The Stoicism of George Washington

George Washington, known for his exemplary self-discipline and mental composure, is a figure in whom many see the influence of Stoicism. Unlike some of the other Founding Fathers, he lacked a classical education. Nevertheless, according to Eliot Morison’s The Young Man Washington (1932), Washington was indeed inspired by Stoic philosophy.

Morison attributed Washington’s self-discipline to a philosophy of life acquired in his late teens from his friends the Fairfaxes. The Fairfax family, although devout Christians, drew considerable inspiration from the writings of Plutarch, Marcus Aurelius, and other classical authors influenced by Stoicism. Although there’s no evidence that Washington had studied the writings of ancient Stoics in great depth himself, Morison argues that he clearly absorbed Stoic values, early in his life, from conversations with the Fairfaxes during his frequent visits to their Belvoir estate.

However, Washington had read at least one book on Stoicism, Seneca’s Morals by Way of Abstract (1702) translated by Sir Roger L’Estrange. It contains excerpts from Of BenefitsOf a Happy LifeOf AngerOf Clemency and twenty-eight of the Epistles. “The mere chapter headings”, Morison says, “are the moral axioms that Washington followed through life.” For example: It is the Part of a Great Mind to despise Injuries.

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