach or tolerate”, however, presents a course of action.

There is also some element of understanding and gentle forgiveness in it. Maybe it’s just my interpretation of it, but it’s sort of like “ok, this person made a mistake, which is not unexpected, so now you can either teach them or tolerate how things are — there is no point in getting upset or indignant”.

Technically, this way of thinking could be applied to oneself as well. Energy from self-criticism and self-reprimanding could be redirected to self-improvement or, at the very least, self-forgiveness.

Not sure if I’ve ever mentioned this in my many posts about various parts of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, but the edition I refer to is translated by Martin Hammond, and published by Penguin Classics. This is the version I would recommend to anyone wanting to read Meditations. Some time ago, I browsed another edition by another translator and publisher, but didn’t think it was anywhere near as good as Hammond’s interpretation.


6 thoughts on “Meditations: on character and expectations

  1. Sharon, this is a tricky one to digest. I’m with you on thinking it’s hard to fully accept that it’s essentially our own fault if we expect too much of someone we know has poor character or significant deficits. The phrase “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me” comes to mind; i.e. you got what was coming to you! I suppose any more that when someone disappoints me or acts badly, I am very interested in how they intend to make it up to me if at all. I don’t think I can teach anyone anything these days (if they are grown and don’t already know it, especially decent social behaviors). Mistakes are different from just plain bad behavior or character defects. Figuring out which camp someone belongs in is the hard part.

    • I suppose, to some extent, (repeated) mistakes and character defects are related (?)
      I usually take “teach” in a broader sense – guide, advise, direct, edify… But, I agree, there’s probably only so much one can “teach” a grown individual already set in their ways. You cannot change someone’s behaviour if they are unwilling to change.
      So I guess that leaves us with tolerance. I think Marcus Aurelius would tell you not to expect any compensation, apology, etc from people who have wronged you, even if that is “justice”. Better to not waste your time and energy (?)

      • Tolerance is not my strong suit! 😊 I tend to focus on “work-arounds”; how best to handle things or how best to handle them should they come up in the future.I am intrigued by your writings on Marcus Aurelius. I am frequently disappointed by people and find it hard to let go of expectations if only the most basic decencies. Even when I know I’m setting myself up.

        • I get the need for standards and expectations, but I guess, to me, this passage is more about being neutral or not getting angry at people for doing something that I could have reasonably predicted, even if it breaches a standard I’ve set. I feel like it’s hard to explain succinctly 😅

          When Marcus Aurelius wrote his “Meditations”, he wrote them as “notes to self”, so I think maybe he was just reminding himself to stay calm when people act wrongly, etc

  2. I wonder if a different translation would translate that passage differently. Maybe a better paraphrase might be, “Don’t be surprised when someone behaves according to his nature. He hasn’t deceived you; you’ve deceived yourself.” I’m thinking of all the people I know who are surprised when a friend or partner who has consistently let them down … lets them down. I had a friend who was ALWAYS late to meet me. All I could do was to tell her how inconsequential to her it made me feel. After that, if she was late, I couldn’t blame her. She knew what she was doing. I could tolerate it or not tolerate it, but I couldn’t be surprised. Good post. Lots to think about. One of the many things I like about reading you.

    • That’s a good example! I have a friend who has a tendency to be late for things, so I’ve also come to expect that she’s always going to be late. It’s part of the reason why I take a book everywhere 😉

      And good point about the different translations! I think you’ve paraphrased it well!

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