At Peace

Heinrich Schliemann’s whole life was an exercise in reification. As a commodities trader, he made his fortune through unswerving self-confidence, repeatedly, from next to nothing in St. Petersburg, Indiana, California and in Paris. Then, through a blind faith that the epic poetry of Homer was literal fact, he discovered the lost city Troy. And then Priam’s Treasure at Mycenae. And then at Tiryns. There’s a story that during the excavation of the last grave shaft at Mycenae, Schliemann unearthed a corpse whose facial features were briefly still visible. In that instance, he wrote to a friend, he recognized the face of King Agamemnon just it has appeared to him in a dream. That is to say, conclusive proof was his own imagination.

After some early missteps during his digs (Schliemann ruthlessly destroyed large parts of Troy), he found a collaborator named Rudolf Virchow. Virchow was basically the opposite of Schliemann. As a biographer wrote, he was “a pillar of strength and sanity, and unlike Schliemann he was uncompromisingly honest with himself, free from vanity and secure enough to be indifferent to success.” Virchow was the professional behind the scene, who barely batted an eye as Schliemann eagerly claimed all the credit because he was too busy directing and channeling the operation to the levels it ultimately reached.

I feel like that throwaway writeup of Virchow is about the highest descriptive achievement someone can accomplish. To be self-aware, to be assured, and to be content. It’s funny because in a way, those are the attributes that Schliemann pantomimed his entire life, with the endless searching, gratuitous wealth and constant demands for academic respect. The difference to me is that is sounds like one of them felt at peace and the other exhausted. But they both, at the end of their lives, were working on the same projects and passionately chased the same discoveries.

If I had to be one, after reading a lot about Schliemann, I would unquestionably have to be Virchow. I mean this in the most deprecating sense, because I don’t think I have the talent, the drive or the boldness to be Schliemann. What I take from the contrast illuminated in comparing the two is that we ought to try to follow the example of Virchow. And follow it fully by finding ourselves a Schliemann, whose boundlessness creates possibility out of impossibility. Someone who through sheer force of will makes their beliefs about the world true. That’s who you want to be work with, but probably not be. And I guess if you’re already and inalterably a Schliemann, fucking find yourself a Virchow. Because you need one or you’ll blow up, just like all people cursed with the natural skills of a trader inevitably do.

Written by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is the bestselling author of Trust Me, I’m Lying, The Obstacle Is The Way, Ego Is The Enemy, and other books about marketing, culture, and the human condition. His work has been translated into thirty languages and has appeared everywhere from the Columbia Journalism Review to Fast Company. His company, Brass Check, has advised companies such as Google, TASER, and Complex, as well as Grammy Award winning musicians and some of the biggest authors in the world. He lives in Austin, Texas.