“Suppose someone standing by a clear, sweet spring were to curse it: it just keeps right on bringing drinkable water bubbling up to the surface.”

The Stoic Key to Kindness

Every human life is too complex and filled with contradiction to be neatly classified into the categories we use to manage chaos. And yet, so many of our unclassifiable days are spent classifying the lives and experiences of others. The refusal to put complexity in a category or lash out at others using our labels is one measure of kindness.

Marcus Aurelius (April 26, 121–March 17, 180) knew this, lived this. He was a queer teenage boy raised by one mother. Stoic philosophy saved him. Then he tried to save the dying world by using it to help his reign as Rome’s last Good Emperor. Across the epochs, he goes on saving us with the sonorous undertone of his entire philosophy — his humming insistence on kindness as the only effective antidote to all of life’s assaults.

Marcus Aurelius

In his timeless Meditations (public library) — notes on life he had written largely to himself while learning how to live more nobly in an uncertain world that blindsides us as much with its beauty as with its brutality — he returns again and again to kindness and the importance of extending it to everyone equally at all times, because even at their cruelest, which is their most irrational, human beings are endowed with reason and dignity they can live up to.

Seventeen centuries before Tolstoy looked back on his long and contradictory life to make the bittersweet observation that “nothing can make our life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness,” Marcus Aurelius draws on the other great refrain that carries his philosophy — the insistence that embracing our mortality is the key to living fully — and writes:

You should bear in mind constantly that death has come to men* of all kinds, men with varied occupations and various ethnicities… We too will inevitably end up where so many [of our heroes] have gone… Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Socrates… brilliant intellectuals, high-minded men, hard workers, men of ingenuity, self-confident men, men… who mocked the very transience and impermanence of human life…. men… long dead and buried… Only one thing is important: to behave throughout your life toward the liars and crooks around you with kindness, honesty, and justice.

One of Harry Clarke’s 1933 illustrations for Edgar Allan Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination. Prints available.

The key to kindness, he observes, is keeping “the purity, lucidity, moderation, and justice of your mind” from being sullied by the actions of those you encounter, no matter how disagreeable and discomposed by unreason they may be. He writes in an entire passage that defies the lazyness of labels. It is based on a metaphor that’s more like a Buddhist parable, Transcendentalist journal entry, or Patti Smith Insta poem, than a Stoic dictum.

If someone were to stand by a spring that is clear and sweet, they would curse it. The spring keeps bringing water to the surface. He can throw mud and dung into the spring, but it quickly disperses them all, washing it away, leaving nothing behind. How can you have an endless spring of water? You must maintain your independence at all times and your kindness and simplicity.

He offers a kind of thought experiment to be tested in action — try kindness on, the way one tries on a costume, and see how you feel moving through life wearing it, see that you feel infinitely better about both yourself and life:

Try living the life of a good man* and see how it too suits you — a man who’s gratified by the lot he’s been assigned by the universe and satisfied with the justice of his acts and the kindness of his character.

Art by Virginia Frances Sterrett, Old French Fairy Tales, 1920
One of teenage artist Virginia Frances Sterrett’s century-old illustrations for French fairy tales. Available as both a print or stationery card.

Bertrand Russell would echo the sentiment in contemplating how you can stop living a life that is not fulfilling your potential, but Marcus Aurelius provides the best recipe to achieve fulfillment.

If you carry out every present task by following right reason assiduously, resolutely, and with kindness; if, rather than getting distracted by irrelevancies, you keep your guardian spirit unspoiled and steady…; if you engage with the task not with expectations or evasions, but satisfied if your current performance is in accord with nature and if what you say and express is spoken with true Roman honesty, you’ll be living the good life. And there’s no one who can stop you doing so!

Complement with poet Naomi Shihab Nye’s soul-broadening ode to kindness and George Saunders on its regret-annihilating power, then revisit Marcus Aurelius on the good luck of your bad luck, how to handle disappointing people, the key to living with presence, the most potent motivation for work, and how to begin each day.

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