The Nobel Prize-winning author John Steinbeck thought the tug between good and evil was a necessary contradiction of human nature. There is no better demonstration of his world view than East of Eden. As Steinbeck wrote to a friend, “I finished my book a week ago...I have put all the things I have wanted to write all my life. This is ‘the book.’”
It is from the character Lee, the Chinese immigrant housekeeper, that Steinbeck delivers the novel’s main theme: timshel—“thou mayest”—the Hebrew belief in our power to choose between good and bad. Lee offers sage-like advice throughout the novel, including this beautiful monologue on what it means to be human:
“We’re a violent people, Cal...Maybe it’s true, that we are all descendants of the restless, the nervous, the criminals, the arguers, and brawlers. But also the brave, and independent, and generous....We all have that heritage, no matter what old land our fathers left. All colors and blends of Americans have somewhat the same tendencies. It’s a breed—selected out by accident. And so we’re overbrave and overfearful—we’re kind and cruel as children. We’re overfriendly and at the same time frightened of strangers. We boast and are impressed. We’re oversentimental and realistic. We are mundane and materialistic—and do you know of any other nation that acts for ideals? We eat too much. We have no taste, no sense of proportion. We throw our energy about like waste. In the old lands they say of us that we go from barbarism to decadence without an intervening culture. Can it be that our critics have not the key or the language of our culture? That’s what we are, Cal — all of us. You aren’t very different.”
Epictetus said that our “most efficacious gift,” what distinguishes humans from other animals, the essence of human nature, is the faculty of choice. Each person has the choice to be good or bad, to love or hate, to be strong or weak, brave or cowardly. Marcus Aurelius’s writings are, in a sense, his wrestling with making the right choices. They are his attempt to answer the incredibly difficult question he had been confronted with as a result of circumstances he didn’t choose: You have been made emperor, what kind of emperor will you be? What kind of person will you be?
“I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil,” Marcus wrote, “and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own.” We have good and evil, beauty and ugliness, in each of us. The question today is which are you going to choose to lean toward? What are you going to choose to cultivate? The choice is yours.
And the answer is everything.