In his own day, George Washington served as a pillar of Atlantis, recognized not only for his willingness to sacrifice his life for the great Republic, but also as the founder of the first serious Republic a weary world had witnessed in centuries. He deserves the title “the American Marcus Aurelius.”
In his own day and age, George Washington was the greatest and best-known man in all of Western Civilization. Washington (1732-1799), indeed, served as a pillar of Atlantis, recognized not only for his willingness to sacrifice his life for the great Republic, but also as the founder of the first serious Republic a weary world had witnessed since the martyrdom of Cicero. A true genius when it came to geometry, trigonometry, and surveying, he also read deeply in military history, biography, agricultural science. His loves, though, were hunting, adventure (as in traveling), and farming. Surveying, especially, allowed him to combine many of these loves into one. Ironically, given the status he attained as a living hero or demigod in his own lifetime, Washington suffered from a lack of liberal education, strange by the standards of his day. Much of what he knew of the classical world came not from a study of Greek and Latin (as with many of the founding fathers), but from his reading of biography and, especially, from his love of the Joseph Addison play, Cato: A Tragedy. Despite this, he earned innumerable classical titles during his lifetime, including: the American Achilles, the American Cicero, the American Aeneas, and the American Cincinnatus.
He deserves another title: the American Marcus Aurelius. Aurelius was, of course, one of the so-called “Five Good Emperors,” ruling Rome from 161 to 180. While Washington would never have been emperor, the two shared a common Stoic view of the world. In his always profound Meditations, Aurelius defined the philosophy of many ages before him and many to come. Consider his meditation on piety:
To the gods I am indebted for having good grandfathers, good parents, a good sister, good teachers, good associates, good kinsmen and friends, nearly everything good. Further, I owe it to the gods that I was not hurried into any offence against any of them, though I had a disposition which, if opportunity had offered, might have led me to do something of this kind; but, through their favour, there never was such a concurrence of circumstances as put me to the trial. Further, I am thankful to the gods that I was not longer brought up with my grandfather’s concubine, and that I preserved the flower of my youth, and that I did not make proof of my virility before the proper season, but even deferred the time; that I was subjected to a ruler and a father who was able to take away all pride from me, and to bring me to the knowledge that it is possible for a man to live in a palace without wanting either guards or embroidered dresses, or torches and statues, and such-like show; but that it is in such a man’s power to bring himself very near to the fashion of a private person, without being for this reason either meaner in thought, or more remiss in action, with respect to the things which must be done for the public interest in a manner that befits a ruler. I thank the gods for giving me such a brother, who was able by his moral character to rouse me to vigilance over myself, and who, at the same time, pleased me by his respect and affection; that my children have not been stupid nor deformed in body; that I did not make more proficiency in rhetoric, poetry, and the other studies, in which I should perhaps have been completely engaged, if I had seen that I was making progress in them; that I made haste to place those who brought me up in the station of honour, which they seemed to desire, without putting them off with hope of my doing it some time after, because they were then still young; that I knew Apollonius, Rusticus, Maximus; that I received clear and frequent impressions about living according to nature, and what kind of a life that is, so that, so far as depended on the gods, and their gifts, and help, and inspirations, nothing hindered me from forthwith living according to nature, though I still fall short of it through my own fault, and through not observing the admonitions of the gods, and, I may almost say, their direct instructions; that my body has held out so long in such a kind of life; that I never touched either Benedicta or Theodotus, and that, after having fallen into amatory passions, I was cured; and, though I was often out of humour with Rusticus, I never did anything of which I had occasion to repent; that, though it was my mother’s fate to die young, she spent the last years of her life with me; that, whenever I wished to help any man in his need, or on any other occasion, I was never told that I had not the means of doing it; and that to myself the same necessity never happened, to receive anything from another; that I have such a wife, so obedient, and so affectionate, and so simple; that I had abundance of good masters for my children; and that remedies have been shown to me by dreams, both others, and against bloodspitting and giddiness . . . ; and that, when I had an inclination to philosophy, I did not fall into the hands of any sophist, and that I did not waste my time on writers of histories, or in the resolution of syllogisms, or occupy myself about the investigation of appearances in the heavens; for all these things require the help of the gods and fortune.
Whatever the faults of the empire (and they were many), it remains extraordinary that such an insightful man as Aurelius emerged from its culture.
Taken together, though, George Washington’s First Inaugural and Farewell Address, offer a kind of American or republican Meditations. Certainly, the addresses of Washington are beautifully rendered, offering sentence upon sentence of good will and deep thought. Take, for example, his very Thomistic—by coincidence, certainly—discussion of the nature of society from his First Inaugural, 1789:
I dwell on this prospect with every satisfaction which an ardent love for my Country can inspire: since there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained: And since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty, and the destiny of the Republican model of Government, are justly considered as deeply, perhaps as finally staked, on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people. [Washington, First Inaugural]
One can revel and bask in Washington’s words, noting that a republic can exist only with the proper understanding of the natural law, its care, and its nurturing.
Less exciting, but equally important, Washington also stressed the need to follow the proper order of republican society in the same address, given, of course, not just at the beginning of his presidency, but at the beginning of the constitutional republic itself.
Besides the ordinary objects submitted to your care, it will remain with your judgment to decide, how far an exercise of the occasional power delegated by the Fifth article of the Constitution is rendered expedient at the present juncture by the nature of objections which have been urged against the System, or by the degree of inquietude which has given birth to them. Instead of undertaking particular recommendations on this subject, in which I could be guided by no lights derived from official opportunities, I shall again give way to my entire confidence in your discernment and pursuit of the public good: For I assure myself that whilst you carefully avoid every alteration which might endanger the benefits of an United and effective Government, or which ought to await the future lessons of experience; a reverence for the characteristic rights of freemen, and a regard for the public harmony, will sufficiently influence your deliberations on the question how far the former can be more impregnably fortified, or the latter be safely and advantageously promoted. [Washington, First Inaugural]
One can never expect an ordered society with disordered citizens.
In his Farewell Address—it is well to remember that he had now served eight years as commander of the armed forces during the American Revolution as well as another eight years as the President of the United States—Washington meditates upon the dangers that beset the Republic. He identifies three significant threats: political parties, abuse of power, and foreign entanglements.
I have already intimated to you the danger of parties in the State, with particular reference to the founding of them on geographical discriminations. Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally. This spirit, unfortunately, is inseparable from our nature, having its root in the strongest passions of the human mind. It exists under different shapes in all governments, more or less stifled, controlled, or repressed; but, in those of the popular form, it is seen in its greatest rankness, and is truly their worst enemy. The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension, which in different ages and countries has perpetrated the most horrid enormities, is itself a frightful despotism. But this leads at length to a more formal and permanent despotism. The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty. [Washington, Farewell Address]
Without looking forward to an extremity of this kind (which nevertheless ought not to be entirely out of sight), the common and continual mischiefs of the spirit of party are sufficient to make it the interest and duty of a wise people to discourage and restrain it. It serves always to distract the public councils and enfeeble the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one part against another, foments occasionally riot and insurrection. It opens the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions. Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another. [Washington, Farewell Address]
It is important, likewise, that the habits of thinking in a free country should inspire caution in those entrusted with its administration, to confine themselves within their respective constitutional spheres, avoiding in the exercise of the powers of one department to encroach upon another. The spirit of encroachment tends to consolidate the powers of all the departments in one, and thus to create, whatever the form of government, a real despotism. A just estimate of that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart, is sufficient to satisfy us of the truth of this position. The necessity of reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power, by dividing and distributing it into different depositaries, and constituting each the guardian of the public weal against invasions by the others, has been evinced by experiments ancient and modern; some of them in our country and under our own eyes. To preserve them must be as necessary as to institute them. If, in the opinion of the people, the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this, in one instance, may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield. [Washington, Farewell Address]
And, perhaps, most directly, from our foreign entanglements:
Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices? [Washington, Farewell Address]
Be very jealous of your republican liberty, Washington explained, recognizing that so few republics have existed in the world.
The great rule of conduct for us in regard to foreign nations is in extending our commercial relations, to have with them as little political connection as possible. So far as we have already formed engagements, let them be fulfilled with perfect good faith. Here let us stop. . . . Harmony, liberal intercourse with all nations, are recommended by policy, humanity, and interest. But even our commercial policy should hold an equal and impartial hand; neither seeking nor granting exclusive favors or preferences; consulting the natural course of things; diffusing and diversifying by gentle means the streams of commerce, but forcing nothing; establishing (with powers so disposed, in order to give trade a stable course, to define the rights of our merchants, and to enable the government to support them) conventional rules of intercourse, the best that present circumstances and mutual opinion will permit, but temporary, and liable to be from time to time abandoned or varied, as experience and circumstances shall dictate; constantly keeping in view that it is folly in one nation to look for disinterested favors from another; that it must pay with a portion of its independence for whatever it may accept under that character; that, by such acceptance, it may place itself in the condition of having given equivalents for nominal favors, and yet of being reproached with ingratitude for not giving more. There can be no greater error than to expect or calculate upon real favors from nation to nation. It is an illusion, which experience must cure, which a just pride ought to discard. [Washington, Farewell Address]
Since the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, presidents have routinely ignored Washington’s advice on foreign policy, chasing progressive dreams that only end in destruction, annihilation of purpose, and death.
When compared to the intellectual geniuses Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, Washington will always seem like a third-rate founder. When it came to statesmanship, however, Washington was rare and precious, leagues above Adams or Jefferson. We never expect a Mozart to come every generation, and the same, I believe, should guide our understanding of the greatest of statesmanship. Washington, a pillar of Atlantis, was, indeed, the Mozart of the political world. Or specifically, when one considers his republicanism and Stoicism, our Aurelius, but better.
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