“This too shall pass” was Lincoln’s favorite saying, one he once said was applicable in any and every situation one could encounter. His plodding patience and stamina was an incredible virtue during the US Civil War, a terrible war that would call on Lincoln to be both forceful and forgiving, violent yet compassionate. Lincoln’s real strength was his will: the way he was able to resign himself to an onerous task of leading the country through one of its most difficult trials, without giving in to hopelessness, the way he could contain both humor and deadly seriousness, the way he could use his own private turmoil to teach and help others, the way he was able to rise above the din and see politics philosophically.
It has been written that Lincoln’s own experience with debilitating depression—melancholy as it was called then—probably contributed to his unique abilities as a leader. He came to embody the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in your task. Do what you can, endure what you must. Make the best of it.
In some ways, Lincoln’s life was not a happy story. The same could be said of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca. None had exactly happy endings: illness, execution, assassination. Before that, toil and struggle. Yet what these trials pulled out of them was truly incredible and it’s why their example has stood for centuries. This is where the Stoic discipline of the Will is so important. We don’t choose what happens to us, what era we live in or what difficulties life will throw at us. But we choose what we make of it and what these tests will reveal about what we’re made of.