Just Being "Good" Isn't Enough


Welcome back to Mid-Week Meditations, Lifehacker’s weekly dip into the pool of stoic wisdom, and how you can use its waters to reflect on and improve your life.

This week’s selection comes from Marcus Aurelius and his Meditations. He believes that doing the right thing should come freely from within ourselves, not be forced out by outside circumstances:

“You should take no action unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives. Do not dress up your thoughts in smart finery: do not be a gabbler or a meddler. Further, let the god that is within you be the champion of the being you are – a male, mature in years, a statesman, a Roman, a ruler: one who has taken his post like a soldier waiting for the Retreat from life to sound, and ready to depart, past the need for any loyal oath or human witness. And see that you keep a cheerful demeanor, and retain your independence of outside help and the peace which others can give. Your duty is to stand straight – not be held straight.

Meditations, 3.5

Aurelius repeats this concept later in book seven:

“Standing straight – or held straight.”

MEDITATIONS, 7

Here’s another translation for it: “A man should be upright, not kept upright.”

What It Means

Like with most of his writings, Aurelius is talking to himself here (hence the bits on being a man, a Roman, etc.). Still, his overall message is useful for others: be good, and don’t just do it because you have to, or because you think it will benefit you in some way.

His definition of being “good” is explained here pretty thoroughly as well. Don’t do things “unwillingly, selfishly, uncritically, or with conflicting motives”; don’t disguise your thoughts and language with “smart finery” to take advantage of others or meddle in affairs; and stay positive and independent. Sounds pretty manageable, right?

But it’s not being good that matters, it’s why you do it. You should be good just because. It’s simply what’s right. And, like a soldier serving the universal forces of good, Aurelius suggests you stick to that duty until the day you die.

What to Take From It

Being “good,” however you may define that, isn’t enough in Aurelius’s eyes. Being “good” must be the essence of your being, something you choose to be and do no matter what. You must say to yourself, “I’m going to be good, I’m going to stand upright—not be held upright and forced into it.”

Think about it, how often have you “been good” just to avoid trouble, to avoid breaking rules? Or how about to appeal to your own vanity, or because you knew somewhere down the line it would benefit you? Are you choosing to be good because you know it’s right? Or are you only being good because you feel like you have to?

If you’ve watched any of the afterlife-based TV show The Good Place, this is one of the central themes. Say, for example, you spent your entire life doing charity work and organizing benefits for others. But what if you only did those things for fame and glory? Or to purposefully outshine someone in your life? All that “good” work you did doesn’t seem so good anymore does it?

You can read Meditations in its entirety for free here.



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