Examine men’s ruling principles, even those of the wise, what kind of things they avoid, and what kind they pursue. – Marcus Aurelius
What does that mean?
To me, this is about choosing friends, acquaintances and associates. It asks who they are, and by extension, if they are the kind of people you want to be around.
What are the forces, the values and principles which guide them? In some particular situation, how will they respond and what will they do? Consider what they like to do and what they try not to do.
The implied question in the quote is “are they right for you?” Will they be the kind of person with whom you wish to be associated? Will they give you the help and advice you need, or are their aims different from yours?
Why is it important to examine others?
It is my belief that it is important to examine others, not just for their personal habits, but for their ambitions and their goals. Their values and principles will tell you what they are willing to do, and what they will refuse to do. If that doesn’t align well with your needs and goals, things might not go well.
If they align more closely with you and your values and principles, you might want to consider what they like to do, or what they refuse to do. Working with or knowing someone who has similar values and principles is good, but if they refuse to clean up after themselves, that might cause some conflict.
This quote also asks us to question even the wise. Consider how wisdom might be misused or misapplied if the person considered wise has different values and principles than you. And what if they say wise things, but then avoid doing those very things, or if they pursue the opposite of their pronouncements?
True friendship and association should be carefully guarded. You are known by the company you keep. Make sure they have similar values and principles, or theirs may color the perceptions of others. Having similarity in what they will and will not do will help keep life smooth when it’s time to stop talking and start doing.
Where can I apply this in my life?
If you’ve lived more than a few years, you’ve had some friends who are dear to you, and some who have betrayed you. But if you dig a little deeper. Did they really betray you, or did they do what their values and principles tell you they were going to do? That is what I have found to be the case in my life.
In each case, I found that I was the one who blew it. They acted in accordance with their values and principles. I just didn’t dig deeply enough or simply skipped that step or overlooked their nature. It is easy to do, and we have probably all done it at some point. But it usually comes with a price, paid in tears or heartache, self recrimination or doubt.
But if you start to examine your friends now, might some not pass the test? I would hope most would pass, but some might not. Then what? Depending on the nature of the differences, you could talk to them about the differences. They might see that there is an old reason for what they think and believe, which might no longer serve them. They might be willing to change.
But what if they aren’t willing to change, or try to and are unable to keep their values and principles aligned with yours? Depending on how different they are from you, you might simply put a little distance between you and them, or you might have to move even farther away. If you consider friends so as tiers or circles, you have your closest friends, then simple friends, then acquaintances, and then friends of friends. Or something similar.
You can move them down a circle or two, see them less often, and give their advice a little less weight. That can be permanent or it can be a consequence of them not coming into alignment with your values and principles. It might motivate them to change, or it might cause them to move themselves even farther away from you.
Remember, it isn’t your job to punish them, but you are in control of your life. It is up to you to choose who you keep close and who will be more distant. The tension and trouble that can arise from the inevitable conflict of values and principles is much greater than those arising from saying goodbye or let’s just be friends.
The things they avoid and pursue often give interesting insight to which of their values and principles they hold most dear. It is often harder to do some things than it is to say them. Have you ever seen someone who is working to quit smoking or cut back on snacks? What they say they value and what they do aren’t always in alignment.
This is your life to live. The decisions and consequences are yours to bear. It would behoove you, I would think, to put a little effort into those you keep closest. Their actions and values will reflect on you, and will come up in conversations and decisions you make together. Preparation and examination now will save you time and pain later.