It was today in 1520 that the explorer Ferdinand Magellan crossed from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific Ocean, the first European explorer to ever do so, and inching his way closer to a complete circumnavigation of the globe. One cannot study Magellan and not be impressed by his feats of Stoic discipline and self-control. It was one of his own men who observed that Magellan’s greatest strength was his ability to endure hunger—the way he could suffer without showing weakness was a great inspiration to his crew.
But it was Stefan Zweig, in his tremendous and fascinating biography of Magellan (worth reading for sure!), who put it better. In the book Zweig said this about one of the many times that Magellan was required to beat back a mutiny or counterattack an attempt to undermine his authority:
“It is necessary here to insist once more that in Magellan audacity, boldness, invariably assumed a peculiar complexion. To act boldly did not, in his case, mean to act on the heat of impulse, but to lay his plans craftily, to do the dangerous thing with the utmost caution and after more careful consideration. His most venturesome schemes were, like good steel, forged in fire and then hardened in ice. It was by this mixture of imagination and caution that, again and again, he triumphed in moments of danger.”
This is something the Stoics—particularly Seneca—would have agreed with and admired. Aristotle himself would say that courage was the midpoint between foolhardiness and cowardice. What they meant was that bravery wasn’t about rushing in without thinking. On the contrary, to be bold and impressive was about rational thought—it was about looking at the odds, putting together a plan that just might work, and then proceeding despite how scary it was. The Stoics were not against doing the dangerous thing—they were very much for it. They just want you to do it, like you should do all things today, as Magellan did, with a cool head and a hardened intention.
P.S. This email was sent on November 28th, 2017. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.
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