Satisfaction in a Good Act

As a stoic, Marcus Aurelius believed in self-awareness and growth through a deep reflection and understanding of ones thoughts. His book Meditations in many ways serves as a manual for how to think about and approach the world as a stoic. His book was originally a place for him to collect the lessons of his life so that he could continually return to thoughts of how he could live better.  He stresses a sense of contentedness with the present moment, and provides examples where we can shift our thoughts to be more fulfilled with the experiences, and lives that we live.


Regarding doing good acts and how we should view our actions when we are doing something positive Aurelius wrote, “When thou hast done a good act and another has received it, why dost thou still look for a third thing besides these, as fools do, either to have the reputation of having done a good act or to obtain a return?”  What the Emperor was expressing in this section is our desire to have others recognize our positive actions and praise us for them, and our desire to benefit from our good deeds.  He is challenging this desire of ours and suggesting that we should simply be happy knowing that we have done something positive for another person.  Building this sense of contentedness requires self-reflection and awareness to recognize our thoughts and desires for good karma or recognition.  His passage seems to say that doing good should always be enough to satisfy ourselves and our desires. Seeking out a return on our good deeds will not decrease the positivity that we provided to the world, but it will put an undue stress and burden on ourselves, and may cause us to be looked upon by others less favorably.


This quote aligns with the thoughts and recommendations that Aurelius presents throughout Meditations. He encourages us to be content with ourselves and not strive to take action for the purpose of impressing people who are alive or will be alive in the future.  Staying present and focusing on the moment in which we live will help us be more genuine in our actions, and will help us maximize our decisions.  Building in a sense of self-awareness and abandoning our need for reward or recognition in social settings can allow us to better align our actions with our values.  I think that Aurelius would agree with the idea that we would see more positivity in our own lives grow from our good deeds when we do not look for reward or take action with the hopes of receiving reward or recognition.


Throughout his book Meditations, Marcus Aurelius presents us with very realistic ways to approach the world and think about our lives.  His philosophy of stoicism is based on self-awareness and a perception of the world that is not founded on emotion and desire, but is instead based on reason and rational thought.  This philosophy is folded into his thoughts about what we can change in the world, and is on display in the following quote, “It is a ridiculous thing for a man not to fly from his own badness, which is indeed possible, but to fly from other men’s badness, which is impossible.”


In this quote what Aurelius is truly writing about is our ability to change and improve ourselves, and our inability to change and improve other people. One of the guiding principles of Aurelius’ stoicism is the view that we can be  in complete control of our faculties of mind, and that through processes of self-awareness we can control our thoughts and perceptions.  When you focus on your own mind it becomes possible to recognize your good and bad behaviors and begin to make changes in the behaviors that you wish to avoid.  You may seek the guidance and wisdom of others to achieve the goals and changes that you want, but ultimately the only person who can change your thoughts and beliefs is you, because no one else can be in control of your rational mind.


Aurelius is showing us in his quote above that we should be more interested in improving ourselves than improving others. He recognizes that it is impossible for us to change another person when they are in control of their mind. We may provide them with additional information and explain the ways that we see and understand the world, but it is up to the individual to build change into their life.  Recognizing that we are powerless to truly change one another, Aurelius makes us question why we would spend time striving to do so.  We can focus on ourselves and try to change ourselves since our mind is within our control, but it is a waste of time and focus to look toward the errors of others and take actions to try to change them, especially if they are not aware of their misdoings.