Stoicism and the Statehouse – A Review and Interview with Pat McGeehan by Eric O. Scott

“Becoming something of a majority leader, Cato pressed his conservative optimates to pass a resolution condemning Pompey’s attempt to change election law for his own interest…

“The Stoic leading the statehouse thwarted the conqueror at every turn, using his now-perfected filibuster to kill the populist legislation.  With little room to maneuver, Pompey would try a new approach.”

—Pat McGeehan, Stoicism and the Statehouse, p. 56–7.

 

Try as we might to argue to the contrary, Stoic philosophy has often been stereotyped as a passive and complacent approach to life.  After all, if genuine happiness comes from within, then what motivation do we have to fight for change in the external world?

This view of the philosophy is mistaken for a slew of theoretical reasons, and most admirers of the Roman Stoics can offer some explanation of why action—especially action in the service of the human community—is perfectly in line with Stoic values and principles.

The ultimate rebuttal to our critics, however, can’t be found in theoretical arguments, but only in their application to the details of lived practice.  This is why West Virginia state delegate Pat McGeehan’s new book, Stoicism and the Statehouse: An Old Philosophy Serving a New Idea (Proctorville, OH: Wythe-North Publishing, 2017, 152 pages), is such a welcome addition to the small-but-growing set of books written by active practitioners of contemporary Stoicism.  Here I’ll provide a brief overview of the book, and then we’ll dive into an interview with McGeehan himself.

“The Foundation of Liberty for the Modern World”

McGeehan is a US Air Force veteran and former businessman who represents the northern tip of the West Virginia “panhandle”—a rural area sandwiched snugly between the Ohio river to the west and Pennsylvania to the east.  He views Stoicism as not only a powerful philosophy of personal ethics, but also as a tradition that, through its enduring contributions to various aspects of Western thought, ultimately “laid the foundation of liberty for the modern world” (p. 11).

Throughout the book, McGeehan presents a view of Stoicism that is targeted at people (elected officials in particular) who see gross problems with our social systems as they stand, and who “are willing to do something about it.”  After a brief summary of Stoic principles that emphasizes prosocial action (“duty is at the center of virtue”), the bulk of the book consists of two parts: first, a thrilling (and downright page-turning) narrative covering the life of the Roman senator Cato the Younger, his ethics, and his exploits in defense of the Republic—climaxing with Julius Caesar’s invasion of the capital and the bloody civil war that ensued.  Second, McGeehan offers a series of short pieces of advice personalized for elected politicians. This part of the book draws heavily on the Roman Stoics, and, like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, is clearly written as much for McGeehan’s personal benefit as for the reader’s.  Here is a taste:

The larger the seat of power, the more vice it attracts.  The capital setting has many allures designed to wine and dine politicians, and give elected officials a false sense of importance.  Extravagant receptions and gourmet food are just the tip of these distractions.  Not only should you abstain from these frivolous entertainments, you should not partake in extracurricular activities beyond your official duty. (p. 105)

Habitually imagine that you will lose your next election, and afterwards, you will return to private life, whereby everyone presently around you will forget your name and perhaps your very being.  Mentally accept this possibility, and be at ease if this event were to unfold.  Recognize that even the longest-serving career politicians will eventually cease to hold office—and in spite of all their years of grappling to hold power, most will have only done so by rejecting virtue. (p. 112)

Sometimes you will win legislative battles, but more often than not, your efforts will not succeed.  Accept the outcome and move on.  Your goal is not the external result, but to do all that is within your own control to achieve it. (p. 118)

Any political book risks losing its audience over ideological disagreements, and McGeehan makes no attempt to hide his team colors: as a committed libertarian (or “liberty lover,” in his terms), he occasionally alludes to his specific political positions throughout the book.  It is within the context of his cause, after all, that McGeehan practices his Stoicism.  That said, none of the core ethical principles discussed in the book are specific to libertarianism, and while he sees Stoicism as deeply congruent with classical liberal ideals, McGeehan stops short of arguing that modern Stoics “must be” libertarians or conservatives.  As a fairly left-leaning progressive myself (by Americans standards, at least), I was still able to find great value in the book, and was able to read with my argumentative defenses more-or-less lowered. 

An Interview with Pat McGeehan

Eric Scott: In your book’s preface, you tell of how the experience of meeting James Stockdale made an impression on you as a cadet at the US Air Force Academy—but you didn’t adopt Stoicism for yourself until much later.  How did you come to start practicing Stoicism?

Pat McGeehan: Admiral Stockdale was probably the closest anyone has come to gaining the status of the Stoic sage in the modern era, and it was a great honor meeting him during my college years as a young cadet. My own actual practice of the Stoic philosophy did not start until my early thirties. I’m a prolific reader, and what free time I have late at night is typically spent working my way through a few books every week, usually on economics and history, but some science, namely in the field of physics.

I’ve always had the most interest in philosophy however, and after I began to research the ancients again in detail, I found much truth in the Stoic school of thought—particularly after studying Epictetus’ Handbook. Some of the practice of Stoicism comes naturally to me, but some parts don’t. Like anything else, the personal discipline the Stoic school of thought teaches requires hard work and daily focus in order to make real progress, but with time and effort, the philosophy has greatly aided my public life in the legislature. And it has helped make me more effective for my constituents while I’m at work under the statehouse. But beyond my capacity as a state representative, it has also greatly improved my personal life, especially when it comes to private relationships with my family.

One example of this progress is patience, which is not something that came naturally to me in the past. I have friends who have joked that an Irish Catholic adopting Stoicism seems like quite the oxymoron. But with the ways of the Stoa, I tend to treat every occasion when perhaps a friend or a family member “pushes my buttons” as an opportunity to exercise the virtue of temperance. So the philosophy has definitely helped foster a great deal of personal patience—and helped eliminate frustration—to the point now that political colleagues will ask during rather tense situations, why I’m not upset over this or that. When confronted with severe irrationality or the emotionally-charged frenzy that others around me at the statehouse often fall into, sometimes I’ll just think back to Admiral Stockdale, or perhaps my own father—an Air Force pilot who was killed in the line of duty—and remind myself that if these men can endure hurricanes, I can weather a little bit of rain. So it pays to persistently read and study, and internalize what you learn, because more knowledge is certainly of great value on a practical level. This practiced knowledge helps preserve stable and rational judgment when faced with people who are sometimes not of sound mind.

Eric: What are some of the local economic or social issues that concern your constituents in the 1st House of Delegates district, or in the Ohio River Valley more broadly?  And how do they impact the way you view your role as an elected representative?

Pat: The Northern Panhandle of West Virginia has traditionally been a heavy manufacturing region of capital goods such as steel, energy sources, and other products used in industry, along with the mass production of pottery. But like other areas of the ‘rust belt,’ many of these industries have been in severe decline over the years. Much of this decay can be directly attributed to disastrous government policies, which over the years, have placed severe restrictions on how and what can be produced, and in what manner. This central planning from the government has also come with heavy taxation, which has had a crushing effect on private business enterprise. Smaller entrepreneurs though find these mammoth obstacles in the market to be nearly insurmountable. Typically only the most politically connected can succeed, and rampant corruption and blatant bribery is yet another common practice within government today. 

Another negative consequence is high unemployment (or underemployment), and large-scale dependency on government for income assistance is now a generational way-of-life—not only in my district in the Northern Panhandle, but throughout the state of West Virginia. With large swaths of the population no longer receiving their sustenance from their own fruits of market-based employment, a whole host of degenerate problems have come about—including meager savings rates, the pervasive consumption of illicit drugs, a break-down of family cohesion, and a broader lack of foresight. In other words, when people no longer have the ability or incentive to support themselves, major life-impacting decisions become short-sighted. For many, this has led to a general loss of real meaning in their personal lives.

So for starters, you must understand the root source of these negative social and economic outcomes. This can only really be done through educating yourself in the ways of economics and history, with a firm comprehension on the classics. After you have gained this knowledge, it must be resolutely applied. Almost nothing is more reprehensible than a man who knows what causes the suffering of so many people, and yet when placed in positions of trust, chooses not to act on what he has learned. Once you arrive at truth, you must pursue it. Only then can you understand what your role as an elected representative must be: no matter the opposition, do your best to reverse the source of destruction by always targeting its cause. This can be a lonely job, because truth is hard for many in power to accept, much less live out. But it’s a job that must be done, even if in the end, success is fleeting at best.

Eric: One of the ways you apply Stoicism in the book is as a means of coping with being an advocate of an unpopular political ideology, whose members often receive derogatory remarks from critics. If there was one misunderstanding about liberty lovers that you would like to address for the readers of Stoicism Today, what would it be?

Pat: There are only two general methods for men and women to socially interact with each other. One is by persuasion and voluntary cooperation. The other is by aggression and force. ‘Right reason’ dictates that of these two methods, the former is the moral choice—and with it, the path leading to increased peace and prosperity. A lover of liberty is really then just a lover of morality, and simply recognizes that voluntary cooperation is the source of civilization—and that the initiation of coercion and aggression is a digression from it.

In civilized society, violence must only be tolerated in defense of life and property. And I believe most people already recognize this as something more or less obvious. Hence, the most basic crimes of murder and theft have been everywhere in the West prohibited, and legitimately recognized in society as criminal, even in the absence of the actual man-made laws prohibiting them. But more than this, a lover of liberty also understands and applies this universal principle not just to private citizens, but to government leaders as well. In other words, what is wrong for private citizens to do must also be wrong for government officials to commit.

Some of my colleagues at the Capitol will freely admit that it would be criminal if they were to take a man’s wallet in the parking lot of the Statehouse. Yet when they put on a suit and tie, walk into a big marble building, and cast a vote to do the same thing, this act of taking a man’s property suddenly becomes not only accepted practice, but some sort of noble public service. How absurd. So a lover of liberty simply lives life by the basic golden rule, levying the “Non-Aggression Principle” universally, regardless of any titles or status an individual might hold. After all, civilization was not built by pirates, thieves, and vandals. So replacing these names with the label “politician” does not change initiating the aggressive act of expropriation. When the law no longer reflects the defense of life and property, the law itself becomes the crime—and the lawmaker becomes the criminal.

Two millennia of developed Western thought support these political conclusions, using the most rudimentary logical elements of classical philosophy—such as the laws of non-contradiction, identity, and the excluded middle, along with the subset principles of universal application and reciprocity. But the Stoic school itself has much to tell both the liberty lover and those who somewhat naively cling to socialist-styled politics, for it is with the Stoics that major breakthroughs in political thoughts toward liberty were achieved.

Following the decline of the Greek polis, the Stoics essentially shattered the collectivist mental chains tying down Plato’s and Aristotle’s statist political theories, as the Stoics posited key contributions such as the notion of self-ownership, the individual’s access to universal reason, and concepts centered on the moral rights to private property. Perhaps most importantly though was their overarching formation of natural law—which serves as the underpinning for political liberty and Western civilization in general. One of the hugely-important implications from their advancement of natural law—or the just and moral law which the individual can discover from his own ‘right reason’—is that for the first time, man-made positive laws could and should be critiqued from concrete ethical standards immune to time and place.

In fact, an important and often overlooked affinity subsists between the Stoics and the later Enlightenment thinkers of the Lockean tradition. To quote from a passage of Cicero’s On Duties, “Governments were primarily instituted with a view to the preservation of private property.” Cicero’s political justice here was certainly influenced directly by the Stoic philosopher Panaetius (and for a thorough affirmation of these points, and the Stoic ethical conception of private property, see A.A. Long’s essay: “Stoic philosophers on persons, property-ownership, and community” found in his work From Epicurus to Epictetus).

For newcomers to the political philosophy of liberty, or those who may casually dismiss it out of hand, I believe one rather easy truth should be considered: virtuous men and women of character do not seek to gain increased centralized power. The sage does not long for the power of coercion over others; he abdicates it. And for every Marcus Aurelius that may come along, a thousand more men like Commodus always stand ready to fill his place. This is the lesson of history, and all one has to do is to imagine their worst menace of an enemy or the most sinister individual they may know…and then ask themselves: would you willingly give this kind of person power over your life? Over the lives of your family? Over the lives of millions? Because when such political power exists, that is exactly the type of person who will seek it…and typically achieve it.

Eric: You are clearly an admirer of Cato.  But of the four Roman Stoics whose writings survive (Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius), do you have a personal favorite?  Is there one that you think has especially relevant things to say for people engaged in public service?

Pat: My personal go-to Stoic for counsel is Epictetus. Although his advice is certainly beneficial to anyone, I find it very useful as an elected representative. Politics has become exceptionally vile and malicious and part of this stems precisely from the largesse of the State itself. Because the size and scope of governments have grown at a staggering pace in recent years, government has unfortunately become much more “important” in society—and has politicized nearly every facet of life. Since institutionalized government ultimately represents coercion backed by physical violence, its growth inherently generates hate and resentment by the many partaking and affected by it. And since the Statehouse is the center of this mammoth modern government, these negative emotions are often manifested to extreme levels in many more people. 

For this reason alone, Epictetus comes in very handy. Sticking close to his counsel preserves sound judgment and prevents reciprocating these negative emotions others frequently form and act on. And for someone like myself, who must often be a lone voice of dissent (or represent a minority view under the dome of the Capitol), hostility and incredibly maddening attitudes from others will often come my way. Maintaining your position while preventing the generation of negative emotions is very critical. Otherwise, you can lose your cool or your nerve, and the loss of either can detrimentally interfere with your duty to First Principles and your service to your constituents from your district back at home.

Of the ancient Stoics, I will say my least preferred is Seneca. His writing is superb, and out of the four Stoics mentioned, his material on hand today is of course the most abundant which has survived the centuries. But his actual life and his written philosophy suggest a contradiction that I personally find difficult to reconcile—but with that, I hold and limit criticism.

Eric: As you note in the book, Cato has often been accused of exacerbating the conflict in Rome through a stubborn unwillingness to compromise with his opponents.  Could you say a word about why this criticism misses the mark, and why you think Cato’s actions were on the whole reasonable and well-warranted?

Pat: Accusing Cato for Rome’s civil wars is akin to blaming a spark that sets a blaze a wild fire which burns down a dried-out forest after a long drought. The forest is vulnerable to the slightest bit of heat or the tiniest flame, but the forest fire is only made possible from the kindling and deadwood that has piled-up. In Rome during the first century BC, the political deadwood came about from decades of populist empire-building and massive agitation for domestic welfarism. Cato’s attempt to reverse this course and restore the Republic may have been a losing cause all along, but I think many historians critical of his actions make this assumption too lightly—and then in hindsight, point to the spark but miss the deadwood.

Cato the Younger was a man of uncommon integrity. He faced extraordinary circumstances and did so with unwavering commitment. Though the politics of the late Roman Republic cannot be directly compared to those of the modern era, there are some parallels that can be pulled out. During his lifetime, political havoc and extreme turmoil was on the rise—institutionalized corruption, the spread of domestic welfarism, violent mob-rule politics, sanctioned assassinations, and the growing warfare state. On the other side of these radical norms was Cato. No matter the chaotic adversity, he stayed the course of his convictions. He was an opponent to the very forces that would eventually bring down Roman civilization…or for that matter, forces that would bring destruction to any civilization. He may not have fully recognized the laws of the cosmopolitan citizen—or the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—but he seems to have certainly acknowledged that much of the driving causes behind the political upheaval did not fit with these Stoic ideals. This was definitely the case with his opposition to one-man rule. It’s a bit disappointing that he has fallen off the educational radar, because we can glean a great deal of relevant political and personal matters from Cato’s moral life and legacy.

By Cato’s lifetime, the faction of populares within Roman politics had already successfully established two powerful constituencies: the urban plebs and the professional legionaries, both of which were more-or-less used by populist-leaning leaders within Rome as a wider base to achieve political power. The plebs were promised free grain and entertainment, while the legions—formed into permanent standing armies—were guaranteed entitlements to new property and loot from Rome’s ever-expanding wars of conquest.

As stressed, Cato stood against these political forces, which would not only prove to wreck the Roman Republic, but in the long run, ruin the Roman way of life itself. While his uncompromising nature takes criticism, I think if there was any hope of reversing course from these disastrous and chaotic results—it would have been through leaders who were uncompromising on such principled ends.

And in spite of his losing cause in the end, the sources indicate he was still very effective, and that his effectiveness stemmed precisely from his uncompromising character. In a way, he was something of an enigma. Cato had no large physical stature to speak of. He served in the army, but not for long, and definitely never realized grand military achievements next to say Pompey’s or Caesar’s. He was bright but as far as we know, never penned philosophy in the fashion of Cicero or shared his talent for elegant public speaking. He was left an inheritance, but he was certainly not wealthy in the same sense as say Crassus. By all accounts, his rivals and contemporaries held considerable advantages, yet they admired Cato. Cicero certainly did. Even Caesar gives him subtle praise in his memoirs.

Cato had the force of personality and conviction, and this by itself is what persuaded other men to listen and so often follow his lead—even down the most consequential paths. Acting on genuine convictions can be praiseworthy, especially when they are true yet remain unpopular.

Adherence to philosophy draws ridicule. Just as adherence to political First Principles. Many modern politicians have abandoned these First Principles of classical Western thought in favor of centralized power. And the “virtue of compromise” often helps to mask or conceal this trend towards accumulating political power at the expense of individual liberty—and the disposal of the natural laws of life and property.

Of course, Cato was human and he had his flaws. But I do find it peculiar that his life and the important lessons he can offer have been sidelined by historians, who so often favor Julius Caesar—and not just the study of Caesar, but the outright worship of the Roman dictator. While I was doing my research for the book, I came across news of an archaeological dig in the Netherlands, which in 2015, uncovered a mass burial site containing a large number of skeletal remains—concluding it was indeed the remnants of Caesar’s genocide against Germanic and Celtic tribes in 55 BC during his Gallic wars. In spite of their request for asylum, Caesar slaughtered them anyway, his legions cutting down upwards of a quarter million—including women and children (described by Caesar himself in Book IV of his memoirs On the Gallic Wars).

Caesar’s ruthless and brutal actions were vocally denounced by Cato, even in spite of Caesar’s growing public adoration. But moreover, Cato’s performance and actions are often demanded by the Stoic practice. Stoicism centers around exercising the virtues, and a major feature of virtue itself is truth. Determining the truth, telling the truth, pursuing the truth, living the truth. And one of the defining elements of truth is pureness. The Stoics of course advocated for making progress toward this truth, toward the ideal goal of the sage—and although this is quite possibly unattainable, it was always the high bar that was set. The Stoic sage represents the epitome of character—and this character is uncompromising, for by nature, the sage is completely pure.

To criticize Cato the Younger on the grounds of purity, or his uncompromising character, is in a way, damning the Stoic philosophy itself. Obviously I reject these arguments, as they can generally be a go-to tactic heard from the modern-day Caesars of the world—who cater to the legions and the plebs, promising hand-outs or security against nonexistent threats. So they are nothing new, and the twenty-first century populists that dominate political discourse frequently use the same false premise to shame those who would remain faithful to classical principles. They discredit the adherence to First Principles as a nuisance to an agenda, and in doing so, they have in a way reversed or redefined the long-standing meaning of Western virtue. For compromise by itself is not praiseworthy. Compromise can sometimes be involved in virtuous intentions and actions, but compromise can never stand as a virtue alone, especially if it means the sacrifice of principle.

In any regard, more detailed answers to Cato’s less-than-impartial historical treatment are offered in my book—but whose character should be morally praised? What qualities should be revered? A consistent Stoic who refused to waver in the face of popular and sometimes violent public opposition? Or Julius Caesar…a man whose lust for power and glory embraced atrocity and war crimes?

Eric: Maintaining personal integrity by avoiding ethical compromise is a major theme of Stoicism and the Statehouse.  You suggest that officials should “make it your rule of thumb never to trade votes, else you end up trading your integrity” (p. 103).  But you also acknowledge that not every political disagreement is equally grave, and that “the initiation of war calls for a different response than new regulations over lemonade stands” (p. 116).

In general, how can an ethical legislator determine when to draw a proverbial line in the sand (like Cato so often did), and when to be more congenial toward those he or she disagrees with?

Pat: Transgressions are not equally detrimental or decadent. Scale, type, and magnitude matter, and this determination must ultimately rest with good judgment (based in the Western ethic of proportionality). Sometimes you must pick and choose your fights as well, because the individual has limited resources of time and energy. But it is important to recognize that the modern State will tend towards always committing transgressions—or violations of life and property. Some will be relatively minor, while others will be grossly damaging and immoral.

The point alluded to in my book: never vote for these infractions, even when they are less than severe. Because no matter how minor or trivial, casting a favorable vote for the infraction still sanctions a transgression. Once this is done, you harm your own integrity. This is your first duty as a legislator, if you are “to thine own self be true.” But it’s important to recognize distinctions, because if the stakes are high, duty can call for much more action than simply casting a vote. You may have to speak at length in opposition, in front of your peers and the media. You may have to use the parliamentary rules to obstruct and derail the unjust legislation confronting you. Or you may even have to filibuster as long as your body can withstand the physical exertion this would demand.

None of this should be taken as less than congenial towards any of your colleagues. For you should always remain a gentleman, leave personalities out of your debate, and focus around the ideas in play. Others though will likely not take your actions impersonally. But this cannot influence you. Their perception or reactions must remain indifferent to your judgment and decisions. Too many politicians believe that their colleagues or friends at the Capitol should come first. Principles must come first, and these principles serve your constituents best…and this is where your service and reverence must always be placed. Not with politicians and lobbyists. But with strict, rational judgment derived from “right reason.”

Eric: Do you think that tactical voting by regular citizens suffers from similar moral problems as vote-trading among legislators?  Should we sometimes be willing to vote for a candidate that supports a policy we believe is harmful, or does that contradict virtue?

Pat: Really the problem today is that the average citizen has no authentic choice available at the ballot box. Time and again, the choices presented between the two major parties are merely an illusion. The rhetoric may be different, but the outcomes are typically the same. This again is just a symptom of the rise and growth of government’s role in society. Of course, pundits and bureaucrats will claim there are huge differences between the two major parties in the United States. Perhaps there can be a distinction, but not really a difference. Take for instance recent debates over the federal budget. One side basically wants government spending set at trillions of dollars a year. The other wants to spend trillions a year also, but maybe trillions minus one. So much of what goes on in modern politics is simply theater.

As for “tactical voting,” there’s nothing greatly wrong with the practice. It can be beneficial in some ways, and there’s nothing wrong with incremental progress in the right direction. However, there can be a danger in becoming accustomed to the immoral status quo, and complacency can set in. So we should constantly remind ourselves of the source of the underlying problem…and continually educate on First Principles and the destructive source diminishing them. And always stand ready to take more sweeping action if such opportunities present themselves. This is what Stoic duty, when properly-understood, would require.

Eric: You allude many times in the book to your opposition to unnecessary wars and military intervention.  Do you see a connection between these principles and Stoic teachings on, say, cosmopolitanism?  And how do you understand the duties of individual soldiers and officers, such as yourself and Cato, in a world where wars are so often waged for unjust reasons?

Pat: Certainly natural law from the Stoics extends to just and unjust wars. And this is in part from their formulation of the “cosmopolitan citizen.” But moreover, no action the State commits is quite as horrid or atrocious as the initiation of war—and war is certainly the health of the State. War though really falls into one of the most heinous transgressions of natural law—as it often represents the mass destruction of life and property. Murder is typically regarded as a higher crime than theft—as one is “stealing” a man’s entire existence. Unjust offensive wars should be plainly regarded as the sanction of wholesale institutionalized murder. However, men and women in the armed forces are often stuck in risky situations with very difficult decisions. It is the officer’s duty to lead the men and women charged underneath them to follow a moral code first, defending the lives of their subordinates, but also realizing—and possibly refusing—the existence and issuance of unlawful orders.

Ultimately though, the blame must always fall at the feet of politicians. For people do not go to war—governments do. We must realize the built-in incentive the military brass has to push more spending, more conflict, more weaponry…regardless of cost or practical utility in defense. And then realize the uncanny ease and acceptance larger militaries have with being wielded, not as a last resort, but as a first resort—because when an ever-increasing armed force stationed around the world persists, it will tend to be used, regardless of whether such use is justified or needed.

Rome’s military expansion helped bring its civilization to an end. Maybe we should learn a bit from such lessons. Just as Cato warned of the inherent corrupt nature prevalent in larger and larger standing armies, we should also be mindful of such truths. And we don’t have to look to an ancient Roman senator for this prudence. All we really have to do is look back on words from our own country’s founders who were also extremely wary of permanent standing armies. As Thomas Jefferson proclaimed: “Peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations—entangling alliances with none.”

Eric: The book says a lot about the vices of compromise, but remains largely silent on the topic of other conflict resolution skills—such as listening carefully to one’s opponents, putting yourself in others’ shoes, building common ground, or engaging the best versions of your opponents criticisms (i.e. the principle of charity).  Do you see a significant role for these “softer” skills in modern politics?  And do you think Stoicism has lessons to teach us about these forms of conflict resolution?

Pat: You should always attempt to understand others. This is part of exercising virtue, and giving others the benefit of the doubt on their intentions is proper Stoic conduct. The book focuses on vices found in political compromise though, largely because this continued compromise of principle is responsible for the grave situation our country confronts now—the fiscal nightmare of debt, the debasement of the dollar, the insanity of entitlement spending, and the continued immoral wars and conflicts killing thousands of innocents abroad.

Decades of this type of compromise, where each party or side receives more government-spending perks and privileges (a feature which has also trumped upholding constitutional restraints) has directly placed the nation in today’s horrid predicament. But generally speaking, always seek to find common ground with others. Form coalitions around these common areas and great progress can be achieved. There is a fundamental difference though between compromise and coalition. The latter does not sacrifice principle. It advances principle. This cannot be said of the former, which often sacrifices not only political principle, but personal integrity.

 

Eric “Siggy” Scott manages the Stoics for Justice group on Facebook and writes the blog Euthyphroria. He is especially interested in the interactions among Stoic practice, personal social engagement, and social justice advocacy. In real life, he is a PhD student in computer science at George Mason University, where he does research on machine learning and evolutionary algorithms.

Author: Gregory Sadler

Editor of Stoicism Today

3 thoughts on “Stoicism and the Statehouse – A Review and Interview with Pat McGeehan by Eric O. Scott”

  1. A modern-day Stoic politician! Someone who doesn’t simply pay lip-service to Stoicism (like Bill Clinton), but who actually tries to put his Stoic principles into practice — not only for his own moral improvement, but also for the betterment of society as a whole. Salutamus, Pat McGeehan!

    Nevertheless, whenever someone tries to bring ancient Stoicism into line with contemporary politics, the danger of anachronism arises, In the interview, Pat also seems to (unintentionally) misrepresent Stoicism by imposing a 21st century ideology upon a 2nd century philosophy.

    Since the Stoics could no more have envisioned market capitalism than they could have anticipated liberal democracy, it’s problematic to claim that they would have approved of either one. We can, however, be sure that they would have disapproved of many aspects of our finance market economy.The Stoics praised the pursuit of virtue, but capitalism, the pursuit of money, is amoral (not IM-moral, but A-moral). While capitalism seeks profits regardless of morals, it still tends to encourage more selfish (and often criminal) behavior than it does altruistic activity. As the former Enron executive Jim Alexander (who should know) said, “Whenever you see the Invisible Hand at work, it’s usually picking someone’s pocket.” This is why capitalism needs a strong state to control it. Instead of perverting Stoicism by presenting it as an ideological justification of captialism, we should try instead to curb its socially destructive consequences (something the Stoics would have applauded).

    Pat also suggests that the Roman Empire succumbed to “welfarism.” That is to say, Rome declined and fell because it sapped the moral fiber of the populace by allowing them to grow fat and lazy on state welfare. It also went bankrupt by creating the kind of monstrous bureaucracy needed to administer its bloated welfare system. Moreover, to pay for this welfarism, the state destroyed the source of wealth creation by extracting exhorbitant taxes from Rome’s industrious citizens. Thus the state not only “robbed” investors of the fruits of their labor, but also destroyed their incentive to create the kind of jobs the “plebs” needed to learn how to support themselves.

    Here again, McGeehan distorts ancient Roman history by viewing it through the lens of contemporary American libertarianism. Rome was not a welfare state because neither “welfare” nor “the state” existed yet — at least not in the form in which we understand them today. Most inhabitants of the Roman Empire worked on the land (latifundia), where they toiled from dawn to dusk merely to surive at a subsistence level. Even in the city of Rome itself, most people worked from childhood on for low wages. (Archaeological excavations in Rome have uncovered the remains of countless men and women whose bones exhibit the telltale signs of hard physical labor and malnutrition.) Even if Roman politicians had wanted to purchase the loyalty of the plebs with “bread and circuses”, their ability to do so remained limited. While such blandishments could bring them considerable success in the city of Rome, most of the rest of the empire remained out of their reach. To be sure, the emperors could collect taxes, put down rebellions, build aquaducts, roads, bridges, theaters, etc, but again, their influence remained confined to the cities. Allowing the greater portion of the population as a whole, who lived on the land, to enjoy the benefits of a generous social welfare system, was not only beyond their capabilities but also their imagination.

    Many factors contributed to Rome’s fall, but “welfarism” was not chief among them. For me, the interesting question is not, “Why did Rome fall?” but “How did it last so long?”

    To get political myself, I would not vote for Pat McGeehan if I lived in his district. I believe libertarianism is a simple-minded ideology. It fails to understand the true causes of society’s problems and has no cogent proposals for solving them. (In the last several years, the state of Kansas has embarked on what could be called a libertarian experiment: taxes have been slashed and the civil-service sector has been decimated, with disastrous results.) Nevertheless, I am glad that Pat is serving his state and I hope that more Stoics will join him. Imagine how the tone of political discourse would change if more Stoics joined the debate. Perhaps then even Americans could learn that it’s possible to express political differences without anger, hatred or resentment.

    1. Appreciate the rational critique. For stronger arguments though (versus “simply-minded ideology”), I believe one must directly address the syllogisms used—and the elements or principles of logical criteria applied in the deductive reasoning—and their use for the premises made to arrive at the conclusions in the piece (example: non-contradiction was used. This does not make “non-contradiction” valid, but one must address this logical principle serving as a quasi-premise).

      For any political theory of justice, the author of such a theory must have a “private property ethic” as one starting premise…even if the author of such a theory does not explicitly articulate one, they must always implicitly carry one.

      Another caveat: to deny that an affinity exists between Stoic thought and the later Enlightenment thinkers (in the Lockean tradition) is nearly impossible to do from a general objective study of the two. Now “affinity” does not mean causation or direct endorsement…or “transposing 21st century ideology onto a 2nd century philosophy”…but one certainly exists (and since Adam Smith was mentioned, see his “Theory of Moral Sentiments,” published in 1759, which draws heavily from certain aspects of Stoic thought; also see Hugo Grotius “On the Law of War and Peace,” the Baron de Montesquieu’s “Spirit of the Laws” (also influenced by Stoic thought), along with some of Locke’s own letters, noting Cicero’s thoughts on Stoic natural law). Additionally, the affirmation of these points is supported by A.A. Long (who is listed in the piece, if one wants to read a more thorough examination)…but also many other often overlooked scholars noting the relationship.

      In any regards, the book offers some explanations to your critique here of “welfarism” which was not meant to imply a general decline of Roman working standards during the Republican-era…though there is some evidence of this (the rise of slavery though persistently took over more and more labor-intense employment, and the archaeological evidence you present of these laborious remains can likely be attributed to slaves…resulting from Roman loot taken from wars of conquest…which by the way, rather than domestic taxation, is how Rome’s populist-ruling class made the kind of promises to fund the grain dole and state-sanctioned entertainment in the first place, during the Republican-era and afterwards).

      I appreciate the critique. Enjoyed reading it much…though it was of course a “preferred indifferent.” Take it easy…fate permitting.

  2. Interesting comparing Stoicism to contemporary modern Capitalism. One clear difference is between Locke’s concept of property as the highest good which nothing can interfere with and Stoic virtue. In most Libertarian conversations about social and economic matters the non- morality and power (profit as the only good) of corporations somehow gets lost. Not to mention that in the market system of Adam Smith an invisible hand guides the process to the good of society which is foreign to Stoicism. Again, for the Libertarian, political liberty is the highest good which for the Stoic is a preferred indifferent. This may be due to an equivocal use of the word liberty which for most means the polis prevents unjust uses of power rather than rich men being able to acquire more riches. My Stoic exemplar is Socrates so Cato’s fight to preserve the Roman Oligarchy and slavery is not that inspiring.

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