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    Barack Obama, American Stoic

    If the Founding Fathers had a chance to meet Barack Obama, they would of course be shocked. Even the most enlightened of them were not prepared to imagine an African-American President. And what they would think about his policies is anyone's guess: the Founders' political philosophies were shaped by their political environments, and they wouldn't fit easily into today's debates. But I'm pretty confident that they would be impressed with President Obama's personal bearing, which sometimes seems to have more in common with their ideas of deportment and decorum than with our generation's ideas. The Founders would never have expected Obama, but they would have understood him. It's not just that Washington, Jefferson, and Adams would have been able to smell what Obama is cooking. It's that Obama is cooking from the Founders' favorite menu.

    Barack Obama behaves in many ways like a Stoic. By that, I don't just mean someone quiet and uncomplaining, the way we use the word "stoic" today. I mean that Obama acts very much like a follower of the Stoic philosophy followed by many classical Greeks and Romans. The Stoics taught that you should master your emotions through reason and self-discipline and focus on living a virtuous life. They also taught that virtue, reason, and discipline could free you, psychologically, from the impermanence and unpredictability of the world around us. The Stoic definition of virtue was both personal and civic, and the test of virtue was your actions, not your feelings. The point was not to feel righteous or spiritually exalted, but to live a good and just life day to day. By definition, that meant being a virtuous citizen of your community.

    I have never seen or heard Obama using the specific language of Stoicism, but he certainly acts like one, and for the real Stoics that's the test. (Someone who "believes in" Stoicism but lives corruptly, or in thrall to intemperate emotions, is not a Stoic. Someone who has never heard of Stoicism but walks the walk meets the most important standard.) Obama's behavior since the election has been one very illuminating example: being Obama, he has put his personal feelings aside and focused doing what seemed best for the country, and at certain moments his behavior seems at odds with what he's presumably feeling. If "what seems best" has varied over the last few weeks, it has been because of new information or changing events, not because of Obama's mood. It is not about his mood; "No-Drama" Obama considers his own mood the lowest priority, and would see it as a serious moral failure if he let his mood interfere with his duty.

    The Founders would recognize and applaud this immediately. It's almost exactly the way they conceived of virtue. The other Founders loved and admired Washington because they saw him as a man who had been born with strong natural passions (not least his naturally ferocious temper), who subordinated those passions under iron self-control. (When Washington's mastery of his temper did slip, as it sometimes did during the setbacks of the Revolutionary War, the results could be volcanic.) Washington exemplified the reason-over-emotion approach that his era held up as the ideal.

    And Washington's favorite work of literature, bar none, was Joseph Addison's play Cato, a historical tragedy about a Roman statesman and his Stoic civic virtue. Washington actually put on a production of Cato at Valley Forge, because it was a good example of how to put moral virtue and duty over merely physical problems like hunger, cold, and fear. In fact, Cato was a huge favorite among many of the Founders; Washington and Franklin are always quoting it, although we no longer recognize those lines as quotations. Nathan Hale's famous line, "My only regret is that I have but one life to give for my country," is straight out of Cato.

    It is not a surprise that someone like Obama, who reads widely in history, philosophy, and literature, would absorb some Stoic ideas. Those ideas have been steadily passed down. The Renaissance saw a huge revival of interest in Stoicism, and the 17th and 18th centuries, with their love of reason and order, borrowed freely from Stoic thought. (Joseph Addison didn't write a play about Cato for no reason.) Stoic ideas have found their way into our wider tradition. And the Obama's Stoicism-without-the-name has clear antecedents in the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King Jr.'s approach to civil disobedience. That non-violent civil disobedience is, in practical terms, straight Stoicism: the protestors used their intellect and self-discipline to overcome danger, fear, and anger, so that violence, fear, and anger could not be used to control them. John Lewis sacrificing his body on the bridge at Selma, willingly allowing himself to be beaten rather submit to wrongful authority, is practical Stoicism of the highest order. Stoicism understands self-discipline as a synonym for freedom. If you can master yourself, you are free from other masters.

    But Stoic self-control has so far out of fashion that we have trouble understanding it, trouble even calling it by its proper name. When most of us hear about someone subordinating their emotions to their reason, we tend to think of terms like "repressed" or "inhibited," terms that suggest that the person doesn't have full access to his or her feelings, or is too fearful to express them. We usually think that such a person needs to loosen up and become less inhibited, to express their emotions more. This started with the Romantic movement in the early 1800s, which prioritized emotional intensity above all, and was consolidated by psychoanalysis's attempts to free patients from genuine repression. At this point, a huge chunk of our popular culture is built around the proposition that everybody would be happier with less impulse control. We love stories about maverick-y cops and maverick-y fighter pilots and maverick-y scientists (all professions where mavericks can be genuinely dangerous). We watch reality TV, which deliberately showcases people who respond irrationally and hysterically to the most trivial challenges. We imagine a character like Mr. Spock, whose project superficially resembles the Stoics', as unable to feel, unable to name his feelings. When we have a Broadway hit about one of the Founders, we choose Hamilton, the one who was most volatile and out of control. (I love that show, but it only has a second act because Hamilton self-destructed.) And Key and Peele joke, hilariously, about President Obama's need for an "Anger Translator," who speaks the truths that Obama is imagined as unable to speak or to recognize.

    All of this badly misunderstands Stoicism. Mastering your passions with reason and discipline does not mean being passionless. (George Washington did not need any Anger Translator. George spoke anger very fluently, and could release a poetic torrent of rage if he liked.) It does not mean lacking emotions, or lacking access to emotions. In fact, real self-control usually demands some serious self-knowledge. You cannot master your feelings if you do not know them. The difference between Stoicism and repression is that a repressed person cannot choose to express an emotion, even if they would like to, while an accomplished Stoic chooses whether and how to express something. From the Stoic perspective, a repressed man and a hysterical "maverick" are two sides of one debased coin: one cannot choose to express a feeling and the other who cannot keep himself from expressing it, but neither has any real control over their emotions. Obama's public performance over the last decade testifies both to his self-control and to his self-knowledge. He has more self-control than we are used to seeing in politicians, but also brings a sense of emotional authenticity, or genuineness, that few other politicians can match.

    Obama's successor, of course, lacks anything like Obama's discipline. He seems to have given himself over entirely to uncontrolled passions. From a Stoic point of view, he is (as Hamlet puts it) "passion's slave." Because the President-Elect has no -- and apparently seeks no -- mastery of his own emotions, he is mastered by them, in the thrall of every momentary impulse or upheaval. On a profound level, he is not free. He is unable to govern his own emotional responses or his own behavior. He is the subject of a tyrant, and his response is to try to exert tyrannical control over those around him. But, tyrant that he may be, he is also exceptionally vulnerable to control and manipulation by others. Certainly, some of his advisers play on his emotional weaknesses. And although it is startling for the President-Elect of the world's most powerful nation to be under the thumb of a lesser foreign power's leader, this President-Elect's inability to govern his emotional life renders him, as the Stoics would expect, naturally servile.

    The Founders, like the Roman Stoics before them, believed that only individual self-control, the ability of citizens to discipline their own passions and impulses, could make self-governing republics possible. Self-government is only possible through self-government, and when the citizens can no longer rule themselves through their reason and self-control, they will lose their collective ability to govern the republic or, worse, give that power away. It is the nature of the unmastered soul to seek a master elsewhere.  

    This President-Elect is also a product of our wider culture, which has come to misunderstand "authenticity" as self-expression unfettered by decorum or reason. Only that fundamental misunderstanding allows the President-Elect to be misunderstood, by part of the public, as a person capable of leadership. The question for America, and for us as Americans, is whether we can regain the personal and civic discipline to keep our Republic free.




    Thanks, bf.

    Excellent piece, Doc, one of your best.

    I have little to add except that it makes me think of Plato's Republic, in which individual virtue serves as a model and foundation for a just state. I've been thinking a lot about virtue and character lately--wondering how these slipped away from our politics so that we no longer care whether our leaders are good people or bad people.

    It's perhaps logical to take the path of your question to its obvious conclusion - are our elected leaders not representative of our electorate?  If they are, our issues are much deeper and more complicated as a society than the character and virtue of any politician.

    It's not as a simple as that, but they are intertwined. The traits we value (or don't value) in our leaders reflect the traits we value in human beings.

    Thanks, Michael. Glad you liked the post.

    I think there is a complicated intertwining between our leaders, ourselves, and our culture: the shapes of narratives we tell. We have a lot of narratives about the wisdom of faith, and the wisodm of instnict, and not many about the wisdom of, well, wisdom.

    The character in politics question is complicated. One of the many problems is that the left ceded the question of character to the Right, leaving the worst elements on the Right to use it opportunistically. One of the (many) reasons it was open season on Obama for eight years is that the Left cannot articulate a defense in terms of the man's character.

    One of the (many) reasons it was open season on Obama for eight years is that the Left cannot articulate a defense in terms of the man's character.

    This one should be so easy... Obama governed for eight years without serious scandal. The problem is, in the absence of real scandal, his opponents just made stuff up and the made up stuff was somehow treated as scandal in the national discourse.

    The two most famous Stoic philosophers had markedly different backgrounds. A king (Marcus Aurelius) and an ex homeless slave (Epictetus). There's something remarkable about that. In many respects your piece made me admire my father more. He is a wise man who had to forgo secondary education for his family, but has a wisdom none of us possesses. Barack Obama's patience and humility are qualities we will miss.

    I'm not trying to hijack this comment thread, but this made me think about a lot more than politics. 


    Well , it is bigger than politics, Danny. It's also a question of how to live your life

    I love and admire President Obama, and I'm sad to see him go. I really enjoyed this post, too. I wonder, though -- do you think Stoicism makes one more (or less?) vulnerable to the tactics of Machiavells? I feel like Obama suffered politically for his values during both of his terms, but especially in the second. The Republicans seemed to have been students of Machiavelli, while Obama kept his principles in focus. 

    Part of me thinks that it's foolish to ignore those Machiavellian tactics, or simply shame people about them, which Obama sometimes did. I'm ambivalent. I want the democrats to fight back, but I don't want them to eschew their principles and become unrepentant Machiavells. Thoughts?

    I'll raise you a Gnostic and toss in a couple Luddites. May trade you a Jacobin as well, but want to see how he performs coming out of Sarasota.

    Thanks for the comment, Fie. I'm not sure Stoicism makes one more or less vulnerable to scheming Machiavells. Certainly, Obama sometimes seems to be too high-minded for the Beltway's low games. But I don't think controlling your passions and trying to strive for a good outcome is incompatible with cold political calculations.

    I would add to this sentence:

    "But Stoic self-control has so far out of fashion that we have trouble understanding it, trouble even calling it by its proper name."

    that the alt-right and other reactionary movements have tried to make their own version of Stoicism fashionable;

    And many progressive movements would say that anger must cry out at times.

    I would suggest that Obama's Stoicism is powerful today because it selectively cracks emotions open, but only on behalf of others who are oppressed. Maybe we would call this 'progressive Stoicism'; or, since it takes a movement, 'progressives' Stoicism.' 

    Well, "Neo" up through The Matrix made things cool, but since "neoliberal" not so much. "post-" still works and saves a few syllables, so "poststoic", despite (or because of) the feeling that it's all over 'cept the crying.

    Thanks for reading, Lori. I hadn't known that the alt-right had adopted a bastard form of Stoicism, but lack of compassion does not a Stoic make. And the alt-right is in fact full of grievance and hysteria. They might say they are Stoics, but they're astoundingly whiny.

    Nor does Stoicism necessarily preclude compassion for others, or a bit of righteous anger.

    I wasn't proposing that progressive Stoicism differs from the classical ideal you sketched. It's that given the past and present co-optation of 'Stoicism,' we might need to add an adjective to communicate what that classical ideal offers in our current predicament (and  'compassionate' has been tainted for a while, so I was searching for something else). The trickiness of reclaiming classical virtues now is something classicists are talking about, too.



    After Marcus Aurelius came Emperor Commodus.

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