The Knowledge That Could Have Saved Congressman Weiner
News of Rep. Anthony Weiner's resignation, of his wife Huma's pregnancy, and of yet more examples of his sordid behavior adds another extraordinary dimension to the New York congressman's self-inflicted inferno. And as Father's Day approaches one has to wonder whether Congressman Weiner's sordid fate could have been avoided. Chances are that had Mr. Weiner been aware of some of the classic teachings on moral integrity, self-deception, and karma he would be pondering a different kind of future as politician, husband, and father.
Indeed, it was Medal of Honor winner James Stockdale -- imprisoned and tortured in a Hanoi prison for eight years -- who said that "in stress situations, the fundamentals, the hardcore classical subjects, are what serve best."
In his well-known essay "The World of Epictetus," Stockdale argues that it wasn't the math, engineering, or aeronautics he had mastered as a Navy fighter pilot that helped him survive his nearly decade-long ordeal in prison -- it was a philosophy course he took at Stanford in which he was introduced to the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It was Epictetus who said, "Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions -- in short, whatever is our own doing."
While Epictetus says we don't have control over "whatever is not our own doing" such as our bodies, our public offices, the death of a spouse, or our possessions, we always have control over our moral integrity. Stockdale understood this as the importance of keeping his "conscience clean."
Epictetus had said that "if I can get the things I need with the preservation of my honor and fidelity and self-respect show me the way and I will get them. But if you require me to lose my own proper good, that you may gain what is no good, consider how unreasonable and foolish you are." Stockdale's North Vietnamese interrogators wanted "what is no good" from him but by maintaining what was in his control -- his moral integrity -- in a highly uncontrolled and frightening environment, Stockdale emerged from his ordeal to live a long, productive, and prosperous life.
"Education should take care to illuminate values, not to bury them amongst the trivia," said Stockdale. "Are our students getting the message that without personal integrity intellectual skills are worthless?" Indeed, American students today may be technically proficient but are they philosophically astute?
In addition to the writings of Epictetus, Mr. Weiner should have been introduced as an undergraduate in college to Samuel Johnson's famous discourse on self-deception. The great eighteenth-century British philosopher and essayist noted that there are various ways we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we have moral integrity.
Politicians, teachers, parents, clergy, and anyone in positions of authority, according to Johnson, are particularly susceptible to a unique kind of self-deception:
There are men who always confuse the praise of goodness with the practice, and who believe themselves mild and moderate, charitable and faithful, because they have exerted their eloquence in commendation of mildness, fidelity, and other virtues.
Johnson says that this particular "error" is "universal among those that converse much with dependents, with such whose fear or interest disposes them to a seeming reverence for any declamation, however enthusiastic, and submission to any boast, however arrogant." In other words, those in positions of authority deceive themselves into believing in their own rectitude not only because of their frequent declamations on the subject of civil behavior, but because their "dependents" treat them with uncritical reverence.
For Johnson then, "he who would know himself should consult his enemies, remember the reproaches that are vented to his face, and listen for the censures that are uttered in private." Since "our great business is to know our faults" it is essential then that we choose friends who would not be "fearful to offend." When President Obama suggested that Republicans were "enemies" and, in addition, implied prior to the Health Care vote last March that they were generally immoral as well he was not only setting a bad example for Mr. Weiner but also betraying his own thin understanding of the classics.
Most importantly however, Johnson noted that most self-deceivers in general avoid "assigning proper portions of [their lives] to the examination of the rest." Those, in other words, who find little time for quiet, daily contemplation in their lives are more likely to have very little self-knowledge. Johnson's advice here is exponentially more important in the relentless, invasive, and instantaneous twenty-first-century electronic Twitter environment.
"The necessity of setting the world at a distance from us, when we are to take a survey of ourselves," says Johnson, "has sent many from high stations to the severities of a monastic life." While it is highly doubtful that Mr. Weiner or Tiger Woods will end up in a monastery, Johnson's wisdom about quiet reflection can serve as an internal, daily sanctuary. "When we don't do the one thing we ought to do," said the American philosopher Eric Hoffer, "we are the busiest people in the world."
Finally, there is the simple law of karma. In his profound essay "Compensation," the nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson noted that at some point in our lives "every secret is told, every crime is punished, every virtue rewarded, every wrong redressed, in silence and in certainty." It was an understanding of this ironclad law of karma that occasioned Emerson's claim that he "hated to be defended in a newspaper." Like Samuel Johnson, Emerson argued that "blame is safer than praise" when it comes to keeping a check on the kind of pride and arrogance that can often lead to shameful consequences.
"A great man is always willing to be little" said Emerson. "Whilst he sits on the cushion of advantages, he goes to sleep."
Illuminating words for Congressman Weiner, and for the rest of us.