The Stoic account of why people behave badly
"Passion is the source of unhappiness, wrong-doing and the flaws of character which issue in wrong-doing" (Long commentary, 419).
The following is from a paper by Keith H. Seddon, "Living in Society," which is part of Dr. Seddon's Stoic Foundation Correspondence Course, and is included in the book, Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace. Quotations from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius were added.
"For the Stoics, the fact that people behave badly has a strikingly obvious explanation: they have 'no knowledge of good and bad' (2.1). Difficult people simply do not see things the way the Stoic does. Rather, they value indifferent things and feel threatened when the indifferent things in which they are interested are themselves threatened [...] The harm they cause is in fact self-inflicted, and results from their having not been shown that the good for human beings consists in developing and exercising a virtuous character..."
"People pursue what they believe will benefit them. Their capacity to judge what is truly beneficial may be, as the Stoics think, flawed, but all the same says Marcus [Aurelius], they have the right to 'strive after what they regard as suitable and beneficial' (6.27):
How cruel it is not to allow men to strive after the things which appear to them to be suitable to their nature and profitable! And yet in
a manner thou dost not allow them to do this, when thou art vexed because
they do wrong. For they are certainly moved towards things because they
suppose them to be suitable to their nature and profitable to them.- But
it is not so.- Teach them then, and show them without being
"Our becoming upset at the actions of others, Marcus suggests, denies them the right to do as they see fit. This idea is expanded upon in 7.26 where Marcus talks in terms of a 'conception of good and evil.'
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.
"Clearly, those aiming to perfect their characters as Stoics hold a very different view of what is truly good and bad (as we saw in Paper 1), and it is perfectly obvious why bad people do bad things; from their own perspective what they do is good, since they benefit from what they do, or at least they think they do. Seeing that this is the case, not only can we understand why people do bad things, we begin to anticipate what they are likely to actually do. If we attempt to answer Marcus' question, 'What ideas does this person hold on human goods and ills?' (8.14) we may even be able to second-guess someone's actions.
Whatever man thou meetest with, immediately say to thyself: What
opinions has this man about good and bad? For if with respect to pleasure
and pain and the causes of each, and with respect to fame and ignominy,
death and life, he has such and such opinions, it will seem nothing wonderful
or strange to me, if he does such and such things; and I shall bear in
mind that he is compelled to do so.
"If we do this well, what they do 'will not seem extraordinary or strange', indeed, what they do can be regarded as inevitable, given their beliefs, to the extent that those beliefs 'constrain' the agent to act as they do.
But in trying to understand other people, we must not loose sight of trying to understand ourselves [10.37]:
Accustom thyself as much as possible on the occasion of anything
being done by any person to inquire with thyself, For what object is this
man doing this? But begin with thyself, and examine thyself
"In 10.37 Marcus reminds us to examine ourselves before we examine others. With respect to our own actions it is imperative that we ask of ourselves, 'What is my aim in performing this action?'"
Epictetus (2008). Discourses and Selected Writings. Trans. Robert Dobbin. New York: Penguin Classics.
Long, A. A., Sedley, D. N. (1987). The Hellenistic Philosophers: vol. 1. translations of the principle
sources with philosophical commentary. Cambridge,
England: Cambridge University Press.
Donald Robertson (2010). The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. London: Karnac.
Keith Seddon. "Living in Society." A paper of the Stoic Foundation Correspondence Course.
Keith Seddon (2007).Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace. United Kingdom: Lulu.com.