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We All Must Go Into The Wilderness

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Seneca was exiled once in AD 41 and then again from Nero’s service at the end of his career. Epictetus was exiled in Nicopolis, Greece by the Emperor Domitian. Publius Rutilius Rufus, the Roman tax official who was convicted on false charges, was exiled to Asia. Stoicism and exile seems to go hand in hand. 

Winston Churchill, who himself spent about 10 years in political exile after WWI, once wrote that:

“Every prophet has to come from civilization, but every prophet has to go into the wilderness. He must have a strong impression of a complex society and all that it has to give, and then he must serve periods of isolation and meditation. This is the process by which psychic dynamite is made.”

The period of difficulty and loneliness and loss that Seneca and Epictetus went through—this was not simply some bad period in their life. No, it was a formative, soul-strengthening, priority-clarifying experience that made them who they were. Publius Rutilius Rufus not only wasn’t bitter about the slanderous accusations and the trumped up political attack he was a victim of, he chose Asia as his exile—where he could go back to be with the citizens who actually appreciated his honesty and hard work. It was an awful experience, to be sure, but he accepted it with cheerful Stoicism. 

Psychic dynamite is not just handed to us. We aren’t born resilient or with confidence. We have to earn it. We have to make it. And that is only possible in difficult circumstances, it can only be found in the wilderness, where we are alone, where we are forced to adapt and adjust to circumstances outside our control.

It won’t be fun, but it is essential.

P.S. This was originally sent on July 2, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism. 

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