Monday, January 16, 2017

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 quotes. 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 and18th 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.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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