December 21, 2023 Reading Time: 5 minutes

In The Constitution of Liberty, F. A. Hayek famously observed that “The mind can never foresee its own advance.” One reason we can’t foresee our own advance, Hayek explained, is because the growth of our mind is connected to the “growth of civilization.” Further, he explained, our ability to reason is not “independent of experience.” 

Some think their job is not to learn from experience but to attempt to control their experience.  When their expectations are dashed, they complain and blame. 

If we are willing to learn from experience but need some assistance, there are few better guides than Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. 

I recommend two translations of Meditations, one by Gregory Hays and the other by Robin Waterfield. For this essay, I am using Waterfield’s. 

If you have never read the works of the great Stoic philosophers, you may have heard the common superficial interpretations of their work: Suck it up. Control your thoughts and feelings. Act like the world doesn’t bother you.

Stoic philosophy would not have survived thousands of years if it focused on such impossible advice.

Aurelius wrote his Meditations for himself, never dreaming humanity would still read them thousands of years later. He sought to learn from experience by observing how he, not others, fell short of living by his highest values. 

Meditations is timeless because it describes a practical process; it doesn’t provide meaningless bromides urging us to be perfect. We all fail again and again, but Aurelius advised us to make good use of our failures: 

Not to feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human — however imperfectly — and fully embrace the pursuit that you’ve embarked on.

No one ever masters the process that Aurelius advises. Yet humility arises as we practice the process, and with humility comes the ability to learn. As consumers and firms “learn” from the market process, we can learn from life. How foolish to “curse” our experience when our experience can be liberating. Aurelius wrote of “working to win your freedom. Hour by hour. Through patience, honesty, humility.”

In Meditations, progress towards becoming a better person is very much a process of subtracting our self-created barriers to what Aurelius called our true Nature. Aurelius was continually looking at his nos, his blocks to living what he understood his values and purpose to be. He noticed all the ways he spoiled his day. He looked at what his poor reactions were costing him, and having done so, he was able to make better choices later. 

The Stoic path is not positive thinking, but honest awareness of our nos. With that awareness, we stop blaming others. 

I was out for a walk when a large truck emerged from a driveway almost a mile from my home. The neighbor, whom I had never met, stopped on the rural road and got out of his cab. He was looking for a friendly ear. His unpaved driveway was long, with a steep grade. The paving company he had hired was short of crew and never got to his job this past fall. A frustrating winter of snow removal was ahead for him.  

We commiserated about the poor condition of his driveway. But what really concerned him was the snow piled across the bottom of his driveway. He wondered if he had made an “enemy” (his word) of a neighbor who was dumping snow to block his driveway. 

I offered a simpler explanation: The snowplow operator plows straight ahead, and they don’t lift the blade when they come to a driveway. 

Although I was reading Aurelius right before my walk, I wasn’t tempted to quote Aurelius to him. But if I had been I would have quoted this:

“At the start of the day tell yourself: I shall meet people who are officious, ungrateful, abusive, treacherous, malicious, and selfish. In every case, they’ve got like this because of their ignorance of good and bad.” In short, nothing has to go right today. Even if the snowplow operator is malicious, there is something to learn about how our experience of the world is not determined by others.

Aurelius is not telling us to ignore bad behavior but to put a larger lens on it. He continued:

But I have seen goodness and badness for what they are, and I know that what is good is what is morally right, and what is bad is what is morally wrong; and I’ve seen the true nature of the wrongdoer himself and know that he’s related to me—not in the sense that we share blood and seed, but by virtue of the fact that we both partake of the same intelligence, and so of a portion of the divine. 

Aurelius is arguing we are all made of the same stuff. This means we all have the power to choose between our right mind and our wrong mind. When we are in our right mind, we act in accordance with our true Nature. When we don’t yet understand what is good for us, we can allow life to teach us. We don’t have to construct an implausible story about an “enemy” to explain snow blocking our driveway. 

If we are part of the same “divinity,” we can cut others slack for their errors. We can also recognize, as Stoics often did, that what we think comes from our interpretation of events, not from the events themselves. Aurelius summed it up this way:

None of them [those acting in opposition to Aurelius] can harm me, anyway, because none of them can infect me with immorality, nor can I become angry with someone who’s related to me, or hate him, because we were born to work together, like feet or hands or eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. 

Aurelius argued, “To work against each other is therefore unnatural—and anger and rejection count as ‘working against.’” Our freedom depends on voluntary human cooperation. The Stoics offer practical wisdom for promoting freedom by helping you remove your internal barriers to cooperating with others. 

Everything is grist for the mill in learning from experience, even watching sports. Early in Meditations, Aurelius acknowledged specific people in his life who taught him by their example or advice. From his tutor, he learned that “supporting neither the Greens nor the Blues” was a good idea. The Greens and the Blues were two chariot racing teams in ancient Rome. According to Waterfield, chariot racing “aroused great passion in imperial Rome, and furious, and sometimes violent, rivalry among opposing fans.” As a potential future emperor, Marcus had to stay above partisan rivalries.

Not much has changed in 2000 years. You are not an emperor, but you may be a neighbor, a colleague, a partner, or a parent. Again, don’t try to control your thinking, but notice when your thinking is leading you from enjoying sports and towards “furious rivalry.”  Notice if that extreme passion costs you your peace of mind and erodes the quality of your relationships. If you have lost touch with your power to choose between your right mind and your wrong mind, you can easily become part of the mass of people aroused to hate others.

As we and others learn from experience and subtract what impedes us from acting out of our right mind, we build and maintain the civilization we depend on. Hayek wrote, “It is the state of civilization at any given moment that determines the scope and the possibilities of human ends and values.” What we are building very much depends on our daily choices.

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein

Barry Brownstein is professor emeritus of economics and leadership at the University of Baltimore.

He is the author of The Inner-Work of Leadership, and his essays have appeared in publications such as the Foundation for Economic Education and Intellectual Takeout.

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