No One Escapes This Law

This is not another note about memento mori.

It’s about a different immutable, inescapable law of human existence that comes to us from the Stoics through Heraclitus (one of Marcus Aurelius’ favorites): Character is fate. 

After death and taxes, this is a timeless adage that the Stoics believed will determine our destiny whether we like it or not. And just a quick glimpse around the world and across history confirms it: Liars and cheats eventually destroy themselves. The corrupt overreach. The ignorant make fatal, self-inflicted mistakes. The egotistical ignore the data that challenges them and the warnings that could save them. The selfish end up isolated and alone, even if they’re surrounded by fame and fortune. The “robbers, perverts, killers and tyrants” Marcus Aurelius wrote about always end up in a hell of their own making. It’s a law as true as gravity. 

Bad character might drive someone into a position of leadership—because of their ambition, their ruthlessness, their shamelessness—but eventually, inevitably, this supposed “strength” becomes an Achilles’ heel when it comes time to actually do the job. Who trusts them? Who actually wants to work with them? What kind of culture develops around them? How can they learn? How can they know where the landmines are?

If you want to know why things are the way they are right now—on Wall Street, in politics, in Silicon Valley, on college campuses, everywhere—it’s because character is fate. And for too long we have ignored the predictive—no, prophetic—power of character. When you make excuses for liars and cheats and egomaniacs because they agree with you, or they might benefit your business or help your cause in the short term, not only do you do so at your own long term peril, but you are exhibiting bad character yourself. 

And that is what will come back to bite you. That is what is biting us right now, on every continent, in every corner of culture, at nearly every turn. Because character is fate. Always has been. Always will be.

P.S. This was originally sent on March 26, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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