Success Can Be Fatal


I was eating today at one of those a kilo places in Rio:  one of those places where the food is purchased by the total weight.  The greater the quantity of food, the greater the price.  It turned out to be an opportunity for reflection on the price not of food, but of achievement.

Where food is concerned, nourishment is measured in quantities, by weight.  But so is life, or mortality, in a way.

For the doctors of medicine assure us that one can die just as readily from overeating, as from under-eating.  Excess is just as much a danger as dearth.  And in the developed world, it is more of a danger.  For few of us will be faced with the prospect of starvation in our lives.  More likely, our challenges will come from the over-abundance of choices, from the temptations of bounty.

And yet we discuss this issue hardly at all.  So much do we hear about how to set up one’s mind and life for success.  But no one ever speaks about how to restrain ourselves once we have achieved success.  This is why the ancient sages were so much more wise than us moderns, when they counseled the virtues of what the Latin Stoics called moderatio and temperantia.

These virtues are so needed, and so necessary.  But they are entirely unfashionable.  Our societies do not want us to be moderate or temperate.  The arrogant, strutting ass of today needs to hear this sort of advice.  Especially when he thinks he doesn’t.

Cicero tells us in On Duties (I.26.90):

When good things are happening abundantly in our lives, and all is going along as we like, let us avoid arrogance, haughtiness, and pride.  Just as we bear adversity with calmness and levity, we must also enjoy prosperity with the same countenance, as we should in all parts of life…Philip, king of Macedon, who was exceeded by his son Alexander in deeds and glory, was still, I believe, superior to his son in good nature and humanity.  Thus the former was always great, and the latter often most shameful.  Panaetius, the pupil and close friend of Africanus, says that he was accustomed to saying:  “Just as horses which have become difficult to manage because of their frequent participation in battles are turned over to trainers so that they can be more easily handled, so too must men who have become arrogant and over-confident through repeated success be placed in the training-arena of reason and teaching, so that they may better appreciate the foolishness of human affairs, and the variability of Fortune.”

One likes the horses analogy described in the quote above.  Perhaps successful men should consider taking a retreat, or some sort of sabbatical, in order to condition themselves to accept the fact that Fortune balances out things.  Great success cannot be continued indefinitely.  Sooner or later, it is balanced out by ill-Fortune.  We can call it the wages of success:  the fact that it can destroy as readily as it can elevate.

Alexander the Great was all success, all energy, all fire.  There was no harness, no bridle, no stirrup to control him.  He had no restraint, no sense of moderation.  Aristotle tried, and failed, to instill it in him.  And so poor Alexander ran off the rails and plunged to his ruin.  Even the Great are not immune to this law, the wages of success.


When Alexander reached India, he had an opportunity to be exposed to the wisdom of the Indian sages.  And they basically told him the same thing.  But poor Alexander was rattled and unsettled by the Indian mystics.  It was a civilization older and profounder than his own, and he was unnerved by what they told him about life, as we will see below.  Plutarch (Life of Alexander, 64) tells this story about Alexander and the Indian mystics, by way of illustration.

He captured ten “naked philosophers” (probably Jain mystics) who had been stirring up trouble against him and his Macedonians.  He decided to test their reputations for great and profound knowledge.  So he told them that he would ask them a series of questions, and put to death anyone who gave a wrong answer.  He would apply this principle to the others as well.  And he had one of them act as a judge in the contest.

To each philosopher, Alexander asked one question.  These were the questions of Alexander, with the answers of the Indian sages below each question.

Q:  Which is more numerous, the living or the dead?

A:  The living, since the dead no longer exist.

Q:  Which produces larger creatures, the land or the sea?

A:  The land, since the sea is part of it.

Q:  Which is the most cunning of animals?

A:  The animal which man has not yet discovered.

Q:  Why did you encourage a native ruler to revolt against Alexander?

A:  Because I wanted him to either live with honor, or die with honor.

Q:  Which was created first, the day or the night?

A:  The day, by one day.

Q:  How may a man make himself beloved?

A:  If the man has supreme power, but does not produce fear in people.

Q:  How may a man become a god?

A:  By doing something a man cannot do.

Q:  Which is stronger, life or death?

A:  Life, since it carries so many evils.

Alexander, used to battles and situations calling for definite action, was disturbed by these abstruse answers to his questions.  But he was told that if he did not wish for abstruse answers, then he should cease asking abstruse questions.  To the last mystic, he asked this:

Q:  How long is it good for a man to live?

A:  Until he has stopped regarding death as better than life.

The king was deeply moved by this last response, and was unable to speak for a few moments.  Then Alexander asked the judge to render his verdict on the responses.  The judge said that each mystic had answered worse than the previous one.  “In that case,” the king said, “you should be executed first for giving this verdict, since you spoke last.”

The judge replied, “No, sire, unless you were not telling the truth when you said that you would execute the man who gave the worst answer.”

Alexander was thoroughly impressed with the depth, subtlety, and wisdom of the Indian philosophers, and sent them all away unharmed.


And he was dead within the year, destroyed by his own excess and lack of moderation.  And the Indian mystics continued to live on.

The wages of success.  They must be paid, always.  Better it is for us to condition ourselves, after achieving success, to moderation, reason, and learning, so that we do not ride off the rails.  We are indeed exactly the same as those war-horses noted in Cicero’s quote above.  We need to find handlers and trainers, so as to prevent us from self-ruin.


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