It’s mythical men that seem detached, immortal, and unattainable that can do more to despair than to inspire. Yet, as we read about even history’s greatest heroes, it’s most grand personas and sometimes even its most opulent rulers, we see that in every ounce of greatness there is also weakness, frailty, suffering, and humanity.
We look at great men from a manufactured distance, we separate them from the mortal through myth and legend without seeing their struggle, their pain, or their weakness. We remove their humanity often so as to not see them, no matter if that “them” is Theodore Roosevelt, Robert E. Lee, Marcus Aurelius, or even Christ, as one of us.
Before I read Meditations I had a view of how the ruler of the most powerful empire the world has ever seen may look, act, and think.
Entitlement is a characteristic that came to mind immediately. A man born into such wealth and immense power must feel entitled. He must demand things that have yet to be earned, that can’t be earned when his entire world has been given to him.
How can I relate to a man like Marcus Aurelius or even Napoleon Bonaparte? (Read This: Lessons from Napoleon Bonaparte)
They ruled the world. They were conquerors. What’s left to conquer in today’s society? What’s left to rule? How can I look to these great men of the past as in any way relevant to the man I want to become today?
And then you open up the pages of a well-written book.
You read about how Marcus Aurelius had the insight to force himself to live a humble, modest life – at least in relation to the life he could live or the lives that those in his company lived. You read about his frugality, his discipline, his distaste for the worries and useless and petty conversations of the men in his time and you begin to realize that he, oddly enough, faced the very same struggles and many of the same decisions that we face today; in fact, to be so self-aware as to see the opulence not as a good thing or a justified thing but as something that weakens the resolve and resilience of a man when you are given everything is impressive.
You realize that it’s far more difficult to be frugal when you can literally have anything you want with nothing more than the ring of a bell. You see the incredible strength is takes to develop discipline when your word is the word, where you will not be questioned nor forced to do anything you don’t want to do.
To be effective as a human I need discipline. I need to learn and to get up early and to save and to be smart with the money I earn. To have discipline when none of those things are required of you to be successful is incredible, and it’s only through turning the pages of a book as your eyes follow its words that you learn that discipline and frugality and humility are things that all men need if they are to be great.
But not all books are created equal.
In high school we learn bits and pieces about men and the battles waged by men. The Civil War was written by the Yankees. We don’t hear the story of the great Robert E. Lee, nor the story of the strong Stonewall Jackson. We hear one side in a much more layered conflict and it often turns us off from exploring the great men on both sides of the battle any further.
We hear about Napoleon’s rise and fall, but not about his work ethic, his voracious appetite for books, for knowledge, and his immense distaste for those who are given wealth without merit.
We don’t hear about the men, their spirits, thoughts, and weaknesses, we only hear about what they did and usually a single perspective as to why they did it.
We think we know at a young age, but we know nothing. We are left with the skeleton of the story when it’s the details that make great men human. It’s the story that makes their struggles similar to our own.
The Rise of Napoleon Bonaparte opened me up to an entirely different man than I’d learned about in history class. He became human, and as such, he became vulnerable. His love for reading outweighed his love for women. When other young men were dating, he was acquiring the vital knowledge necessary for his eventual rise.
He wasn’t short, that was British propaganda, but he did have a chip on his shoulder more due to the fact that at around the time of his birth Corsica, the island on which he was born, and originally an Italian island (Italian is his native tongue), was conquered by the French. And so, the young man who would eventually rule France had a strong hate for it from his tumultuous youth.
Your Pain Has Been Had. Your Struggles Have Been Defeated.
Theodore Roosevelt was born weak, asthmatic, and frail. It was his father’s insight, nay, demands that he would not grow up to be a weak man that led him to physical fitness, to the gym, to boxing and judo and other martial arts.
It’s this early struggle that helped him face future struggles. And there were many.
Robert E. Lee reminds me of the Stoic sticking to ideals that Cato and Seneca and Epictetus as well as Marcus Aurelius possessed only through discipline and a seemingly daily struggle with incredibly difficult decisions.
Both Cato and Lee are great men who lost. They both lost when they could have won. Lee was asked by Lincoln to be the general of the North. A man who opposed slavery and freed slaves given to him by his father in law within 5 years of gaining control over them would have surely joined. However, he saw it impossible to invade his home state of Virginia and that any entity who would move on its own countrymen as in the wrong, as a force invading those it aims to call its own.
His decision to lead the South in battle was a tough decision, not just morally, but because of the fact that the South was far less equipped and outnumbered and not at all trained in battle. But it was what he thought to be right, thus, though it was the more difficult path, it was the one he had to take. (Read this: Where Men Win Glory)
On the other side of that battle was another great man. A man who battled a deep and dark depression yet used it to see life in a different light than many of his counterparts. He didn’t use his depression as an excuse to live a small life or to end his life prematurely, he simply bore the cross because to do anything else is to give up.
I am, of course, talking about Abraham Lincoln, the man who wanted Robert E. Lee as his general because he knew the justified respect that Lee commanded from men on both sides of the war. Lincoln, too, made decisions he thought were necessary. Tough decisions that killed thousands upon thousands of his own countrymen, but decisions he deemed just and vital and good in the grand scheme.
Lee’s and Lincoln’s and Cato’s lives are filled with tough decisions. Both are men that all men should read about because we so easily go with the easier decision because it’s victory in title or possessions or wealth that we’ve been taught throughout history to aspire towards, yet, as only these men and a few others can show us, a man’s truest victory is victory over the Self by staying true to one’s values, to live an honorable life, to waste no time on trivial things nor envious thoughts.
To be men of action is good and rare, to be men of honorable action is almost unheard of.
It’s only in studying great men of the past, both for good and for bad, that we see that our struggles are not unique, that they’ve been won before, that we become a part of a story greater than our own lives, grander than our own time.
When we’re a part of a story, a lineage of warriors, brave men, hustlers and conquerors, we realize that we, too, can conquer anything, namely the weak thoughts that pervade our minds or the temptations that aim to hold us back, to keep us from who we can potentially become.
Don’t Wait For Your Struggle to Create Wisdom
It’s when we’re thirsty when we drink. It’s when we’re lost that we pray. It’s when we’re in a struggle that we search for answers.
Find your answers now, in books, in the lives of men who’ve faced what you’re about to face, and worse. Some have failed and learned, others have won through much persistence.
Don’t wait to fail, to struggle, to be in the thick of your hardship to find wisdom. Find it now.
Here’s where you should start:
- Resilience – Eric Greitens
- Cloud of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee – Michael Korda
- Rome’s Last Citizen: The Life and Legacy of Cato – Rob Goodman and Jimmy Soni
- The War of Art – Steven Pressfield
- Turning Pro – Steven Pressfield
- Meditations – Marcus Aurelius
- On the Shortness of Life – Seneca
- The Art of Living – Epictetus
- The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte
- The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt – Edmund Morris
- Man’s Search for Meaning – Viktor Frankl