The ancient historian Titus Livius (Livy) records in his History of Rome the legend of a great and virtuous Roman leader, Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus. The story goes that in 458 BCE, an Italic tribe known as the Aequi besieged a Roman army and with it one of Rome’s two consuls, the highest political office in Rome. In a panic the Senate voted unanimously to suspend democracy and appoint a dictator, who would in theory serve a six-month term entrusted with the full authority of the state, to navigate the crisis on behalf of the people.
Cincinnatus had previously served as consul, but outside of his political duties he was a simple farmer. He was found, says Livy, plowing his four-acre field on the far side of the Tiber by messengers of the Senate saluting him as the unanimously elected magister populi. From then it was a span of only fifteen days in which Cincinnatus raised an army, routed the enemy, rescued the consul and his soldiers, and returned to Rome having given the spoils to his own soldiers. He retained his post only long enough to save Rome: he immediately resigned as dictator and returned to his little farm.
The value of this myth far exceeds its historicity, though scholars do take it to be more or less historical. The story of Cincinnatus was told and retold as an example of model Roman citizenship through modesty and virtue. As we hear echoed in the famous line from JFK’s 1961 inaugural speech, the Roman citizen—even a dictator—was to serve their country, not wish for it to serve them. Put another way, the lesson of Cincinnatus is that the exercise of power is only a part of strong leadership: the other part is restraint.
Virtue is a lost art today in a country and culture whose philosophy ironically is largely based in Greek thinking. We learn it in pieces here and there – George Washington’s cherry tree, the tortoise and the hare, the fruit of the spirit. Generally it is relegated to the realm of ethics: saying for example that honesty is virtuous because it is right.
Aristotle uses the word eudaimonia (εὐδαιμονία) to define the goal of virtue, a word that is often translated “happiness” or “welfare” but the usage of which refers to something more like “human flourishing.” Strength of character in accordance with the four cardinal virtues of Courage, Justice, Prudence, and Temperance, according to Aristotle, is an ethical good because it causes humans to flourish.
Cincinnatus exhibits all four of the cardinals magnificently in Livy’s account, but what he is truly praised for is his temperance, the self-control to give up rather than exploit his excess of power. Temperance is the wisdom of balance; it is through temperance that virtue is possible. In excess, the temperate quality of courage, for example, becomes recklessness; in deficit, cowardice.
In Galatians 5 we see Paul delineate a Christian version of the sort of virtue we find in Aristotle and Plato (roughly 500 years pre-Paul.) Among peace, patience, and generosity he names this same temperate quality, “self-control” — in Greek enkrateia or “self-governance.” The goal of virtue in Galatians 5, or being “led by the spirit” as Paul calls it, is of course human flourishing, the goal of the entire Bible.
I’m afraid I have to take a moment to point out the obvious here: this is partly a lesson and warning about Donald Trump. As Livy prepares to tell the story of Cincinnatus he prefaces it with this prophetic line:
“It is worth while for those who despise all human interests in comparison with riches, and think that there is no scope for high honours or for virtue except where lavish wealth abounds, to listen to this story.”
“Part of the beauty of me,” Trump told Good Morning America when considering a 2012 bid for the presidency, “is that I’m very rich.” He repeated this refrain again in the Trump Tower speech announcing his candidacy for the 2016 election as a qualifying feature of his bid: “I’m really rich.”
With his wealth, Trump has indulged his tastes as extravagantly—or garishly—as possible, down to 24 karat gold faucets in the bathroom of the Trump jet. His products are as garish as he is: this Vanity Fair article lambastes the Trump Grill (Grille?) for its flashy but hollow imitation-high-class dining. He is famously ambitious and invasive with his lust for women, in fact bragging on the Billy Bush tape about his lack of restraint:
“I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know, I’m automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet. Just kiss. I don’t even wait.”
In stark contrast to Cincinnatus, he is driven to lord his power over others as in this classic (one of many) Trump reply from a March 22nd interview with TIME magazine:
“Hey look, in the mean time, I guess, I can’t be doing so badly, because I’m president, and you’re not.”
Every election cycle inevitably one of the talking points comes to be about “presidential temperament.” In the most recent election it was Trump’s: interesting, however, is the way he refers to his temperament. It’s not a “presidential” or “leadership” temperament that he talks about, it’s a “winning temperament.” For Donald they are tellingly one and the same.
But here is where I move away from the obvious again. It’s really fun to pick our hedonist-in-chief to shreds, but he won’t read this blog. I can’t change him. There are many terrible people every four years that don’t become President-elect. There are also many, many conservative voters that voted Republican not in support of Trump but in spite of him, I realize that. All the better then: for what we really learned in this election was the outer limit of what each side was willing to tolerate in a candidate in order to advance their agenda.
This is the consequence of partisan agenda politics: America was given a bitter pill and a poison pill, and by a wide margin chose the poison pill.
Virtuous leadership doesn’t seem to be in especially high demand these days. Perhaps virtue herself is in short supply. What happened to courageous leaders? Prudent leaders? Just leaders? Temperate leaders? These qualities seem to go out the window when the only thing that matters is winning. It’s when the heat is turned up that people are tempted to play dirty; there is no honor in war.
The poison pill of the election was just the way that I experienced the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. The idea of the judicial system as a counterweight to the executive and legislative branches of our government was supposed to be by design resistant to partisanship because prudent, just, and temperate politicians respect the idea that the court bench is not a place for activism. However, if all that matters is getting your way, ends can justify dastardly means.
The answer to these problems is not to go back and color over the top of the Donald Trump that we know all too well, making him into the image of something he is not. It’s not to bend over backwards, as many mainstream Christian leaders have done, to find a way to dress him up as a Christian “technically speaking” because Jack Graham said that Dr. Dobson said that Jerry Falwell, Jr. said that Paula White “led him to Christ.” Like N.T. Wright says, self-control is the lynch-pin that holds virtue together:
“All the varieties of fruit that Paul mentions here [Galatians 5] are comparatively easy to counterfeit, especially in young, healthy, happy people—except for self-control. If that isn’t there, it’s always worth asking whether the appearance of the other sorts of fruit is just that, an appearance, rather than a real sign of the Spirit’s work.”
For my part, I far prefer a virtuous leader with views that differ from my own to an unstable leader who claims to promote my agenda. Strong leadership is by nature bipartisan.
As the first President of the United States, George Washington was filled with the constant awareness that his actions would set the precedent for the future leaders of his fledgling state. Offered titles for his position such as “His Excellency” or “His Highness, the Protector of Our Liberties” Washington chose the modest “Mr. President.” He could have remained in office for as many terms as he had the stomach for: like Cincinnatus, he willfully relinquished his power after only two terms, setting an example for every future President (until FDR and the 22nd amendment.)
We need leaders like Cincinnatus and Washington. We need leaders who value the virtue of restraint as much as power. Unfortunately, the leaders we elect to represent us in matters of democracy represent us perhaps a little too vividly. The distance between our agendas and what we’re willing to sell out for them is a zero sum. It is up to us to demand more prudent politicians, to elect wiser officials, and to admire more virtuous leaders.
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