In 336 B.C., a brash 20-year-old prince visited the Greek city-state of Corinth. During his stay, the prince visited the philosopher Diogenes of Sinope, one of the founders of the Cynic philosophy.
The philosopher was quite a controversial character, infamous for his open criticism of Plato and his rather shocking lifestyle; he begged for a living and often slept in a large ceramic jar, or pithos, near the gymnasium in Corinth.
The young prince decided to meet this eccentric character. He found the philosopher lying in the sun. The prince addressed him and asked if he wanted anything at all from him, to which Diogenes replied, “Yes, I just want you not to stand in the sun.”
The young prince was so impressed by the philosopher’s nonchalant demeanor that he stated, “But truly, if I were not Alexander, I wish I were Diogenes.”
Two years later, now a king in his own right, Alexander set out to conquer his way to the edge of the known world.
During the following decade, nothing stopped him. Nothing. Vastly superior armies, impregnable fortresses, mountains and rivers and deserts, hunger, thirst, the sea itself, the uttermost extremes of physical hardship and war. His body was littered with scars; everywhere that is, except his back. He never retreated, and he never lost a battle.
Most of his portraits, sculptures, and coins reflect a kind of upward gaze as if he were staring into the very heavens, yearning for something unreachable.
At the age of 33, the one who would forever be known as Alexander the Great, died, leaving behind the myth of one who dared to conquer the world.
You Either Conquer the World or Conquer Yourself
“If you want to overcome the whole world, overcome yourself.”
There’s a particularly powerful scene in Steven Pressfield’s novel on Alexander the Great, Virtues of War, where the impetuous conqueror crosses paths with another philosopher.
Because the man was reluctant to step aside, so Alexander could ride on, one of his soldiers shouts, “This man has conquered the world! What have you done?”
The philosopher smiles and says, “I have conquered the need to conquer the world.”
The world often tells us that we must demand of it what we want. There’s a price we must pay for greatness, and that is often the fact that we must compete with all those who also want to conquer it.
The world isn’t big enough for all of us to get what we want, yet there’s an often overlooked aspect of success we rarely think about.
When we get rid of our need for external validation, whether in the form of power or money or recognition, we become great by default.
You either fight to get all that you want, trying to satisfy an insatiable appetite for power and influence, or you conquer your own desires and needs.
This choice is present in most of our day-to-day decisions. If you want more money, you can either work to earn more or you can spend less. If you want to be in a happy relationship, you can either try to find the perfect person, or you can decide to try to become the perfect person for your significant other.
We can either try to conquer the world, or we can try to conquer ourselves.
The Warrior’s Path
Life is war, and all is fair in war.
You do what you have to do to get what you want. The means justify the end.
This is not to say that you need to be a terrible person or to treat people unkindly, but in order to have more, you will have to struggle more, to become more, and to always set ever more ambitious goals.
This is the most common path chosen by highly successful individuals. We all have a competitive side, and if we nurture it, we can achieve great things.
The obvious issue, however, lies in the fact that we become slaves to the endless pursuit of conquering the world.
According to Plutarch, when Alexander the Great heard another philosopher, Anaxarchus, explain that there was an infinite number of worlds, he wept, for he had yet to become the master of even one of these worlds.
Ultimately, the man who almost conquered his way to the edge of the map was buried in a coffin, in the same ground as the cynic philosopher Diogenes.
The world wasn’t big enough for Alexander’s ambitions, but a coffin fit him just fine.
We might dedicate our time, our energy, and our passion towards conquering the world, only to discover, as we reach the end of our lives, that our empire brings no solace when faced with the brevity of our existence, and that our achievements bring little comfort to the thought of being the richest corpse in a cemetery.
The Philosopher’s Path
Your main goal is to conquer yourself. You practice restraint in all areas of your life.
This, in more ways than one, is the stoic path to happiness. You don’t complain, you don’t ask for more, you just work on overcoming your desire for more.
The reward for your struggles is inner peace.
External factors only reveal the internal struggle. When there are no enemies within, there’s also no friction with any outside factors.
This isn’t easy, but it’s not as difficult as most people believe it to be.
We conquer our desires all the time when we stop comparing ourselves with others, when we understand there’s a price one must pay for anything in life.
The more self-aware we become, the better we understand how external factors influence our perception of the world.
Most People Are Caught in the Middle
We are fascinated with both paths. We admire the ambition and resilience of the highly successful, and we’re fascinated by the inner fortitude of those who constantly work towards abandoning desire.
The issue, however, is that most people are caught in the middle. They are either unable to decide, or they oscillate between these two paths.
Most people try to get what they want out of life, and when they fail, they rationalize their failures in such a way as to diminish the importance of what was previously their most important goal.
If you don’t decide, if you use one mentality to justify your lack of success developing the other, you are going to become bitter and remorseful. In the end, you won’t know what was what, and what was the point of it all.
If you can’t derive pleasure from what you do, you most certainly can’t overcome certain obstacles, but you also can’t give your journey meaning.
Why are you alive?
The answer is a shrug.
This is the timid approach to life. The lukewarm. Neither hot nor cold. People sense this.
If your loyalty towards your life’s mission shifts based on external factors, no one’s going to trust you. If you tell everyone that you’re going to do something, you must do it, because later excuses as to why you didn’t do it aren’t going to help you.
Besides, we all know when we lie to ourselves. There’s that bitter aftertaste you feel after lying to yourself, a bitterness that often stays with you, making you feel nauseous for not being bold enough to live life on your terms, regardless of the consequences.
Contrary to popular belief, life’s not about failure or success. Life’s about pursuing what is most important to you, regardless of failure or success.
Choose one path or the other, stick with it, and internalize its requirements. Both guarantee a life of struggle.
Obviously, we all have a natural inclination towards one path or the other. There’s an inner voice that often guides us.
I, for instance, want to conquer the world. I consider life to be a war, and I am grateful for the opportunity to be competitive, to evolve, to progress, to overcome obstacles, to turn adversity into opportunity.
You, on the other hand, might be subconsciously attracted to the virtue of getting rid of desire. It might come easy for you. You might find it easy to give up on negative habits, and you might not be so inclined towards fits of rage whenever you don’t achieve your goals.
There’s no right or wrong path. Granted, they go in opposite directions, but both arrive at the same destination.
What we can choose, and what we must choose, is the vehicle we arrive in at our last destination.
Do we choose the path of the warrior? Or the path of the philosopher?
Do we fight for more or do we fight to be content with less?
This essay is part of my book, Practical Philosophy. If you’re interested in upgrading your mindset, I highly recommend that you check it out.