If this article is coming up for you at all I have no doubt you have seen this quote before.
“Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Just be one.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Everyone seems to get some sort of Instagram-worthy good feels from this quote and I can’t for the life of me figure out why. There were so many profound things that Marcus Aurelius and the other ancient Stoics said (my preference being the works of Seneca), why focus on this single insipid, arguably tautological, line?
For starters, it doesn’t hold up very well to scrutiny. How can you be a good man if you don’t know what a good man is? No one would accept instructions like this for other actions.
Waste no more time figuring out how to do taxes properly, just file them.
That might get you audited.
Waste no more time arguing about how to create a vaccine, just create one.
That will might kill people.
Waste no more time learning how to properly lift weights, just lift them.
That will almost certainly get you injured.
Yet when people post pictures of Marcus Aurelius statues with this ancient Roman version of the Nike “just do it” slogan, every social media-addicted self-proclaimed Stoic carpe’s that diem by liking and sharing it.
It’s not deep. It’s not useful. And it pretends that something very complicated is as simple as making the right choice. The reality is that being a good person — especially in our modern complex society — is not so simple.
Being a good person takes real work, as evidenced by the book, Meditations, that this quote appears in. The book written by the late Roman Emperor was never actually intended for publication. It was a personal journal that he kept so that he could continually work to become a good man. The existence of the journal is a long demonstrated proof that, at least internally, you must continually argue about what it means to be good. Marcus Aurelius certainly did.
The quote itself is pointless. Imagine that you want to be a good person and you have a passing interest in Stoicism. You see this quote getting floated around Facebook or Twitter and you think that’s it! That’s the answer! Cool. Good for you.
But what odds would you put on your life actually being improved by it?
How long would you dwell on this overly simplistic version of morality before reality sets back in and you realize that it’s meaningless.
If it were really that simple we would be lousy with “good men”. Look around. We’re not.
It’s an empty platitude that deserves, at best, to be embroidered on the backside of a “Live, Love, Laugh” throw pillow.