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History is One Damned Thing After Another

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By the time Marcus Aurelius took over as emperor, he had not had an easy life. He had lost his father at age three. He had lost a beloved tutor. His lifepath was upended by Hadrian’s selection. He had 14 children during his 30-year marriage to Faustina. And then of course, in order to ascend to the purple, he had to lose his mentor Hadrian and his beloved stepfather Antoninus.

What came next we’ve talked about before: A plague. Floods. An invasion. A coup. A civil war. He didn’t meet with the good fortune that he deserved, one ancient historian reflected. But you might also say he met with exactly what he ought to have expected. The financial writer Morgan Housel (whose wonderful book The Psychology of Money we recommend, and he was also a recent podcast guest) described history as “one damned thing after another.” Well, what is history made up of? Life.

Life is one damned thing after another. Your parents get divorced. You fall and break your leg. You move across the country for a job that doesn’t work out. One of your kids has ADHD. The economy crashes. Your neighbor is a jerk. You have high blood pressure. You find out you’re allergic to dairy. It’s one thing after another, after another.

The Stoics say first that we must be mentally and emotionally prepared for this. If this parade surprises you, it’s your fault. Because history already predicted it. The second is that we must train for it physically. Marcus was strong, even though he was often sick. Could Epictetus have endured the one thing after another that was Roman slavery (torture, exile, deprivation) if had not been tough as hell? Cleanthes too–his training as a boxer would have been crucial to surviving poverty, as well as the squabbles of the philosophical life.

What about you? Are you ready? Are you prepared? Have you trained? Because as insane as the last couple years have been, one thing is certain: the years to come will be one, two, three, four damned things after another, on and on until the end.