One of the most inspiring themes in the history of Stoicism is how the Stoics responded to tyrants and to adversity. There was Cato, refusing to roll over and just let Caesar destroy the Republic to which Cato had dedicated his life. There was Thrasea defying Nero, “Nero can kill me, but he cannot harm me.” There was Agrippinus shrugging off exile, refusing to kowtow to anyone who wanted him to bow to the regime. There was Marcus Aurelius, who stayed in Rome even as it was ravaged by the plague, who served with great dedication even when his health failed in later years. There was James Stockdale in that prison camp in Vietnam, unbreakable, defiant, dignified despite all his powerlessness.
This is what Stoicism is about. It’s that iron backbone. That strength of conviction. The sense of duty and purpose that makes it impossible to do anything but stand up, that will never accept less than it’s due. People with that power end up changing the world, regardless of how entrenched or overwhelming their enemies are.
Martin Luther King Jr. captured it perfectly. “Whenever men and women straighten their backs up,” he said, “they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.” That’s the question for you today and for all of us fighting for something, trying to make change. Are we going to straighten up and stand up? Or are we going to bend and give in? Are we going to let them ride us or are we going to refuse to roll over?
We have the power. Let’s use it.