“Heard joke once: Man goes to doctor. Says he’s depressed. Says life seems harsh and cruel. Says he feels all alone in a threatening world where what lies ahead is vague and uncertain. Doctor says, “Treatment is simple. Great clown Pagliacci is in town tonight. Go and see him. That should pick you up.” Man bursts into tears. Says, “But doctor… I am Pagliacci.”
Oftentimes there’s a big difference between what we’re able to decipher about a person, what we see at the surface, and what lies underneath it all. There’s a big difference between appearance and essence.
I’m going to do the obvious here and use myself as an example.
From an early age, Marcus Aurelius seemed destined to become a philosopher-king.
The emperor Hadrian called him verissimus, meaning “most true and truthful.”
Adopted into the line of succession of the Roman Empire at the age of 17, Aurelius pursued knowledge of the truth with undying passion.
He’s often regarded as one of the wisest men to have ever lived, often ranking in second after Socrates, and one of the few virtuous and humble emperors of ancient Rome. Evidence of Aurelius’ pursuit of the truth lies in the image that is painted through a series of notes he wrote to himself, known by the name of Meditations.
One day, the French philosopher Denis Diderot came into possession of a beautiful scarlet dressing gown. He spent a long and silent time admiring its splendor.
And the more he analyzed the fabric, the more he understood that all his other possessions paled in comparison to this new dressing gown. This feeling became so uncomfortable that Diderot soon replaced all his furniture with more expensive options. He bought a new golden clock, a bronze sculpture, a console table, and more art pieces.
Crippled by debt, Diderot understood that he had forfeited his soul to an object of worship he couldn’t properly understand, “I was the absolute master of my old robe. I have become the slave of the new one.”
While this story may seem ridiculous, we often find ourselves worshiping whatever feeds our ego.
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.
On the 14th of February 1990, just as the Voyager 1 probe was leaving the Solar System, some 3.7 billion miles away from Earth, Carl Sagan asked NASA to turn it around to snap a photograph of our home.
The resulting photograph showed the Earth as a pale blue dot, less than a pixel in size. A speck of dust in a seemingly infinite universe…