President Obama and Plutarch

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President Obama and Plutarch

Mr. President,

It is said you are a reader. If so, you may want to devote an hour or so to Plutarch on the Lives of Coriolanus and Alcibiades as translated, for example, by John Dryden. Or Shakespeare who largely lifted it from Plutarch, transforming and clothing it in his own unique style.

Plutarch pointedly titled his book ‘Lives’ because he was concerned with character more than history.  Shakespeare also honors character far more than facts.  I imagine both would agree that  to read history is less instructive than to study character; and that history can never be a true account of the past, but is actually creative non fiction, a reinterpretation of the past distorted by viewpoint and an irrepressible hunger for myth.  Character, they would say, as reflected in a life, instructs better than history because facts are malleable while the voice of character is unchanging and enduring so long as we can understand the language that tells it.

I do not contend that you, Mr. President, are a carbon copy of the great men in question. I  do suggest that you can find something of yourself in these two Lives; you share their greatness, their accomplishments, and their faults, but most importantly their blindness to the way people react to failings they, and you, are unaware of. I believe that you in particular, Mr. Obama, might make some early course corrections that would benefit you, and our nation, greatly.

There are commonalities as well as contrasts between Alcibiades, Coriolanus, and you: you are all skilled and brilliant tacticians, fierce competitors, ambitious, victorious in your field of endeavor.   You all merited and enjoyed the accolades and admiration of great numbers of your people.  Yet you all tend to over- reach or to abuse your power, though in differing ways. Alcibiades and Coriolanus were ultimately rejected soundly (exiled) by their people, though their characters differed greatly. One was Greek, the other Roman; one manipulative, populist, often self indulgent, and mercenary; the other oligarchic, self willed, uncompromising, proud, and arrogant. This quotation is from Plutarch’s Comparison of the two:

“All the sober citizens felt disgust at the petulance, the low flattery, and base seductions which Alcibiades in his public life allowed himself to employ with the view of winning the people’s favor; and the ungraciousness, pride, and oligarchic haughtiness which Marcius (Coriolanus) displayed in his…”[How frightening is it  that Plutarch’s comments  about the character of both these men are reflected in the assessment of many of us about our congress and recent presidents!]

The argument I make here has nothing to do with the political nature of class or money or the lack thereof.  The blindness of both Coriolanus and Alcibiades to the nature of their own offensiveness,  is inconsistent with traditional class differences or struggles. Coriolanus was admired by the nobility and his warrior mentors. He was unbending, and incorruptible, but blind to how offensive his haughty and rude behavior was to the common people. Alcibiades was beloved by Socrates. He was a master of political manipulation, but blind to how his servility in seeking power, his personal corruption and libertine behavior offended the common people.

After you read Plutarch, please consider this comment to you Mr. President.  Because of our nation’s history, our hopes and aspirations, because of who and what you are, you are a national treasure of heroic proportions, already a giant mythic figure. Therefore much is hoped, much is expected of you.  However, much as you would like, you are not able to connect with people who are not academically inclined, or always logically rational. You are a modern Aristotelian, an intellectual; but incredibly, also a warrior, who is aware of these measures of his presidency. I suggest you expect too much of yourself, just as many citizens do. A result is you are over-reaching; trying try too stridently to move our nation in the direction you think best, which makes it impossible for you to remain detached or deliberate, or tolerant of dissent and obstructions.

Mr. President, listen to common people, and be more confident in the strength of the willow than the power of the rock. Bend. Endure. Have some faith in Time. Look carefully, critically, honestly, at yourself and your behavior.  You are talking and preaching too much, sounding irrational, deceptive, and desperate. We tire, and begin to doubt you, and worse, ourselves.  Remember that your unique place in our history is secure, has been from the first day. Reach in to your better self and realize this is the time to really hear and respond positively to people who disagree with you, quieting your own inner monologue, no matter how rational you may believe that to be.  This is the time to lose gracefully, in order to win. Sometimes there is meaning to what others think; or not.  So far you have promised to unify, but acted as an extreme partisan.  But for your benefit, and ours, you should sometimes cede generously, grandly, in order to actually set a new tone as promised, and by doing so, lead in deed rather than words. That sort of action is a brilliant maneuver only possible to a great  and wise warrior who happens to be president.