From its beginning Stoicism and politics were inseparable. After all, three of the most prominent Stoics—Marcus Aurelius, Seneca and Cato—operated in political life at its highest levels. Marcus Aurelius was emperor, Seneca advised Nero, and Cato was the senator who after nearly twenty years of courageous political leadership, and civil war, made the ultimate sacrifice to inspire resistance to tyranny by committing suicide rather than submit to Caesar’s rule. And it is Cato who takes center stage in West Virginia’s House of Delegates member and former United States Air Force Intelligence Officer and Captain Pat McGeehan’s book, Stoicism and the Statehouse: An Old Philosophy Serving a New Idea. As there are a few US Senators who we know for a fact read pages from The Daily Stoic each morning, Pat’s vision is already partly coming to pass!
We reached out to him to ask him about his book, the resurgence of Stoicism in today’s politics, how he originally discovered the philosophy, his favorite Stoic quotes, and much more! Pat’s answers are deep, thoughtful, and inspiring.
And of course, we asked him for his thoughts whether Stoicism promotes resignation. You can probably guess what he has to say, but here’s a part of his response to the critics:
“The pursuit of virtue demands action, and the Stoics rejected the kind of sheltered withdrawal promoted by the Garden of Epicureans. Stoicism can greatly improve the individual’s life, and by default, those around them—and this is the real power the philosophy holds for social progress.”
Enjoy our interview below with Pat McGeehan!
You’re the author of Stoicism and the Statehouse: An Old Philosophy Serving a New Idea. How did you first become interested in Stoicism? And why and when did you decide to write the book?
I was first introduced to Stoicism in college, during a core philosophy class at the US Air Force Academy. The material casing the Stoics though was miniscule. In fact, my professor’s lecture on the subject lasted maybe half an hour. All the same, the candor of the “dichotomy of control” guideline drew me to it, especially after this underlying point in the lesson became more personal to me. The trials and tribulations of Admiral James Stockdale were discussed, a highly-decorated Naval officer who was held in captivity in North Vietnam. For almost eight years, Jim Stockdale was brutally tortured. He spent four years in solitary confinement and two in leg irons. Jim Stockdale credited Stoicism—and in particular Epictetus—with not only surviving his torturous incarceration as a prisoner of war, but conquering his extreme circumstances altogether.
I had briefly met Admiral Stockdale by happenstance, not long before my one and only academic class on Stoicism. He came to campus during my first year at the Air Force Academy and delivered a talk about honor and duty.
Growing up, I learned about Jim Stockdale early in life, through my father, a career military officer himself. Like Stockdale, my Dad was also a military pilot and though he was not a practicing Stoic, he exemplified much of what would be deemed Stoic virtue. His memory and plight have always motivated my own push to pursue virtue, as best as I can, and he would tell me stories about the Medal of Honor winner, along with other heroic figures. My parents often hosted military dignitaries at our home, men and women who had performed their duty admirably under extraordinary conditions. Some had even served with Stockdale. By the time of my chance encounter with him in college, I was pretty well acquainted with his brutal plight in the infamous “Hanoi Hilton.” So right before the Stoic resistance leader took the stage in the auditorium, I managed to work up enough guts to grab his autograph.
Stockdale was a man of the highest character, and his perseverance and lifelong equanimity are empirical testaments to Stoicism itself. These experiences from my youth always stuck with me, and helped carry me back to the philosophy later in my own life, when I began serious searching for ways to confront my own demons.
By the time I reached my thirties, I had achieved some success, but had been through many failures as well. I was elected at a young age to the legislature in my native state of West “by God” Virginia. My perception of the lack of principle and logic underneath the statehouse though became very frustrating. I’ve always had a sort of drive for truth-seeking if you will, and after much reading and researching, I once again found the Stoics.
From there, I never really looked back. I started adopting the philosophy several years ago. It brings me peace trying my best to stay the course of “right reason,” and also allows me to keep my wits and good judgment in a rather difficult environment at the state capitol, one that is by nature, ripe with egotistical personalities. This adverse setting can be especially the case, given the sort of uncommon limited-government political values I hold for an elected representative.
Stoicism has helped prevent the development of negative emotion which in turn, has improved not only my public life, but personal relations with family and friends. Because of this, I decided to write the book. I started writing last summer, and the first draft was done by the fall, though work, family obligations, and duty at the statehouse prolonged its final publication until last month.
Critics have argued that Stoicism is a philosophy of ‘resignation’ or accepting the status quo. Obviously, most Stoics would disagree, but how do you see the philosophy as a driver of change or improvement to society? Or is it simply conservative?
Stoicism is certainly anything but a philosophy of ‘resignation’—if we are using the word in its colloquial sense. The pursuit of virtue demands action, and the Stoics rejected the kind of sheltered withdrawal promoted by the Garden of Epicureans. Stoicism can greatly improve the individual’s life, and by default, those around them—and this is the real power the philosophy holds for social progress. Anymore, there is less emphasis placed on individual morality, on individual responsibility. We live in a culture today—at least in the United States—that problems can and should be solved by the collective, which often means the government. Through this transfer of natural obligations, the individual is more-or-less “freed” of accountability, and even rewarded for failure, which props up this general attitude. This has steadily led to a shift in cultural norms where vice is accepted with open arms. Today, impiety is systematically enabled and encouraged, directly and indirectly. Sometimes it is re-packaged as virtue—but nevertheless, real virtue under the Western definition has decayed. This manifestation of systemic vice has brought on a whole host of degenerate social problems.
Stoicism can help counteract this trend. It can give back a strong, classically-understood moral compass to the individual, and even if just a small minority practice living the good life, such examples can create a disproportionate impact. Especially if Stoic ethics, rightly understood, are applied to the modern Leviathan government driving this de-civilizing regression.
Still there is no denying that Stoicism is have a resurgence in today’s politics. Senator Sasse even talks about it in his new book and we know of a few US Senators who read The Daily Stoic each morning. Why do you think Stoicism is having a moment?
By and large, I think generations go through repeated historical cycles, where for several reasons based in human nature, the “old ways” of former generations lose their grip on younger up-and-coming age groups. If you examine history, you can see this trend throughout a number of “awakening” periods in the past. Sometimes this is a healthy thing. But unfortunately, many times it is not. Some of this renewed Stoic interest does not resemble a resurgence of authentic classical Stoic philosophy, but has many attributes similar to superficial spiritual quests from the past, where snake-oil salesmen and mystics peddled comfy answers to life, full of promises but devoid of long-term mental investment in rationality.
It was not for some time after I adopted the Stoic philosophy that I became aware of this new-age revival. One observation is that many of the leaders of this quasi-resurgence have perverted the core of the philosophy itself. Many strike me as showcasing Stoicism as some sort of Neo-Epicureanism. Or styling it with an Eastern-like flavor—and sometimes almost pseudo-nihilist in nature—where tranquility of the mind is the foremost desire sought after. Obviously such a promise can be appealing to newcomers, just as perhaps any get-rich-quick scheme can be.
But Stoicism is decidedly Western. And rigorously demanding at that. It rests on logic and rationality. Its aim is not tranquility first, but always the pursuit of virtue. Equanimity of the mind is certainly a result from such an authentic pursuit, a utilitarian benefit if you will. But it is a byproduct of right reason, and should never be construed as the objective itself. Otherwise one risks inaction, a failure of duty, and vice—which is precisely where this backwards interpretation can lead.
As for Stoicism’s rise in American politics, I’m unaware of any current politicians who practice the Stoic philosophy. I’ve come across articles that have mentioned one or two recent US Presidents who have been cited as casual readers of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. But with today’s rampant political populism, sometimes image is everything to the politician, and I suppose flashing novelty literature from the ancients can give off a cultured look. In a way, this begs office-holders to answer the Socratic question: Is it better to seem Just or to be Just?
Hopefully there are some in office that are taking Stoic counsel into consideration. Most especially, I’m hopeful they take not just the personal conduct of Stoicism to heart, but embrace where such Stoic thought leads to politically. Because we should remember, Stoic ethics had a deep impact on the development of natural law, which ultimately revolves around the simple protection of life and private property. These universal principles are partly rooted from the Stoic “cosmopolitan citizen” and simply cannot be reconciled with the Leviathan state—or government policies of continued mass welfare and warfare—which systematically rob and murder their fellow man. After all, what is the difference between a common criminal who steals your wallet and a politician who commits the same act through decree? Or the politician who sanctions unprovoked offensive wars around the world, murdering hundreds of thousands of innocents in the process. If we are to stoically “live according to nature”—or reason—then reason would dictate that you cannot exercise virtue towards your fellow man while at the same time, instigate force against him via the State apparatus. Virtue and the initiation of aggression are mutually incompatible.
Cato plays a significant part in your book. What do you wish that today’s politicians unfamiliar with him took away from his life—and Stoicism in general—as lessons? And what would you tell an ordinary citizen? Why should they look up to Cato?
Cato the Younger was a man of uncommon integrity. He faced extraordinary circumstances and did so with unwavering commitment. Though the politics of the late Roman Republic cannot be directly compared to those of the modern era, there are some parallels that can be pulled out. During his lifetime, political havoc and extreme turmoil was on the rise—institutionalized corruption, the spread of domestic welfarism, violent mob-rule politics, sanctioned assassinations, and the growing warfare state. On the other side of these radical norms was Cato. No matter the chaotic adversity, he stayed the course of his convictions. He was an opponent to the very forces that would eventually bring down Roman civilization…or for that matter, forces that would bring destruction to any civilization. He may not have fully recognized the laws of the cosmopolitan citizen—or the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—but he seems to have certainly acknowledged that much of the driving causes behind the political upheaval did not fit with these Stoic ideals. This was definitely the case with his opposition to one-man rule. It’s a bit disappointing that he has fallen off the educational radar, because we can glean a great deal of relevant political and personal matters from Cato’s moral life and legacy. For the layman, I would ask, do you want politicians in office who continue to lie, steal, and cheat? To bribe and accept bribes? If not, then look Cato up. He’s a good example of the opposite.
One of the knocks against Cato was this his purity and ego made him an ineffective politician. He couldn’t work well with others, he refused compromise in any form. As a politician, how do you think about that?
Stoicism centers around exercising the virtues, and a major feature of virtue itself is truth. Determining the truth, telling the truth, pursuing the truth, living the truth. And one of the defining elements of truth is pureness. The Stoics of course advocated for making progress toward this truth, toward the ideal goal of the sage—and although this is quite possibly unattainable, it was always the high bar that was set. The Stoic sage represents the epitome of character—and this character is uncompromising, for by nature, the sage is completely pure.
To criticize Cato the Younger on the grounds of purity, or his uncompromising character, is in a way—damning the Stoic philosophy itself. Obviously I reject these arguments, as they can generally be a go-to tactic heard from the modern-day Caesar’s of the world—who cater to the legions and the plebs, promising hand-outs or security against nonexistent threats. So they are nothing new, and the twenty-first century populists that dominate political discourse frequently use the same false premise to shame those who would remain consistently opposed. They discredit the adherence to First Principles as a nuisance to an agenda, and in doing so, they have in a way reversed or redefined the long-standing meaning of Western virtue. For compromise by itself is not praiseworthy. Compromise can sometimes be involved in virtuous intentions and actions, but compromise can never stand as a virtue alone, especially if it means the sacrifice of principle.
And ineffective? Cato was very effective, otherwise two millennia later, there would likely be little of his life to discuss. The sources indicate his effectiveness stemmed precisely from his uncompromising character. In a way, he was something of an enigma. Cato had no large physical stature to speak of. He served in the army, but not for long, and definitely never realized grand military achievements next to say Pompey’s or Caesar’s. He was bright but as far as we know, never penned philosophy in the fashion of Cicero or shared his talent for elegant public speaking. He was left an inheritance, but he was certainly not wealthy in the same sense as say Crassus. By all accounts, his rivals and contemporaries held considerable advantages, yet they admired Cato. Cicero certainly did. Even Caesar gives him subtle praise in his memoirs.
Cato had the force of personality and conviction, and this by itself is what persuaded other men to listen and so often follow his lead—even down the most consequential paths. Acting on genuine convictions can be praiseworthy, especially when they are true yet remain unpopular.
Adherence to philosophy draws ridicule. Just as adherence to political First Principles. Many modern politicians have abandoned these First Principles of classical Western thought in favor of centralized power. And the “virtue of compromise” often helps to mask or conceal this trend towards accumulating political power at the expense of individual liberty—and the disposal of the natural laws of life and property.
I think it is quite a bit of shame to walk into a bookstore and glance over the numerous biographies that implicitly or explicitly praise Julius Caesar, a man who slaughtered hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children. And yet Cato is a footnote, with an asterisk near his name that he couldn’t work well with others. Who should be venerated? Who had the real ego? This speaks loudly about the status of virtue within modern society.
Do you have a Stoic daily practice in your own life? Or any quotes you think of regularly?
I keep Epictetus’ Manual with me at the statehouse. I usually try to read over parts of it a few times a week, at night and in the morning. I don’t necessarily repeat specific sections or quotes to myself frequently, but I do rehearse what the day could bring, and then afterwards, what the day brought and how I faired against it. And what I can do better the next time. One line from Epictetus I do keep close: “First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.”