In both cases, the news they are faced with—the conclusion they are being asked to accept—is simply too much. The Shakespearean scholar, Richard Greenblatt, calls this phrase a kind of motto for those who can’t wrap their mind around perfidy. He’s not being condescending, for it’s a very common experience. Our naivete, our willingness to assume the best about others, leaves us open to betrayal and disillusionment.
Which is why the Stoics spend so much time on this very topic. Marcus, for his part, opens Meditations with some musing on the reality of the types of people he’s going to meet in the days to come. But later in Meditations, he speaks about the kind of behavior you see in the boxing ring—gauging, headbutting, and low blows. We see this all the time in the sports world, as a matter of fact. NFL linemen who grease up their jersey so they can’t be grabbed. In NASCAR, they love to say “rubbin’ is racin’.” And then there’s the old saying, “if you’re not cheating, you’re not trying hard enough.”
You have to anticipate this kind of behavior, Marcus says, you can’t take it personally. He talks about the inevitability of bumping up against shameless people and how to handle it. He spends time putting himself inside the minds of tyrants, robbers, and perverts—again, because these types exist and we must not be surprised or abused by them.
When Seneca was sentenced to death by Nero, his family and friends began wailing in shock and horror. But Seneca was calm. “Who knew not Nero’s cruelty,” he told them. We can’t be surprised by this. Indeed, it was a brave and rational response—the only shame is that Seneca couldn’t have seen this coming earlier. If he had, perhaps he could have stopped the tyrant before he hurt so many people.
The point being: This is not a philosophy for the weak or the cowardly. Stoicism is about facing the truth, about thinking about the unthinkable. Not just as it’s happening, but long before. Premeditatio malorum, which we’ve talked a lot about here (and make in coin form as a constant reminder) is the embodiment of that. Keep all the possibilities before you, including—especially—the bad ones. Keep your eyes open. Beware.
Think it. Because you might be able to prevent it. And if you can’t, at least you’ll be able to handle the reality of its existence and then respond to it accordingly.