In 458 B.C., Rome was at the edge of defeat. A Roman force led by Consul Mincius had been sent out to crush the Aequians, a nearby tribe, once and for all, but had become stuck after being surrounded by their enemies on Mt. Algidus. This left the field open for the Sabines, another tribe which had beef with the Romans, who could now march towards Rome unopposed.
In this time of dire peril, the Roman Senate decided a swift course of action needed to be done. Otherwise Rome would be wiped off the map. They agreed that only one man could do the job, Cincinnatus.
They gathered at his farm and found him working the fields. After being told of the situation, Cincinnatus reluctantly took power as Dictator and raised an army to march against the Aequians. He defeated them and successfully relieved the trapped Roman Army.
However, this is not the point of the story. What is remarkable is what he did after all this. As a Dictator, he was in a position of absolute power. Yet, after the two weeks that it took to get the job done, he relinquished all this power, and returned to his farm.
Here was a man who was in a position that other men scheme their entire lives to get, yet he gave it all up to go back to a simple life. For him, it was the duty that was important. He did what he had to do. His duty was to command the army and save Rome.
Once that was accomplished, his duty was done. Through the ages, Cincinnatus was given as a moral example of a man of character, of modesty and selflessness. His devotion to others and the greater good became legendary. The Ancient Romans were supposed to take example of him and behave in a similar way.
The moral of the entire story is that your actions define you. The ancient philosophers believed that it was not enough to do good deeds, but you needed to do them for the right reasons. It was not just the outcome that counted, but also the way it was achieved.
In our lives, we are often confronted with moral dilemmas. Do I go the selfish route or do I take the moral high route. Often, the moral route is the tough one.
Unfortunately, often it does not yield results and is not appreciated by others. Humans, by nature are selfish creatures and will try to grab things for themselves at the expense of other people. If you use the moral compass to guide you, then you will have to be swimming against this current.
This is hard to do. Often, other people will try to drown you while you are swimming. Sometimes, you might fall prey to temptation and succumb to your human nature and decide to try the selfish route, and instead of swimming against the current, decide to take the easy route and let the current carry you downstream.
Yet, then you will be reminded of your moral duty, and once again start swimming against the current.
You will have to live with the fact that this will usually not be appreciated by others. Unfortunately, we live in a world where people just look out for Number One, and don’t care about others.
Your good deeds towards them will soon be forgotten. The fact that you went out of your way to help them, will not be appreciated. You might even end up being portrayed as the bad guy.
This should not faze you. What should comfort you, is knowing internally that you did the right thing.
I already wrote about the plight of Boethius, one of the last few of the learned Romans, who in the 6th century had been wrongly accused and ended up rotting in jail. That’s where he penned his reflection on why good men suffer, while bad men often prosper.
His conclusion was that people often focus on the wrong things. They mistake the means towards the end with the end itself. They focus on money, fame or other such things, when instead they should be focusing on virtue.
What defines a person is how they behave towards others, how they do the right things for the right reasons, and how they appreciate the few people who are good to them. This last point is often lost on people.
Many times, people focus on pleasing all the assholes that surround them, and forget to be thankful for the people that have stood by them in good and bad.
These people can be your family, the few true friends that you have, or sometimes even a person who you never knew before, but who went out of their way to be good to you in your hour of need.
Unfortunately, it is these people that very frequently, you behave the worst towards. Instead what you should do is to keep them close by your side and be thankful every day that you have them. If you wronged them, try to make up for it.
Often, your pride will get in the way of acknowledging when you did wrong, but in cases like this, you really do need to set it aside and be humble. If you want to be a hardass, be a hardass towards the assholes, not towards the people who were in your corner.
Marcus Aurelius is an example of a man who struggled mightily with these things throughout his life. As the Emperor of a vast Empire, he had to balance multiple things like the interests of the Empire, its population, but also his family, and lastly himself.
His conclusion was to spend less time pondering on how you should be a good man, but instead be one by your actions. What you do is more important than what you think.
When life tests you, you should not succumb to your lowest urges, but instead always strive to follow the moral road.
When people wrong you, don’t get mad, don’t be bitter, take it as a fact. An action is what you make of it. This doesn’t mean that you should take things lying down. No, you need to fight back when the situation calls for it, but you need to do it within reason.
You need to take the world as a given. As Marcus Aurelius stated, every day you will encounter petty, selfish people, who will strive to trip you, people who will not appreciate your good actions towards them, people who won’t value you as a person.
There are many common situations when this will happen. At work, your colleagues will try to improve their own positions by putting you down, taking credit for your work, or just annoying you with their stupid conflicts.
Sometimes you might be faced with people who cheat you in business dealings, renting your apartment, or other things. Sometimes you might be the victim of people who steal your money or things. This unfortunately happens quite often.
In relationships, as a man of moral character, you will face rejection every day. It is often said that nice guys finish last, and it is often true. You will encounter women who will put you down, who will cheat on you, who will not appreciate the fact that they have finally met a guy who can make their dreams come true. Instead many of the women will complain about the leather-clad alcoholic asshole that they are dating, and instead of putting out effort to get the good guy, they will once again choose another asshole.
Such is life. You should not let this put you down. It is hard struggling against the realities of life, especially if you know that taking the easy path and being more selfish, manipulative and uncaring could get you quick results.
Whenever facing a moral dilemma, remember the Choice of Hercules. He was faced with two roads. One choice was taking the easy road full of pleasure and hedonism. The other choice was taking the hard road, full of pain and suffering, but one that built character.
He chose the second one.
Your moral character is what will define you as a person. This will often be the hard road to take, but it will be your legacy.
If you want to be truly happy, the road of virtue is the road to take by definition. If you have not been on this path up until now, it is never too late to get on it. Start doing actions for the right reasons. Think of all the people that you wronged, all the good people in your life, who were there for you, but you did not make an effort to repeat that kindness.
These people might be close to you now, but many could have disappeared from your life either due to circumstances or your own actions. Take time to show them that you care and appreciate them. Start making an effort for them, instead of for the people who don’t deserve it. You might have been in a dark place then, but it is no excuse for letting them down. It is these people that you don’t want to lose.
It is never too late to get off the bad path, and take the right one.
Remember, your character is all you have. Your actions define you.
Lessons and quotes from the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius:
Marcus Aurelius: How to gather the strength to survive in adversity.
I will probably do more articles on moral character and on honor in the future, so stay tuned.