Politics & Government

Advice Gen. Mattis’ favorite philosopher might give to Donald Trump

Donald Trump, meet Marcus Aurelius.

Trump’s selection of retired Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis as defense secretary is a red carpet moment, too, for the philosophical Roman emperor whose book “Meditations” is by all accounts a Mattis favorite.

Many centuries before Trump discovered Twitter, Marcus Aurelius was likewise sharing his reflections and admonitions in bite-sized form.

Mattis carried his copy of “Meditations” into battle in Iraq, evidently finding solace and wisdom in words written some 1,800 years ago. If Trump ever starts attending more of his intelligence briefings, he might do well to include snippets from “Meditations,” whose evergreen lessons for leaders include:

Rise above raw appetite and retain self-control.

“You are an old man,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. “No longer let this part be a slave, no longer be pulled by the strings like a puppet by self-seeking impulse, no longer be dissatisfied with your present lot, or shrink from the future.”

At the age of 70, Trump will be the oldest president to assume the office when he takes the oath next Jan. 20. It’s a perfect time, perhaps, for some self-reflection. If he heeds Marcus Aurelius, he will take the opportunity to start exercising discipline over the impulsive behavior that manifests itself in, well, his Twitter account.

Keep focused on the job at hand.

“Do things external which happen to you distract you?” Marcus Aurelius asked, before offering his advice to “cease to be whirled around.”

As president, Trump will face an unending series of crises, catastrophes, challenges and choices. That comes with the territory, as Marcus Aurelius knew all too well. The emperor spent much of his reign from 161 to 180 C.E. fighting off assorted barbarian invasions. A successful leader must stay laser-focused on what matters most, and avoid getting distracted by the trivial.

Stop picking fights and obsessing over what others say.

“Waste not the remainder of your life in thoughts about others, except when you are concerned with some unselfish purpose,” Marcus Aurelius advised, “for you are losing an opportunity to do something else, when you have thoughts such as ‘what is such a person doing, and why, and what is he saying, and what is he thinking, and what is he contriving?’ ”

Trump seems to hold grudges, as he showed most recently in an Indiana rally this week where he, once again, lashed out at the media that so vexes him. The essence of a grudge is that it takes up permanent space in the mind of the grudge-holder, making it harder for fresh ideas to take root. A certain benign indifference to what others say can be liberating.

Act always in a dignified and honorable manner.

“Think nothing profitable to you which compels you to break a promise, to lose your self-respect, to hate any man, to suspect, to curse, to act the hypocrite, to desire anything that needs walls and curtains about it,” Marcus Aurelius wrote.

’Nuff said.

Related stories from McClatchy DC

  Comments