A few days ago, a friend was talking to me about some injustice he had suffered from one of his enemies. He was justifiably furious at having been wronged. While I sympathized with him, some later reflection on the matter cast the issue in a different light. It may even be stated, in the form of a general principle, that the vindictive actions of our enemies can serve as instruments for our continued upward growth and development. How this may be so, we will examine in this essay.
There can be no love without hate; no surfeit without want; and no real achievement without failure. The actions of our enemies make us appreciate the good things in life, and cause us to value more dearly the positive things of this world. Who can know love, without having experienced the sting of rejection? Who, never having gone hungry, can appreciate the satiety that comes from a full stomach? And who can appreciate the intoxication of victory, who has not felt the bitter sting of failure?
The actions of our enemies harden our sensibilities, and sharpen our cognitive faculties, so that we may be on our guard in life’s inevitable struggles. The mountain goat conditions his stomach on rough fare, and grows strong on the bitterest and most miserable of food; yet he who feasts only on delicacies gradually becomes effete and lacking in fortitude. The vulture, because he feeds on carrion, is counted by us as a disgusting and wretched animal; but for the ancient Romans, experienced in divination by auguries, he was a favored animal and good omen. For a vulture never attacked a living man, and performed a useful natural function in removing a source of pestilence.
Our enemies teach us to be wary, and force us to watch our behavior. Your observations of your enemy will cause you to note his negative qualities: his meanness, cruelty, stupidity, and cowardice. Your increased awareness of these traits will help you to avoid them yourself; our enemies in this way become a form of external regulator. Only a fool will make no effort to learn from his enemies. And if we are honest with ourselves, even an enemy’s criticism may hint at some secret deficiency on our part, and may cause us to redouble our corrective efforts at self-improvement. As the philosopher Diogenes (Diog. Laert. VI.46) noted, we often permit attacks on ourselves by our own improper conduct:
To a young man who complained of the number of people who annoyed him by their attentions he said: ‘Cease to hang out a sign of invitation.’
Rare is it that some evil befalls us that we did not in some way allow to occur. Reflection on our contribution to our misfortunes will bring increased awareness of our own self-destructive conduct. Finally, it may also be that our enemy has positive virtues of his own, worthy of our own imitation or instruction. Give credit where it is due. To be blinded by hate or anger is to miss an opportunity for reflection on how we may improve our own lot.
When we are the target of abuse, our first impulse will be recklessly to respond in kind to the abuser; but calmer reflection may teach us to seek out what was the source of the criticism. By so identifying it, we may correct some flaw within ourselves. Even enemies have eyes, and may see us with more clarity than friends. Our lovers, family, and friends will hesitate to be too honest with us. Affection clouds objectivity. As Plutarch says, quoting Antisthenes (De capienda ex inimicis utilitate, vi.):
And so [it has been] said well that those who wish to lead a good life ought to have genuine friends or red-hot enemies; for the former deterred you from what was wrong by reproof, the latter by abuse.
An enemy’s slanders also will cause us to take note how odious words of vituperation and calumny can be, so that we may avoid such mistakes ourselves. I remember when I began my career of arguing court cases. In those days, I would feel it necessary to respond to every insult, every slight, believing that such tit-for-tat tactics were necessary to get my point across. It was only later that I began to realize that allowing myself to descend into the mosh pit of mud-slinging accomplished very little, and detracted from the legitimate merits of my argument. Gradually, I learned to let my arguments speak for themselves. I avoided all intemperate speech and action in arguing my cases, and took care to let the effects of anger subside before responding to statements from the opposition. In this way, my results improved dramatically. Experience in dealing with hateful enemies also sharpens the edge of our courage, as confrontations become easier to bear with experience. A virgin blade is of dubious keenness.
We should be thankful for an enemy who attacks us openly, since a man brandishing a drawn and raised dagger is easier to identify as an enemy than a man hiding a sheathed one. There is no enemy more dangerous than the one who lies in wait. As the number of bad characters we encounter in our lives is many, it is a good thing to be able to identify them as quickly as possible. Few enemies in our lives will pay us the compliment of revealing their hostility openly. They make our lives easier by declaring their intentions in advance. A quote that illustrates this point well is again by Diogenes, of whom it is said (Diog. Laert. VI.50):
Being asked what creature’s bite is the worst, [Diogenes] said, ‘Of those that are wild, a sycophant’s; of those that are tame, a flatterer.’
Finally, an enemy can teach us the value of letting go of petty hostilities, and the redeeming virtue of forgiveness. Who may be an enemy one day, may become a friend on another. Few things are permanent in this world and, above all else, Fortune has a perverse sense of humor in making the unlikeliest of things possible.
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