The Philosopher King

Posted on 06. Nov, 2009 by in Uncategorized

“The noblest kind of retribution is not to become like your enemy.” – Marcus Aurelius


President Obama has been variously identified as a post-partisan figure, a bi-partisan compromiser, an appeaser of the right, a dictator, a Communist in a centrist’s clothes and a silver-tongued political lightweight who’s afraid to get his hands dirty. But really, he’s something much older and better than any of these. The President of the United States is a Stoic.

While campaigning for president, Barack Obama developed a reputation for level-headedness, a professorial demeanor and an analytical approach to problem-solving. This reputation has been furthered during his time in office; as his critics have become less civil, the president has remained detached, encouraging adversaries who show a willingness to compromise, like Senators Olympia Snowe and Arlen Specter and listening to inconvenient truths that require deliberation and action, as with General Stanley McChrystal’s analysis that troop levels in Afghanistan must be increased if the country is to be stabilized.

The standard political analysis of Obama’s behavior has been that his calm demeanor disarms his enemies by making them appear uncouth and uncompromising (see the entire Republican delegation in the House) and encourages allies to voice support because they know that their friendship won’t be manipulated into justification for policies they would not otherwise support (as with the Bush administration). This allows him to build coalitions for broad policies such as the stimulus package and the reformation of American health care from the far left (who feel that he’s not doing enough) through to the center (who go along only with great cajoling) without being drawn into a bruising political fight.

The standard political analysis is correct, but political considerations don’t seem to affect Obama’s cool. That is to say, he isn’t only calm and collected when he’s trying to sway public opinion or convince a lawmaker to side with him.

Stoic philosophy dates back to roughly the fourth century B.C., and while the term is now applied to people who seem detached from the world in the manner of auto-didacts or sociopaths, the original ideas espoused by Zeno were not designed to remove the practitioner from the world, but rather allow them to effectively engage and change their surroundings. The world exists in a set form, governed by unchangeable laws that must be accepted in order to understand and change certain aspects of it. The country operates within the framework of the Constitution, but laws can be passed that tweak day-to-day operations. Enemies of one’s ideas will arise, and the best method of dealing with them is through a clear, logical discussion of the issues being debated. The perception that Stoic philosophy suppresses emotions is misguided, and President Obama shows exactly how.

It’s obvious that the president is angered by injustice, feels pride in progress and loves his family, but when he speaks about these issues, his arguments are always rational and polished. While his rhetoric can soar, his tone is always soothing. Strong emotions might motivate a Stoic to action, but they cannot govern his arguments, lest the emotion distract from the solution he proposes to the problem that aroused his feelings.

An insightful profile of Barack and Michelle Obama’s marriage from last week’s New York Times Magazine shows the First Husband to be Stoic even in his family life. While a State Senator, Obama refused to abandon a political career despite his poor finances and the birth of his daughter. But he did drive from his office in Springfield to his home in Chicago every weekend to fulfill his filial obligations. This should not be mistaken for compromise. To compromise is to literally break a promise, not because one lied, but because the situation demands the promise go unfilled. President George H.W. Bush compromised when he raised taxes. State Senator Barack Obama did not compromise with his wife, he undertook an extra, logical burden (the drive across Illinois) in order to be with his family without destroying his opportunity to do work he thought valuable. This is the essence of Stoicism.

Acrimony surrounds President Obama as he seeks to keep the promises he made to the American electorate. Still he floats above the fray, neither calling the opposition names nor betraying his core principles. Health care reform, a maddeningly vague phrase promised by the candidate Barack Obama, looks to be a done deal by the end of the year; the war in Iraq is being carefully wound down; climate change legislation has already passed the House; the president has been thoughtful but firm regarding Afghanistan.

The worst that can be said about the president’s response to a problem is that he has responded in kind to the petulance of Fox News’ resident windbags. Yet even there he has been Stoic, since not all opposition will respond to reason, some must be ignored.

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