What does Marcus Aurelius mean by “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury”?

Marcus Aurelius says, “the best revenge is to be unlike him who performed the injury.”  Does that mean we can’t act in retaliation if someone uses violence against us?  No.  Does that mean we can’t perform a similar act towards someone who just performed an aggressive act towards us?  No.

Marcus Aurelius was meaning that we shouldn’t have the same intention and negative passions that led someone to injure us.  It doesn’t mean that if a nation attacks another nation, the nation attacked shouldn’t respond in force.  If it meant that, then Marcus Aurelius would be a hypocrite responding in force against the barbarian threat against the Empire.

Stoicism is a virtue ethics, so it cares about the character and intent of the agent.  If someone attacks you violently, you might have to attack back but with a whole different intention than the one that the other person had.  Your intention is to neutralize the threat.  The intention of the person who caused the injury is to cause injury because they’re mad at you.  Very different from a virtue ethics stance.

Marcus Aurelius bust Istanbul Archaeological Museum - inv. 5129 T.jpg

The Story of the Stoic Evangelist

(Stoic knocks on door)
Woman: Hello, can I help you?

Stoic: Do you got a few minutes? Can I tell you about a big idea that might change your life?

Woman: Ok, yes I’m not busy right now, are you a Jehovah’s Witness, I got one just yesterday?

Stoic: No, I’m actually a philosopher.

Woman: Huh, that’s weird. Okay, what’s the idea?

Stoic: If you’re like a lot of people, you find the world burdensome. What if I told you there’s an idea that might ease the burden (no guarantee) and might help you navigate through life a little easier.

Woman: I’d be interested in such an idea.

Stoic: Ok, well, the idea is rather simple but complex at the same time. Basically, to put it simply, the idea is that you can, given practice, change the way you view the world. By changing the way you view the world, you can be at more peace with it.

Woman: That’s interesting. Tell me some more. In a few minutes I have to get ready for work.

Stoic: Ok, I won’t try to take up too much of your time but the big idea is you essentially view things in terms of what you can control and what you can’t control. Given practice, you can control your opinions, your desires, and goals but you can’t truly control things outside of your mind, for example, whether you’ll arrive to work on time for certainty. The idea is you only worry about the things you can control but you don’t let yourself worry about the things you can’t entirely control beyond a slight influence? For instance, you can control that you’ve set out to go to work but beyond that things might not go your way. Your car might not start. You might get upset if you can’t get to work but, given practice, you actually have more control over being upset about it than being able to go to work. Being upset is actually entirely not a necessary thing, believe it or not. Instead of being upset, you could be spending time thinking about new goals. Calling a friend to get you to work or calling your boss explaining your situation. Setting new goals are within your power.

Woman: I think that makes sense. Never thought about things that way really. You have an awful lot of little books there? What’s that?

Stoic: Oh, I’m handing them out to anyone who’s interested. It’s actually Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. He was big proponent of the idea I’m presenting.

Woman: Well, I might give it a read, it looks pretty short.

Stoic: Ok, here you go and the beauty of it is that its short and simple. If you want to skip the beginning part where he’s being thankful to all people in his life and just get into his ideas you can skip that. And I got a little pamphlet here that talks about the big idea I just told you and a little more.

Woman: Ok, well I gotta go to work. Thank you for your book and the little pamphlet.

Stoic: Oh you’re welcome. I hope you find time to read the Meditations. You don’t even have to read the whole thing. Little passages at a time are helpful at times. The pamphlet is also quite helpful since it summarizes some of the themes in the Meditations.

Woman: I might give a read, thanks again.