Wednesday, November 5, 2008

The Stoic Path: Barack Obama, Philosopher King

What sort of characteristics should we observe in a Stoic individual? What kind of face would he or she present to the world? We need look no further than newly elected US President Barack Obama. I find it striking how many of President-elect Obama's qualities mirror those described by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. These are qualities he admired in people who were influential in the development of his own Stoicism and which he practiced himself in his leadership as the world's first Philosopher King.

Try this on for yourself. Here are a few of those qualities Marcus found in a wise leader, which he refers to in his Meditations: a just mixture in the moral character of sweetness and dignity; the perception that he thinks carefully as he speaks; the belief that he never has had bad intention; to never show amazement or surprise; to seem never in a hurry; never to put off doing what must be done; to never be perplexed or dejected; and never to laugh to disguise aggravation. Each of these is a quality that mirrors the mind of the leader. In other words these qualities reflect the real nature of the leader's soul or psyche.

Here are a few others: to be beneficent, ready to forgive, free from falsehood; to never make you feel that he is a better person than you; to give the impression that no person feels that he or she is hated by him; to display undeviating steadiness of purpose, a steady gravity without affectation (gravitas), a compassionate intolerance of ignorance, mildness of temper, a love of work and perseverance, the giving to each and every person what is due, and a readiness to listen to any new ideas. These are but a few. But how many of those qualities do we see mirrored in Obama? And are these not those qualities that we admire and desire in a wise and transformational leader? Barack Obama might indeed become the first true Philosopher King the world has seen since Marcus Aurelius.

Russell McNeil, PhD, is the author of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius: Selections Annotated and Explained by Skylight Paths Publishing.


Max Weismann said...

We have recently made an exciting discovery--three years after writing the wonderfully expanded third edition of How to Read a Book, Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren made a series of thirteen 14-minute videos on the art of reading. The videos were produced by Encyclopaedia Britannica. For reasons unknown, sometime after their original publication, these videos were lost.

When we discovered them and how intrinsically edifying they are, we negotiated an agreement with Encyclopaedia Britannica to be the exclusive worldwide agent to make them available.

For those of you who teach, this is great for the classroom.

I cannot over exaggerate how instructive these programs are--we are so sure that you will agree, if you are not completely satisfied, we will refund your donation.

Please go here to see a clip and learn more:

Max Weismann said...

RE: A Great Idea At The Time: The Rise, Fall, And Curious Afterlife of The Great Books
by Alex Beam

Argumentum ad Hominem

The subtitle should have read, Every Negative Fact and Innuendo I Could Dredge Up

Although he was not particularly unkind to me in the book, I found virtually every page to be a smart-alecky and snide diatribe of the worst order against the Great Books, Adler, Hutchins, et al. Plus the book is replete with errors of commission and omission.

As an effective antidote, I prescribe Robert Hutchins' pithy essay, The Great Conversation.

If the Great Books crusade is as bleak as Beam purports, then happily, not many will read his invective book.

Max Weismann,
President and co-founder with Mortimer Adler, Center for the Study of The Great Ideas
Chairman, The Great Books Academy

smellincoffee said...

Dr. McNeil:

Have you seen the lecture series on Marcus Aurelius on YouTube? I don't know who the lecturer is, but I'm finding the lecture itself quite enjoyable.

The above is the first part, which just offers background information on the Hellenistic philosophies.

Martin Wilt said...

This is funny. Stoics always say that it is not what a person says, but how he behaves. The name Marcus Aurelius stands right up there next to Nero, Domitian, and Decius as one of the worst persecutors of Christians. Sanctioned by the stoics of the day; visitors to the Roman Coliseum were entertained as they watched about a half a million men, women, and children slaughtered; purely for their entertainment. Associating President Obama with this philosopher goes beyond an insult.

Russell McNeil said...

Marcus was far from being worst regarding Christian persecution and was in no way proactive regarding anti-Christian policy following a long-standing "don't ask, don't tell" procedure. To have actively persecuted would have been thoroughly inconsistent with Stoic principles. In this era Christians were seen as a cult and what was morally repugnant (from a Stoic perspective) was the Christian willingness to pursue death rather than to simply accept death with equanimity. In reality - as far as Marcus is concerned - he actually knew very little about the Christians (other than the prejudice current in the 2nd century) and accepted advice from ill-informed counsel. But he had no policy in place to actively seek Christians.

As far as Obama is concerned perhaps you ought to listen to the Tapestry interview on this before labeling the idea as an "insult." I do believe the argument offered there is cogent.

Russ McNeil