Hurricanes Harvey and Irma roared through Texas and Florida like wild beasts, bolting the livelihoods of many millions. Worldly possessions and wealth were torn asunder by snarling winds or washed away in a great flood. These beasts in the shape of cyclones had an ironic sense of timing, as they came shortly before another 9/11 anniversary, where 3,000 lives seemed to be snatched by a gigantic bird of prey, shocking a nation that had been so complacent beforehand, making it realize that it was vulnerable.
The true tragedy however, may be life itself, because tragedy is an inescapable fate that comes with being alive. The universe isn’t a forgiving place and it will grow less so. Big or small, sudden or looming like a slowly growing shadow, everyone will face tragedy at some point. Many times, you’ll be facing tragedy not personally, but because your civilization has gone crazy. The centrality of tragedy to the human condition is a major, perhaps the foundational theme, of my upcoming epic, The Red War, which you’ll be hearing a lot more about in the next couple of months.
So what do you do when – not if – you face tragedy? It’s here where framing techniques (elaborated on in Gorilla Mindset) and a Stoic disposition can help you get through it better. What is a Stoic disposition in regards to tragedy? Quintus pointed out to me the Shipwreck of Simonides in the Fables of Phaedrus. It can be summed up with this one sentence:
A man, whose learned worth is known, has always riches of his own.
During a storm, others on board the ship, desperately trying to save their possessions as their vessel got engulfed in the hurricane, wound up drowning. Simonides, meanwhile, only saved himself, because that was all he needed for wealth. It was how he made his fortune in the first place.
To put it more simply, if you have yourself intact, and you are a good and virtuous character, you have all the means you need of generating external satisfaction or happiness, whereas those who base their lives on external things are usually the most unhappy and the biggest victims of nature when she decides to throw misfortune upon them.
If you’re a man with skill and sound judgment, you’ll always have a means available of generating wealth. Losing your means of income can mean terrible suffering, but the brains and skills that got it in the first place can’t be lost in any financial crash.
If you’re a man who takes care of his appearance, learns persuasion, and keeps attractive mannerisms, you’ll always be able to attract women. Losing a great woman is a personal tragedy, but you still have the character that attracted her in the first place.
If you keep true to your vision and your work in pursuit of that glorious end, you’ll have something greater than yourself or your present worldly circumstances to frame your mind around and cope better with setbacks. For as Sallust says, “glory derived from riches and appearances is transitory and brittle, but masculine virtue is pure and eternal.” The Duke of Marlborough, in many ways a latter day Stoic, was an excellent example of this, as was George Washington.
An internal focus, looking upon the self and what external things can be generated through your virtues, will be able to handle tragedy better than a focus solely on external rewards, which are subject to the whims of fortune. This is what carried Charles I to a dignified end that, despite his bad decisions, has often earned him more praise than his enemies as the centuries have gone on.
A Stoic disposition won’t erase the emotional effects of tragedy, nor the severity. But time marches forward and life has to go on. What you do with those emotions matters more than how they come. So be like Simonides. Keep all your wealth within yourself. Then, unless you die, no plane crash can engulf you and no storm can blow you away. A virtuous and powerful character survives them all, and should you reach it, your kleos will endure to the end of time.