The fact that America exists is the ultimate argument that Stoicism is not apathy and that philosophy is not mere theory. Because without Stoicism, it’s possible there would have been no revolution, no Constitution, no Bill of Rights and no Fourth of July.
Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of Seneca on his nightstand. George Washington staged a reproduction of a play about Cato at Valley Forge in the winter of ‘77/’78 to inspire the troops (having first read the Stoics as a teenager). Patrick Henry cribbed lines from that same play which we now credit to him: “Give me Liberty or give me death!” John Adams, Ben Franklin—almost all the founders were well-versed in the works of the Stoics. It’s partly what gave them the courage to found a new nation against such incredible odds, and it’s partly what set up the principles that formed that nation and changed the world.
At the core of the American experiment was liberty. At the core of Stoicism we have not only a love of freedom, but the counterbalancing virtues to that freedom: Justice. Duty. Self-Control. Honor. Selflessness. These are the traits that were required not only in those dark days of revolution, as bloody footprints from starving soldiers marked the snows in New Jersey and New York, but also the traits needed equally now in moments of prosperity and plenty, division and distraction.
So today, while you’re grilling and relaxing with friends, remember that the comfort you enjoy now grew out of a philosophy that was made to embrace discomfort and to do the right thing, whatever the costs. Remember that the American victory over the British came first because a group of American Stoics first found victory over themselves. Because for all their Stoic resignation, these men and women also deeply believed in their own agency and their own power.
Seneca said, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” The Founding Fathers built a country on that very foundation. They employed the Stoic virtues like a hammer and chisel, like saw and nail, to master their passions, divisions, tempers, interests and strive to be something better—something more—than they were remotely capable of being in the years of their colonial youth.
That wasn’t easy. It wasn’t free. But they embraced the challenge and challenge us, today, to do the same.
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