Modern translation of an ancient quote
June 18, 2013 8:04 AM   Subscribe

George Lincoln Walton in his 1908 book Why Worry? quotes Marcus Aurelius as having said this:
When a man has done thee any wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong. For when thou hast seen this, thou wilt pity him, and neither wonder nor be angry.
How might the underlined portion be rephrased in today's English? I'm having a hard time understanding what Aurelius meant.
posted by davcoo to Religion & Philosophy (13 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
"What is the frame of reference by which you are evaluating his deed as good or evil" is what immediately comes to mind.

What system of morals is the judgement based on? Where is the man "coming from"? i.e. if you can understand what lies behind his action, than instead of judging him, you can feel sorry for the other rather than wondering WTF or getting pissed off.

To put it in modern parlance.
posted by infini at 8:08 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

"think about what is going on in his life that has changed his worldview such that his act towards you seemed like at least the lesser evil"?
posted by sparklemotion at 8:08 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

"...immediately take into account his understanding of what the nature of good and evil is. For when thou hast etc."
The implication seems to be that the wrongdoers understanding of the nature or good and evil may differ from the man he's wronged, and therefore the wrongdoer is merely ignorant (in the wronged man's eyes), rather than truly malicious and thus could be deserving of pity rather than wrath.
posted by Dorinda at 8:09 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

consider what opinion about good or evil he holds, that has caused him to do wrong.

it's easier to grasp the original wording if you flip it around "he has done wrong with [i.e. possessing] such-and-such opinion about good and evil"
posted by drlith at 8:11 AM on June 18, 2013

"Put yourself in his shoes," is basically how it would be phrased in today's English.
posted by cribcage at 8:16 AM on June 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

Haven't got a modern version but the whole passage may help a bit:

When a man has done thee any wrong, immediately consider with what opinion about good or evil he has done wrong. For when thou hast seen this, thou wilt pity him, and wilt neither wonder nor be angry. For either thou thyself thinkest the same thing to be good that he does or another thing of the same kind. It is thy duty then to pardon him. But if thou dost not think such things to be good or evil, thou wilt more readily be well disposed to him who is in error.
posted by Segundus at 8:23 AM on June 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Or.... "Don't take it personally." Most people don't intentionally do wrong upon another person, they are simply looking for the best advantage for themselves.
posted by Doohickie at 8:26 AM on June 18, 2013

It's from Book 7 of the Meditations. This more modern translation renders it like this:

26. When anyone offends against you, let your first thought be, Under what conception of good and ill was this committed? Once you know that, astonishment and anger will give place to pity. For either your own ideas of what is good are no more advanced than his, or at least bear some likeness to them, in which case it is clearly your duty to pardon him; or else, on the other hand, you have grown beyond supposing such actions to be either good or bad, and therefore it will be so much the easier to be tolerant of another's blindness.
posted by orthicon halo at 8:40 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

It reads to me as an alternate form of, "everybody is always fighting their own, hard battle," so try to be understanding.
posted by jbickers at 8:53 AM on June 18, 2013

Another translation, with additional context that i think is helpful:
When someone does you some wrong, you should consider immediately what judgment of good or evil lead him to wrong you. When you see this, you will will pitty him, and not feel surprise or anger. You yourself either still share his view of good, or something like it, in which case you should understand and forgive: if, on the other hand, you no longer judge such things as either good or evil, it will be easier for you to be patient with the unsighted.
My interpretation is, understand why they did it, and you'll either agree with them, or see the error in their reasoning, and pity them for it.
posted by BrashTech at 8:59 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The greater context here that you might not be getting from the 1908 book is Marcus Aurelius's Stoic philosophy, in which "good or evil" would be defined by whether one lives in accordance with man's nature as a rational animal. The Wikipedia article has another quote from Aurelius that illustrates a similar idea as the quote you gave:
Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill... I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together...
posted by stopgap at 9:14 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The idea is one that goes back to Plato: that no one does evil consciously knowing it to be evil. Everyone thinks that they are making the right and good choices, it's just that some people are grossly mistaken as to what the right and the good are. If everyone could be lead to a clear understanding of what is right and good then no one would, by choice, perform an evil act.

We should pity someone who does evil, then, because in doing so they are betraying the fact that they have, through some unfortunate error in their upbringing and education, been inculcated with false opinions as to the good.
posted by yoink at 9:21 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't have it on me so I don't know how he translated this passage, but Gregory Hays has done a fantastically readable and modern translation of Marcus Aurelius that you might be interested in.

I agree with others that this quote basically boils down to "he doesn't know any better" -- the offender in question isn't operating from a clear understanding of right and wrong, and deserves your pity for the poor quality of life that stems from that.
posted by makeitso at 10:11 AM on June 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

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