Today I was trying to write an article discussing my new book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius when something caught my attention. It was the story of a lone figure facing his destiny in court. One of the historic turning points following a period of intense political turmoil. He speaks in paradoxical language about wisdom, virtue, freedom, and the meaning of life…
No, it wasn’t Socrates in Plato’s Apology. It was Michael Cohen, aka Donald Trump’s erstwhile fixer and (sort of) lawyer. As I was listening to the news today, I realized, to my surprise, that Cohen’s sentencing statement contained references to a way of looking at events that resembled the ancient doctrines of Socratic and Stoic philosophy.
In case you’ve been living under a rock on Mars for the past couple of years, the news is that Cohen has pled guilty to eight criminal charges: five counts of tax evasion, one count of making an excessive campaign contribution, one count of causing an unlawful corporate campaign contribution and one of making false statements to a federally insured bank. Today (12th Dec) was his day in court to be sentenced and also his big chance to summon up all of his rhetorical powers and try get himself out of the pickle he’s in.
Perhaps surprisingly, Cohen’s sentencing statement gets off on a philosophical footing. It opens with a famous quotation from Viktor Frankl, the author and existential psychotherapist, who survived the Nazi concentration camps:
I take full responsibility for each act that I pled guilty to, the personal ones to me and those involving the President of the United States of America. Viktor Frankl in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” he wrote, “There are forces beyond your control that can take away everything you possess except one thing, your freedom to choose how you will respond to the situation.”Michael Cohen
Frankl didn’t seem to realize this but the Stoics had already made this one of the central principles of their philosophy. “It’s not things that upset us,” said Epictetus, the most famous of all Roman Stoic teachers, “but our judgements about them.” According to the Stoics, and Frankl, we’re not free to control the events that befall us but we are free to decide how to respond, and how we think about them. Apparently this is also Cohen’s philosophy and he wanted to make that clear to the judge, his family, and everyone else who was listening, presumably up to and including President Trump whom Cohen has implicated in some of these crimes. Cohen’s words here allude to the fact this has already led to the current President of the USA being named in court filings as an unindicted co-conspirator. That’s possibly about as close as a sitting president can get to actually being indicted for a federal crime.
What Cohen seems to be trying to say here is that his willingness to voluntarily plead guilty should prove that he’s now taking full ownership for the crimes he committed. (Although, that said, a lot of people believe there are plenty of other crimes he could have pled guilty to but hasn’t.)
That’s just the beginning, though. Cohen immediately follows up the quote from Viktor Frankl with a philosophical paradox worthy of Socrates himself:
Your Honor, this may seem hard to believe, but today is one of the most meaningful days of my life. The irony is today is the day I am getting my freedom back as you sit at the bench and you contemplate my fate.Michael Cohen
He’s implying that by finally taking responsibility for his crimes, and confessing them publicly in court, he’s made his life mean something once again. Paradoxically, the day they sentence him to prison, he says, will be the day he regains his existential freedom. This was the part that caught my attention when I heard it on the news. Cohen’s saying that true freedom comes from within. Even the most powerful ruler in the world can be imprisoned by his own passions and vices, if he’s a tyrant. On the other hand, even though he’s chained and thrown in prison, a wise man can achieve true freedom, within his own mind, by liberating himself from falsehood and embracing the truth.
Whether he realized it or not, Cohen is actually uttering one of the famous paradoxes of Stoic philosophy. Only the wise man is really free and everyone else is enslaved. Even when the wise man is imprisoned by a tyrant or sentenced to death like Socrates, he is still freer than everyone else, including his oppressors. The man who is bitter, though, and hates his situation in life, is in a prison of his own making, even though he might be serving at the court of a great king, who lives in a fine palace.
What then is the punishment of those who do not accept? It is to be what they are. Is any person dissatisfied with being alone? let him be alone. […] Cast him into prison. What prison? Where he is already, for he is there against his will; and where a man is against his will, there he is in prison. So Socrates was not in prison, for he was there willingly.Epictetus
Indeed, Cohen goes on to make it clear that from the day he entered Trump’s service until this very moment, when he publicly disowns him in court by confessing to the crimes they committed together, he’s been living in a psychological prison of his own making.
I have been living in a personal and mental incarceration ever since the fateful day that I accepted the offer to work for a famous real estate mogul whose business acumen I truly admired. In fact, I now know that there is little to be admired. I want to be clear. I blame myself for the conduct which has brought me here today, and it was my own weakness, and a blind loyalty to this man that led me to choose a path of darkness over light. It is for these reasons I chose to participate in the illicit act of the President rather than to listen to my own inner voice which should have warned me that the campaign finance violations that I later pled guilty to were insidious.Michael Cohen
It turns out that like Socrates, Cohen has an “inner voice” or daimonion that warns him not to undertake certain actions. Socrates listened to his when it told him not to accept favours from the powerful and thereby make himself indebted to them. Cohen says his mistake, by contrast, was to ignore his own inner voice and go down the “path of darkness” by agreeing to commit various crimes on behalf of Donald Trump.
Trump keeps calling Cohen weak, because he’s flipped and turned witness against his former boss. However, in another paradox worthy of Socrates and the Stoics, Cohen agrees that he was “weak” but only in the past when he was acting the tough guy as Trump’s fixer.
Recently, the President Tweeted a statement calling me weak, and he was correct, but for a much different reason than he was implying. It was because time and time again I felt it was my duty to cover up his dirty deeds rather than to listen to my own inner voice and my moral compass. My weakness can be characterized as a blind loyalty to Donald Trump, and I was weak for not having the strength to question and to refuse his demands. I have already spent years living a personal and mental incarceration, which no matter what is decided today, owning this mistake will free me to be once more the person I really am.Michael Cohen
Cohen is saying that true weakness consists in acting viciously, through moral blindness. True strength consists in freeing yourself from mental and emotional imprisonment by taking responsibility for your actions, and speaking the truth about them when it matters. Cohen is saying that whereas he previously thought strength meant being a “loyal soldier to the President” he now realizes that was actually just weakness, and true strength would have consisted in finding the courage to say no to Trump and exposing his crimes much earlier, for the sake of his country.
Cohen promised the judge that he would stay on the straight and narrow road going forward: “I now know that every action I take in the future has to be well thought out and with honorable intention because I wish to leave no room for future mistakes in my life.” He apologized to his family and the people of the United States in general, for his lying to them, but he didn’t actually apologize to Stormy Daniels, Karen McDougal, or the other women who were direct victims of his actions on behalf of Donald Trump.
I found this statement fascinating. It left me with a lot of unanswered questions, though. Did he even write it himself? Does he really mean all the things he said today in court? I recently wrote an article about Socrates, the Stoics and Roger Stone, another of Trump’s associates whose time in the spotlight is presumably coming up very soon. Stone has made a career out of being a self-described political “dirty trickster” and revels in his infamy. In his recent book, he brags shamelessly about his use of the “Big Lie” technique pioneered by the Nazi propagandists:
Erroneously attributed to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, the “big lie” manipulation technique was actually first described in detail by Adolf Hitler himself. […] Nonetheless, the tactic of creating a lie so bold, massive, and even so monstrous that it takes on a life of its own, is alive and well all through American politics and news media. Make it big, keep it simple, repeat it enough times, and people will believe it.Roger Stone
For all we know, Cohen shares the same shamelessly cynical philosophy of life, which Stone implies was the key to Trump’s electoral success. I’d like to think Cohen’s more sincere and, for instance, he really meant his closing words:
Most all, I want to apologize to the people of the United States. You deserve to know the truth and lying to you was unjust. I want to thank you, your Honor, for all the time I’m sure you’ve committed to this matter and the consideration that you have given to my future. […] And I thank you, your Honor, I am truly sorry, and I promise I will be better.Michael Cohen
The judge didn’t seem persuaded, though. He sentenced Cohen to three years in federal prison, which could have been worse but still clearly wasn’t the news for which he or his lawyers had been hoping. Cohen said he was ready to take responsibility for his crimes, though, and accept his fate. The real test of his newfound Stoicism therefore will be whether, as Epictetus puts it, he can write poetry contentedly while serving time inside.
And we shall then be imitators of Socrates, when we are able to write paeans in prison.Epictetus
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