Today is the 4th of July. It’s the celebration of the victory of American independence.
In the history of Stoicism, that was no small day either. Because Stoicism was so much a part of the lives of the American Founding Fathers. In fact, it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the United States might not have an independence day to celebrate if the Founding Fathers hadn’t been inspired by some of the world’s great Stoics: Cato, Seneca, Marcus Aurelius.
And they needed it. Imagine what they faced in their time: Blood in the streets. A revolution against an empire. Families ripped apart because a war forced them to choose sides. Repeated defeats in battle. The uncertainty of victory, followed by the even more uncertain work of building a government. All of that while there wasn’t even a real country to speak of. When the Founders did their fighting, “America” was just an idea. You were more likely to call yourself a “Virginian” or a “Pennsylvanian” than you were an “American.”
What better philosophy for such troubled times! There’s a reason that Thomas Jefferson kept a copy of Seneca on his nightstand. A reason that George Washington staged a reproduction of a play about Cato at Valley Forge to inspire the troops. A reason that Patrick Henry cribbed lines from that play that we now credit to him: “Give me Liberty or give me death!”
Stoicism isn’t a philosophy made for winning rhetorical points, or looking good, or appearing like you know what you’re doing. It’s a philosophy built for action—which is precisely why so many of its strongest supporters and followers come out of difficult times. What Stoicism gives them—and what it can give us—is exactly what tough moments demand: calmness; level-headedness; the ability to separate what is in our control from what isn’t; and Stoicism holds dear many of the rights enshrined in the American vision: justice, responsibility, equality.
So today, while you’re grilling and relaxing with friends, remember that the comfort you have now grew out of a philosophy that was made to embrace discomfort. Remember that the American victory over the British came first because a group of American Stoics first found victory over themselves. Seneca said, “Most powerful is he who has himself in his own power.” The Founding Fathers built a country because they mastered their passions, divisions, tempers, interests and they strove to be something better—something better than they were remotely close to being at the time.
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