Belisarius was a military general in ancient Rome and is probably one of the most famous generals of that time that you’ve never heard of.
He won brilliant victories in Naples, Sicily and Constantinople to name just a few and managed to save the Roman Empire on more than one occasion – including recapturing it for the first time since it fell.
If you were Belisarius, how would you expect to be repaid? Many of us would consider a nice palace, lots of money and perhaps a place of power in the high court as worthy repayments. Essentially, anything that resembled an easy retirement in ancient Rome. Unfortunately for Belisarius, not only did he not get any of those things, he was actually punished for many of the courageous things that he did. He was constantly placed under suspicion by a paranoid emperor. His victories were undone by bad politics. He was relieved of his command and duties. Towards the end of his life, he was stripped of his wealth and apparently, blinded and forced to beg on the streets.
Personally, when I read this story about Belisarius, I was furious. How could a hero be treated this way? How could the emperor not see the great work that he did? And perhaps on a more personal level, how bad must Belisarius have felt to be repaid like that? He deserved way more than what he was condemned to.
While there is a compelling case for Belisarius deserving more, as it turns out, he wasn’t all that bothered. Doing the work was enough for him. As head of the army, he likely could have taken the throne at almost any time that he pleased. The power, control, selfishness and greed that infected almost everyone else in a position of authority didn’t seem to affect Belisarius at all. He did what he knew was right, and that was enough for him.
The story of Belisarius is one that, in an ideal world, we would love to emulate. Many of us would love to be able to do what we know is right and act irrespective of outcomes. We would love to be able to understand what is under our control and what isn’t. These are worthy goals that are worth gravitating towards, but they’re difficult. To reach the level of Belisarius takes plenty of character-building, courage and practice. The life of this man also begs some very interesting and oftentimes difficult questions that we need to ask ourselves…
There will be times in life where we do everything as well as we can. Any decent parent will often give the good advice of “try your hardest, that’s all that matters.” This is excellent advice for not just children but for everyone. There will be times in life where you do everything extremely well, perhaps even perfectly, but the results will still come out negative. A fluke in a football match, bad timing on your book release, a gap in skill that you still need to overcome. When results falter, it is natural to look at the process as the reason why but the fault doesn’t always lie there. The outcome is never under your control, only your effort.
There is the tragic story of the famous John Kennedy Toole that exemplifies this. Toole’s book A Confederacy of Dunces was turned down by every single publisher. He let these critics determine the value of his hard work and ended up committing suicide before his book was ever published. After his death, his mother advocated for his book and it later went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. Not a single word in the book had changed from the one that got universally rejected to the one that won a Pulitzer Prize. The work was enough, but it was sadly too late for Toole to realise that.
True courage and the sign of a strong person is the willingness to act and do what is right, even when the outcomes aren’t guaranteed. The person who prepares well and gives it their all. This person that sees their action as a success and any rewards down the line as a bonus. These are the key pointers of Stoicism.
The big questions to ask yourself are:
Will I work hard for something that can be taken away from me?
Will I invest my time and energy even if the outcome is not guaranteed?
Even if I know that I might not be rewarded for my work on this, should I still do it?
When talking about meaningful work, meaningful relationships and a meaningful life, it takes real courage to say ‘yes’ to all of these things. But once you realise that the treasure lies in the simple act of saying ‘yes’ and not what might come after (which is, of course, out of your control anyway), it becomes a little easier to do the work that you need to do.
Doing your work is enough.