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Greatness is up to You

Daily Stoic Emails

Every day, you have to do things you’d rather not do. Or maybe you’re early in your career, and you have to do things that you think are beneath you. Maybe you dream of some higher station in life, and you phone it in on the lowly tasks you’re given now. You think, I’m better than this, this is embarrassing, this doesn’t matter.


Plutarch tells us about a general and statesman in Greece named Epaminondas who, despite his brilliance on and off the battlefield, was appointed to an insultingly minor office in Thebes responsible for the city’s sewers. In fact, it was because of his brilliance that he was put in this role, as a number of jealous and fearful rivals thought it would effectively end his career. But instead of being provoked or despairing at his irrelevance, Epaminondas took fully to his new job, declaring that the distinction of the office isn’t brought to the man, the man brings the distinction to the office. With discipline and earnestness, Plutarch wrote, “he proceeded to transform that insignificant office into a great and respected honor, even though previously it had involved nothing more than overseeing the clearing of dung and the diverting of water from the streets.”

The Stoics believed that, in the end, it’s not about what we do, it’s about who we are when we do it. So it went for Musonius Rufus in the middle of his horrible exile, digging ditches by order of the emperor. “Does it pain you,” he supposedly said to a friend, “if I dig the Isthmus for the sake of Greece? What would you have felt if you had seen me playing the lyre like Nero?” That anything you do well is noble, no matter how humble or impressive, as long as it’s the right thing. That greatness is up to you, it’s what you bring to everything you do.

Temperance, as Cicero claimed, can be the fine polish on top of a great life. Remember: it wasn’t the throne that made Marcus Aurelius impressive, it was his kingly behavior, his discipline, his self-control. He wasn’t after power or status, he said, but, “perfection of character: to live your last day, every day, without frenzy or sloth or pretense.” He was after becoming the best version of himself possible, putting a fine polish on top of everything he did, no matter how humble or impressive.