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“Can you recommend a book for…?”
“What are you reading right now?”
“What are your favorite books?”
I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.
I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.
On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.
So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this book club for you.
The idea here is simple: Every month, I’ll share a book that I’ve particularly liked, why I liked it, and several of my key takeaways from it.
I’ll also keep things short and sweet so you can quickly decide whether the book is likely to be up your alley or not.
If you’ve already read a book that I recommend or have a recommendation of your own to share, don’t be shy! Drop a comment down below and let me–and the rest of us “book clubbers”–know!
Lastly, if you want to be notified when new recommendations go live, hop on my email list and you’ll get each new installment delivered directly to your inbox.
Okay, let’s get to the featured book: Julius Caesar by Philip Freeman.
If you like to read biographies to find ideas, models, systems, habits, etc. that extraordinary people have used to achieve great things, you want to read this book because Julius Caesar wasn’t just one of the greatest military geniuses of all time, he was also a first-rate orator and statesman with one of the finest minds the ancient world ever produced.
Caesar’s story reminded me of Alexander the Great’s—remarkable military conquests, shifty political intrigues, and a sudden and unexpected end—but in some ways, Caesar’s tale is even more impressive.
As astounding as Alexander’s exploits were, he did inherit one of the greatest armies ever assembled and then was groomed to lead it by his father Philip II of Macedon, a man of exceptional military brilliance in his own right, as well as Aristotle, one of the greatest thinkers in history.
Caesar, on the other hand, had a prestigious name but little money or clout, and so although he technically could ascend the ranks of Roman society thanks to his pedigree, nothing was going to be handed to him.
In fact, as Caesar would find out, to climb the rungs of Roman sociopolitical power, he was going to have to outwit, outmaneuver, and even overthrow some of the most powerful men of his time.
And that’s exactly what he did, and in truly larger-than-life fashion, which is why we’re still reading about Caesar today, over 2,000 years later.
The author shares the following anecdote in the book:
When Thomas Jefferson proclaimed to Alexander Hamilton that Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke were the three greatest men in world history, Hamilton shook his head. The greatest man who ever lived was Julius Caesar, he replied.
By the end of this book, you may not agree with Hamilton (and especially if you’re a “testosterone challenged male”), but you’ll find at least a thing or two to marvel at and a lesson or two to glean on the raw power of grit, guts, and glory.
Let’s get to the takeaways.
My 5 Key Takeaways from Julius Caesar
Students would study speeches from the past, then compose their own to address real or imagined situations. The art of rhetoric was subtle and intricate, emphasizing proper delivery, structure, and use of evidence—all without notes.
People are always looking for shortcuts and “hacks” for living a more effective and fulfilling life, and one of the greatest I know of is the art of rhetoric (persuasive communication).
Simply put: the more you can impress and influence people with your words alone, the more likely you are to succeed in any and every endeavor you embark upon.
The reason for this is obvious: in most arenas of life, success requires selling people on things—ideas, approaches, relationships, products, and so on—and at bottom, salesmanship revolves around the principles of rhetoric.
For instance, to convince someone of something, you can use many types of rhetorical appeals, including logic, data, facts, authority, credibility, ethics, character, likability, emotion, sympathy, imagination, humor, irony, and the senses.
You can learn to state these simply and clearly. You can learn to present and address objections and counterarguments. You can learn to use rhetorical questions for illustration and emphasis. You can learn to craft personal stories that illuminate and fascinate.
There are also superficial tactics you can deploy to further increase the approval of your messages, like rhythm, repetition, metaphor, exaggeration, and rhyming.
Very few people even understand the true power of rhetoric, let alone how to wield it. This almost certainly isn’t an accident.
I don’t want to launch into a tangential rant about the state of education here in the West, but suffice it to say that our current educational paradigm was explicitly designed to create obedient workers, not revolutionary thinkers—people just smart enough to understand orders and pull levers and push buttons but too stupid to ever question why or imagine other possibilities and rally people to them.
This is one of the primary reasons passive literacy (reading) is emphasized in schooling and active literacy (writing and speaking) is given short shrift.
To learn more about how education has been perverted and subverted to serve the ends of the few at the expense of the many, check out John Taylor Gatto’s work.
Anyway, fortunately, no matter how deficient our instruction in active literacy may have been, it’s never too late to learn what we should’ve been taught in school. And learning and practicing rhetoric is a fantastic place to start.
“I competed with you, my dear, in devotion, virtue, frugality, and love—but I always lost. I wish everyone the same fate.” —CAESAR
Caesar was a famed philanderer later in his life, but it was endearing to learn he was intensely devoted to his first wife, Cornelia, whom he refers to here after her death, which likely occurred in childbirth.
Caesar’s love for his first wife extended far beyond sweet words, too.
Early on, their marriage was put to the ultimate test when a general and statesman, Sulla, seized power in a military coup and demanded that Caesar—a rising politico at this point—divorce Cornelia because she was the daughter of Sulla’s political archnemesis, Cinna.
Naturally, everyone thought Caesar would promptly comply, but when Sulla gave the order, Caesar looked the dictator in the eye and refused. Sulla and his followers were stunned. Whether out of stubbornness, audacity, or simply love, Caesar was defying a man who had ordered the murder of thousands.
And just like that, Caesar lost everything he owned, was marked for death, and had to flee Rome to the mountains of southern Italy and go into hiding.
Caesar struggled with poor health, regularly suffering crippling headaches and recurring bouts of epilepsy.
. . .
He never allowed his weakened health to slow him down, but instead used the life of a soldier as therapy. He marched endlessly, ate simple food, slept outside, and endured every hardship. In this way, he strengthened his body against illness.
Caesar was one tough son of a bitch.
So much so that when you read about the trials and tribulations he endured and overcame, you can’t help but reflect on how downright pleasant your problems are in comparison.
One of my favorite examples of this is when Caesar was kidnapped by pirates and held for ransom. These men were used to their captives toadying and begging for mercy, but they had never met anyone like Caesar before, who treated them like amusing bumpkins.
First, he immediately demanded they raise the price on his head from an insulting twenty talents to something more befitting a man of his status, like fifty (about 300,000 silver coins), and then, for forty days, lived as their prisoner and shared their meals, joined in their athletic games, wrote poetry for them and then called them uncouth barbarians when they didn’t understand it, and even ordered them around and sent a slave to shush them when they made too much noise at night.
Caesar also joked repeatedly that he was going to return and crucify them all once he was released, which always drew hearty laughs from the cutthroats.
Then, one day, a ship bearing Caesar’s ransom arrived, and he bade the brigands farewell. He soon reached the Greek city of Miletus, commandeered local ships and raised a militia, and immediately set sail back to the pirates’ base.
Caesar caught the buccaneers by surprise, seized all their loot including the fifty talents paid for his release, put them in chains, and shuttled them to the nearby city of Pergamum.
To complete his revenge, Caesar needed the approval of the governor of the region, Marcus Juncus, who happened to be in Asia Minor at the time. Not one to let, well, anything stop him, Caesar threw the pirates in prison and set off to seek permission from Juncus to eliminate his former captors.
Juncus heard Caesar’s request but decided to sell the pirates into slavery instead and keep the profits for himself. This simply wouldn’t do for Caesar, however, who rushed back to Pergamum before the governor’s agents could arrive and seize the men.
Upon arriving back in Miletus, Caesar did exactly what he said he would while in the prisoners’ custody—he led them out of their cells and had them all crucified on the spot.
Remember that story when you’re about to decide to have a bad day because the barista messed up your cappuccino, your wifi is slow, or you forget where you parked.
One lesson Caesar had learned from Roman military history was that the best commanders knew how to recover from disaster.
Unlike Alexander the Great, Caesar suffered a number of devastating military defeats that pushed him and his armies to the brink of collapse.
But each time, Caesar somehow found a way to fight on and win. In this way, he was quintessentially Roman, refusing to yield no matter the odds or costs.
He makes me think of something I wrote in my book The Little Black Book of Workout Motivation:
I think about savagery because in many competitions, you don’t have to be the best to win. You just have to be harder to destroy.
Do you know why bulldogs were such formidable opponents in nineteenth-century dog fighting? It’s not because they were the strongest or most agile or hostile of breeds, but because the extra fat and skin around their necks made it harder to rip their throats out. Other dogs had to work overtime to kill them. That’s savage. And illustrative.
When you’re indefatigable, when you can absorb a tremendous number of blows to get into the pole position, and when you can learn to embrace and even crave that process, you’re a savage, and while you may not win every tilt, you’re going to bat a lot better than average.
“In all of life, but especially in war, the greatest power belongs to fortune.” —CAESAR
“If fortune doesn’t go your way, sometimes you have to bend it to your will.” —CAESAR
Most people know that nothing shapes the landscape of our lives, societies, and civilizations like luck, but few seem to understand or want to acknowledge that there’s an art and even science, so to speak, to getting lucky.
For instance, persistence and passion for your ideas, putting yourself where opportunities can arise, establishing a wide network of acquaintances, seeking out new experiences, and looking for small breaks that can develop into big advantages are all simple actions anyone can take to enhance their luck.
Caesar knew this well and time and again made his own luck through an almost frenetic work habit, relentless determination, and insatiable appetite for risk.
Never one to be paralyzed by fear or overanalysis, Caesar also understood that boldness alone has genius, power, and magic in it, and that to get anywhere in the world, you need the courage to wade into the unknown and, as he famously said before stepping into the icy Rubicon River, let the dice fly high.
Even Caesar’s assassination can be understood through this lens. To the uninformed, it may appear like “bad luck,” and it was to some degree, but it was also just as much his own doing through his failure to heed blatant warnings and constrain his political enemies.
In other words, in the end, after everything Caesar had accomplished through his ingenious plotting, indomitable will, and sheer force of personality, he made the fatal mistake of dropping the reins of fortune just long enough for a cabal of bitter and jealous rivals to yank them away forever.