What indictment can we make against tyrants when we ourselves are much worse than they? For we have the same impulses as theirs but not the same opportunity to indulge them.
~Lives of the Stoics, Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman, quoting Gaius Musonius Rufus, Fragment 23
Have you ever come across a quote that you really need to sit with for a while in order to process?
Well, first off, if you haven’t, then you need to do some more challenging reading. But, most likely, we have all come across something that makes us take a step back and think, “Yikes!”
This one did it for me today, and I really think there’s a significant amount of truth to it. More than I would like to admit, frankly. If we were in charge of the universe, what would we do? What decisions would we make? What kinds of things would we allow simply because it brings us some pleasure or benefit in life?
It reminds me of Plato’s discussion on the Ring of Gyges — a mythical ring that allows the wearer to be invisible at will. And the question that comes up is what would we do if we had a similar power? If we could get away with anything, what would we allow ourselves to do?
There are some who would do terrible things. To them, they may not seem terrible, but those affected would say otherwise. The argument is made, then, that fear of the consequences is what really keeps people from doing terrible, morally gray or flat out despicable things. In some sense, what Rufus is saying in this passage is something similar.
He is arguing that we have all of the same inclinations as tyrants, we just don’t have the power and authority to see them through as the tyrants do. And, to a certain extent, I may agree with him.
There are many would-be tyrants in the world that have no opportunity to inflict their tyranny upon us, but they certainly have such opportunities within their own circles, and regularly take advantage of those opportunities. That’s why we have con artists, abusers and charlatans running wild in the world.
I guess the best that we can do is look to our own impulses and decide what kind of person we want to be. Do we want to be the kind of people that make the world a better place, or would we really prefer to be a tyrant that can get whatever/whoever we want at any time without fear of consequences? It’s certainly tempting to be the latter, but that’s not who we are supposed to be in life, is it?
Given the opportunity, let’s do all in our power to improve the world for all people, and not just for ourselves. Otherwise, we really are no better than tyrants.