You’ll Have To Beat Me First

There is a famous moment in the history of Sparta, when they were threatened with invasion by Phillip, King of Macedon. Phillip, whose son was Alexander the Great, demanded the submission of the Spartans. It would be better to submit to him now, he said, because “If I conquer your city, I will destroy you all.”

The Spartans’ reply to this was just one word: “If.”

They were not the kind of people who gave up easily, even in the face of incredible odds, because they believed in their own capabilities. If they had even a 1% chance of persevering, they were willing to take it. They weren’t going to lay down their arms without a fight—you were going to have to come and take them.

While the Spartans had little time or interest in philosophy, we should see the Stoics as the heirs to this tradition of tenacity and determination. Cato’s impassioned resistance against Caesar was a man giving everything he had to a cause most people thought was lost—and he very nearly won. George Washington and the Stoic founding fathers of America fought a similar cause against the greatest army in the world, and did win. James Stockdale looked at his captors at that prison camp in Vietnam and said, “If.” He said, “You’re going to have to beat me.” And as close as they came at times, they never managed to.

Stoicism is not resignation. It is, in fact, a philosophy that shines brightest when the outlook is darkest. It makes that distinction between what is not in our control and what is in our control for a reason—so we can focus 100% of our energy on what is in our control…even if the odds of success are low, even when everyone else thinks the smarter move is submission. If it’s humanly possible, Marcus Aurelius said, know that you can do it. If there is a 1% chance, that means there is a chance. It means you can do it.

So do it.

P.S. This was originally sent on November 18, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.