Tolerate People, Endure Their False Quotations

An old friend of mine reached out about the quote posted below and asked if it is really old Marky A.

Tolerant with yourself

This is a translation of Marcus Aurelius by Gregory Hays

Hays Tolerant

And here’s the Loeb translation by C. R. Haines

Loeb tolerance

Here’s my take:

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.33

“What then? You will wait either for being snuffed out or transformed pleasantly. But until that right moment comes [the end of life] what is there for us? What else but honoring the gods and singing their praise, to do well for people, and to “endure” them and “be restrained and for however much else is within the bounds of flesh and breath, we must remember that they are not really yours or under your power.”

τί οὖν; περιμενεῖς ἵλεως τὴν εἴτε σβέσιν εἴτε μετάστασιν.  ἕως δὲ ἐκείνης ὁ καιρὸς ἐφίσταται, τί ἀρκεῖ; τί δ᾿ ἄλλο ἢ θεοὺς μὲν σέβειν καὶ εὐφημεῖν, ἀνθρώπους δὲ εὖ ποιεῖν, καὶ “ἀνέχεσθαι” αὐτῶν καὶ “ἀπέχεσθαι·” ὅσα δὲ ἐντὸς ὅρων τοῦ κρεᾳδίου καὶ τοῦ πνευματίου, ταῦτα μεμνῆσθαι μήτε σὰ ὄντα μήτε ἐπὶ σοί.

Let’s concede that the Daily Stoic choice takes it out of context and that the translation gives no sense that the Aurelius passage is quoting (and perhaps even misusing) famous dicta of stoic philosophy. Let’s also put aside the fact that the Stoic is bandying about a translation without crediting the translator or acknowledging that this thought has been thrice mediated from one language to another. (And this mediation is shaped in turn by cultural presuppositions.)

Let’s just look at the Greek “ἀνέχεσθαι” αὐτῶν καὶ “ἀπέχεσθαι can mean to “hold back from” but more typically means endure. So, here, “tolerate” is just fine but in Hays’ English maxim it comes off as a bit more benevolent, when in Epictetus (Arrian 3.10) it is more to “submit” or “withstand”, to not react to someone else’s provocation. The verb ἀπέχεσθαι means to be strict only insofar as it means to refrain and in the works of Epictetus generally means restraining from pleasure or desire.

Let me make something clear: this is not a knock against the translator who made choices based on a context to render something in a certain way. My main quibble is presenting this specific translation as authoritatively Aurelius.

So, on my list of ratings for fake quotations, I rate this as “Cylon-Helen Fake“: “Just as Herodotus and Stesichorus report that ‘real’ Helen was replaced with a near-exact copy for the ten years of the Trojan War, so too some quotations are transformed through translation (Latin into Greek, Greek into Latin; or into Modern languages). The intervention of an outside force changes the cultural status of the words.”

Here’s where I will get a bit meaner. This choice of translation is likely popular online because it adheres to a particularly “muscular” or masculine view of stoicism that bubbles up in certain quarters. Being strict and refraining from something are not the same and neither is, to put this stoically, an unmixed virtue. This is not a Stoic value, per se, but the value of an internet meme for stoic cos-play.

One of the things that is really hard to handle about certain forms of modern stoicism is that it overlooks (1) that the biggest stoics  (Seneca and Aurelius) were fabulous rich people with a lot of power and many thousands of people making it possible for them to have easy lives “to be strict” in. It is no accident that Stoicism is popular among the technorich of the Modern age: its Senecan and Aurelian form allows you to focus on yourself and rewards self-restraint and ‘negative’ virtues over notions of responsibility egalitarianism.

(And Eric has written pretty clearly about the vapidity of modern pseudo-Stoicism.)

One of the reasons we started this site almost 10 years ago was that the internet was full of unsourced, low quality translations. We have, of course, ended up contributing to the mess, but we should still strive to (1) provide the original languages of the things we quote and (2) provide the context or access to the context if it is possible.

Let me be clear, this is not a screed against Stoicism, but a reminder that ancient philosophical schools only exist in dialogue with one another. Modern meme-Philosophy also gets to pick and choose, ignoring the fact that someone like Seneca spent years–even decades–studying many forms of philosophy and can be found in his letters and treatises espousing values from many different traditions. Roman philosophers–especially those we call stoics–were eclectics who learned and practiced multiple disciplines.

But that would be too hard today. Unless, of course, you rotate in some Epicurus and Diogenes quotes with your Stoic memes.