How an English poet, a Roman emperor, and an American admiral can teach the modern man about courageous suffering.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole…
William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” opens with these cheery words, plunging us into his famous hymn for defiance in the face of adversity. Those not familiar with the poem from their own reading (read it here) will probably recall Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, quoting “Invictus” in the eponymous movie. The sentiment behind the poem and its stoic philosophy—a determined grit which refuses to surrender to suffering—has inspired men through the ages. In this and other examples, it’s clear that stoicism has much to offer the modern man.
What is Stoicism?
Stoicism is a philosophy for the man in the arena, for the man beaten on by a thousand troubles: it is not merely airy nonsense dreamt up by a scrawny egghead far-removed from the rough-and-tumble. The classical Stoics teach us a philosophy of emotional detachment from all of life’s concerns except the drive to be virtuous. Marcus Aurelius writes in his Meditations:
If you are doing your proper duty let it not matter to you whether you are cold or warm, whether you are sleepy or well-slept, whether men speak badly or well of you, even whether you are on the point of death or doing something else: because even this, the act in which we die, is one of the acts of life, and so here too it suffices to “make the best move you can.” (Location 1609, Kindle Edition)
Of course, we all know that true stoicism is nearly impossible. I doubt even Marcus Aurelius himself was able to ignore the difference between a freezing night in the wilderness and a warm night in his own bed, or did not sometimes shudder at the thought of death. For me, though, whenever storm clouds gather it helps to remind myself that many things are beyond my control but my response to circumstances is never one of them. This was a constant project for our Roman friend, as he reminded himself not to become “Caesarified,” but rather to be kind, unpretentious, a “friend of justice,” “full of affection,” and “strong for his proper work.”
We return to this idea in stoic philosophy again and again: if we can do nothing else, we can at least be good men. Women leave us, bosses fire us, friends fail us. God knows, sometimes we fail ourselves and—worse—others. But in refusing to allow calamity to define our character or to see ourselves as victims of circumstance, and in choosing to carve out an identity of our own making, we can still be good.
Making Stoicism Work for You
James Stockdale was a prisoner-of-war in North Vietnam, forced to eject from his disabled plane in 1965. While in captivity (where he spent seven years), he was chosen to make propaganda videos to aid the North Vietnamese. Many men, in the face of such fear, might choose to do so and I think most of our families would forgive us for this. But Stockdale’s example reminds us that there is always a choice: Stockdale’s captors gave him a razor to shave, which he promptly used to carve up his own scalp. They covered his bloody head with a hat. He then bashed himself repeatedly in the face with a wooden stool so that he would not be valuable as a tool of propaganda.
Stockdale wrote later in life about how his study of Stoic philosophy while a graduate student at Stanford helped him remain defiant despite a combined total of over four years of solitary confinement:
I’m talking about having looked over the brink, and seen the bottom of the pit, and realizing the truth of that linchpin of Stoic thought: that the thing that brings down a man is not pain but shame! (Stockdale on Stoicism II: Master of My Fate, Location 240, Kindle Edition)
Few of us will ever be prisoners of war, or Roman emperors, or—in Henley’s case—half-crippled by an amputated leg at age 17. But stoicism was appropriated and changed by each of these men to suit their own needs. But question remains: how does this translate for the modern man?
Paul the Apostle preached a form of stoicism based on steely perseverance and stubborn joy that trusted in the love of God. It apparently kept him strong till his own execution for his refusal to stop preaching. So it seems to me that the key to creating a personal stoicism is not necessarily detachment, as Marcus Aurelius advocated, or any of the other specific principles which kept these men strong: it’s to find your own bedrock principle not dependent on the approval of other men.
Determine what principles you consider totally unfailing in your own life, remind yourself that these are not the same as principles at which you never fail, and then etch them in granite so that they will be there when circumstance tries those principles—as it inevitably will. Although the pain may come, Henley reminds us that:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
These will be different for every man. I chose to memorize “Invictus” and Rudyard Kipling’s “If.” When times are tough, I will recite them like a mantra and find strength in the words. For those very interested, I would recommend reading the Meditations or Stockdale’s lectures on stoicism. Find courage in the stories of strong men—those you’ve known or those you wish you had. And tell your stories of successes and failures to others. Pride and shame, in the proper context, can be healthy motivators.