What was President Clinton’s favorite book? Not the same as candidate Clinton’s. Before his first election, it had been A Hundred Years of Solitude. Yet Gabriel García Márquez himself was among those present at William Styron’s dinner table in 1995 to hear Clinton declare that he had changed his mind: now, in the Oval Office, his favorite book was instead The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. With that telling stroke the president became one of the most vivid (and ironical) entries in a long Western tradition, not quite a cult, that holds Marcus to be uniquely enlightened among rulers, and his Meditations oracular.

Skeptics may cringe at the president’s self-identification with the tortured but pious philosopher-prince, or find bathos in Clinton’s confidence that the Meditations are a profundity rather than a gathering of platitudes. But...

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