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One way to look at an iconic or important landmark like the White House is with reverence. This is the seat of a global power. This is where Kennedy stared down the Cuban Missile Crisis. It represents freedom, justice, and the pursuit of happiness. Another way would be with a slightly more cynical eye: This is a house built by slaves. It’s actually not even that old—most of it was torn down and rebuilt during the Truman Administration. Look at all the idiots who have lived there, this house allowed the Civil War to happen, it perpetuated Vietnam, it’s where sleazebags preyed on interns.

Which of these two attitudes is correct? The Stoics would argue that they both are and that both perspectives—at different times—are key to doing the right thing. A person working in government service at the White House can use the positive legacy of the institution as a form of inspiration, as a call to a higher standard of behavior. This is a special place. I must do it justice. This kind of reverence can draw the best out of a person, even in difficult or tempting situations. But at the same time, a person who is too reverent, or who has projected too much of their own idealism onto a place or an organization can find themselves bending the truth to protect it. Or doing unethical things to maintain their job inside it. I’m not going to jail because the guy holding this office for four years is asking me to lie for him. The President isn’t a king—he’s a public servant like every other person in the government. We can use cynicism productively. It, to use Marcus Aurelius’s phrase, helps strip things of the legend that encrusts them and gives us an objective view. 

A person who understands the legacy of the White House from both perspectives is less likely to do something wrong, more likely to be courageous than a person who has just one view. And the same applies for so many different things. How do you see marriage? How do you see money? How do you understand the history of your country or your race or your industry? Being written about in the New York Times or winning a Nobel Prize? 

You want to see the higher essence of things...and their lower nature. You want to see the ideal...and the reality. Be blinded by neither. Deceived by neither.

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