Wise and Sensible

The lecture below was given nearly 2,000 years ago by Roman philosopher, Musonius Rufus. How much of the last 2,000 years of human history and how many of the great institutions we have built for ourselves could be chalked up to fighting for with fire versus taking the high road? What ground have we taken since then?

Let us, especially in this time of global turmoil, reject acquiescent thinking and be a source of good hope to our neighbors and enemies. We have everything to gain by it.

He said that he himself would never prosecute anyone for personal injury nor recommend it to anyone else who claimed to be a philosopher. For actually none of the things which people fancy they suffer as personal injuries are an injury or a disgrace to those who experience them, such as being reviled or struck or spit upon. Of these the hardest to bear are blows. That there is nothing shameful or insulting about them however is clear from the fact that Lacedaemonian boys are whipped publicly, and they exult in it. If, then, the philosopher cannot despise blows and insults, when he ought obviously to despise even death, what good would he be? Well and good, you say, but the spirit of the man who does such things is monstrous, executing his purpose to insult by jeering and a slap in the face, or by abusive language or by some other such action.

You know, of course, that Demosthenes holds that people can insult even by a glance and that such things are intolerable and that men in one way or another are driven mad by them. So it is that men who do not know what is really good and what is shameful, having regard only for common opinion, think they are insulted if someone gives them a malignant glance or laughs or strikes them or reviles them. But the wise and sensible man, such as the philosopher ought to be, is not disturbed by any of these things. He does not think that disgrace lies in enduring them, but rather in doing them. For what does the man who submits to insult do that is wrong? It is the doer of wrong who forthwith puts himself to shame, while the sufferer, who does nothing but submit, has no reason whatever to feel shame or disgrace. Therefore the sensible man would not go to law nor bring indictments, since he would not even consider that he had been insulted.

Besides, to be annoyed or racked about such things would be petty. Rather he will easily and silently bear what has happened, since this befits one whose purpose is to be noble-minded. Socrates, you remember, was clearly of this frame of mind who, though publicly ridiculed by Aristophanes, was not angry, but when he happened to meet him, asked him if he would like to use him for some other role. Can’t you imagine how quickly he would have flared up in anger at some petty abuse, this man who showed no concern even when abused in the public theatre! And the good Phocion, when his wife had been reviled by someone, so far from prosecuting the fellow when he came in fear and asked forgiveness of Phocion, saying that he did not know it was his wife whom he had offended, merely replied, “But my wife has suffered nothing at your hands, though perhaps some other woman has, so you have no need to apologize to me.”

And I might mention many other men who have experienced insult, some wronged by word, others by violence and bodily harm, who do not appear to have defended their rights against their assailants nor to have proceeded against them in any other way, but very meekly bore their wrong. And in this they were quite right. For to scheme how to bite back the biter and to return evil for evil is the act not of a human being but of a wild beast, which is incapable of reasoning that the majority of wrongs are done to men through ignorance and misunderstanding, from which man will cease as soon as he has been taught.

But to accept injury not in a spirit of savage resentment and to show ourselves not implacable toward those who wrong us, but rather to be a source of good hope to them is characteristic of a benevolent and civilized way of life. How much better a figure does the philosopher make so conducting himself as to deem worthy of forgiveness anyone who wrongs him, than to behave as if ready to defend himself with legal procedure and indictments, while in reality he is behaving in an unseemly manner and acting quite contrary to his own teaching. To be sure he says that a good man can never be wronged by a bad man; but nevertheless he draws up an indictment as having been wronged by bad men, while claiming to be accounted a good man himself.

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