Elections are about choices and character: obviously those of the candidates, but also about our own, too. As we enter the final weeks of campaigning by one of the most widely lamented presidential slates in recent memory, we are besieged and fatigued by the increasing heat of partisan character assassination and a growing sense of desperation about the big choice that lies ahead. It’s common to hear talk of choosing a “less evil” candidate, with the accompanying discomfort of resignation. Fiery accusations of impending tyranny abound, whether it’s charges of fascism and racism against Trump or cronyism and some Constitution-wrecking theory about Hillary. This fever has become a national malady, calling out for treatment, serious introspection, and some diligent care to restore our common good.
We’d do well to turn to the late Stoics of imperial Rome to find a remedy. The world of the late Stoics was filled with more than a few tyrants, but it also boasted an Emperor who is considered one of the most humane leaders of the time, the practicing Stoic, Marcus Aurelius. Marcus held his power in the strict bounds of the philosophy he had learned from his mentor Rusticus, and through him from the lowly slave-turned-philosopher, Epictetus. Marcus had a profound grasp of the importance of character and how our individual choices must be tuned to the common good:
“Make sure you’re not made ‘Emperor,’ avoid that imperial stain. It can happen to you, so keep yourself simple, good, pure, saintly, plain, a friend of justice, god-fearing, gracious, affectionate, and strong for your proper work. Fight to remain the person that philosophy wished to make you. Revere the gods, and look after each other. Life is short—the fruit of this life is a good character and acts for the common good.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.30
Written in humility by the most powerful person on earth at the time, Marcus is calling each of us to the things that make a good life and a good society. The idea of the fruit of life being good character and acts for the common good is grounded in a notion of philosophy as both care for the soul and a practical toolbox for character formation that is largely lost to our understanding today—and we suffer from this loss. Epictetus put it plainly to his smug students, and it rings just as true for us today: “The philosopher’s lecture-hall is a hospital—you shouldn’t walk out of it feeling pleasure, but pain, for you aren’t well when you enter it.” (Epictetus, Discourses, 3.23.30)
Contrary to the popular misconception of Stoics as disengaged from the world, the lecture-hall was only a launching pad for putting things into action. Stoicism is about engagement—with the right focus. Writing a century earlier, Seneca, the powerful politician and playwright who had the unenviable position of being Nero’s teacher, got to the heart of Stoic philosophy when he reminded us that the tyranny we should fear most resides in each one of us:
“Our soul is sometimes a king, and sometimes a tyrant. A king, by attending to what is honorable, protects the good health of the body in its care, and gives it no base or sordid command. But an uncontrolled, desire-fueled, over-indulged soul is turned from a king into that most feared and detested thing—a tyrant.”
— Seneca, Moral Letters, 114.24
It’s easy to extrapolate from Donald Trump’s glaring, reality-show narcissism to the imagined excesses of a tyrant. When Trump waxes on about being able to shoot someone on 5th Avenue and not lose a vote, or is heard engaging in sexually predatory talk about women, you’d have to be sleeping to not immediately think of Nero’s atrocities to innocents on the street.
And it’s not hard for others to see another kind of tyranny in Hillary’s use of inside-Washington clout to enrich herself and in her dissembling about her handling of official communications. Seneca, too, was a political insider who became one of Rome’s wealthiest individuals and a loan he made to the occupied British Celts of 40 million sesterces helped precipitate the Boudica massacre when he called that loan in—costing Nero several legions. Of course, Nero (for other reasons) got Seneca in the end, and the insult added to that forced suicide was that Seneca has forever after been labeled tyrannodidaskalos—the tyrant teacher. As Seneca wrote in the tragedy Thyestes, “crimes often return to their teacher.”
Whether it’s a hot-mic or Wikileaks the tragedians on both sides are having a field day.
Politics and network ratings love tragic endings, but we can’t run our lives on such tales, as much light as they might shed on the fate of bad choices. We’d do well to ponder our own character and choices as we make this big choice between a candidate working from inside the political system and one formed almost entirely outside of it—both powerful individuals who are known quantities to us, even if they perspire to hide some of the details. There is a thin line between impulse and action and it takes great care for each of us to maneuver our way to better choices and an improving character. Marcus Aurelius took his baseline for assessing himself and others from Epictetus:
“Epictetus says we must discover the missing art of assent and pay special attention to the sphere of our impulses—that they are subject to reservation, to the common good, and that they are in proportion to actual worth.”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 11.37
Tuning ourselves to the good of others (variant forms of koinos=common, shared in common appear more than 80 times in Marcus’ Meditations) and the actual worth of things is hard work. How many of us actually do this work? Can we see it in the candidates we vote for? Do we excuse ourselves, but not them, for falling short? Perhaps more tellingly, do we excuse powerful political figures for things we’d never excuse in ourselves? Here we have the emperor, the most powerful man in the world, quoting in his diary the wisdom of a former slave. That wisdom was ultimately about surrender and serving the common good—about the limits of our power and the importance of checking our impulses—something every person, whether in authority or not, needs to hear.
Power and powerlessness seem so rarely to enter the same orbit—but when they do it can change the world. Think about President Abraham Lincoln meeting with, corresponding with, and learning from Frederick Douglass, another former slave of considerable wisdom and insight. Whether we’re experiencing great power or powerlessness—it’s critical to leave room for what may happen and keep the common good and the actual worth of things front and center. And, above all, be willing to learn from anyone and everyone, regardless of their station in life.
These lessons of the late Stoics give us a simple measure for making our choice this election cycle. Which candidate, in their choices and character, has most consistently engaged the powerless as well as the powerful and not only when expedient for public image-making? Which candidate has done more for the common good? With your own failings in mind, and despite any other misgivings you have, vote for the candidate who is most consistently inclusive and most committed to the common good. You have the power of your choice, and only by exercising this power will you be free in keeping with your own character and values.
That Stoic remedy would help reduce our national fever, and while helping you make that big decision in November, it will also make living with what will clearly be a tumultuous aftermath a lot easier to bear. When you go to vote and every day after, keep Marcus in mind: “To what service is my soul committed? Constantly ask yourself this and thoroughly examine yourself.” (Meditations, 5.11) Let’s have a society and leaders who reflect these commitments, too. Whether this election is decided in a landslide or by the equivalent of the hanging-chad, we’ve got a nation in need of a healing that can only begin when each of us takes our share of the remedy.
Stephen Hanselman is the co-author of The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living.