It’s easy to whitewash history, to look back at a group of people who did an incredible thing and assume they were all on the same page when it happened. We forget the egos and the personality flaws. We forget their struggles and infighting.
The Founding Fathers of America are a great example of this. They can seem like a unified group of wise superhumans—beyond the passions or tempers that rule our lives—but, of course, they were anything but. According to Thomas Jefferson, John Adams was the kind of guy who “always governed by the feeling of the moment,” and given his fragile, insecure personality, this did not serve him well. Think of Jefferson himself, whose lust and hypocrisy not only tolerated slavery, but allowed him to justify owning a human being, Sally Jennings, he claimed to love. He was also a bit of a coward, and an ungrateful political intriguer. Hamilton was so ruled by his passions he not only cheated on his wife, but got himself killed in a duel that a wiser, more self-controlled man would have been able to avoid.
The list goes on and on. Although George Washington was by no means a perfect human being—he too owned slaves—he found a way to rise above these other men, not just on the battlefield but in everyday life. He lived by a system. By a personal code. He put duty above all else. He would have rather died than betray his sense of honor. It was through this that he managed to achieve greatness far beyond what Adams or Jefferson or Hamilton could even approach. It’s why he is probably the greatest American, if not the greatest statesman, to ever live.
That’s what Stoicism is about and what it helps us do. We are all flawed people. We have tempers. We have egos. We have selfish desires. What we need is a system, a code that helps us triumph over them. It gives us a Cato—to quote Seneca’s line and to mention Washington’s hero—to model ourselves after. Something to check our behavior against, to guide us in the moments where emotion or temptation would lead us astray.
All of the Founders were great in their own way, all of them contributed to the founding of a nation. But Washington got further, did more—he conquered the British as well as himself. He was in his own power, and would have been even had his army faltered and he had been captured. Which founder will you be? Whose example will you follow? Will you be great, or can you aspire to be more like the greatest?