Washington the Stoic

Today is “President’s Day”. It’s a U.S. federal holiday celebrated on the second Monday of February every year primarily in honor of George Washington (born Feb. 22, 1732) and Abraham Lincoln (born Feb. 12, 1809) [A BIT OF TRIVIA: Washington was born on Feb. 11th according to the “Old Style” Julian calendar, but the date was moved to Feb. 22nd when the British Empire switched over the “New Style” Gregorian calendar in 1752].

I heard in passing that George Washington was influenced by Stoicism (as many Enlightenment thinkers and Freemasons were), but I was determined to get a clearer picture. I found a short article (a “Note”) titled “Washington the Stoic” (1936) by H.C. Montgomery in which the author provides his thoughts on another essay titled “The Young Man Washington” (1935) by Eliot Morison. Montgomery explicitly interested in isolating the Stoic influences that Morison found in Washington’s youth.

[CITATION: “Washington the Stoic” by H.C. Montgomery [a “note” or op-ed on Eliot Morison’s essay “The Young Man Washington” (1932, reprinted 1935)] from The Classical Journal, Vol. 31, No. 6 (Mar., 1936), pp. 371-373 (CHECK OUT THE PDF HERE)]

Growing up, Washington’s family was not very wealthy and only his older brother, Lawrence, was given any formal education. When their father died, Lawrence married into the elite Fairfax family whose patriarch, William Fairfax, decided to take George under his wing and educate him. As luck would have it, the Fairfaxes took great inspiration from Stoic philosophy and William Fairfax surely passed this down to George Washington. Here’s Montgomery:

The Fairfaxes conformed outwardly to Christianity but derived their real inspiration from Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, and the Stoic philosophers. Morison does not think it necessary to suppose that young Washington read deeply in Stoic philosophy but rather absorbed it from his neighbors, the Fairfaxes, whom he visited constantly.

(Montgomery, p. 371)

Furthermore, it was apparently obvious that Washington’s favorite character in history was Cato the Younger, an exemplary figure that later Roman Stoics held in high esteem (potentially as a Sage). He drew from Cato, a Tragedy, a play written by Joseph Addison in 1712:

Washington read Addison’s Cato in company with Sally Fairfax and expressed the wish that they might act it together in private theatricals. At Valley Forge Washington caused Cato to be performed to stimulate the morale of the army, and himself attended the performance. In later years, when Washington wished to retire from the political squabbles attendant to the presidency, he quoted these lines of Cato addressed to Portius (Addison’s Cato IV, 4, 134-142):

Let me advise thee to retreat betimes
To thy paternal seat, the Sabine field,
Where the great Censor toil’d with his own hands,
And all our frugal ancestors were blest
In humble virtues, and a rural life.
There live retired, pray for the peace of Rome;
Content thyself to be obscurely good.
When vice prevails, and impious men bear sway,
The post of honour is a private station.

(Montgomery, p. 372)

We also know that Washington owned an outline, in English, of some of the ‘Dialogues’ of Seneca. Morison says that “The mere chapter headings . . . are the moral axioms that Washington followed through life” (Montgomery, p. 372). I wasn’t familiar with any “chapter headings” in Seneca’s essays. so I searched the internet for an earlier English edition and found pictures of a 1739 edition. The chapter headings for that edition are so cool that I decided to list the majority of the ones shown in the pictures:

  • Human happiness is founded upon Wisdom, and Virtue; and first of Wisdom (Ch. 2 of “A Happy Life“)
  • There can be no happiness without Virtue (Ch. 3)
  • [There’s] No Felicity like Peace of Conscience (Ch. 6)
  • A Good man can never be Miserable, nor a Wicked Man Happy (Ch. 7)
  • The Due Contemplation of Divine Providence is the Certain Cure of all Misfortunes (Ch. 8)
  • He that sets up his Rest upon Contingencies, shall never be at Quiet (Ch. 10)
  • A Sinful Life is a Miserable Life (Ch. 11)
  • Avarice and Ambition are insatiable and restless (Ch. 12)
  • Hope, and Fear, are the Bane of Human Life (Ch. 13)
  • It is according to the True, or False Estimate of Things That we are Happy, or Miserable (Ch. 14)
  • Constancy of Mind gives a Man Reputation, and makes him Happy in despite of all the Misfortunes (Ch. 16)
  • Our Happiness depends in a great Measure upon the Choice of our Company (Ch. 17)
  • He that would be Happy, must take an Account of his Time (Ch. 19)
  • Happy is the Man that may choose his own Business (Ch. 20)
  • The Contempt of Death makes all the Miseries of Life easy to us (Ch. 21)
  • Poverty to a Wise Man, is rather a Blessing than a Misfortune (Ch. 25)
  • [Anger] is against Nature; and only to be found in Man (Ch. 1 of “On Anger“)
  • [Anger] is a short Madness, and deformed Vice (Ch. 4)
  • Anger is neither Warrantable nor Useful (Ch. 5)

I was familiar with Washington’s Rules of Civility, but I find these precepts much more substantial.

The last thing I’d like to mention is a comparison that Morison and Montgomery made between the character of George Washington and the traits of Antoninus Pius that Marcus Aurelius described in Book 1 of his Meditations. Commentators on this section of the text describe Antoninus as a “natural Stoic” – one who didn’t formally study Stoicism but nevertheless seemed to internalized its teachings. I think the comparison is appropriate; though they may not have considered themselves Stoics, both Antoninus Pius and George Washington both took to Stoic principles so well that it could seem like a ‘natural’ fit.

I think it would be appropriate to take today to meditate on the admirable character traits that George Washington exhibited in his youth and also as a founding father of our country. For those that wish to learn more about Washington’s character and his personal philosophy, I recommend this article titled “George Washington and the Gift of Silence” by Stephen M. Klugewicz.

— Justin K.

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