Imagine, one day you’re king and the next day you’re not. Literally. That’s the story of Joseph Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, who was made King of Naples and Spain, only to be forced to flee in exile after the reversal of his family’s destiny. Napoleon was sent to an island prison, but Joseph had to move to New Jersey, where suddenly he was just another regular person—rich, sure, but far from royalty. The same went for Achille Murat, the son of Napoleon’s brother-in-law. Once the heir-in-waiting for the kingdom of Napoli, he ended up living in the swampland of Florida, lording only over some property he called Lipona, an anagram of the kingdom he had lost. He dreamed of leading armies in Italy, but ended up, as one legend has it, the postmaster of Tallahassee.
Banished to New Jersey and Florida. Someone in the 19th century knew how to levy punishment. All kidding aside, these stories are almost real-life versions of the lyrics to the Coldplay hit, Viva La Vida:
I used to rule the world
Seas would rise when I gave the word
Now in the morning, I sleep alone
Sweep the streets I used to own
And in turn, all of this is probably the most persistent theme in Stoicism, both philosophically and biographically. Zeno was a wealthy merchant from a prominent family with a fleet of ships, until a storm dashed them all to pieces. He ended up in Athens with nothing in his pockets. Cato was a towering Roman Senator, only to suddenly find himself on the wrong side of a vicious civil war. He was powerful one day, disemboweled the next. The same was true of his rival cum ally Pompey, the general who loved the lectures of the Stoic philosopher Posidonius. A lifetime of victories evaporated in a single hour at the Battle of Pharsalus. Shortly thereafter, he was decapitated by pirates as he tried to go into exile. Seneca was the man behind the throne with Nero…until Nero turned on him.
All of our fates and fortunes rest on pillars of sand. Today we are on high, tomorrow can bring us down low…and the day after, lower than we even believed possible. That’s life. It humbles us. It surprises us. It is not inclined to show mercy—or care about our precious dreams.
That’s why we must be prepared: premeditatio malorum (an anticipation of the twists and turns of fate) and amor fati (ready to love whatever that fate is) are not just principles to abide, they are tools to deploy in the forging of our inner citadel, in the smithing of an iron spine. They allow us to endure and survive anything.
The vagaries of life are why we must be careful of ego (it is the enemy, after all); careful of anything that makes us think what we have right now is actually ours, or that it says anything about us as people. Because if we allow the presence of the things we have and hold dear to define us, their untimely absence will define us doubly so.