You know sometimes you hear a quote or an aphorism and you think, That’s it. That’s me. That’s my philosophy for life.
Well it turns out that is a pretty common and timeless thing. At the very least, we know it goes back to the time of George Washington. Washington’s favorite play was the play Cato, about the Roman Senator and Stoic philosopher by Joseph Addison. This play, which was written in 1712, was hugely famous in its time, and, with some irony, it might be called the “Hamilton” of the day. It was so familiar to the people in the late 18th century that it could be quoted without attribution and everyone knew exactly where the line came from. And Washington in particular liked to quote one line that must have spoken to him the way those quotes speak to us now—where you just know that nothing will capture what you think and feel about life better than that.
“Free,” he said in a letter to a friend after the Revolution about his return to private life, “from the bustle of a camp and the intrigues of court, I shall view the busy world ‘in the calm light of mild philosophy,’ and with that serenity of mind, which the Soldier in his pursuit of glory, and the Statesman of fame have not time to enjoy.” In fact, in the book The Political Philosophy of George Washington, the author Jeffry H. Morrison notes that in a single two week period in 1797, Washington quoted that same line in three different letters. And later, in Washington’s greatest but probably least known moment, when he talked down the mutinous troops who were plotting to overthrow the U.S government at Newburgh, he quoted the same line again, as he urged them away from acting on their anger and frustration.
In the calm lights of mild philosophy. That’s Stoicism. That’s using Reason to temper our impulses and our emotions. As Epictetus said, it’s about putting our impressions up to the test. It’s what Marcus Aurelius talked about when he said that our life is what our thoughts make it. That what we choose to see determines how we will feel.
We must follow this advice today and every day. It served Cato well and Washington even better. All that we see must be illuminated by the calm lights of mild philosophy. So we can see what it really is. So we don’t do anything we regret. So we can enjoy this wonderful gift of life we possess, whatever our station.