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Winning The Ultimate Victory

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There is a tradition in Stoicism that few notice, but is possibly one of the most inspiring and chilling parts of the entire philosophy. There’s no real polite way to describe it other than “badass last words.”

Seneca tells the story of Julius Canus, a philosopher who was sentenced to death by Caligula. As he awaited his death sentence, he casually played a game with a fellow prisoner. When the executioner came down to take him from his cell, Canus simply got up and said, “You will testify that I was one piece ahead” and then went off to his death. As he waited to die, he saw his weeping friends. “Why are you sorrowful?” he said. “You ask if souls are immortal: I shall soon know.” Seneca, for his part, received a similar sentence. As his friends and family wept around him, he joked, “Who here is surprised at Nero’s cruelty?”

There are many other such lines in the history of Stoicism. Theodorus was threatened not only with death but a particularly undignified one. “‘You have the right to please yourself,’ Seneca relates of Theodorus’ last words, “‘and the power to take half a pint of my blood; for as far as burial is concerned, what a simpleton you are, if you think it matters to me whether I rot above or below ground!’” Even in the American Revolution, lines like “I regret I have but one life to give for my country,” were directly inspired by the Stoics—in fact, they were cribbed from the play Cato, which was extremely popular at the time. 

In his essay on heroism, Emerson would comment, “that which takes my fancy most in the heroic class, is the good-humor and hilarity they exhibit.” He quotes this passage from a famous 17th century play:

Jul: Why, slaves, ’tis in our power to hang ye. 

Master: Very likely, 

‘Tis in our powers, then, to be hanged, and scorn ye.

Another badass line for sure. 

The ultimate victory then is not just to be unafraid of being challenged or beaten. It’s to transcend the situation—to so keep our wits about us in the moment that we can even joke about it. To find humor in even the darkest and worst of situations. 

And when humor doesn’t suffice for the situation, we can instead stand calmly yet defiant in the face of Fate.

P.S. This was originally sent on August 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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