Marcus Aurelius

Feeling the Sting of Ingratitude? Marcus Aurelius Offers Consolation

Marcus Aurelius

Lone Ranger

Have you ever done a favor for a business associate — or for anyone else, for that matter — and never received so much as a “thank you” in return? Encountering ingratitude is one of the most galling experiences, and it’s very common. The Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote: “I believe that the best definition of man is the ungrateful biped.” Yes, ingratitude has been around for a long time.


Furthermore, there’s something even worse than not receiving a thank you, after doing a good turn for somebody. A person may actually be punished for his generosity, for it has rightly been said, “No good deed goes unpunished.”


What, then, to do about the painful experience of ingratitude? A person

could become cynical, never again offering to help anyone in need. But it’s much better to continue to be generous, but not to expect thanks. Is such magnanimousness really possible? Here is what the one of the wisest of philosophers, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who lived in the Second Century AD, recommends:


“Once you have done a man a service, what more would you have? Is it not enough to have obeyed the laws of your own nature, without expecting to be paid for it? That is like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. It is for that very purpose that they exist; and they have their due in doing what they were created to do. Similarly, man is born for deeds of kindness; and when he has done a kindly action, or otherwise served the common welfare, he has done what he was made for, he has received his quittance.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations. Penguin Classics. Translated by Maxwell Staniforth. Page 149.)


Marcus Aurelius is arguing that since it is intrinsic to our higher nature to be generous, that our generosity is its own reward, for in giving to other people, we are fulfilling our nature. There is certainly something heroic about Marcus’ view of life. After all, the hero never asks for a reward. Like the Lone Ranger, he (or she) simply does the good deed and then rides off into the sunset before he can receive a thank you. In the long run, we shall be happier being this way, for a person with a magnanimous soul is always happier than one who is small-minded. If we keep this in mind, when we encounter ingratitude, it won’t have quite as bad a sting.


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