There are two things that a man must learn to accept in life: the inherent ambiguities in choosing between alternatives, and the omnipresence of suffering. Consider the story told about Socrates in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of the Philosophers (II.33): a young man asked the philosopher for his advice on whether he should get married. The old man told him that there were good arguments both for and against the proposition, and that he would regret whatever decision he made. “If you do not get married,” he said, “you may be lonely and your bloodline will die out; if you do get married, you may be henpecked, beset by financial strains, and dubious in-laws. You may also have to tolerate bad children.”
I think the point Socrates was trying to make here was this: since you will have regrets no matter what you do, you might as well just do what you believe is best at the time, and have the confidence that you will meet all future challenges as they present themselves. In other words, there are times in life when we can do no better than act, and then adjust course as needed. He did not counsel a timid retreat from life’s responsibilities; instead, he wanted his pupils to have the confidence to attack the challenges and obstacles they would inevitably encounter. He who fusses too much about his health and safety can never truly rise to greatness. It is an idea that would be capably stated centuries later by Sir Thomas Browne, when he said:
He that is chaste and continent, not to impair his Strength, or terrified by Contagion, will hardly be heroically virtuous.
And this, it seems to me, is a very healthy posture to have. But it requires a certain degree of bravery, a certain amount of fortitude, to hear these lessons, and to act on them. It does us no good to obsess about the burdens and heartaches we bear. The Roman writer Valerius Maximus tells us (VII.2) that the Athenian statesman Solon once found one of his friends stricken by grief. He took his friend to the citadel (the Latin word he uses is arx, which would refer to the Acropolis), and told him to look down on the houses in the city. “Think to yourself,” he said, “of all the tragedies in all the households, among all the people, that are below those roofs. Think of how many there were in the past, how many there are now, and how many there will be in the future. When you do this, you will not mourn your own tragedies, as if they were uniquely your own. What you feel now, was also felt, and will be felt, by countless others.” This was the lesson in perspective that Solon gave.
To grieve too long, and with too much intensity, is unmanly. We cannot become too caught up in our own insular worlds. It may often be that a drastic change in circumstances that we initially consider to be tragedy, instead turns out to be a saving grace. This was the meaning behind a certain statement of the philosopher Anaxagoras, as it is recorded by Valerius Maximus (VIII.7). Anaxagoras had left Greece for a long time; when he returned, he found that all of his possessions had been dissipated, destroyed, or lost. He did not waste much time in grieving for these things. His response was:
Non essem ego salvus, nisi istae perissent.
This means: I would not have been saved, if these things had not perished. What he meant by this was that his willingness to give up his comfortable life, and his willingness to lose his material possessions, was what had given him the strength to travel abroad and seek knowledge. And it was the seeking of this knowledge that had allowed him to achieve the great things he did. For him to achieve greatness, a certain old part of him had to “die,” so to speak. This spirit of seeking knowledge is one manifestation of bravery; perhaps it is the subtlest and most enduring form of bravery. Once this spirit has been grafted into a man, he will carry it with him until the end of his days. The philosopher Isocrates is said (Val. Max. VIII.7) to have composed his book Panathenaicus when he was ninety-four years of age; even at that advanced stage of his life, he was still seeking to keep his mind fresh and active. What admirable vigor of mind, even though he carried so many decades on his back!
Valor is recognized by all, even by one’s enemies. Herodotus (II.102) relates the story of the Egyptian king Sesostris who cruised along the coast of the Red Sea in search of tribes to conquer. He later assembled a large land army and sought further extensions of his domains. When he would overcome a nation who had resisted him, Sesostris would erect monuments describing the details of his victory; but when he occupied nations who submitted to him without ever putting up a fight, his stone markers would additionally be inscribed with the image of a female vagina. What he meant by this was that those who failed to resist him, were not even worthy of being called men. In the crassest terms, he thus announced to the world the femininity of his enemies.
And so there is always hope, no matter how wayward we may have been earlier in our lives. The courage to move forward, to fight through one’s mistakes and detours from the proper road: this is the distillation of valor. I will relate one final anecdote, as I recall it from Valerius Maximus (VI.9), which tells us how the philosopher Polemo discovered the proper road for him in life. You may recall the name of Polemo; some of his ideas were discussed in Cicero’s On Moral Ends. When he was young, Polemo of Athens was something of a hellraiser. He was the type of young man who loved to thumb his nose at authority, drink, carouse, and otherwise do things to upset the established order. Once, after a night of partying, he was walking home, his head still throbbing from the effects of his drunken revelry the night before. Courtesans had doused him with perfume, and his head was crowned with garlands (sertis capite redimito).
As he wandered through the streets of Athens, somehow Polemo passed by a lecture-hall and began to hear the voice of the lecturer. He paused; there was something about the sonorous voice of the speaker that gripped his attention, even through his hazy level of alertness. The instructor was Xenocrates. As if he was guided by some invisible hand, Polemo entered the lecture-hall and sat down among the rest of the students. His intention was to disrupt the lesson with heckling and insincere questions; and in fact, he did make some comments along these lines. But Xenocrates was not perturbed; as good teachers are able to do, he sensed something in the young man that was worth his effort to correct. So he immediately changed the subject of his lecture, and began to talk about modesty, temperance, and character.
This had the effect that Xenocrates knew it would have. All good men, deep within them, have a yearning to discuss great things, and to perform great deeds; they need only the right spark, the right teacher, to kindle this spark into a sustainable fire. The good know when they have erred, and instinctively feel shame at their misconduct. Xenocrates knew this, and this was why his words had the effect they did. It was from this point that Polemo’s conversion to the pursuit of wisdom can be dated. He threw away the garland on his head, ashamed at how he had been living until that time. Valerius Maximus says:
And he was saved by the truly nourishing tonic of one speech: he changed from a notorious profligate into an eminent philosopher. His soul visited the regions of infamy, but it did not live there. [Uniusque orationis saluberrima medicina sanatus, ex infami ganeone maximus philosophus evasit. Peregrinatus est huius animus in nequitia, non habitavit.]
In time, Polemo would even succeed Xenocrates as scholarch of the Platonic academy. And it was this very conversion event in this lecture-hall that set him on this path. Polemo had the bravery to listen, and the courage to change. We may all have visited the “regions of infamy” in our lives; such peregrinations are the natural consequences of a turbulent soul seeking direction. But as long as we do not live in those regions in perpetuity, we carry within ourselves the potential for resurrection, and ultimate triumph.
Read more in the new, original translation of Lives of the Great Commanders, now available in audiobook, hardcover, paperback, and Kindle: