Marcus Aurelius On Correcting Others

In his Meditations (Book One), Marcus Aurelius offers us a lesson in constructive criticism:

From Alexander the grammarian, [I learned] to refrain from fault-finding, and not in a reproachful way to chide those who uttered any barbarous or solecistic or strange-sounding expression; but dexterously to introduce the very expression which ought to have been used, and in the way of answer or giving confirmation, or joining in an inquiry about the thing itself, not about the word, or by some other fit suggestion.

This thoughtful little remark has–as I’m sure many have noted before me–considerable normative import for both pedagogy and personal interaction. Aurelius’ concern seems only to extend to those committing grammatical gaffes but the general principle at the heart of this meditation is easily extended to a wider range of application.

When translated into slightly colloquial English, Aurelius says quite straightforwardly:

Don’t put people down if they commit a mistake, rather, by doing it right yourself, provide a good example worthy of emulation.

A classic example of the kind of situation where Aurelius’ meditation would find perspicuous application would be one familiar to us all: in the midst of a conversation, one participant–I don’t think it matters whether it is a native speaker or not–grossly mispronounces a word that is not obscure, that has been in usage for a considerable period of time, that has a well-established ‘correct’ or ‘canonical’ pronunciation. By this act, our offender announces, as subtext, his seemingly bizarre lack of exposure to what should be common, mundane, knowledge; those that don’t possess it seem to be barbarously ignorant.

The quick, public, correction of this mistake is almost certain not to progress happily; the one making the correction is going to be hard pressed to restrain the incredulous tone of voice, and those listening to the little lesson will not find it easy to not squirm. The response to the lesson, needless to say, is very likely to be acute embarrassment or a toxic mix of resentment and humiliation. Which, as can be imagined, is likely to set off a corresponding cycle of defensive responses and vain attempts to salvage the social encounter at hand.

The virtues of Aurelius’ injunction are quite transparent: by following it, by simply using the word quickly and correctly in the continuing conversation, one is able to be modest, kind, and usefully instructive. Besides, by providing the correct example for emulation, one is able to engage in a form of practice and skillful deployment. By not correcting the offender visibly and cruelly, we are able to cultivate our kinder selves, and to resist the temptingly arrogant display of our greater facility or ability. Viewed in this light, we might even be able to consider the subject of our instruction as having provided us an opportunity for positive self-construction, for a little practice in humility and in deflating our own pretensions.

But even more importantly, by resisting the temptation to correct instantaneously, by declining the offices of policeman, prosecutor and judge, we can reinforce a simple lesson about language and communication: If you did understand the word your offender intended to use, then why bother with the public correction?

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