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Characteristics of Good and Bad People (Part 1) – Episode 27


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In Meditations 3.16, Marcus Aurelius notes three different capacities of the human psyche and the corresponding character traits of bad people who are controlled or guided by them. He writes: To receive impressions by means of images is something that we share even with cattle; and to be drawn this way and that by the puppet-strings of impulse, we share with wild beasts, with catamites, and with a Phalaris or a Nero; and to have the intellect as a guide towards what appear to be duties is something that we share with those who do not believe in the gods, with those who betray their country, with those who will do anything whatever behind locked doors. This passage is fascinating. The first two capacities relied on by those with a bad character will get near-universal nods of agreement from Stoic practitioners. However, the third—those who use their intellect as a guide—may raise eyebrows and will need explaining. Let’s look at each of these in detail. Those Who Are Operating on Sense Impressions (Phantasia) Alone Marcus begins by comparing those who rely only on sense impressions to cattle. If we seek a human parallel, slaves and prisoners come to mind. Like cattle, others control the movements of slaves and prisoners. Likewise, they must eat what is put in front of them lest they starve. A sense impression of food is presented to them and they respond by eating it. A sense impression of downtime is presented to them, so they rest or sleep. Others make all of their significant choices for them; there is no need to make judgments, so they are simply responding to sense impressions. It is possible to imagine a human who is not a literal slave or prisoner but lives in an environment where they are cared for by others and every significant choice is made for them. This would be unlikely in modern times. However, we can imagine a prince or princess of a powerful king living in such circumstances in the past. No matter what we imagine, I think we will agree these circumstances are dehumanizing—this is not the life of a human being; it is the life of cattle. For us, the important lesson here is how we handle sense impressions, and that skill falls under the practice known as the Discipline of Assent. As I noted in a previous episode, we need to set up a Stoic roadblock for impressions. This allows us to Stop every impression, Strip it bare, and See it from the cosmic viewpoint. If we wrongly assent to the almost involuntary value judgments that typically accompany sense impressions—that is “good” or that is “bad”—we develop or further ingrain the desires and aversions that disturb us. That brings us to the next capacity on Marcus’ list. Those Who Are Driven by Impulses (Horme) Marcus likens those who are driven by the impulses that arise from desires and aversions to “wild beasts.” Clearly, wild beasts differ from the cattle that rely on sense perceptions. Animals in the wild are not fed and cared for by others. Instead, they must hunt or forage to eat, and they are free to move about, sleep where they want, and procreate as they desire. These wild beasts are driven by impulses that arise from innate desires (longings) and aversions (fears)—we typically call these instincts. Wild animals do not question their desires and aversions; they do not consider whether their actions are good or bad. If they are social animals, they may tend toward certain behaviors and avoid others because there are rewards or repercussions from others in their group. However, that is not rational behavior; it is conditioning. Marcus argues that people who exhibit this characteristic are “drawn this way and that by the puppet-strings of impulse.” He uses this puppet analogy several times in his Meditations. He admonishes himself not to be “tugged this way and that, like a puppet, by each unsociable impulse” (Meditations 2.2), and cautions against being “pulled around like puppets by our impulses” (Meditations 6.16). Additionally,

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