What Are Your Rules for Life? These 11 Expressions (from Ancient History) Might Help
In one of my favorite novels, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Aunt Emily is famous for asking a question. It’s a simple one, but I think an eye-opening one. Aunt Emily, the wisest character in the book, likes to ask,
What do you live by?
As in, what are your principles? What are the Ten Commandments that rule your life? Who’s the animating force behind what you do and why you do it?
You’d think most people would know the answer to this question, but of course they don’t. Seattle Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll likes to tell a story about how long he managed to coach football without actually knowing what he believed in as a coach. It was only after another disappointing season with the New England Patriots—some 15 years into his career—that it struck Carroll that he had no real coaching philosophy, no real belief system. Inspired by John Wood, Carroll got to work, “writing notes and filling binders”—on nailing down his core values, his philosophy, what exactly he believes in. It was a transformative decision: He would go on to win two National Championships and win a Super Bowl with the Seattle Seahawks.
Now when he gives talks, he likes to open with that question: What’s your philosophy? What do you live by? He told me once, when I asked him about it, how shocked he is, on a regular basis, how many CEOs and generals and investors and coaches at the highest levels reveal, accidentally, that they have just been winging it.
In light of that fact, I thought I would look backwards to history, when the idea of a code—the Romans called it mas morium—was more common. The “old ways” come down to us in the form of some wonderful Latin expressions that remain, thousands of years later, very much worth living by.
Festina Lente (Make Haste Slowly)
From the Roman historian Suetonius, we learn that festina lente was the motto of Rome’s first emperor, Augustus. “He thought nothing less becoming in a well-trained leader than haste and rashness,” Suetonius writes, “And, accordingly, favourite sayings of his were: ‘More haste, less speed’; ‘Better a safe commander than a bold’; and ‘That is done quickly enough which is done well enough.’”
Faster is not always better. In fact, it’s often the slowest way to accomplish anything. Great leaders throughout history have known this. There is a quote ascribed to Lincoln about how the way to chop down a tree is to first spend several hours sharpening your axe. Kennedy used to talk about using time as a tool, not as a couch.
It’s easy to rush in. It feels good to start doing. But if you don’t know what you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and how to do it? Well, it’s not going to go well. If you’re going quickly for the sake of speed, you’re going to make costly mistakes. You’re going to miss opportunities. You’re going to miss critical warnings.
Each of us needs more clear thinking, wisdom, patience, and a keen eye for the root of problems. “Slowly,” Juan Ramon Jimenezas put it, “you will do everything quickly.”
Carpe Diem (Seize The Day)
Locked in prison by Henry Bolingbroke (Henry IV) in Shakespeare’s Richard II, Richard II gives a haunting speech about his hopeless fate. One line stands out, as it captures perfectly the reality of nearly every human being—indeed, it sounds like it was cribbed from Seneca’s On The Shortness of Life.
“I wasted time,” Richard II says, “and now doth time waste me.”
Isn’t that beautiful? And terribly sad? It was some 1500 years before Shakespeare that the poet Horace wrote in book 1 of Odes, “carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero” (seize the day, trust tomorrow e’en as little as you may).
We think that time is ours to waste. We even say, “We have two hours to kill” or speak of dead time between projects. The irony! Because time is the one that’s killing us. Each minute that passes is not just dead to us, it brings us closer to being dead.
That’s what Richard II realizes in that prison cell. He had wasted time and now, by a stroke of bad luck and evil, he is now wasting away. Only now is he realizing that each second that ticks by is a beat of his heart that he won’t get back, each ringing bell that marks the hour falls upon him like a blow.
Seneca writes that we think life is short, when in reality we just waste it. Marcus admonishes himself to not put off until tomorrow what he can do today, because today was the only thing he controlled (and to get out of bed and get moving for the same reason). The Stoics knew that fate was unpredictable and that death could come at any moment. Therefore, it was a sin (and stupidity) to take time for granted.
Today is the most valuable thing you own. It is the only thing you have. Don’t waste it. Seize it.
Fac, si facis (Do It If You’re Going To Do It)
The painter Edgar Degas, though best known for his beautiful Impressionist paintings of dancers, toyed briefly with poetry. As a brilliant and creative mind, the potential for great poems was all there—he could see beauty, he could find inspiration. Yet there are no great Degas poems. There is one famous conversation that might explain why. One day, Degas complained to his friend, the poet Stéphane Mallarmé, about his trouble writing. “I can’t manage to say what I want, and yet I’m full of ideas.” Mallarmé’s response cuts to the bone. “It’s not with ideas, my dear Degas, that one makes verse. It’s with words.”
So yes, deliberation and patience are key. You don’t want to rush into things. That’s what festina lente is about. But at some point the rubber has to meet the road.
“I should start a company.” “I have a great idea for a movie.” “I would love to write that book one day.” “If I tried hard enough, I could be ______.” How many of those people actually go through with building the company, releasing the movie, publishing the book, or becoming whatever it is they claim they could become? Sadly, almost none.
“Lots of people,” as Austin Kleon puts it, “want to be the noun without doing the verb.” It doesn’t matter where we are; to get to wherever we want to go, to implement all 11 of these expressions to live by, it is works, not words, that are required. “You must build up your life action by action,” Marcus Aurelius said. You must get started.
Fac, si facis.
Quidvis recte factum quamvis humile praeclarum (Whatever Is Rightly Done, However Humble, Is Noble)
The youngest of five children, Sir Henry Royce’s father died when he was just 9 years old. He went to work to alleviate his family’s financial burdens, so if his dreams of being an engineer were to be realized, it’d be without any formal education. Royce took jobs selling newspapers, delivering telegrams, making tools, and fixing street lights. At the age of twenty-one he started his own company making electric fittings. At twenty-six his interests shifted to the emerging automobile industry, and soon thereafter, he created Rolls-Royce Motor Cars.
It might seem like there is an enormous difference between those professions but in fact, they are related. It was his experiences doing that manual labor, doing those seemingly insignificant tasks that cultivated Royce’s commitment to and understanding of excellence. In fact, he later had a version of it inscribed on the mantle over his fireplace: Quidvis recte factum quamvis humble praeclarum.
Whatever you do well, however lowly, is noble.
There is no such thing as a job or a task that is beneath us. How we do anything is how we do everything. And if we can truly internalize and believe that, it will help us do the important things better. That’s why we love luxury items and pay so much for them, isn’t it? Because of their insane attention to detail, because how they refused to settle, how they did everything right?
Quidvis recte factum quamvis humile praeclarum.
Semper Fidelis (Always Faithful)
Otto Frank was late coming home from the First World War. No, it wasn’t because he was injured. Nor was he detained by a girl he’d fallen in love with or waylaid by traveling he decided to do. He was delayed for weeks because during the war his unit had commandeered some horses from a small farm in Pomerania and, after the hostilities had ended, he felt duty bound to return them.
When the war ended, nearly every soldier wanted nothing more than to rush home and see their families. Otto Frank did too. But he had borrowed something that wasn’t his and he was determined to honor his obligation, even if that meant delaying the homecoming he craved so much. The farmer, for his part, was shocked to see the horses again. Otto Frank’s mother, who assumed the worst of his absence, was so angry when she heard why he was late that she hurled a coffee pot across the room. She couldn’t understand the selflessness of his actions because in her case, since it had deprived her of her son a little longer, almost felt like selfishness.
“Cold or warm. Tired or well-rested. Despised or honored,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “Just that you do the right thing. The rest doesn’t matter.” It isn’t easy. It can mean adding on top of already considerable burdens. Other people won’t always understand or take notice. They may be exasperated with you. They might be driven into a rage which you can neither control nor assuage. But none of that matters, and that’s why Semper Fi is the motto of the US Marine Corps. “It is not negotiable,” one Marine puts it. “It is not relative, but absolute…Marines pride themselves on their mission and steadfast dedication to accomplish it.” Not just to the mission, but to each other, and to their country.
You do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do. It is the ultimate tautology, but that’s the point. Doing the right thing is all that matters. It is its own reward.
Per Angusta Ad Augusta (Through Difficulties To Honors)
Look, nobody wants to go through hard times. We’d prefer that things go according to plan, that what could go wrong doesn’t, so that we might enjoy our lives without being challenged or tested beyond our limits.
Unfortunately, that’s unlikely to happen. Which leaves us with the question of what good there is in such difficulty and how we might—either in the moment or after the fact—come to understand what it is that we’re going through…today, tomorrow, and always.
This passage from Sonia Purnell’s wonderful biography of Clementine Churchill, wife of Winston Churchill, is worth thinking about:
“Clementine was not cut out from birth for the part history handed her. Adversity, combined with sheer willpower, burnished a timorous, self-doubting bundle of nerves and emotion into a wartime consort of unparalleled composure, wisdom, and courage. The flames of many hardships in early life forged the inner core of steel she needed for her biggest test of all. By the Second World War the young child terrified of her father…had transmogrified into a woman cowed by no one.”
The Stoics believed that adversity was inevitable. They knew that Fortune was capricious and that it often subjected us to things we were not remotely prepared to handle. And this is not necessarily a bad thing. Because it teaches us. It strengthens us. It gives us a chance to prove ourselves. “Disaster,” Seneca wrote, “is Virtue’s opportunity.” The obstacle is the way, was Marcus Aurelius’s expression.
And so the same can be true for you and whatever it is that you’re going through right now.
Per Angusta Ad Augusta.
Amor fati (Love Of Fate)
The writer Jorge Luis Borges said:
A writer — and, I believe, generally all persons — must think that whatever happens to him or her is a resource. All things have been given to us for a purpose, and an artist must feel this more intensely. All that happens to us, including our humiliations, our misfortunes, our embarrassments, all is given to us as raw material, as clay, so that we may shape our art.
Everything is material. We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens. We have to understand that certain things—particularly bad things—are outside our control. But we can use it all—if we learn to love whatever happens to us and face it with unfailing cheerfulness. And again, not just artists. Issues we had with our parents become lessons that we teach our children. An injury that lays us up in bed becomes a reason to reflect on where our life is going. A problem at work inspires us to invent a new product and strike out on our own. These obstacles become opportunities.
The line from Marcus Aurelius about this was that a blazing fire makes flame and brightness out of everything that is thrown into it. That’s how we want to be. We want to be the artist that turns pain and frustration and even humiliation into beauty. We want to be the entrepreneur that turns a sticking point into a money maker. We want to be the person who takes their own experiences and turns them into wisdom that can be learned from and passed on to others.
Nietzsche said, “My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it…but love it.” Use it all. Find purpose in all of it. Find opportunity in everything. Love it.
You love everything that happens. Because you make use of it.
Fatum Ingenium Est (Character Is Fate)
When he was in college and struggling to live up to the expectations of his illustrious family, Walker Percy wrote a letter to his uncle and adopted father, Will Percy. He probably expected to receive a lecture about his grades in reply. Or be admonished for letting the family down. Or perhaps to be sent money for a tutor.
But the reply surprised him. Because there wasn’t any of that. Instead, Will waved those concerns off. “My whole theory about life,” Will told his beloved nephew and son, “is that glory and accomplishment are of far less importance than the creation of character and the individual good life.”
It was Heraclitus who said that character is fate. Or character is destiny, depending on the translation. What he meant was: Character decides everything. It determines who we are/what we do. Develop good character and all will be well. Fail to, and nothing will.
It can be easy to lose sight of this. Because we know how competitive the world is. Because things aren’t exactly going our way. Because we want to reach our full potential. But ultimately, we only need to care about our character. The rest is fated from it. “Life is short,” Marcus Aurelius said, and “the fruit of this life is a good character.”
It’s true in reverse too: A good life is the fruit of good character.
Fatum Ingenium Est.
Semper Anticus (Always Forward)
The wisdom of the ancient world comes down pretty hard and pretty universally against looking back. No one, Jesus said, who looks backwards as they plot is fit for the kingdom of God. Even before Jesus, Cato the Elder—the great-grandfather of the Stoic Cato the Younger—wrote in his only work, On Agriculture, “The forehead is better than the hindhead.” Meaning: Don’t look back. Look forward.
It’s easy to want to look back at the past. To reflect on what’s happened. To blame. To indulge in nostalgia. To wistfully think of what might have been. To inspect and admire what you’ve done. But this is pointless. Because the past is dead. It’s lost. We had our shot with it. Now, all that remains before us is the present—and if we are lucky, the future.
The name of Lance Armstrong’s podcast is called what? The Forward. Because he can’t go back and change what happened, just like in a race, you can’t go backwards and you can’t stop either. All you can do is keep going. All you can do is keep trying to get better.
We must seize this opportunity while we still can. We must give it everything we have. No matter what has happened before—whose fault it was, how much pain it caused us, what regrets we have, or even how triumphant it was—all we can do is move forward. All we can do is act now, with the virtues we hold dear: courage, temperance, wisdom, justice.
Vivere Militare Est (To Live Is To Fight)
Odysseus leaves Troy after ten long years of war destined for Ithaca, for home. If only he knew what was ahead of him: ten more years of travel. That he’d come so close to the shores of his homeland, his queen and young son, only to be blown back again. That he’d face storms, temptation, a Cyclops, deadly whirlpools, and a six-headed monster. Or that he’d be held captive for seven years and suffer the wrath of Poseidon. And, of course, that back in Ithaca his rivals were circling, trying to take his kingdom and his wife.
He fought his way home. Marcus Aurelius once described life as warfare and a journey far from home. That was Odysseus’s experience certainly. To the Stoics, one had to go through life as a boxer or a wrestler, dug in and ready for sudden assaults.
That’s life. It kicks us around. The stuff we expected to be simple turns out to be tough. The people we thought were friends let us down. A couple storms or unexpected weather patterns just add a whole bunch of difficulty on top of whatever we’ve been doing. Seneca wrote that only the fighter who has been bloodied and bruised—in training and in previous matches—can go into the ring confident of his chances of winning. The one who has never been touched before, never had a hard fight? That’s a fighter who is scared. And if they aren’t, they should be. Because they have no actual idea how they’re going to hold up.
We have to have a true and accurate sense of the rhythms of the fight and what winning is going to require us to do. We have to be ready for the fighting life. We have to be able to get knocked around without letting it knock us out. We have to be in touch with ourselves and the fight we’re in.
Vivere Militare Est.
Memento Mori (Remember Death)
A person who wraps up each day as if it were the end of their life, who meditates on their mortality in the evening, Seneca believed, has a super power when they wake up.
“When a man has said, ‘I have lived!’” Seneca wrote, then “every morning he arises is a bonus.”
Think back: to that one time you were playing with house money, if not literally then metaphorically. Or when your vacation got extended. Or that appointment you were dreading canceled at the last moment.
Do you remember how you felt? Probably, in a word—better. You feel lighter. Nicer. You appreciate everything. You are present. All the trivial concerns and short term anxieties go away—because for a second, you realize how little they matter.
Well, that’s how one ought to live. Go to bed, having lived a full day, appreciating that you may not get the privilege of waking up tomorrow. And if you do wake up, it will be impossible not to see every second of the next twenty-four hours as a bonus. As a vacation extended. An appointment with death put off one more day. As playing with house money.
”You could leave life right now,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “let that determine what you do and say and think.”
Is there better advice than this? If so, it has yet to be written. Keep it close.
The power of an epigram or one of these expressions is that they say a lot with a little. They help guide us through the complexity of life with their unswerving directness. Each person must, as the retired USMC general and former Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, has said, “Know what you will stand for and, more important, what you won’t stand for.” “State your flat-ass rules and stick to them. They shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone.”
Least of all to you.
So borrow these eleven, or dig into history or religion or philosophy to find some more.
And then turn those words…into works.