“They” hold up very poorly in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that Marcus holds up very poorly when “they” come up. Who is “they?” They are the people the Romans referred to as barbarians—the people who lived outside the bounds of the empire. It’s when Marcus speaks (and acts) derogatorily about them—the Christians or the slaves or even the opposite sex—that we are reminded just how long ago he lived.
In Marcus’s time, the world was a strict hierarchy, almost a system of castes, and Marcus never really questioned this. In fact, his own identity was strongly tied up in the notion that he was above these lesser beings, these savages, these slaves, these women.
Thankfully, society has made incredible progress since then. We’ve granted religious freedom, equal rights, and civil rights...for the most part. But still, tribalism tempts us. Especially lately. We are suspicious of and think less of people who are not like us, who live differently than us, who come from somewhere different than us.
In Senator Ben Sasse’s new book, Them: Why We Hate Each Other—And How to Heal, he talks about how the massive technological and sociological changes we are going through on this planet encourage those toxic impulses. We feel threatened, we feel insecure, so we retreat into (or descend into) tribalism. We want to blame other people for our problems, we want to create enemies, we want to focus on what they are doing wrong, and not the urgent (and resolvable) issues in our own lives. And of course, what this blame-shifting tribalism keeps us blind to is how much we all have in common, how 99% of us are just doing the best we can, and how in the end, most everyone wants the same things.
To the Stoics, the idea of sympatheia was a bulwark against this temptation to make someone an other. We all come from the same place, Marcus writes (even if he didn’t always live up to it), we are all part of the same larger project. Forget tribes, he says, we are one big hive—we are citizens of the world as much as we are citizens of Rome or America. Do good for your fellow man, he said, or put up with him. There’s no room, or time, for hating or scapegoating.
The idea of “they” or “them”—that’s driven by fear. Not reason. It’s not rational, it’s emotional and it’s destructive. Each of us needs to work on rising above it. For the sake of ourselves, our countries, and our world.