It is one of the unnamed characters in Aeschylus’s play Agamemnon that utters the damning line: “We spoil ourselves with scruples, long as things go well.”
What he means is that most of us are fairweather do-gooders. We love to talk a good game. We’ll give (of our time, money, effort) when it’s easy, but when we’re called to give and it really hurts? Well, then we’re out. God forbid we risk our comfort or our safety for someone else. Speak the truth to power? But we could lose our job (or our head). Someone might come after us, and we don’t have time for that kind of trouble right now.
Needless to say, this is not what the Stoics taught us. Do the right thing, Marcus Aurelius commanded himself, “Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored.” The rest, he said — your excuses, that is — don’t matter. This is the highest good. This is what we need to be.
It’s easy to have scruples and preach high minded things when times are good. It’s easy to talk about liberty and inclusiveness when everyone in the boat is rowing the same direction, but it’s hard to hold those principles up when the economy is tanking, you’ve lost your job, and everyone’s jumping ship. It’s easy to claim you believe in the right to free speech and a free press, but it’s harder to sit there and listen when someone else is talking and they’re saying something you really don’t like. It’s easy to spoil yourself with notions of what kind of person you are, harder to resist cheating or lying or stealing when no one is looking.
But what is hard and what is easy are not excuses. Because excuses don’t matter. Just do the right thing.