The Stoicism of George Washington
George Washington, known for his exemplary self-discipline and mental composure, is a figure in whom many see the influence of Stoicism. Unlike some of the other Founding Fathers, he lacked a classical education. Nevertheless, according to Eliot Morison’s The Young Man Washington (1932), Washington was indeed inspired by Stoic philosophy.
Morison attributed Washington’s self-discipline to a philosophy of life acquired in his late teens from his friends the Fairfaxes. The Fairfax family, although devout Christians, drew considerable inspiration from the writings of Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and other classical authors influenced by Stoicism. Although there’s no evidence that Washington had studied the writings of ancient Stoics in great depth himself, Morison argues that he clearly absorbed Stoic values, early in his life, from conversations with the Fairfaxes during his frequent visits to their Belvoir estate.
“The mere chapter headings are the moral axioms that Washington followed through life.”
However, Washington had read at least one book on Stoicism, Seneca’s Morals by Way of Abstract (1702) translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange. It contains excerpts from Of Benefits, Of a Happy Life, Of Anger, Of Clemency and twenty-eight of the Epistles. “The mere chapter headings”, Morison says, “are the moral axioms that Washington followed through life.” For example: It is the Part of a Great Mind to despise Injuries.
Washington’s Favourite: Cato
Seneca recommends adopting a role model and, preferring Romans to ancient Greeks, he says “Choose therefore a Cato”.
For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler. — Seneca, Moral Letters, 11
Consequently, Washington’s favourite historical figure did indeed come to be the Roman Stoic hero, Cato the Younger, the subject of one of Plutarch’s most memorable biographies. Cato had died opposing Julius Caesar in the Great Civil War that ended the Roman Republic. Washington adored Joseph Addison’s play Cato, a Tragedy (1712), which he read together with his first love, Sally Fairfax. He quoted it in a letter to her and even wanted them to act together in private performances of it.
The play represents Cato as a moral exemplar and the supreme embodiment of republican values:
Not all the pomp and majesty of Rome
Can raise her senate more than Cato’s presence.
His virtues render our assembly awful,
They strike with something like religious fear,
And make even Caesar tremble at the head
Of armies flush’d with conquest.
Washington fell so in love with the play that he reputedly arranged to watch a performance of it with the Continental Army camped at Valley Forge, which he had put on to raise their morale. It’s easy to see why he would have found it so inspiring when it contains famous lines such as the following:
Better to die ten thousand thousand deaths
Than wound my honour.
’Tis not in mortals to command success,
But we’ll do more, Sempronius — we’ll deserve it.
Indeed, Washington paraphrased those lines in a letter addressed to his friend and fellow-soldier Benedict Arnold: “It is not in the power of any man to command success; but you have done more — you have deserved it.”
Another Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, was an admirer of the same play. In his Autobiography he describes using a notebook to track his efforts to cultivate his own moral virtues, adding “This my little book had for its motto these lines from Addison’s Cato:”
Here will I hold. If there’s a power above us
(And that there is, all nature cries aloud
Thro’ all her works),
He must delight in virtue;
And that which he delights in must be happy.
Washington’s interest in the play appears to have been enduring. Later, when he wished to retire from public life, he quoted the following lines:
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.
Although he was no scholar of Stoic philosophy, as we’ve seen, Washington was exposed to its teachings early on, through his conversations with Sally Fairfax and reading L’Estrange’s edition of Seneca. It was Joseph Addison’s Cato, a Tragedy, though, which really exemplified Stoicism for him and inspired him until the day he died. It’s therefore no coincidence, I think, if we see many traces of Stoic virtue embodied by Washington throughout his life.
(I’m indebted, for most of the key information above, to H.C. Montgomery’s short essay, ‘Washington the Stoic’, in The Classical Journal, vol. 31, no. 6, Mar 1936.)