Stoic Lessons: Ernest Shackleton (Part I – Introduction)

Shackleton1“Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all” – Shackleton

While the great Anglo-Irish explorer Ernest Shackleton may not have been a Stoic with a capital S, he certainly demonstrated many of the admirable qualities which any follower of this philosophy should aspire toward. Shackleton’s name is a byword for courage, fortitude, and mental strength in the face of adversity.

The business world has appropriated Shackleton’s story as a guide to leadership, using his achievements as inspirational tidbits for the benefit of corporate executives. Here we examine Shackleton as a guide to real world stoicism.

Our journey takes place during the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration. At this time the Antarctic continent was the last unexplored landmass on the planet. Fame and glory were the rewards for any men who could conquer this frozen desert; a miserable death was the reward for any who could not.

Captain Robert Falcon Scott first made headway into Antarctica, recording a new Furthest South of 82°11’S by modern estimates. Shackleton was a member of this expedition, but suffered some sort of physical collapse on the way back (as a result of scurvy), the exact extent of which has been debated. He was sent home on the relief ship while the rest carried on without him.

Undeterred, Shackleton began raising funds for his own Antarctic expedition. In 1909 he and his companions set a new Furthest South record of 88º23’S, the closest anyone had come to the South Pole. On the arduous trek back to base, each man had to subsist on a paltry one biscuit a day. Shackleton selflessly gave his rations to his comrade Frank Wild, who was facing starvation.

The success of this operation demonstrated that the Pole was within reach. Soon, two expeditions were established to this aim; one led my Roald Amundsen and one led by Scott. Amundsen was first to attain the Pole. Scott and his men famously (and bravely) perished on the return journey.

With the Pole conquered, Shackleton knew that the only remaining Antarctic achievement would be a transcontinental journey: right across Antarctica from one end to the other. This would become known as the Endurance Expedition, and represents Shackleton’s finest hour. What makes this voyage so remarkable is that despite being a complete failure on paper (they didn’t even set foot on the continent let alone cross it), it remains one of the most inspiring stories of survival in human history, and a lesson in virtue to all students of stoicism.

We will examine Shackleton’s Endurance in Part II.

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