When one looks at the dark moments of history, it’s hard not to be a little afraid. Look at what people have done to each other—look at how bad things have gotten. In Seneca’s time, many horrific acts were not only common but commonly accepted. Like decimation, a common enough practice, where one in ten people were killed just to send a message. And that word lives on in the lexicon two thousand years later. Perhaps the terrifying capriciousness of a practice like this is why Seneca tried to reassure himself that there was little use in being scared.
He writes in one of his essays how that if an invader came and conquered your city, the very worst he could do is sentence you to what you’ve been sentenced to from birth—death. Yes, a Hannibal or a Hitler could throw you in chains and drag you away from your family—but the truth is that you were already being dragged away. Yes, each second that ticks by on the clock takes us one instant away from our families. But, “since the day you were born,” Seneca writes, “you are being led thither.”
Sometimes the first time our civilizations realize just how vulnerable we are is when we find out we’ve been conquered, or are at the mercy of some cruel tyrant. We realize that we are mortal and fragile and that fate can inflict horrible things on our tiny, powerless bodies.
So we should study history then for two reasons: One, to gain some humility. We are not nearly as safe or important as we think we are. In the end, each of us is only a statistic. Each of us is at the mercy of enormous events outside our control. Two, to prepare for the reality of this existence. We may face trying times, but nothing can stop us from being brave in the face of them. We can still, always, as Stockdale said, decide how to write the end of our story—and to write it well.