In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about how we should think about those around us to become more benevolent in our thoughts and actions. Specifically, while writing about the way we think of and speak of others who are not as educated as us, he introduces an idea of compassion that is not seen very often in our society today. When we think about those around us we often paint a negative image of those who have different points of view or seem to have very limited knowledge regarding a particular subject. We enjoy laughing at others and we enjoy putting them down (usually not to their face). Aurelius writes that he learned a key skill from Sextus, “to tolerate ignorant persons, and those who form opinions without consideration.” This skill that Aurelius learned translated into the way he thought about others and the jumbled beliefs that arise from a lack of true study of any given subject.
Aurelius truly believed that everyone was acting in a way that made the most sense to them. He saw everyone as doing the best that they could to disentangle the world and understand it better, even if that meant that they were relying on faulty reasoning or were guided by misinformation. His argument is that we should not shame others for holding beliefs that we do not agree with or that we see as counterfactual. By tolerating ignorance we avoid falling into rage and anger and we do not elevate ourselves beyond others. When we understand that others are trying to focus their lives in a way that seems the most logical to them, then we understand why they may be ignorant in the ways that they are. Building this perspective also helps us to see that we are not any better than others and that we have our own fields where we are misinformed and ignorant of the true functioning of the world.
In our world today we share videos making fun of people that are uneducated, misinformed, or are acting in ways that seem primitive to us. When we do this we are subconsciously grouping ourselves and reverting back to a tribal mentality. We belong to a camp of more sophisticated people, while the people who we find ignorant belong to a camp of primitive savages. We may get a laugh, but we are not recognizing the value of others while we are asserting our own superiority. Often times we attack the individuals we laugh at for being misinformed or ignorant rather than asking ourselves how they came to hold the beliefs that they have cultivated. When we can shift our focus through a practice of tolerance and understanding, we can create safer institutions for sharing positive information, build better connections between ourselves and the portions of society we do not agree with, and help everyone progress in a more meaningful manner.