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Secretary Mattis and “Meditations” on Trump

(Leah Millis/Reuters file)

“Secretary Mattis’ words are a warning and a reminder that our roots were born not of anger but of a deeply felt awareness of human limitation.”

When President Donald Trump used various federal law enforcement agencies to clear protestors so he could hold up the bible at St. John’s Church in Washington D.C. on June 1st, he created a clear symbolic gesture for his supporters. However, this was a scene that roiled four-star general and former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who had held a different book by his side on the battlefield. Secretary Mattis felt that federal officers were being used as a Praetorian Guard, something new to the United States but not to history.

President Trump hoisted the bible but was likely unaware that the New Testament is deeply rooted in Stoicism (a school of thought best exemplified by writers such as Epictetus and Seneca). Secretary Mattis’ preferred book was also by a stoic philosopher (and a Roman Emperor): Marcus Aurelius. The book, Meditations, is a diary written by the emperor as “notes to self.” Many of these notes were about how to conduct himself in public. As a man with absolute power, Marcus Aurelius, who could have had all the fame and women he wanted and all his enemies vanquished, chose to live a life of virtue. He wanted to live in harmony with himself and others. As he would write in Meditations, “What we do now echoes in eternity.”

He further advised: “Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” Secretary Mattis finally took action with his first public criticism of his former boss since he resigned from President Trump’s cabinet in December of 2018, following President Trump’s decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria. Secretary Mattis knew well the dangers of creating a power vacuum on a foreign battlefield without considering the potential fallout.

But what happened in Washington, D.C. was not a foreign matter, and the streets outside of the White House were not a battlefield. Secretary Mattis was “angry and appalled,” as he told The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, that this President was trying to divide the nation. He went even further: “We can unite without him, drawing on the strengths inherent in our civil society.”

Then, Secretary Mattis added, “We do not need to militarize our response to protests. We need to unite around a common purpose.” While many will find a political motive, make no mistake: This decorated man of war lives by a code, where one’s word is his honor and trust is everything. So when Secretary Mattis broke this code in speaking out against the President he had served for nearly two years, it was because he witnessed an abuse of federal officers. “Never did I dream that troops taking that same oath would be ordered under any circumstance to violate the Constitutional rights of their fellow citizens,” he said.

Since the 2019 publication of the book Holding the Line: Inside Trump’s Pentagon by Guy M. Snodgrass about Secretary Mattis’ time at the Pentagon, the former Secretary of Defense has kept his word that he would not “kiss and tell.” This was with the exception of one light-hearted speech during the 74th Alfred E. Smith Memorial Foundation Dinner, when he stated, “I earned my spurs on the battlefield…Donald Trump earned his spurs in a letter from a doctor,” which was greeted with laughter and applause. Other than this, Secretary Mattis had largely refrained from deriding President Trump.

Secretary Mattis—like many—had come to accept President Trump as a performer, and he, too, recognized the need for symbolic acts. However, this did not extend to include a tone-deaf gesture in the face of legitimate grievances of people whose only recourse has been to assemble peacefully so their voices could be heard. Unlike in dictatorships where protesters are removed by force, in the United States, we all read from the same script when it comes to military involvement on American soil. There are questions of federal vs. state power, the Constitution, and the Declaration of Independence, the last of which was, of course, written by another admirer of Stoic philosophy: Thomas Jefferson.

In the 2000 film Gladiator, the character of Marcus Aurelius features prominently. Tired of battles with foreign nations, he looks to pass on his enormous imperium maius powers. However, he must choose between his son, Commodus, and Maximus, his beloved general. He knows that the heir apparent seeking power is “not a moral man,” yet his adopted son, Maximus, refuses the offer because he knows war too well and does not fancy himself a politician. Marcus Aurelius insists that this is precisely why he must become emperor: Power itself held no allure.

It is not from President Trump’s brandishing of it but from the bible itself—and from Marcus Aurelius—that we are reminded of our common frailties and common suffering. That is why Secretary Mattis’ words “In Union There is Strength” echo a military sense of unity in fighting for a common cause. All the while, branding entire groups with broad-stroke phrases such as “cop killers,” “terrorists,” or those of “white privilege” only perpetuates cycles of hurt, pain, and even violence. The American experiment is not held together only by the rule of law. It is also bound by the trust that these rules are worthy of our adherence. As Secretary Mattis said, “This will not be easy, as the past few days have shown, but we owe it to our fellow citizens; to past generations that bled to defend our promise; and to our children.” He, then, added, “Only by adopting a new path—which means, in truth, returning to the original path of our founding ideals—will we again be a country admired and respected at home and abroad.”

In those ideals is the wisdom of the ancients. Secretary Mattis’ words are a warning and a reminder that our roots were born not of anger but of a deeply felt awareness of human limitation. Marcus Aurelius would add, “How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.” In Gladiator, the dying emperor wistfully says: “There was a dream that was Rome. You could only whisper it. Anything more than a whisper and it would vanish; it was so fragile.” His hopes of reformation vanished, and Rome would fall. What will come of our Pax Americana?.

Robert Orlando is a filmmaker and writer. He founded Nexus Media, and his latest film is Citizen Trump.

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