Ever on [Marcus Aurelius’] lips was a saying of Plato’s, that those states prospered where the philosophers were kings or the kings philosophers. — Historia Augusta
Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius’ (121–180 AD) was the most famous proponent of the Greek philosophy known as Stoicism. Having just written a book about Marcus, I’m often asked what the Stoic emperor would think of the current US president, Donald Trump. How would their political ideals and leadership qualities compare?
Stoicism has experienced a resurgence over recent decades, which extended into the political realm. Recently, Pat McGeehan, a Republican legislator in the West Virginia House of Delegates, wrote a book titled Stoicism and the Statehouse (2017). It was inspired, in part, by the example of James Stockdale, who drew on his knowledge of Stoic philosophy while enduring torture for over seven years in the notorious Hanoi Hilton, during the Vietnam War. Stockdale later ran as a vice presidential candidate in the 1992 election, on the same ticket as the independent Ross Perot. He once wrote that the sine qua non of a leader lies “in his having the character, the heart, to deal spontaneously, honorably, and candidly with people, perplexities, and principles.” Stoicism is a virtue ethic, which prizes moral wisdom and strength of character. Stockdale agreed with Will Durant’s statement that it therefore “produced the strongest characters of its time”, exceptional leaders, “men of courage, and saintliness, and goodwill,” including Marcus Aurelius.
When General James Mattis announced he was a fan of Stoicism recently, it raised the question of how Stoic virtue ethics might inform his conduct as Secretary of Defence under the leadership of President Trump. While in office, Mattis told an audience of military cadets that the one book every American should read is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. “In combat”, he said, “the reason I kept a tattered copy in my rucksack to pull out at times was it allowed me to look at things with a little distance.” Mattis drew inspiration from Stoicism when frustrated with all “the political heave ho” in Washington and the apparent inexperience of certain individuals around him. He mused that the Empress Faustina, and Marcus’ son and co-emperor, Commodus, “were not people that you’d want to spend much time with”. Marcus Aurelius’ attitude toward these challenges clearly struck a chord with Mattis. What he admired most was the “humility and the dignity with which he conducted his life” as a ruler, even in the face of extreme circumstances. A few months later, of course, General Mattis resigned from the Trump administration.
At the beginning of Mattis’ well-worn copy of The Meditations, he must have read the passage where Marcus sets forth his Stoic political ideals. Marcus’ friend and tutor, the Aristotelian Claudius Severus, taught him what it meant to love truth, justice, and his fellow man. He also introduced him to the political values of famous Roman Stoic republicans, such as Cato the Younger and Thrasea Paetus who sacrificed their lives opposing despots — Julius Caesar and Emperor Nero respectively. From their example, Marcus learned to cherish:
[…] the idea of a republic in which there is the same law for all, a republic administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed. — Meditations, 1.14
We can see that he lived and ruled by these principles. Marcus was acclaimed emperor with the full support of the Senate and yet he insisted that, for the first time in Roman history, power should be shared by two co-emperors. His adoptive brother and son-in-law, Lucius Verus, was therefore appointed to rule alongside him.
Marcus typically confirmed appointments and ratified important decisions through the Senate. The Historia Augusta states that he significantly extended the powers of Senators, making them “the judge in many inquiries and even in those which belonged to his own jurisdiction.” We’re told that Marcus showed more respect to the Senate than any other emperor. The Stoics believed that a mixed constitution was the best form of rule because it could combine the best elements of different political systems by allowing different branches of government to provide checks and balances for one another. Marcus genuinely viewed himself as a servant of the people therefore and actively sought to share power with his co-emperor and the Senate. In other words, despite being the emperor of Rome, he was arguably perceived as less of an autocrat than Donald Trump is today.
We’re told that he ruled in such an exceptionally tolerant manner that even though a popular satirist constantly ridiculed him, Marcus was not offended. He refused to do anything to punish such critics or restrict their freedom of speech. The same historian writes:
Toward the people he acted just as one acts in a free state. He was at all times exceedingly reasonable both in restraining men from evil and in urging them to good, generous in rewarding and quick to forgive, thus making bad men good, and good men very good, and he even bore with unruffled temper the insolence of not a few. — Historia Augusta
The Stoics believed that a true ruler, or leader, must be unswayed by flattery and unperturbed by insults. This notion perhaps goes back to Antisthenes whose saying Marcus Aurelius quoted with approval: “It is a king’s part to do good and be spoken of ill” (Meditations, 7.36). In his play Hercules Furens, the Stoic philosopher Seneca likewise wrote “’Tis the first art of kings, the power to suffer hate.” Arguably, though, President Trump has been rather less tolerant of criticisms in the free press and other media than the Emperor Marcus Aurelius would have been.
General Mattis also mentioned to those cadets that Marcus Aurelius spent much of his reign far from home, fighting the northern tribes along the Danube. The First Marcomannic War was interrupted by a civil war in 175 AD. An uprising instigated by Marcus’ most senior general in the east, Avidius Cassius, who had presumptuously acclaimed himself emperor in Egypt. Mattis admired the way Marcus Aurelius responded to this and other events, musing that “the commitment to his country, to his troops, really comes through” as you read the pages of The Meditations.
Marcus’ response to the usurper Avidius Cassius is one of the clearest examples in the history books of Stoic philosophy being put into action by a political leader. As soon as news reached Rome of the rebellion the Senate freaked out. Their knee-jerk reaction was to officially denounce Cassius as an “enemy of the people” (hostis publicus) and seize his assets. This, of course, escalated the crisis. The populace became afraid that Cassius would march on Rome, sacking the city to exact revenge. It would probably have taken over a week for a dispatch rider bearing the news to reach Marcus Aurelius’ army camp on the northern frontier. What the emperor did next was reported in detail by the Roman historian Cassius Dio, who even provides the reputed text of the speech he delivered before the gathered legionnaires — it’s frankly astounding.
Marcus declared that if Cassius had sought to impeach his authority peacefully he would have voluntarily stepped down from office and spoken before a Senate hearing where the claims against him could have been judged impartially, through due process. One of the most important ethical principles that the Stoics inherited from Socrates was the doctrine that no man does evil knowingly. Based on this premise, Marcus overcame his naturally quick temper, developing instead empathy and a reputation for showing clemency and forgiveness. He refused to blame Cassius or express anger toward him. Instead he insisted the most plausible explanation was that the rebels had acted in error, mistakenly believing rumours of his death from illness. Marcus therefore announced that he was officially pardoning everyone involved in the rebellion against him.
Cassius refused to stand down so, ironically, his own officers turned on him, beheading him in an ambush. They deemed that preferable to facing the might of the loyalist army advancing toward them under the rightful emperor’s command. Having been pardoned they had no more reason to fight. The civil war ended with minimal bloodshed about three months after it had begun. Cassius was a strict disciplinarian, notorious for his cruelty, who dismissed Marcus as a “philosophical old women” and a weak leader. However, though they feared Cassius, his officers weren’t willing to risk their skins for him, whereas Marcus’ troops loved him and remained steadfastly loyal.
Another Roman historian, Herodian, wrote of Marcus Aurelius:
The ruler who emplants in the hearts of his subjects not fear resulting from cruelty, but love occasioned by kindness, is most likely to complete his reign safely. For it is not those who submit from necessity but those who are persuaded to obedience who continue to serve and to suffer without suspicion and without pretense of flattery. And they never rebel unless they are driven to it by violence and arrogance.
President Trump has watched one after another of his former allies leak information, turn on him, and even testify against him in court. These are the fairweather friends the Stoics warn us against: friendships of expediency. The president has also been quick to get rid of appointees who questioned his judgement. Marcus Aurelius, by contrast, surrounded himself with a handful of carefully chosen “friends of the emperor”, hand-picked because of their wisdom and strength of character. He encouraged them to speak plainly to him, and he retained them even when they challenged his decisions.
I think it’s fair to conclude that President Trump doesn’t come out of it very well when his character traits and leadership qualities are compared to those of Marcus Aurelius. General Mattis, and others who have closely read their tattered copies of The Meditations, must surely have noticed this. Presidential historian Jon Meacham, wrote of the surprising relevance Marcus Aurelius’ “optimistic Stoicism” has for the crises faced by contemporary US politicians. In doing so, Meacham noted some the main qualities Marcus sought to embody were truthfulness, humility, and affection for his neighbours. Are any of these virtues exemplified, though, by the current US President?
The Stoics, who were notorious for their paradoxes, would say that true leadership, or as they put it kingship, is a state of mind. Kingship can be possessed by anyone no matter how humble their station in life. Diogenes the Cynic was an exile who lived like a beggar but somehow more majestically than Alexander the Great, whom legend claims he looked upon as, at best, an equal. Whether or not the president is presidential, we should all aspire to possess the virtues of leadership ourselves by living as wisely and responsibly as we can, treating others courteously, and so on. “Only the virtuous man rules,” say the Stoics, “and even if he does not in all circumstances do so in actuality, still in all circumstances he does so by disposition.” In other words, leadership is a state of mind, a truly “kingly” or “presidential” character can be exhibited regardless of our station in life. Indeed, the virtues of leadership potentially exist within each and every one of us and that’s the first place we should start looking for them.
This post was previously published on Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life and is republished here with permission from the author.
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