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Book Review: Pat McGeehan’s Stoicism and the Statehouse
by Chris Calton

I first met Pat McGeehan a few years ago, when I was an undergraduate student at Marshall University. He’d come to speak about his bid to run for the US Senate (a race he unfortunately had to drop out of). I liked his speech, but I was, then and now, skeptical of anybody making grand statements about what they intend to do with the political power they’re seeking.

So I went to talk to Pat after the speech to ask him questions that I expected to elicit the usual blustering from a politician who could talk a good game but really didn’t know a thing about economics, political philosophy, etc.

Instead, Pat knocked my questions out of the park. He demonstrated that he had more than just a way with words; he had a substantial understanding of the humane disciplines that a statesman needs (but rarely possesses). With his demonstration of real knowledge, Pat had my interest, but not yet my respect. Knowledge without ethical consistency is meaningless in a politician, so I started to follow his career.

What I learned, and have since had reaffirmed time and again, is that Pat is one of the most ideologically and ethically consistent people to ever hold political office. He has, on more than one occasion, stood on principle as the sole vote against a piece of legislation, despite being smeared in the press for not “responding” to some crisis or another by throwing more tax dollars at it. Through the consistent adherence to his principles, Pat won my respect. But how, I wondered, was he able to maintain these principles after so many years in the nest of vipers that we call the Capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia?

The first time I visited him in his office, I found the answer. On his desk, I saw a book that was well worn. Its paperback cover was bent backwards, and the corners of it were dull from use. The book was the Enchiridion, by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. When I asked Pat about it, he said he often took it with him to the House Chamber and used it to help him maintain his Stoic mindset against the barrage of attacks against him and the principles of liberty that he’d sworn to uphold.

I give this anecdote because when people read Pat’s book Stoicism and the Statehouse: An Old Philosophy Serving a New Idea, I think it is essential for them to understand the absolute sincerity with which he applies these ideas to his own life. Pat embodied the ideas found in this book for years before putting the pen to paper in the hopes that the Stoic philosophy might help other statesmen the way it has helped him.

When Pat first told me about the book, he said that it was meant for a small audience: legislators with libertarian sympathies. He’s wrong. This book is for so many more people than this niche audience. Although he makes a point to tie the Stoic philosophy to the ideas of liberty, it by no means limits the applicability of this book to any interested reader.

Pat begins the book with an overview of Stoicism as a philosophy (Part I) and a history of Cato the Younger (Part II), who serves as his case-study of applied Stoicism. The history of Cato the Younger is the longest section of the book, but it is also my favorite. With the foundation lain out in Part I, readers can follow along the biographical sketch of this great Roman statesman and understand not just the events of his life, but how his actions were constantly driven by his adherence to the Stoic philosophy. It’s engagingly written, and it expertly illustrates to the reader both the history of the figure and the lessons of the philosophy.

Most important in the lessons of Cato the Younger are the episodes in which Cato has to lean on his Stoicism to maintain principles in the face of great tribulations. Cato stood up to Julius Caesar even as he faced defeat. His is not a story of victory; it’s a story of principles. Pat is aiming this for any liberty-minded legislator who will, like him, face ample opposition in office. But these are lessons that are valuable to anybody, in or out of politics.

Part III of the book is modeled deliberately after the Enchiridion. Some readers may benefit from skipping immediately to this section and reading it before the first parts of the book. All readers, I suspect, will benefit from returning to this section from time to time, even after they’ve read the book.

In this section, entitled “Stoic Counsel,” Pat offers general advice for how to adhere to the Stoic philosophy. He offers a single line of advice, followed by a quote from one of the original Stoic philosophers that relates to his own statement. For example, on page 99, he offers this advice to his reader: “Be comfortable by yourself.” He attaches to this a quote from Epictetus: “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” These two statements – Pat’s and Epictetus’s – are not redundant; they’re complementary.

After the headline advice, Pat offers a paragraph or two explaining how it relates to serving in a legislature. Again, he clearly aims his wisdom for a specific audience – liberty-minded statesmen – but his advice can apply to anybody.

Finally, Pat ends the book with a short bibliography that includes two types of books. Roman histories and works on Stoicism, and libertarian-themed books by modern economists and philosophers. These books are helpfully divided into categories from introductory works to the more advanced. Pat’s book is likely to whet your appetite for more, and his bibliography will help the curious reader know where to turn for additional information.

I’ve read Stoicism and the Statehouse twice now. I have no intention of ever running for political office, so I am not the target audience. But when I read it, I immediately felt the desire to read more about this philosophy, and I found myself considering how its lessons could be applied to my own life (although I don’t consider myself a Stoic, as Pat does, there are nonetheless many lessons that have stuck with me). I expect that I will read this book many more times over the years, and it is with the hope that others have the same experience that I offer this review of a wonderful book.