Jon Meacham: A Case for Optimistic Stoicism

Perhaps it was the economy, or maybe it was our mindlessly divided (an altogether different thing from being intelligently divided, which is the natural state of a democratic republic) political climate. But for whatever reason, my holiday reading included Gregory Hays's 2002 Modern Library translation of the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which I had at hand when news came of the attempted bombing of Northwest Flight 253.

It turned out to be a fortuitous coincidence, for the musings of the second-century A.D. Roman philosopher-emperor had a particular resonance as the country confronted terrorism anew. "If you've seen the present then you've seen everything—as it's been since the beginning, as it will be forever," Marcus wrote. "The same substance, the same form. All of it."

And there were, in fact, many moments of painfully predictable reflexive reactions to the attempted bombing. Republicans took the occasion to allege that the president of the United States is soft on terror. Reporters were apparently shocked to learn that the federal government, a huge and human institution, had failed to keep a dangerous and armed young man off a flight into the country.

We must recognize that there is always a threat, always an enemy. Though we comfort ourselves, sometimes, with memories of peaceful eras, the absence of war as usually understood—nations projecting military force against other nations—is not peace. Consider just the 20th century, in which the Great War, World War II, and the Cold War formed what our contributor Philip Bobbitt has called the Long War in his book The Shield of Achilles.

Because there is no such thing as universal peace, and because Americans will face threats and terror no matter who happens to be in the White House, we could use, I think, a good dose of Marcus Aurelius's optimistic stoicism (my term; I am sure the real philosophers out there will object, so I hope they will forgive the overgeneralizations). A proper understanding of the world view in the Meditations must include not only a sense of the predominant intransigence of human affairs but of their possibilities as well. Marcus is much concerned with delineating the characteristics of what he calls "the rational soul," listing: "Affection for its neighbors. Truthfulness. Humility." Human beings, he writes, "were made to help others." Nothing is good "except what leads to fairness, and self-control, and courage, and free will. And nothing bad except what does the opposite." In life, particularly public life, we are not to "go expecting Plato's Republic," but to work, he advises, "in a principled way, with diligence, energy and patience…cIf you can embrace this [work] without fear or expectation—can find fulfillment in what you're doing now, as Nature intended, and in superhuman truthfulness (every word, every utterance)—then your life will be happy."

Many of us would settle for living safely, and then hoping for happiness to come along in due course. The central function of government is the creation and enforcement of security. Without it nothing else—or at least nothing else worth having—is possible. America remains at war with terrorists who, inspired by extremist interpretations of Islam, wish us harm. As we note in our cover this week, the story of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab is an unsettling reminder that this is a war without end. No matter how many camps we blow up, no matter how many operatives we kill or imprison, and certainly no matter how much screening we do at airports, we will never render America totally safe. No matter. We must press forward on all fronts. The perfect cannot be the enemy of the good. As Christopher Dickey writes for us, the scattered nature of the threat more than eight years after September 11 is in some ways a perverse tribute to our success in disrupting the terrorists' pre-9/11 universe.

So this is what winning may look like: smaller-bore plots, carried out (or not) by radicalized Islamists. But a plot's scope is smaller only if you or someone you love is not blown apart. As Marcus Aurelius would understand, a never-ending war is not a war we should not fight: it is just a war that never ends. The sooner we accept this, the better.

Jon Meacham is editor of NEWSWEEK and author of American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation.