How to win the presidency: 5 tips from Plato, Aristotle, and other great thinkers

Amidst the frenzy leading up to Super Tuesday, when 15 U.S. states hold primaries in a single day, we turned to some of history’s greatest thinkers for advice on how to win one of the most coveted offices in the world. Their advice can secure you the competitive edge in any race—be it personal, professional, or political.

Donald Trump’s win in the New Hampshire and South Carolina primaries last week, along with a staggering victory in the Nevada caucus, has cemented his status as the contender to beat for the Republican Party’s nomination, against all expectations. If these primaries are any indicator of what is to come, it’s hard to imagine states across the South, voting in Super Tuesday next week, not getting behind him.

As mainstream Republicans struggle to come to grips with this possibility, Trump’s series of victories raise the inevitable question: can he be stopped? Is it possible that Trump might even win a general election against either Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders?

“There’s nothing easy about running for president,” commented Trump at his victory rally, “it’s tough, it’s nasty, it’s mean, it’s vicious. It’s beautiful—when you win it’s beautiful.”

And it looks like Trump is well set up to continue his winning streak. According to political strategists, Republican candidates Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich have a tough battle ahead: they need to prove they can beat him in the upcoming tests, not just finish ahead of one another, and securing victories in their home states might not even be sufficient to stop the New York billionaire in his tracks.

So what is key, then, to winning the presidency? And how might Trump’s leading rivals change the trajectory of this campaign? In an attempt to look for answers, we turned to some of the greatest political minds in history, from Plato to Machiavelli.

Here is their advice for securing the White House, or indeed winning any race, personal, professional, or political:


1. Study philosophy

Plato argues in Republic that to be a morally good and happy person, you should become a philosopher. Similarly, a good state should be ruled by philosopher-kings. In the same way that a soul is just if it is governed by reason, a state will be just if ruled by people who seek knowledge and truth.

A brief look at the university majors of previous presidents helps prove Plato’s point: nine of the last ten leaders have degrees in the humanities or social sciences. The creative thinking and problem-solving skills that these subjects teach are central to success in politics.

Plato’s #1 tip: Presidential hopefuls would do well to follow in the footsteps of founding father Thomas Jefferson and spend some time brushing up their philosophy.


2. Do not be afraid to lie to gain (and maintain) power

Deception, according to the notorious political thinker Machiavelli, forms an integral part of politics. Ed Uravic, a former Washington lobbyist and author of Lying Cheating Scum, agrees: “every president has not only lied at some time, but needs to lie to be effective.” A “good” ruler therefore may not be the most devout or honest politician, but the one who is willing to lie when necessary, as Machiavelli advises in The Prince.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, widely regarded as one of the nation’s three greatest presidents, was not entirely honest. Despite telling three different men that he wanted them to be his next vice-president during the Democratic Party’s national convention in 1944, he eventually picked a fourth man, Harry Truman, for the position.

Machiavelli’s #1 tip: Present yourself as a moral person but don’t hold your morals too dear: this could result in hesitation to act in risky circumstances, costing you the presidency!


3. Channel your inner charisma

In Politics as a Vocation , a groundbreaking text in political science, German sociologist Max Weber describes the essential quality politicians need to survive in our modern political system: charisma.

In 1960, the first campaign in which candidates debated on live television, charisma played a deciding role in the outcome of the elections. During the debate, John F. Kennedy’s confident, sun-tanned, and relaxed appearance won over voters, whereas Robert Nixon looked shifty and sweaty under the lights.

Indeed, Kennedy epitomized the ingredients of a good leader, according to Weber: charisma, a strong vision, and a willingness to take that extra step in order to preserve the common good. Only then can a politician inspire confidence and devotion.

Weber’s #1 tip: Voters will identify with, and believe in, you if you are passionate about your vision for preserving the common good.


4. Learn by example

In the face of moral dilemmas, Aristotle argues that we need to study the actions of good and virtuous people and follow their example, rather than using general principles to determine the right course of action.

In order to become such a good person, Aristotle explains, in Nicomachean Ethics , that one needs to be raised well and have enjoyed a good education. A good person has good character traits—like kindness, courage, and temperance—and will use these traits in making moral judgements and decisions.

Aristotle’s #1 tip: study the successes of your exemplary predecessors, like Franklin D. Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln.


5. Know your competition

“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles,” says Sun Tzu in The Art of War , a 2500 year-old war manual.

As part of preparing for battle, or in this case the presidential race, a politician must know him or herself, the battlefield, and the competition through and through. Obama’s 2008 campaign serves as a useful example. Introducing new technologies and big data to his strategy, he managed to organize supporters in a way that would have required an arsenal of volunteers in the past, transforming the nature of the political game in the meantime. Information, knowledge, and understanding are key to any successful campaign.

Sun Tzu’s #1 tip: Inform yourself thoroughly about your opponents and the means available to run your campaign, and assemble a strong team around you to support your campaign.