The Case for an Optimistic Stoicism

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, January 11, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Case for an Optimistic Stoicism


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

Perhaps it was the economy, or maybe it was our mindlessly divided (an altogether different thing from being intelligently divided, which is the natural state of a democratic republic) political climate. But for whatever reason, my holiday reading included Gregory Hays's 2002 Modern Library translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which I had at hand when news came of the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253.

It turned out to be a fortuitous coincidence, for the musings of the second-century A.D. Roman philosopher-emperor had a particular resonance as the country confronted terrorism anew. "If you've seen the present then you've seen everything--as it's been since the beginning, as it will be forever," Marcus wrote. "The same substance, the same form. All of it."

And there were, in fact, many moments of painfully predictable reflexive reactions to the attempted bombing. Republicans took the occasion to allege that the president of the United States is soft on terror. Reporters were apparently shocked to learn that the federal government, a huge and human institution, had failed to keep a dangerous and armed young man off a flight into the country.

We must recognize that there is always a threat, always an enemy. Though we comfort ourselves, sometimes, with memories of peaceful eras, the absence of war as usually understood--nations projecting military force against other nations--is not peace. Consider just the 20th century, in which the Great War, World War II, and the Cold War formed what our contributor Philip Bobbitt has called the Long War in his book The Shield of Achilles.

Because there is no such thing as universal peace, and because Americans will face threats and terror no matter who happens to be in the White House, we could use, I think, a good dose of Marcus Aurelius's optimistic stoicism (my term; I am sure the real philosophers out there will object, so I hope they will forgive the overgeneralizations). A proper understanding of the world view in the Meditations must include not only a sense of the predominant intransigence of human affairs but of their possibilities as well. …

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