Doing The Things You Don’t Want to Do

Ulysses S. Grant would famously say that he “probably had the least desire for [the presidency] than anyone who ever held it.” That wasn’t exactly true. As his biographer, Ron Chernow, explains, Grant didn’t exactly want the office but he didn’t exactly not want it either. Instead, he had come to feel that he was fated for the office and if he was nominated, he couldn’t decline, and if elected, he would have to serve (this is opposed to his friend, General Sherman, who promised to reject both a nomination and electoral victory if either happened).

A young Marcus Aurelius faced a similar dilemma when Hadrian put forth a succession plan to groom him for the purple even though the boy was only 17 years old. Though it seems almost funny to say now, Marcus did not exactly want to be emperor either. He felt that this whole emperor thing would really infringe on his pursuit of philosophy. He didn’t want to be passing laws — he wanted to be reading books and writing them too.

So why did both men agree, ultimately, to a position that meant the last years of their lives would be consumed by politics, war, budget crises, plagues, stress and heartache? Because each of them believed in duty.

Whether Grant was a good president or not (and whether he should have pursued that second term), he believed that his soldiers had fought and died in that great Civil War for certain ideals, and Grant believed it had fallen on him to make sure those ideals were realized. Marcus, more plainly, didn’t think there was anyone better to lead Rome. “It stares you in the face,” Marcus said to himself, “no role is so well-suited to philosophy as the one you’re in right now.” That is to say: He could be a philosopher and an emperor, in fact, where better to pursue virtue, self-discipline, justice, and service to the common good than as a leader of millions of people?

This is the fundamental tension of Stoicism. In one sense, it says that success and power and fame are indifferents–things not to chase. On the other hand, is it not the duty of every person to fulfill their potential? Don’t we want the most capable and the most honorable among us to contribute and lead?

The Stoic sometimes has to do things they don’t want to do. Those blessed with great gifts are blessed–or burdened–with great responsibility too. That’s what duty is. It means putting aside your selfish wants and thinking about serving a greater need. Starting today.

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