The Limits Of Power: Rise And Fall Of The Marquis De Pombal

My article at Return of Kings this week is a study of the career of Portugal’s most powerful 18th century statesman.  We use his political life to demonstrate the importance of moderation and character in the realm of leadership.  Pombal was a man who had risen from humble beginnings, had soared to great heights, and had finally ended his days in disgrace.

Hubris has been the downfall of a great many men.  It has been the subject of numberless dramas, fables, tragedies, and historical studies.  The very qualities that permit men to achieve great things, and to break through barriers, are often the same qualities that lead to their undoing.  It is a lesson that should resonate with all of us.

The article can be found here:

The Curse Of Hubris: The Rise And Fall Of The Marquis De Pombal

In discussions on self-improvement, masculine virtue, and the pursuit of a moral purpose, we often (and rightly) emphasize the things needed for attainment of these goals.

But we often forget the other Janus-face side of the matter: the danger of falling into the trap of arrogance, of overreaching, and of corruption.

From my study of the some of the best sources on this question (mainly Seneca, Plutarch, Epictetus, and Pascal), I’ve tried to come up with some answers. These are some of the ways that we can cultivate our “powers of restraint” so as not to soar too near the sun, which will melt our wings:

1. We should not value too much the physical pleasures. Of course we all do. But too much attachment to them induces corruption, sloth, and enervating greed. These things enfeeble the will. We are thus left open to a fall.

2. We should fail more often. What I mean is that we should become used to the idea of failure. By learning its sting, we will become more balanced, more sympathetic to others, and less arrogant.

3. We should undertake some form of penitential service in some way. Humble yourself and serve others. It doesn’t really matter what. The annihilation of the independent will is good in small doses for short periods of time. It teaches man much about his place in the universe. He becomes aware that he is not the center of it.

4. We should not put too much faith in Fortune. The fool relies on Fortune, on luck, on his chances. The wise man will understand that he has a reservoir of power within himself. He knows that even if disaster befalls him, he will pick himself up, dust himself off, and go on to fight again.

Epictetus tells us:

Let others practice lawsuits, others problems, others syllogisms; [you yourself should] practice how to die, how to be enchained, how to be racked, how to be exiled.

He means that we need to learn how to die, and learn how to suffer, rather than be obsessed with foolishness. I also like this quote by Francesco Filelfo, an Italian humanist, writing in 1440:

“Only the wise man is happy, only he is blessed, and only he participates in the Divine. It is not he who believes that delicate and transitory Fortune, or the alluring and seductive pleasures of the flesh, should be placed ahead of the constitution and health of the soul. The fool, because he erects Fortune as a goddess, is ignorant of the power and dignity of the soul, and refers everything back to the pleasures of the body. And when he is most miserable, that is when he believes the greatest felicity and immorality is to be enjoyed.”

To really appreciate these quotes, we have to chew on them, eat them, and digest them. There is a lot more to them than we can discern at a glance.

5. We must find our moral purpose. The philosophers talk about this often. They mean, I think, we need to continue our quest to acquire masculine virtues. If we continue to do this, and are mindful of the classical traits of education, moderation, and justice, we can never go wrong.

6. We should be mindful of the classical traits that are found in much ancient literature. These are:

The pursuit of education and advancement
A sense of justice
Balance and moderation
Fear of the gods
Awareness of the presence of death

Keeping ourselves grounded by thinking and reflecting on these traits will automatically keep us from deviating into extreme arrogance or corruption. And this prevents us, hopefully, from falling victim to hubris.

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