People Are People (and Always Have Been)

“When you wake up in the morning tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly.  They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.  But I have seen the beauty of good and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own – not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind and possessing a share of the divine.  And so none of them can hurt me.  No one can implicate me in ugliness.  Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him.  We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower.  To obstruct each other is unnatural.  To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions”

-Marcus Aurelius, Circa 170 AD

I don’t think there’s anyone today that couldn’t stand to take these words to heart.  They are as true now as they apparently were almost two thousand years ago.  I’m not trying to preach here, or rather more accurately I’m trying not to (see the difference?) but the Stoics had some fine coping mechanisms.  At any rate the book “Meditations” by my favourite Roman Emperor is filled with similar advice for handling people who are small minded and petty.  Reading Aurelius I am struck by the fact then when he is giving examples of people acting in a frustrating way I can immediately think of several examples of this from my own experience.

I remember one of my old history teachers discussing the old Greek Comedy called Lysistrata.  The details of this play aren’t terribly important right now, but his attitude towards it is.  He called the humour in the play primitive, which seemed to be overly dismissive to me.  He further explained that “people of the time had a simple grasp of humour.”  Yes, Lysistrata has some pretty low brow stuff, but take a quick glance at the various parody movies being made today and try telling me how much our sense of humour has evolved in two thousand years.  Besides, turning once again to Aurelius, we see in his writings numerous examples of a rather sharp wit.

So we have two examples, one concrete and one suppositional, from history which supports the theory presented in the title of this piece.  It might be thought that were you to magically transport Marcus Aurelius to our time he would be amazed at the changes society has wrought.  It is my feeling, however, that once he got over the initial shock at the technological advances made, he would see people around him acting in a way very familiar to him.

So, since it seems people as a whole haven’t changed all that much in the last few millennia, and almost certainly longer.  Because of this we can make certain predictions on how people will act.  We can also choose how to react to them.  Petty people will be petty and although we can’t hope to control their actions we do have control over our reactions.  “Choose not to be harmed and you haven’t been,” as Aurelius says.

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