It’s easy to look at people who are calm and self-disciplined and assume that their disposition comes naturally to them, or that it is somehow divinely inspired. These people, they simply don’t have to struggle with the temptations or the frustrations that we mere mortals struggle with—that’s why they are able to stand before us as models of equanimity and poise.
Perhaps in some cases this is true, but usually it’s not. Take someone like George Washington for example. To the people who encountered him, he was a paragon of rationality and self-control. But those who really knew him understood that he, like all ambitious people, was subject to great passions and a roiling temper from his earliest days. Indeed, this was exactly what made Washington so impressive to those who actually worked with him. As the Governor Robert Morris wrote of Washington, it was with these passions that Washington waged “his first contest, and his first victory was over himself.”
The same was true of Cato and Marcus Aurelius. They were not naturally stoic. If they had been, their example would not be nearly so meaningful. Because then they wouldn’t have been examples at all: it would just be biology or divinity or random luck. Marcus’s Meditations is not preaching…it’s a workbook intended almost solely for the writer himself. Cato was not perfect. His peers saw in him all the same flaws they saw in themselves—but they were inspired by the way he got closer to victory than they had. He pushed them to be better. (Seneca, on the other hand, was a better writer than either one…but far less victorious).
We face the same inner-contest as Washington. We have ambitions. We have passions. We have tempers. We have temptations. But what matters is how we rise above these things; how we channel them to positive ends. Whether that’s forming a new nation or leading one, being kind when it’d be easier to be mean, resisting the impulse of ego or selfishness, we can conquer ourselves and thus make the world a better place. The victory starts at home. It starts inside.
And make no mistake, it is a battle that is as difficult to win as it is to fight.
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