The World Will Teach You

My grandfather used to have a phrase he would use when confronted with a situation that only wisdom and experience could fully explain.  The world will teach you, he would say.  At the time, as a much younger man, I always saw this as a frustrating response.  It seemed too trite, too smug.  But with the passage of time, and with more scars to my credit, I can now see the wisdom behind it.  I now know what he meant.  Beware the fickleness of fortune, for all glory is fleeting; don’t be a slave to your base desires; and most importantly, know that you may be on top today, but that all good fortune can be snatched away in an instant.

These are lessons that immigrants and refugees like him know in their bones.  Life has a way of compensating for great success by allocating us a measured ration of misfortune.  Good fortune and ill-fortune are handmaidens, and will both eventually come to call on us, and never in circumstances of our own choosing.  Over a long enough time span, a man’s fortune always reverts to the mean.

Consider the career of the philosopher and statesman Boethius (A.D. 475?—524).  In his style and substance, he straddles the worlds of classical antiquity and the Christian Middle Ages.  Coming from a wealthy and distinguished Roman family, he received the best education of his day, becoming erudite in both Greek and Latin letters.  Not content with scholarly pursuits, he decided to enter public life, and awed the Roman Senate with his eloquence, and roused the Roman masses with his benevolence.  Men compared him to Cicero and Demonsthenes.  Eventually he rose to serve the Gothic king Theodoric, who then ruled most of Italy.

Boethius’s abilities made him enemies at court, and he eventually was wrongfully accused of participation in a conspiracy against the king.  Theodoric, infirm of mind and body, probably listened to the counsel of his Gothic ministers, who likely resented Boethius’s popularity among the people of Rome; and Boethius did not help his cause by proving inept in the game of palace intrigue.


The tomb of Theodoric

Theodoric eventually had Boethius thrown in jail and sentenced to death.  It was a shocking reversal for a man who had during his entire life known nothing but success.  And from this miserable place, this gloomy dungeon, he wrote one of the first books of prison literature and perhaps the most famous of all medieval philosophical works:  De Consolatione Philosophae (The Consolation of Philosophy).  Nothing focuses the mind as wonderfully as a death sentence.  Drawing strength and solace from his classical studies, he set out timeless principles of fortune, fate, and how to seek the good life.  He had learned well the stern and masculine ethic of the ancients, and had imbibed freely from that fount of eloquence and sagacity which the ancient writers represented.  And in all his book, there is not one word of complaining or whining.

Fortune is various and fickle, says Boethius, and a wise man benefits more from bad luck than from good:

For I think that ill fortune is better for men than good.  Fortune always cheats when she seems to smile, with the appearance of happiness, but is always truthful when she shows herself to be inconstant by changing.  The first kind of fortune deceives, the second instructs.  The one binds the minds of those who enjoy goods that cheatingly only seem to be good, the other frees them with the knowledge of the fragility of mortal happiness.  So you can see that the one is inconstant, always running here and there, uncertain of herself; and the other is steady, well prepared and—with the practice of adversity—wise.  [II.5]

The rich man, in his stupidity and venality, will hoard wealth, not realizing that it will all eventually be taken away:

Let him load his neck with Red Sea pearls, and plough his fat fields with hundreds of oxen!  Gnawing care will never leave him while he lives, and neither will his great wealth go with him when he dies.  [III.5]

Boethius suggests that a wise man, if he enjoys great success, will always remember to behave in a modest and virtuous way.  Why?  Because the people he encountered on his rise to the top will likely be the same ones who will witness his fall.  Never mock or insult those worse off than you; one day, you may find yourself among them.  A wise man will not count it an evil if he encounters adversity, for this will test and harden him:

A wise man ought not to take it badly, every time he is brought into conflict with fortune, just as it would not be fitting for brave man to be frightened every time the sound of war crashed out.  Since for each of these the difficulty is itself the occasion, for the latter of increasing his glory, for the former of further developing his wisdom.  And this is indeed why virtue is called virtue, because relying on its own powers it is not overcome by adversity….You are engaged in bitter mental strife with every kind of fortune, lest ill fortune oppress you or good fortune corrupt you. [IV.45]

And finally, we cannot call someone a real man who is driven and controlled by lusts.  Chasing after sensual or material pleasures is demeaning, debasing, and brutalizing.  Boethius says:

The stealer of others’ wealth burns with greed:  you would say he was like a wolf.  The wild and restless man flaps his tongue in pointless arguments:  you would say he was a dog.  The scammer rejoices in his tricks and frauds:  he is on the level of a little fox…the weak and fearful is afraid of everything:  he is reckoned like a deer.  The stupid sluggard is numb:  he lives an ass’s life…a man is drowned in foul and demeaning lusts:  he is gripped by the instinct of a filthy pig.  [IV.55]

The overall impression given by the Consolation is that, on a long enough timeline, a man’s fortune will sooner or later revert to the mean.  Even if he is garlanded by success, this will eventually be counterbalanced by the visitation of some calamity.  The universe, which he equates with God, has some built-in balancing principle, so that our successes will sooner or later be offset with misfortunes.


With this in mind, the wise man will behave accordingly.  Cherish your true friends, for you will know who they are when disaster hits you.  Do not denigrate those less fortunate than you, for you may find yourself among them.  Do not tempt Fate by allowing yourself  to be enslaved with pursuits for women, money, and glory.  All of these things will be taken away from you in time.  All dissolves into the receding mist of time and Nature’s pleasure, as the foamy waves retreat from the sandy shoreline, leaving only an outline of what once was.

The poignancy of Boethius’s philosophy is matched by the tragedy of his fate.  On October 23, 524, the Reaper finally called on him.  His executioners removed him from his cell, looped a cord around his neck, and strangled him.  The cruelty and injustice of this end is overshadowed by the brilliance of his philosophical testament to the world.  May we, in our hour of crisis, face our challenges with equal courage and stoic resolution.  And if we think we know better than the world, and if we think we are exempt from the laws of fortune, we should think again.  No one is exempt.

The world will teach us.

Read More: 15 Hard Lessons I’ve Learned From Life

72 thoughts on “The World Will Teach You”

  1. One word: brilliant.
    Quintus, PLEASE consider publishing a ‘volume’ of your essays.

    1. Seconded. An excellent piece and articles such as these allow the men of today to learn from the wisdom of those that have gone before us.
      Two sayings immediately come to mind –
      “There is nothing new under the sun.” &
      “Those ignore the lessons of the past are doomed to repeat them.”

    2. I second that. There is so much wisdom in the classics. If you use it there is a lot of value in classical studies. If you use it.

  2. LONG ASS QUOTE INBOUND, one I thought was pertinent to this in a way:
    “But however obscure the intentions of our courtiers may be, there is nevertheless, a certain mode by which we may turn everything they say to our advantage; which is simply, to examine ourselves closely on the subject of praise which others have bestowed on us; for when we hear certain encomiums which we ourselves are unconscious of deserving, it will immediately lead us to reflect on them (according to the temper of those who bestowed them) either as a malignant reproach for some error, which we, in consequence, should immediately endeavor to correct, or as a secret exhortation to a virtue to which we have hitherto been insensible.
    “Supposing even that we conceive ourselves really deserving of that which is spoken in our favor, instead of simply contenting ourselves with the praises which we have received, they ought rather to serve us as a stronger stimulus to merit new encomiums; for this assuredly is one of those mediums whereby the elevated mind may be distinguished from those who never rise beyond mediocrity; to behold the latter charmed with the empty noise of applause which is incessantly flattering their ears, abandoning themselves to inactivity and indolence, eager to persuade themselves that they have done enough; while the former, continually burning with an equal ardor, seem never fully satisfied, as if everything which is lavished to allay that fire with which they seem to burn only to increase its violence.
    “It is only after this manner, my son, that glory becomes amiable; the thirst for which it inspires is not a weak passion which becomes cloyed with possession; it is never obtained but by strong efforts, and never becomes satiating; and he who can rest contended without seeking new favors is unworthy even of those which he has already received.” – Louis XIV, to his son.

    1. Louis shows a sagacity that one finds lacking in Boethius. Boethius is wise while not being cunning. In these passages, Louis speaks from his own volition as the fabricator of his own destiny. Boethius on the other hand, uses wisdom to make sense of a standard that is beyond him and that does not come from him. In these passages Boethius has the temperament of a victim, while Louis displays that of a relentless warrior. Thoughts?

      1. It’s something I generally agree with. He makes mention of immediately looking at his realm with the eyes of a master, and establishing his reputation.
        I hope to write an article when I’m finished with the memoirs.

  3. Also, I read part of the Consolation of Philosophy five years ago for a class. It’s something I should consider going back to.

  4. Damn, Quintus. You’re setting the bar for quality on this site by putting things in a grander perspective. I think that’s very important not to get sucked into a narrow world-view.
    Variation is vital to attract a wider audience, and everything doesn’t need to be ‘high-brow’, but this is solid stuff. Keep it up, I always enjoy reading your works.

      1. OH VEY! Hello Black Man. We Jews need blacks like you, you are our good little servants for polluting the white countries. GOOD GOY!

    1. lol, I know it’s funny, there were dozens of genocidal acts that took place over the last 100 years, but we only obsess over the Jews because it allows white self-loathing to ferment, and we all know that self-loathing is moral virtue to the white liberal.
      Why don’t the Chinese feel the same shame for their cultural revolution, and its 50m victims?
      Why don’t the Jewish communists of the USSR apologize for the 20m Ukrainians who were starved to death in the 30s.
      Or how about Rwanda. In a matter of a couple months they had killed nearly 800,000 people with machetes. That’s a higher kill-rate than the Nazis and their gas chambers.

  5. Another great article and extremely useful.
    As the wise on these boards are won’t to remind us negotiating and hopefully overcoming adversity is what makes a man. Its also the basis of every story worth the telling. In Aristotle’s poetics it is reversal (and ‘conflict’) that creates the narrative…and by extension the life worth living – even the death worth dying I suppose. I always try to remember that when I find myself being a whiny little bitch to myself or others, not always with success. But then its an ongoing project.
    Also so glad this is being presented in the context of ‘virtue’. It is so important to recover this concept and way of living. To make reference to another article, there will be no renaissance without recovering ‘virtue’, as well as ethics, and inner discipline.
    One last thing, Quintus, this ties in well with the notion of the eternal return explored in one of your other articles. Nietschze’s idea is a difficult and not entirely practical one, but its a profound idea that we should not only strive to life virtuously even in adversity, but affirm every moment of both the good and the bad, even to the point of being prepared to live that life in eternity.

  6. Yes, the only thing questionable is the notion of fortune. It seems he lacked practical wisdom- game. Quintus, you stated that he fell victim to the snares of others because he proved “inept in the game of palace intrigue.”

    1. Yes, this is true. The chain of events is complicated, but Boethius became ensnared in a mixture of international politics (Theodoric’s suspicions of the Byzantine Emperor at Constantinople) and domestic jealousies (Theodoric’s ministers’ conspiracies against him). He made some injudicious remarks, and allied himself with people who came under disfavor. I didn’t have space enough here to go into much detail.
      But all in all, it seems more like bad luck than anything else, which proves the point of how misfortunes can hit anyone.

      1. You are right, misfortunes can hit anyone. Do you find the constant improvement in social dynamics- game- as a means to deter social misfortunes- like that of Boethius? In your opinion, is misfortune indiscriminate of whether you have social skills- game- or not?

  7. Remember, thou art mortal!
    If you want to read a funny take on Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophae, read A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole.

  8. This is why when shit hits ze fan. Thou mostly cries out in thy pain. But ze sprit of ze machine tells thou to keep great humor. For in true pain can thou forever reach true gains. Fuck thy one X

  9. EXCELLENT! As my grandfather and father both taught me: It is never as good as it seems when the going is good and it is never as bad as it seems when the going is bad.

  10. Uh, what about the fact that some ethnic groups and families in the U.S. have thrived for generations, some have muddled along, and others have stayed in poverty since time beyond ‘membering?
    In the U.S., for example, we have political dynasties that have lived for generations off of fortunes created a century ago, notably the Bushes and the Kennedys.

    1. Just an example of mankind restoring to the mean although this is across channels, rather than following a single person/family in a linear fashion.
      There is no timeline rule for the peaks and troughs. Some people have many in their one life, others may only experience one or another. The cycles can take many generations to work through but it takes effort to move up to a peak. Wallowing in a trough is a deliberate choice.

  11. Easily in the top 10% of articles on this bastion of adolescent prole masculinity. You can sum up the “game” meme this site espouses in this article. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you will eventually revert back to your karmic trend line.

    1. There is no such thing as karma. There is only your own will, and the incidents and accidents that befall you. Karma, like “fate” is simply another narrative structure we impose on events beyond our control, as we try to make sense of them.

  12. Quintus I would like to thank you for posting excellent articles with impressive regularity. If you ever publish a book I’ll buy it.

  13. Excellent. “The World Will Teach You”…add that to my cool quotes book.

  14. The problem most people are slaves.
    Slaves to money and noteriety.
    When people ride so high, the fall they receive when their house of cards collaspe will be just that devestating.

    1. Honorably earned money is nothing more nor less than a concrete form of the abstraction of your labor. It is as a value neither good nor evil, it is simply a measuring device that we all agree upon as the best way to make honest exchanges, such that we don’t have to resort to swords and guns every time we need a new roll of toilet paper. And most people are not slaves to that, they simply want the wages they’ve earned and are content to get by on that, assuming they are not the thief class (politicians and welfare bums).

  15. Early on I was taught – don’t piss off people on your way up, because you never know who you will meet on your way down.
    Words whose wisdom has been proven time and again as my fortune has waxed and waned and waxed again throughout my life. Failure is not falling down – it’s not getting back up again. It’s much easier to get back up when the people you previous rose above aren’t kicking you when you’re down. And some of them may even offer you a helping hand up.

  16. Excellent writing, however, while not enslaved aren’t most of us focused on either the “pursuit for women, money and (or) glory”? Aren’t most articles on ROK focused on these with a bit of self improvement thrown in.
    Point being, while an outstanding philosophical text it is easy, and wise, to write about pursuits you yourself (Boethius) can no longer attain.

    1. the enslavement is a lack of self-control, rather a lack of self-abnegation. We have appetites, in other words, but can choose when, how and what to eat.

    1. Well, its just hard if you are smart but naturally lazy, an intelligent person still feels the effort they are exerting.. they can overclock if they want though, whereas someone who is less intelligent is always trying their hardest

  17. You forgot to mention that all women are bitches. I hope you’re not going soft, Quintus.

  18. As always, Quintus Curtius is among, if not, the most consistent in the quality of his articles and, as always, in them I find a new and diverse perspective to the old adage, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

  19. Nice work Quintus. While it’s just another ego stroking post, I do want you to know that there are some of us out here who are still well versed in the classics of Western canonical literature and philosophy, and your works are highly appreciated. Even if I find something I may not agree with in specific, the framework of conversation you establish allows civilized discussions about disagreements, such as used to exist prior to the age of Nihilism.
    Well done sir.

  20. What can I say—I’m impressed.
    I look forward to no comments being posted by women as there are no “feelings” to be provoked by philosophy, only meaningful thought.

  21. I’ve been reading RoK for a few months now and this is the best article I’ve come across. Excellent overall point about remaining humble, even amongst great personal success and fortune. Being confident and ambitious does not have to mean being a greedy asshole. Life has a way of catching up to the latter

  22. Love this piece of brilliance here: “The world will teach you: Life has a way of compensating for great success by allocating us a measured ration of misfortune. May we, in our hour of crisis, face our challenges with equal courage and stoic resolution. And if we think we know better than the world, and if we think we are exempt from the laws of fortune, we should think again.”

  23. I will be picking up a copy of this.
    As an English major in college, I always wondered why so little Roman literature made it into the cannon. Now, I see that many people are frightened by the strength of its message, whether it is from Boethius or Seneca.

    1. That’s not true at all. For example, Chaucer drew heavily on these sources.
      Also, it’s ‘canon’.

      1. Drawing on a source, and actually having to read the original source, are two different things.
        Roman lit is scant across academia.

  24. Seems to me this was also meant for women. Beautiful young women, your looks will revert to the mean. The world will teach you. And unlike with men, who have decades to enjoy, your reversion to the mean is just a few years out.
    So, remember to not be such a bitch. That guy you treated like crap? You’ll run into him after you hit the wall. He’ll remember. He won’t be kind.
    Oh, but lest you get your hopes up … Ugly, fat ladies: You have no hope for reverting up to the mean. It’s all downhill from here.

    1. “Oh, but lest you get your hopes up … Ugly, fat ladies: You have no
      hope for reverting up to the mean. It’s all downhill from here.”
      I think this is worth a serious note.
      Many people are unhappy and fell they have been dealt a bad lot in life, and hope for Fortune to smile at them later. They fail to realise Fortune is smiling already, but they squander her gifts and waste them on vice and distraction… and indeed, Fortune will turn her back to them. Perhaps when things get even worse, they will realise then they wasted their opportunities and resolve to do better – but more likely they will kick and scream and blame somebody else!

  25. Modern day example of this story would be Robin Thickes divorce to Paula Patton. The guy makes one hit (Blurred Lines) and forgets about the woman who stood by his side when all his other songs were failures (When I Get You Alone, Lost Without You, Its In The Morning). I hope he doesnt get ass-raped in coutt

  26. I agree with the others, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this–I even brought its theme up with some friends yesterday. They seemed to appreciate your message too. Thank you for taking the time to write this.

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