Pity the Ego

The Stoics were not unacquainted with awful people. They saw tyrants. They saw cheats. They saw toxic egomaniacs and insatiable ambitions. And what was their reaction to most of these people?

Aside from a general wariness and a desire not to be corrupted by them, mostly the Stoics pitied these types. Certainly this is how Marcus Aurelius wrote about someone like Alexander the Great. He almost seemed sad for him. Like, dude, how did you think this was going to end? Did you think conquering the world was going to make you happy? Did you actually think that fame and glory would fill that hole in your soul?

There is a wonderful encapsulation of this attitude in the 1941 novel What Makes Sammy Run? by Budd Schulberg (who, if his later novels are any indication, was familiar with Marcus’s writing). In Sammy, the screenwriter Kit questions the anger and animus directed at Sammy Glick, a hopelessly ambitious producer who constantly hurts and betrays everyone he works with in the pursuit of his goals. Speaking of how they might react to someone with polio, she says:

“We’re sorry for him because a germ he didn’t have anything to do with got inside him and twisted him out of shape. Maybe we ought to feel the same way about guys with twisted egos.” 

Which is a remarkably wise and philosophical attitude. Egomaniacs don’t make it easy for us to pity them. Neither do tyrants or cheats. Especially when their success comes at our expense. But the truth is, they can’t help themselves. 

And it’s not any fun to be them. Not at all.

P.S. This was originally sent on July 9, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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