A Stoic Response to Success

“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god- fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short— the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.” — Marcus Aurelius

It is difficult even to conceive of what life must have been like for Marcus Aurelius— he wasn’t born emperor, nor did he seek out the position. It was simply thrust upon him.

Nevertheless, he was suddenly one of the the richest men in the world, head of the most powerful army on earth, ruling over the largest empire in history, considered a god among men. It’s no wonder he wrote little messages like the one on top of this article to remind himself not to spin off the planet. Without them, he might have lost his sense of what was important— falling prey to the lies from all the people who needed things from him.

It’s also interesting to consider Marcus’s first move once being made emperor…He named his step-brother Lucius Verus to be co-emperor. He did not need to do this. He did not need to share this power, but he believed it was the right thing to do. And throughout his reign appears to have followed his own advice about success and loss perfectly: “To accept it without arrogance, to let it go with indifference.” Like a true Stoic, he treated success and failure the same—he was immune to the seduction of external events. For a Stoic, the only thing that matters is responding to whatever circumstances we are in with proper and virtuous action. As the Roman statesman Furius Camillus put it, “Holding great honors and powers did not exalt my spirits, nor did evil depress them.”

Similarly, when we experience success, we must make sure that it doesn’t change us—that we continue to maintain our character despite the temptation not to. Maybe you worked hard, you made some smart bets and here you are, successful. Maybe someone acquired your startup for an unbelievable sum. Maybe you’re an athlete and your team just won a championship. Maybe you’re a filmmaker and received a grant to have your film made. Maybe you just won a coveted award in your field.

It is in those moments that reason must lead the way no matter what good fortune comes along.

Part of what Marcus was actively fighting was conceit and pride. The problem with pride is that it blunts the instrument we need most—our mind. Our ability to learn, to adapt, to be flexible, to build relationships, all of this is dulled by pride. As Epictetus put it, “It is impossible for a person to begin to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

Humility is the antidote. It is the necessary ingredient to add in good times, when we are experiencing success and feeling on top of the world.

We need to remember the acronym H-AS OS—carved on David’s sword in the Caravaggio painting David with the Head of Goliath. It stands for humilitas occidit superbiam. Humility kills pride. It’s a line from St. Augustine, but Caravaggio, known for his beautiful, haunting realistic works, was a kindred spirit of the Stoics. (He himself carried a knife inscribed with nec spe, nec metu, “Without hope, without fear.”)

This idea that humility kills dangerous pride is at the core of Stoic philosophy. Seneca experimented with poverty so his wealth didn’t change him or become a burden. Cato would walk outside bareheaded and barefoot, an appearance far below his station so he wasn’t corrupted by success and power.

These actions—and the meditations and words they poured over—kill pride. And we seek to kill pride before it kills the things we love, before it gets us into trouble that might even kill us.

And before you go, one final thing. Remember that the most permanent thing is impermanence. Success, money, power, fame, influence—these are ephemeral. As is our very existences on this planet. That there’s real wisdom to be found in the notion that you’re a speck in the universe’s broad history, and that your time is limited. Accept that it is, and you’ll open yourself up to a clarity—and possibly even a contentment—that you didn’t know. And that clarity will bring you to ataraxia: the tranquility and the freedom from disturbance by external things—the fruit of philosophy according to Epictetus.


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