Duty, Words, and the Presidential Debate

Photo by Mason New

In 1992, I voted for the first time in a presidential election. I remember vividly the pride, the responsibility, in fact the joy filling in the circle next to the name of my chosen candidate, a feeling similar to the one the year before when I signed my selective service card registering for the draft. I felt then as I do now that in the United States, warts and all, liberty thrives. Only through voting and service do we protect this sacred right to live free.

Years later, I studied the origins of our system of government found in ancient history, specifically the philosophical and practical elements of Greek democracy and the later Roman Republic. After witnessing the anemic leadership I witnessed in my first two corporate jobs, I committed myself to one day, should I ever become a teacher, offering a course on leadership with a focus on the works of philosophy that might help my students understand responsibility, authority, humility. You know, the attributes that make leaders great.

In 2005, I had my chance, and my course “Leadership in Literature” was born. We started with the Roman Senator Cicero writing during the final days of the Republic. He had fled the dictator Julius Caesar, and as a supporter of freedom, law, and the Republic, Cicero had become an enemy of the regime. He penned a letter to his son Marcus in order to help the young man prepare to resurrect the Republic long after Cicero’s impending execution, a resurrection that did not occur until 1700 years later on the North American continent. His treatise On Duties, our class introduction to leadership, started with this passage about the three considerations all leaders must face before any decision:

“Whether the thing under consideration is an honorable or dishonorable thing to do… is conducive to the advantageousness or pleasantness of life, to opportunities and resources for doing things, to wealth and to power, all of which benefits them and those dear to them… [or] when something that appears beneficial conflicts with what is honorable.”

It seems simple: Honorable, beneficial, and what to do when these conflict? Theoretically, easy to answer. Practically, just try it — especially when as a leader that action hurts you or your people. But if you want to lead, you don’t get a pass because leadership is all about that last one. Anyone can make a decision when the outcome is clear and good.

Furthermore, we discussed extensively the four virtues: Justice, Beneficence, Strength of Spirit, and Moderation. And we learned about “Seemliness” — that how we speak and conduct ourselves matters.

***

Three nights ago, I watched the spectacle of the presidential debate. Forget for a moment your own political choice or party. No one, I believe, expected grandiose language or clever barbs. But, if you are someone interested in debate more sophisticated than middle school boys arguing over who’s a better NFL quarterback, then you probably expected to gain some important insights. Anything. From either candidate. (Of course, if you won’t even consider the other side, then I suppose the debate fit exactly what you wanted.)

But, I am not that way, and I did expect to understand where both men stand on the serious problems we face. I wanted an unvarnished comparison, one that allowed me to make my own judgements, one devoid of spin from media sources with an agenda. Perhaps, I expected something more deliberate, more patient, and more informative. Naive, I suppose, since we live in a world of soundbites, tweets, pings, dings, and memes. As Cicero wrote to his adolescent son, counseling on how to comport himself, “Above all, let him have regard for the subject of discussion: if it is serious, he should treat it with gravity; if light-hearted, with wit.”

I offer neither rebuke nor condemnation of anyone on the stage because frankly, what happened there reflects a much larger problem: We the People of the United States have forgotten how to talk. We see self-righteousness on both sides of the political divide, each one claiming the other simply wrong, or worse, labeling “the other” in some way. We have political leaders using this self-righteousness for self-promotion and accumulating power. We have lost our way because we don’t know how to speak.

***

I’m no saint. I get angry. I react. However, in more pensive and quiet moments, I realize those emotions lead me nowhere, and they prevent me from upholding the obligations and duties required every day as father, husband, business leader, neighbor, and citizen. For this reason, I return to the philosophical foundations built into our society: justice, kindness, spirit, and moderation. Abandon these, and we will suffer the demise of the Romans who so long ago did the exact same.

Thank you for reading, and please vote. A long deceased Roman senator would say it’s the honorable thing to do.

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