In our present political climate, stoicism is a rarely discussed topic. Nor is its relevance to proper statesmanship and good governance emphasized. In his 188-page book “Stoicism and the Statehouse,” West Virginia legislator Pat McGeehan explains the importance of the Hellenistic philosophy to those within the Liberty Movement. His ideas serve as an indispensable guide for those confronting the behemoth modern state as a “resolute minority.” Anyone considering running for political office of any kind should read this book before deciding whether to go forward.
The introductory quote by Sophocles – rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud – sets the tone for his opening anecdote about United States Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale. A winner of the Medal Honor, he was also outspoken about government deception revolving around the Gulf of Tonkin incident. McGeehan writes:
“His role was not to make policy, but to faithfully carry out lawful orders—or as his Stoic coach Epictetus put it two thousand years ago, ‘play well the given part.’”
A man deeply steeped in stoicism, Stockdale’s personal code was not well-suited for a world where smooth-talking was cherished above truth.
“In contrast to the rehearsed answers of smooth politicians sharing the stage, Stockdale’s genuine deep-thinking was mocked as confusion from the muddled mind of an old war vet.”
The challenges men of principle face in positions of power are nothing to dismiss. When elected to the West Virginia state legislature, McGeehan writes that he discovered mere idealism and optimism is insufficient to preserve a man’s character while confronting the complications and temptations serving in the office entails.
“Because of the power wielded by the modern-day State, hostility often awaits those in the statehouse with limited-government views. To remain steadfast on values such as private property and free enterprise—and to become more effective at advancing them—a means was needed to deal with this adversity. The same mental faculties of logical reason that dictated my political philosophy also carried me back to Stoicism, not only to confront hardship in my public life, but to improve my personal one as well.
“The heart of this book is advice designed for those who hold office. It is custom-made for public service in any elected assembly, but tailored to those persons boldly committed to free markets and non-intervention—and because of these convictions, are typically labeled constitutionalists, libertarians, or constitutional conservatives.”
The book is divided into various sections. The first provides a concise summary of stoicism and its role in the Roman Empire. The second offers a succinct, compelling study of the life of Cato the Younger, a man who revered by the Founding Fathers for his opposition to growing tyranny within the Roman Republic.
“During an age when nation-wide crisis was the norm, Cato’s endurance through his many personal and political ordeals makes him more than a footnote. He should be realized again as the central committed figure who stood against forces which ultimately destroyed the Roman way of life… In many ways, for the present-day Stoic—especially the one underneath the statehouse—Cato is a superb model to emulate.”
At its heart, stoicism is founded on the premise that happiness is attained through virtue, with an emphasis on rejecting luxury and self-command of one’s emotions, while embracing hardship without complaint. As Epictetus declared, character is purely a matter of personal choice, because no external force ultimately controls a man’s judgment.
“However, for a Stoic, at times it may be necessary to endure severe suffering, without any comfort, in order to achieve the virtuous end,” McGeehan writes.
The third part of the book contains maxims or adages intended to equip an individual both personal and political matters. These work well as “sound-bites for stoics.” For example: introduce your own ideas, irrespective of the result, avoid making ‘deals.’
McGeehan writes in an accessible manner for regular readers, which gives the book value beyond just prospective office-holders. Stoicism is a philosophy of value to all, and a republic cannot depend solely on the moral conduct of its politicians; they are, in many ways, a reflection of the people whom they represent.