One of the most haunting moments in all of literature is the moment when King Lear hits rock bottom. He has destroyed his kingdom. He has lost his family. He has lost his sanity.
He says to Gloucester as they stand on a cliff:
“They told me I was everything. ‘Tis a lie, I am not ague-proof.”
In short, all the illusions of the king have been shattered, his ego destroyed. Everything he had worked for was gone, and all that was left was the inescapable conclusion that it was his fault. He had believed the flatterers and let power go to his head. Then, after unbelievable folly and meanness, it all came crashing down.
This temptation to believe that we are everything, that we are immune to the constraints or flaws of other people is the source of so much pain and misery in the world. Pain for the believers and for the bystanders who become its collateral damage. Which is why the Stoics—particularly the ones who found themselves in positions of leadership—spent so much time working on their egos. Marcus Aurelius actively practiced his philosophy so that he would not be corrupted by his absolute power. Seneca wrote essays to Nero to try to steer the young man away from ego, to tell him: You are not everything. You have to stay sane and sober. It didn’t always work, but he tried.
Ego is the enemy. Of what we’re trying to accomplish. Of the people we’d like to be. Of relationships. Of kindness. Of the ‘objectivity’ and rational thought that Stoicism prizes. We must remember this always, even as others puff us up or success accumulates around us. We are not everything. We are ordinary. We are mortal.
We are not exempt.