What we see in the writings of the Stoics is that they strove to ensure that their ambition never corrupted their self-awareness. We rarely see ego and self-glorification in their pages, in fact, we usually find the opposite: meditations on how to improve, reminders that they were still human and flawed. This lack of ego was also prominent in General William Tecumseh Sherman, born on this day 198 years ago, and a true American hero who is sadly and wrongly vilified in popular history.
What we find in Sherman—a man who was not explicitly Stoic but certainly embodied the Frontier American Stoicism of his time—is someone who was deeply tied and connected to reality. He was a man who came from nothing and accomplished great things, without ever feeling that he was in some way entitled to the honors he received. In fact, he regularly and consistently deferred to others and was more than happy to contribute to a winning team, even if it meant less credit or fame for himself.
As one of Sherman’s biographers summarized the man and his unique accomplishments in a remarkable passage,
“Among men who rise to fame and leadership two types are recognizable— those who are born with a belief in themselves and those in whom it is a slow growth dependent on actual achievement. To the men of the last type their own success is a constant surprise, and its fruits the more delicious, yet to be tested cautiously with a haunting sense of doubt whether it is not all a dream. In that doubt lies true modesty, not the sham of insincere self-depreciation but the modesty of “moderation,” in the Greek sense. It is poise, not pose.”
This notion of poise and not pose, ambition without entitlement, self-study without self-obsession is in a way the essence of Stoicism. It’s a model for us to follow, especially those of us who want to have impact on this world. Who would you rather be, Napoleon or Sherman, Alexander or Marcus Aurelius? And who do you think lived a better life?
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