Thursday, November 3, 2016


As we approach the final days of the presidential election, I find myself in a quandary, both forbidden by the so-called Johnson Amendment from saying anything at all that could be construed even obliquely as an endorsement of any candidate running for office, but also eager to express myself on the importance of the choice facing us all both in terms of its potential short- and long-term impact on our nation. (I expressed myself a few weeks ago about the Johnson Amendment itself and the wrongheaded way it muzzles our nation’s clergy precisely when the voice of spiritual leadership should be the most publicly audible from the pulpits of our nations’ houses of worship. If you would like to review that diatribe, click here.) And now, almost suddenly, here we are: coming down to the wire and facing the obligation to exercise our franchise as the free citizens of a democratic state. Why exactly is it that I’m not permitted to tell you what I think?

What I can write about, however, is how important this election is. Whoever wins next week has an excellent chance of serving for eight years. Since John Adams lost to Thomas Jefferson in 1800, only nine presidents have failed in their bid for a second term: John Quincy Adams in 1828, Martin van Buren in 1840, Grover Cleveland in 1888, Benjamin Harrison in 1892, William Howard Taft in 1912, Herbert Hoover in 1932, Gerald Ford in 1976, Jimmy Carter in 1980, and George H.W. Bush in 1992. All the rest of our presidents who sought re-election after their first term in office were re-elected.

And there’s also a not unreasonable chance that whoever is elected next week as vice president will end up in the White House as well: fourteen of our American presidents served previously as vice presidents, eight by moving up when the sitting president died, one by being in place when the president resigned, and five by running for election and winning. That being the case, there’s at least some chance that the Oval Office will be occupied through 2032 by someone on the ticket this year. And that should be a very sobering thought for us all to take to the polls on Tuesday.

We Americans are a peculiar people in many regards, but our approach to leadership is particularly strange. We claim, often vociferously, that we want to be led by strong, dynamic leaders. But there is something in our national character that works at cross purposes with that concept: we want to be led wisely, bravely, and intelligently, but we also don’t want to be led at all…and, indeed, we often bristle at the suggestion that the people cannot simply lead itself forward to wherever it is we as a nation wish to arrive. And that populist ambivalence, it seems to me, is particularly noticeable in the specific way we relate to candidates for president: we say we want strong, independent leadership at the top, but we also find it off-putting when a candidate appears too strong…or too independent. We denigrate such people as “loose cannons” and warn against granting them too much power. But we also seem wary of would-be leaders who appear solely to follow the party line and to espouse views widely held by others. We want our leaders to be idiosyncratic, autonomous thinkers and party loyalists, soft-spoken gentlepeople and persuasive putters-forward of their own ideas and theories, fully self-confident and original thinkers and humble servants of their parties (and then, when elected, their constituencies), larger than life trailblazers who live life large and traditionalists possessed of the common touch of “regular” folks with whom all can easily identify. We don’t like our leaders to be too different than ourselves. But we also want them to be entirely different than ourselves: more forceful, more intelligent, more savvy, and more brave. No wonder we need three years and eleven and a half months to choose a president!

As we approach the polls next Tuesday, I propose we think not solely about the positive or negative traits of the individuals whose names will appear on the ballot, but about the concept of leadership itself. We are, after all, choosing a national leader! So perhaps we should begin by asking ourselves what exactly the traits are that we wish the leader of our nation to embody. Since one of the skills I’ve tried over the years to hone is the ability to look forwards by looking backwards (something Jews are supposed to be particularly good at), I propose we find the answer to our question by looking back in time. Way back!

Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome from 161 to 180. (He was co-emperor for the first eight of those years, then reigned solo until the year of his death.) The last of the so-called “good emperors” of Rome (a term coined by, of all people, Niccolò Machiavelli), Marcus Aurelius is known to the ages primarily because of the one book he left behind, an untitled work commonly known by the made-up name, Meditations. (The work appears under other names as well. The edition I use the most often, for example, is called The Communings with Himself of Marcus Aurelius Antonius, Emperor of Rome.)

It is, by any measure at all, a truly remarkable piece of work. I first encountered it years ago in graduate school when some tiny part of it was assigned to us as a translation exercise in Greek class. I found the emperor’s Greek impossible—and I was in my third year of Greek at the time—but there was something about the book itself that drew me in and, in the end, I was completely enthralled both by the book and its author.

The emperor undertook to compose his book as a kind of exercise in values clarification: as far as anyone can tell, he wrote solely for himself while camped out in a series of military camps located in modern day Serbia and Hungary and made no effort in his lifetime to publish his work for the consideration of others. But that hasn’t kept it from being read and admired by countless others. (For what it’s worth, Bill Clinton once commented that it was his favorite book of all.)

The author was a leader in every possible sense of the word: politically (he was, after all, emperor of Rome), militarily (he spent half his reign dealing with the war with Parthia in the east and the other half fighting Rome’s ongoing war against the Germanic tribes to the north), and intellectually too (his book is the most complete ancient work detailing the philosophical school known as Stoicism, of which he was an acknowledged master). That being the case, it isn’t surprising that the emperor turns in many different passages to the question of leadership itself, wondering aloud what makes a truly great leader and asking himself deeply and honestly if he personally qualified as one.

The great leader, he writes, is characterized almost above all else by self-control and never forgets that it is never constructive to react to an offense by becoming overtly irritated or annoyed. And he has a handy trick for developing that kind of self-control: “to maintain control over your emotions,” he writes, “simply remember that life is short” and that the person you offend today may well be someone whose support you desperately need tomorrow.

In a different passage, he writes about how crucial it is that leaders not think too highly of themselves. Indeed, he observes, seeing others err makes true leaders feel humble, not arrogant. “You’re just like them,” the emperor writes, “and you’ve made the same mistakes too.” It therefore behooves the true leader to respond to the errors and misdeeds of others by attempting to set a fine example for those people to follow, not by becoming puffed up with unearned pride merely because, just this once, someone else fell prey to his or her own baser instincts.

And another thing as well: the emperor remarks on several occasions that the true leader is always willing to grant the benefit of the doubt to wrongdoers and, particularly in the absence of proof to the contrary, to assume them to have been acting out of ignorance rather than malice. More people behave poorly because they do not understand how to behave well than because they wish to be reprehensible human beings. And so the thoughtful leader responds to wrongdoing by attempting to guide the wrongdoer back onto the right path, not with punitive rage or with insults.

Elsewhere in his book, Marcus notes that great leaders never permit themselves to succumb to anger. And his comment is particularly trenchant in this regard: “Anger invariably does more harm to the individual who gives into it,” he notes, “than the things that caused it in the first place.” And so one of the ways leaders lead is by example in this specific regard: by declining to display anger even when provoked and always by striving peacefully to resolve even the bitterest of disputes.

True leaders, Marcus writes, understand that society is the name we give to the complex set of relationships that bind people to each other.  But, even more to the point, great leaders are possessed always of the conviction that individuals “come into the world specifically to help each other,” and that this truth is neither obviated nor proven false by the fact that there are people in the world who betray that principle with their actions daily. Leaders are thus the guardians of society itself, along with its norms and the virtuous principles that undergird its daily functioning, not merely the masters of the individuals who constitute that society. Power for its own sake is anathema to the emperor, the most powerful man in the world in which he lived: the point of being powerful is to enable restraint. And leaders never forget that the worth of virtue cannot be vitiated by the unvirtuous.

Nor do they ever forget that dignity and self-worth are basic human affects that need neither to be earned or justified by individuals, and that innate worth, being part of the human condition, cannot be forfeited through poor behavior. And true leaders hold even the basest members of society in esteem as human beings possessed of the potential to do good.

And, finally, truly great leaders understand that the only truly undefeatable weapon in anyone’s arsenal is kindness itself. Indeed, the emperor writes that only those possessed of true leadership ability will find the inner strength to behave compassionately. “What,” the emperor asks rhetorically, “can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness?” It sounds like such a simple concept…but how many of us possess the strength of character to behave that way always? Not a lot! But we can and should demand exactly that virtue of those who would lead us forward.

And those are the emperor’s insights into leadership. This was a man who sat at the pinnacle of power in his day, a man who commanded the armies of the world’s only superpower. He possessed unimaginable wealth. He wielded absolute power. He could overrule any court, including any military tribunal. In Marcus’ day, even the once all-powerful Roman Senate was unable to override the emperor’s decrees and was subservient to his decrees. In short, he was the most powerful man in the world…a phrase we hear repeatedly applied to the President of the United States.  And yet, possessed of power on a scale of which even dictators today can only dream, he felt the key to fine leadership ultimately to lay in the leader’s ability to exercise self-control, to retain an ongoing sense of fidelity not to power or to wealth but to virtue, and to consider compassion the most powerful of all the tools of governance.

As we approach the polls on Tuesday, I suggest we ask not which candidate most accurately mirrors the way we feel about this or that specific issue facing our nation, but which candidate has the ability truly to serve as our nation’s leader…and not in the banal, slightly degraded way that term is so often used today in common discourse, but in the way Marcus Aurelius used it to denote one whose ability to govern derives neither from strength nor from wealth, but from virtue.

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