Lessons from the Greeks and Romans

Become adept at delayed gratification, increase your appetite for the good and beautiful

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From Michael C. Sloan, associate professor in the Wake Forest Department of Philosophy:

“Grit” is a much-lauded buzzword in the world of leadership, character and human refinement. Grit refers to that quality in successful leaders who demonstrate discipline and perseverance. It is now lauded as the distinguishing quality above intelligence and charisma. The question is – how do we as leaders acquire or rather cultivate grit?

Recent studies show that those who have grit also have the highest capacity for delayed gratification. In short, leaders who have grit have demonstrated an ability to check their appetites. This finding is not as new as we may think, however. There is a long line of classical poets and philosophers who swam in that river. Perhaps my favorite articulation of the principle is found in Lucretius, a Roman poet who self declares to expound the philosophies of Epicurus (an older Greek philosopher) in his poem On the Nature of Things. Lucretius wrote in the throes of the Roman civil wars.

Lucretius (99-55 B.C.) is a poet whose life spanned the tumultuous years of the Roman Republic. Lucretius witnessed the demagoguery, the client-armies, the fallow fields and the multiple revolts threatening an overthrow of the government. It is against this self-serving, self-promoting time in Roman history that Lucretius penned his famous poem. It is his profound observations on the human condition that spurred conversation by his contemporaries and will provide fodder for us too as we consider the dangers of unchecked appetites. After all, there is no shortage of modern examples of leaders who have destroyed their lives and careers because of an appetite that they could not control.

One of my favorite lines of Lucretian poetry comes from his famous invocation to Venus, the goddess of love and physical delight of gods and men. The invocation is as lyrically beautiful as the imagined Venus, whom Lucretius implores to distract Mars, the god of war, with her beauty.  Set against the backdrop of the warring Republic, this impassioned plea makes for compelling reading and places a premium on the human senses.  Lucretius writes:

In the meantime let the savage works of war

Rest easy, slumbering over land and sea.

For you alone can bless us mortal men

With quiet peace; Mars, potent of arms, holds sway

In battle, but surrenders at your bosom,

Vanquished by the eternal wound of love.

There, his chiseled neck thrown back, he gapes at you,

Goddess, and feeds his greedy eyes with love;

He reclines; his spirit lingers upon your lips.

Melting about him, goddess, as he rests

On your holy body, pour from your lips sweet nothings,

Seeking, renowned one, quiet peace for Rome.

            For I cannot work with a clear mind while my country

            Suffers, nor can the illustrious scion of

            The Memmian house neglect the common good.

The eyes are rapacious. They do not merely see, but feed. However, the eyes, unlike the stomach, cannot be filled – they know no boundaries. Our eyes and ears stoke an appetite in our mind, and these appetites, unless checked, become greedy for more. Greed breeds more greed. Appetites war against the will.

To return to the all-important quality of grit… there are two ways to develop it: 1) Make a habit of refusing immediate urges. If you can say no to small impulses, you can begin to say no to big ones; and 2) Increase your appetite for the good and beautiful, but diminish your appetites for that which distorts the good or is destructive. To control your appetite, you must control your eyes and ears. As Cicero taught his son in his philosophical treatise, On Moral Duties: your eyes control your mind, your mind controls your actions, and your actions are your character. To exhibit good character, grit and responsible leadership qualities, we must guard our mind and appetites, which means if we follow Lucretius and many other ancient poets and philosophers, we must guard our eyes and ears.

 

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