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Power Doesn’t Corrupt, It Reveals

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There were not many good emperors in Rome. There have not been many good kings since. In fact, there haven’t been many good leaders ever—there is something about power that seems to bring out the worst in people. It seems to be a light which destroys the moths that are drawn to it. 

All one has to do is read Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars to see this played out. Josiah Osgood, professor of Classics at Georgetown University, recently translated an edition of Suetonius entitled How to Be a Bad Emperor which looks at some of the worst Roman emperors. But one thing Osgood questions is that famous adage that absolute power corrupts. 

Instead, he told us, “power unmasks the true identity of leaders. It brings to light weaknesses that were there all along but might have been overlooked. For Julius Caesar this was arrogance; for Tiberius, a willingness to indulge his proclivity for personal pleasure; for Caligula, a fondness of cruelly taunting others; for Nero, an obsession with being the center of attention… Passion rules many of us more than reason, a truth academic historians prefer to ignore.”

Indeed, that’s what’s so impressive about Marcus (and what we’ve tried to show in The Boy Who Would Be King). Marcus was chosen for absolute power… and somehow it not only didn’t corrupt him, it made him better. Because of who he was, because of the work he had done in his younger years—reading and studying and seeking out good mentors—power revealed what Marcus had long striven to cultivate: a good soul and a good heart.

How will it go for you? For the people you are grooming for leadership in your company? For your kids? Have you put in the work necessary, have you prioritized the right things, so that if you are lucky enough to get what you want, you’ll be good instead of a monster?

What will be revealed? The work you do today will answer. 

The work Marcus Aurelius did early is what shaped him. We tell that incredible story in The Boy Who Would Be King, which you can grab in the Daily Stoic Store (and get the audiobook for free). Also we’ve got signed, personalized copies if there is someone in your life—a kid, or a mentee—who could benefit from it.

P.S. This was originally sent on March 23, 2021. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.