In August 1937, Ernest Hemingway stopped by the office of Max Perkins, his book editor at Scribner’s. Perkins happened to already be hosting another visitor: Max Eastman, a writer of commentary on politics, philosophy, and literature who had several years prior penned a critical review of Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. “It is of course a commonplace that anyone who too much protests his manhood lacks the serene confidence that he is made out of iron,” Eastman had written, “[and] some circumstance seems to have laid upon Hemingway a continual sense of the obligation to put forth evidences of red-blooded masculinity.”
Hemingway was extremely sensitive to criticism and derided those who peddled it as envious, milksop non-doers who lobbed invective from the safety of the spectator’s gallery. That Eastman had not only critiqued his writing, but questioned the thing in which “Papa” took the most pride — his manhood — made the “libel” even more galling. Though Hemingway had penned a searing rebuttal at the time, the passage of years had done nothing to dampen his sense of indignation and desire for avengement.
Now his chance had come.
Hemingway had been particularly irked at Eastman’s dig that he had created “a literary style . . . of wearing false hair on the chest.” To literally affirm his hirsuteness, Papa therefore initiated their encounter by ripping open his shirt to reveal a chest which Eastman admitted “was hairy enough for anyone.” Hemingway then tore open Eastman’s shirt, exposing a chest which was in comparison, Perkins observed, “bare as a bald man’s head.”
Thus far, Hemingway had only been “fooling” around. But catching sight of the very volume which contained Eastman’s critical essay lying on his editor’s desk, he got “sore.”
Hemingway demanded that its author read the critical passages aloud. When Eastman refused, Hemingway slapped him across the face with the book. The two fell over the desk and wrestled a bit, before Hemingway broke into a broad grin and regained his good humor.
Many moderns are apt to view this episode as rather ridiculous, and Hemingway as demonstrating an insecure machoism. If not an example of faux manliness, it’s apt to be seen as evidence of misdirected emotion — why care so much about what other people thought of you? It seems like a real exercise in pointlessness.
Except for one thing.
Hemingway’s passionate hate for his haters seemingly fueled his work. After he was especially excoriated by critics for Across the River and Into the Trees, “it was Ernest’s pride that defied the naysayers and goaded him into writing The Old Man and the Sea,” his friend A.E. Hotchner observed. “It was an absolutely perfect counterattack and I envisioned a row of snickering carpies . . . who in the midst of cackling, ‘Through! Washed Up! Kaput!’ suddenly grab their groins and keel over.”
Being touchy about his honor was what ultimately catalyzed Hemingway’s greatest literary masterpiece.
Ancient Rome, Contest Culture, and the Rise of Stoicism
“If historians long had the notion that Rome ‘fell,’ it is a notion based on the metaphor of an original firm, stable, solid structure that collapsed or disintegrated. I would argue that if Rome had a fall, it was a fall into a world dominated by exactly that metaphor.” –Carlin Barton, Roman Honor
In the present age, we’re apt to agree with Eastman that a “real man” doesn’t try to prove his manhood, and that the more he sees the need to demonstrate his masculinity, the less secure he is in its possession. We associate manhood with having a “stiff upper lip” — being unemotional, not caring what others think, being sort of “rock-like” in disposition. And we assume that manhood has always been framed this way.
In fact, though, the kind of manliness Hemingway evinced — touchy, thin-skinned, competitive, emotional, unpredictable, concerned with reputation and righting perceived wrongs — was the dominant pattern of masculinity for most of human history.
One of the central pivot points in the shift from the historic paradigm to the more modern one can be traced to ancient Rome. To understand how and why the shift occurred, let us travel back in time, taking along as our guide Carlin Barton, who, in Roman Honor, explains why “the principal metaphors expressing honor (light and fire) and those expressing dishonor (stone and ice)” became completely inverted as the republic became an empire.
Note: All quotes, unless otherwise cited, are taken from Roman Honor.
Light & Fire
“The desire for honor and glory set men on fire.” –Cicero
The early Roman Republic was an honor culture. That is, it followed the pattern which had been set by all ancient societies, wherein people were keenly concerned about their reputation among their peers.
In ancient Rome, it was not enough to live the community’s code, to say you possessed this or that virtue; you had to prove that you did — publicly, in an endless series of tests and trials. Honor was not won once, and forever retained — it had to be earned, and re-earned over and over again.
To be respected, you had to have skin in the game.
Rome was thus not only an honor culture, but a contest culture. Everything was a competition. As the Roman statesman and philosopher Cicero observed of the republic’s boys:
“With what earnestness they pursue their rivalries! How fierce their contests! What exaltation they feel when they win, and what shame when they are beaten! How they dislike reproach! How they yearn for praise! What labors will they not undertake to stand first among their peers!”
Whatever could be fought over, big or small, was fought over — though not always so seriously; the Romans’ contests were full of whimsy, playfulness, and plenty of teasing.
Romans competed both with the living and the dead. They strove to not only live up to the good name of their ancestors, but to surpass them in glory. And while we moderns think it gauche to compete with one’s family and friends, the Romans thought these peers made the best fellow competitors, for they were equals with whom one shared the most in common.
Romans competed over who was most skilled and excellent in rhetoric, in sports, in war, in wealth, and in virtue — particularly the defining quality of manhood: courage. The Roman historian Sallust described the way legionaries not only relished daunting odds, but were driven in their efforts by the desire to be the best soldier on the field:
“To men like these no ordeal was unfamiliar, no position rough or difficult, no armed foe formidable; their courage conquered all obstacles. But the greatest competition for glory was amongst themselves; each rushed to be the first to strike an enemy, to climb a wall, to be conspicuous in action.”
The Roman legionary strove not only for personal honor, but for public recognition; ancient Rome offered many different awards and commendations, and soldiers competed strenuously for them all.
Romans treated the achievement and maintenance of reputation as a contest in and of itself. Any insult or slight was seen as a challenge; “You say I am X, but I’ll prove that you’re wrong.” A Roman could win such a “competition” by pointing to past evidences of their honor; this was a culture in which politicians shamed political opponents or bolstered the credibility of their own arguments by tearing open their tunic to reveal scars earned in defense of the republic. Or, a critic might be refuted by one’s performance in a fresh showdown in which one’s bona fides could be plainly demonstrated.
Whether in peace or bellum, the dominant virtues of Roman culture and its citizen-soldiers were those of the warrior. Regardless of what one was competing over — whether civic pride, martial advantage, or the claim to a reputation worthy of respect — manhood was manifested in one’s willingness to engage. “The Romans associated virtus [manliness] with vis, vires (physical power, vitality, energy, violent or forceful action),” and “A male was transformed into a man by the willful expenditure of [this] energy.” Cicero, who took as his own slogan, “Ever to excel,” declared that “The whole glory of virtue [virtus] resides in activity.”
The placement of dynamic engagement at the heart of the culture affected even the language of ancient Rome:
“As the result of living in a contest culture, Roman ideas of truth (like Roman notions of the sacred) were more active, palpable, and embodied than our own. How much more active and embodied they were can be gleaned from a comparison of a few of our English words with their Latin cognates . . . Our ‘fact’ is passive, for us a fact just ‘is.’ The Roman factum was something made or done . . . Latin existere was to come into view, to appear, come forward, show oneself, come into being; exstare was not only to exist, it was to project, protrude, stand out, be conspicuous, to catch attention . . .
Latin sapere, to know, was to have sap, blood, juice, because consciousness was in the chest with the lungs, heart, breath, and blood. Many Latin words for knowledge express the physical aspects of what are, for us, principally metaphysical notions. Comprehendere, deprehendere, capere, and their relatives all stress the notion of grasping, seizing . . .
Verus . . . [often] meant ‘true’ in the sense of firm, capable of withstanding test or trial . . . [because] Generally, in earlier Roman thought, the ‘truth’ of what one said was intimately linked with the ability to endure a test or trial of some sort.”
The vigor of the Romans’ language points to the consolations of living in a contest culture. Existing in such a paradigm, in which your identity was neither fixed nor permanent, your worth was a moving target, and you had to always be actively engaged in proving yourself, required a greater tolerance for vulnerability, volatility, and unpredictability; yet, at the same time, it created a life that was more vivid and immediate, more active and animate — a life lived closer to the bone.
Each day, each encounter, each interaction, each challenge had stakes, had weight; the ancient Roman regularly found himself caught up in the discrimen, “the moment of truth when, before the eyes of others, you gambled what you were.” This was a life of risk, shot through with the exhilaration of constantly walking the line between honor and shame, glory and destruction, success and failure.
Out of these crucibles, “truth was not so much revealed as created, realized, willed in the most intense and visceral way.” In the agon — the test, trial, ordeal — you not only discovered your true position, your status in the pecking order, you discovered your strength, who you were. The contest established your being. It constructed reality.
In a life in which reality is made fresh every day, one remains radically present:
“A Roman’s hyperconsciousness of his or her ‘face’ produced a keen sense of embodiment. The person who underwent surveillance in a contest, who risked death or humiliation, lived critically in the moment. . . . For the Roman on the spot, up against a wall, the world was sharp, immediate, visceral. As in archaic Greek thought and much of Japanese thought — and for similar reasons — the Romans tended to physicalize everything, to make everything present. Reality was immanent; it was spectatus, expertus, probatus, perspicuus, argutus, manufestus. It hit you in the face; you could smack it with your hand.”
As the friction of contest culture ultimately made life incandescent, the Romans associated this way of living with light and fire. The man who exulted in activity, who embraced the agon, who ever existed in the arena, became a “glowing spirit”:
“Virtus and honores won in the crucible of the contest were shining and volatile; the refining fire of the ordeal produced a heightened sense of vividness, a brilliant, gleaming, resplendent existence. The man of honor was speciosus, illustris, clarus, nobilis, splendidus.”
In contrast, “The absence of energy (inertia, desidia, ignavia, socordia) was nonbeing. Inactivity froze the spirit.” The Romans associated dishonor — a disregard for reputation, an indifference to shame, an unwillingness to engage in the contest — with stone and ice. “Hardness was associated with impudence, stupidity, cruelty, numbness, and stupor,” and in fact “Stultus (stupid) was cognate with stolidus (inert, unmovable, dull, senseless).”
Stone & Ice
“Otium, vacatio, immunitas, withdrawal, leisure, the absence of tension and disturbance, became values in Roman society at the moment when it became impossible to maintain one’s being by contest and when the isolation of withdrawal was less painful than the humiliation that came with the active negotiation of one’s honor.” –Carlin Barton, Roman Honor
“From the time of Augustus, there begins a period in which the primores civitatis themselves often regarded inertia as sapientia [wisdom].” –Zvi Yavetz, Plebs and Princeps
The Romans distinguished between “good contests” and “bad contests” and for the cultural paradigm described above to remain viable, the latter had to prevail. Good contests adhered to the following restrictions: “a) framed and circumscribed within implicit or explicit boundaries accepted by the competitors, b) between relative equals, c) witnessed, and d) strenuous.”
As the Roman Republic fell, civil wars broke out, and an empire was established, “a” and “b” became untenable, making citizens unwilling to live up to the requirements of “c” and “d.”
An honor culture can only function in a society in which there is a shared code — clear rules, standards, and expectations for interaction and engagement — and within a closed community of equals. But as the Roman Republic transformed into a sprawling, porous, far-flung empire, its society became increasingly large, complex, and diverse, and “The citizen of Rome became a citizen of the world,” this common, level playing field disintegrated.
In an honor culture, you can only be insulted by someone you consider an equal. But in Roman society, discerning who deserved this level of respect, and whose slights to take seriously, became increasing difficult and unclear. If someone possessed a different set of values, was a citizen still honor-bound to care what they thought?
Early Romans had shared rules of engagement — boundaries that checked their competitions and kept them civil. In the greater chaos of the empire, in the absence of shared norms, citizens made the rules up as they went. It was every man for himself. In fact, the less a man cared about honor, the more unable he was to be shamed, the more strategic advantage he gained. Early Romans had not played to win, but for the sake of engaging in a good fight; now, citizens were prepared to win at any cost.
Romans thus came to see contests as unequal and destructive. Those who engaged in competitions under the old assumption of participating on a level playing field, found instead that the odds were stacked, and this gap between expectation and reality engendered great bitterness. As did the fact that it seemed more and more men began receiving commendations, laurels of honor, who hadn’t actually earned them.
As a result, Romans became disillusioned and began to withdraw from the contest, from active engagement with their fellow citizens and civic life. “When competition was insupportable, then paralysis, the desire to hide, and the desire to be insensitive and autonomous became widespread cultural phenomena. With the loss of the good contest and the rules that framed it, cold, callous, brazen shamelessness became a cure for shame.”
“Shamelessness” for the Romans did not necessarily mean, as it does for us, to be unvirtuous, but rather to literally be incapable of being shamed. That is, the shameless care nothing for what others think of them.
While today we tend to admire this kind of radical indifference to public opinion, to the Romans unbounded autonomy was the mark of a man whose energy had been drained, whose being had been destroyed; as Cicero put it: “To take no heed of what other people think of you is the part not only of an arrogant man but, to be sure, of a dissolutus.” How could someone who remained unmoved even in the face of legitimate criticism, who refused to be ashamed even when confronted with their culpability, ever be trusted?
Still, even Cicero, though himself a political leader, was sympathetic to the impulse to become callously disengaged, rhetorically asking, “what spirit trained in these times, ought not to become insensitive?” Elsewhere he quotes a line of Euripides: “If this mournful day were the first to dawn for me, had I not long sailed in such a sea of troubles, then there would be reason for anguish like that felt by a colt when the reins are first imposed and he bridles at the first touch of the bit. But now, broken by miseries, I am numb.”
In this self-imposed withdrawal and “the collapse of conditions for healthy competition in ancient Rome . . . various strategies [had to be] devised by the Romans for creating a new emotional economy and redefining their spirit.” Said another way, “With the loss of the rules and conditions of the good contest, the entire language of honor ‘imploded’ and had to be ‘reconstructed.’”
This reconstruction process would involve nothing less than a complete inversion of values, and produce multiple radiating effects on Roman society.
First, the values associated with virtus shifted from effective energy, potency, gameness, to those we now associate with our modern idea of virtue — patience, sobriety, temperance, chastity, endurance. Values which had been externally directed and both volatile and valorous were replaced with those more stable and internal in nature. Honor centered around control, constraint, consistency; the ideal man becomes he who is poised, tranquil, disengaged. The passive values were elevated above the active.
While “Virtus often beg[an] to stand for or [was] replaced by the notion of honestas,” the words described two very different types of character:
“The new ‘honest’ man was not tense and dangerous. He was a man who could not be shamed and yet, simultaneously, posed no threat . . . man’s dignitas was no longer his presumptive claim to honor but rather an autonomous well of reserve. The tiger was declawed, the fire extinguished.”
The honest man could not be shamed, because of a second change in Roman culture: the arbiter of a man’s values — his honor in its newly constituted form — became not one’s peers but one’s conscience. Only oneself, or one’s God, could judge a man’s character.
Third, just as the possession of certain values became something that didn’t need to be proven through trial and test, neither did one’s manhood; being a vir was no longer something that had to be earned, but rather was innate.
Fourth, there was a retreat from the public sphere to the private one. “Political quietism” increased. The sentiment expressed by Cicero was common, “If we cannot enjoy the Republic, it is stupid not to enjoy our private affairs.”
Fifth, as Romans collectively withdrew from participating in a contest culture, they ironically began to lionize the individual who continued to play the game, and did so with a “winner-take-all” disregard for the old rules. The “man not prepared to lose” was idolized.
Instead of competition being something in which every average citizen took part, the masses mounted the bleachers, to cheer on, and live vicariously through, the few “gladiators” still in the arena. As spectators, they both worried over and felt excited by the rise of would-be tyrants who were willing to crush anyone who stood in their way; the thrill of the cult of victory, the stimulating spectacle of a man willing to go for the jugular, outweighed concerns about the political implications portended in the rise of such a rex.
As Dr. J. Rufus Fears argues, “When men came to believe that the charisma of victory no longer resided in the collective entity of the res publica but rather in the figure of an individual leader, communal authority and republican government were doomed and monarchy the only reality.”
Instead of citizens feeling collectively proud of their society’s successes, “Victory became profoundly personalized”:
“In his speech on behalf of Marcellus, Cicero explicitly refutes those who suggest that victory in war is the common achievement and honor of the Roman army and the Roman people: ‘This glory, Gaius Caesar, which you have recently acquired, no one shares with you. All of it, as great as it is (and it is undeniably very great) — all of it, I say, is yours. No credit belongs to centurion, to prefect, to cohort, to squadron. Not even the mistress of human destinies, Fortune herself, claims any partnership in this glory. She yields it to you; she confesses it to be yours — wholly and personally.’”
Sixth, the energy that was once directed to external contests was re-channeled into internal ones. The retreat into private leisure didn’t quite scratch an itch which stubbornly remained, nor soothe a sense of shame the late Romans tried so desperately to ignore; “Even while they praise[d] withdrawal from an untenable public life, they dreaded lest they appear to others as inactive or inert.”
And so competition was re-framed as something you could have with yourself — how well could you discipline your baser impulses and attain the new virtus? The will was still active, within. Ascetic practices took off, as ways to engage in a personal kind of battle, for though the ancient heroic virtues had been eclipsed, the Romans “never stopped wanting to be warriors.”
If one did not have to train for the contest, one could still exercise self-control. And one had to — on an almost inhumanely consistent basis; the self-control of late Romans had to in fact be far stronger and more unrelenting than that of their predecessors, who were allowed some lapses, some impulsivity. The irony, however, is that “Complete self-control [only] becomes an ideal — and a necessity — precisely when all control of one’s destiny is wrested from one.” That is, the Romans increasingly sought to master themselves, the less able they felt to master the world around them.
In this upside-down and enervated cultural landscape, the philosophy of Stoicism — begun by the Greeks centuries prior — found ready reception.
The maxims of the Stoics didn’t necessarily sanction this kind of withdrawal, but for those already inclined to adopt a more passive approach to the world, their philosophy provided a ready, even ennobled rationalization for their choices.
Whereas early Romans sought to create reality through sheer will and saw little limit to what was within their power to control, Epictetus said that one should not “demand things happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do,” and counseled against being “concerned with things which are beyond your power.”
Whereas the early Romans believed that one should rise to any challenge, Seneca argued that “If you do not wish to fight, you are permitted to flee,” while Arrian, a disciple of Epictetus, reasoned that it was wise to be like children, who, “when things do not please them, say, ‘I will not play anymore.’”
Whereas the early Romans believed that when you were struck, you were honor-bound to strike back, Seneca argued that “The blows of the powerful must be born not patiently merely, but even with a cheerful face,” and recommended developing “the endurance of the ox and of the horse obedient to the rein.”
Whereas the early Romans found their identity in community, in being part of an honor group, the Stoics idealized complete independence: “Beyond the last inner tunic, which is this poor body of mine, no one has any authority over me at all,” Arrian declared. Stoicism endorsed the new “shamelessness — in the form of apathy and autonomy.”
And whereas the Romans had cultivated an intentional touchiness — a literal and metaphorical blush in the face of shame — the Stoics advised cultivating an “impenetrable mask of indifference”:
“When the Romans begin to talk about salvation, the stone — once the image of callousness and stupidity — becomes the ideal. There was a hardness of the spirit, like a hardness of the body, that, when it burned, could not feel it.”
“Stand by a stone and slander it: What effect will you produce?” Arrian asked. “If a man listens like a stone, what advantage has the slanderer?”
Seneca suggested imagining oneself as withdrawn behind a mighty citadel:
“Surround yourself with philosophy, an impregnable wall; though fortune assault it with her many engines, she cannot breach it. The spirit that abandons external things stands on unassailable ground; it vindicates itself in its fortress; every weapon hurled against it falls short of its mark.”
In a time of upheaval, anxiety, and uncertainty, in which the “shock of embodiment” remained, but there no longer existed the rituals once attendant to a contest culture to manage it, Romans sought safe harbor in a stable standard that wasn’t contingent on other people. They wanted to find a way of being that did not require either competition or collaboration. They wanted to beat a retreat to an inner citadel. They wanted to grow a thicker skin.
“With the idea of survival or salvation came the idealization of natural man and of living according to Nature. Natural man did not have to prove he was a man, and so he did not need the contest. But the life of a natural man was, paradoxically, the life of a rock.”
In assimilating the principles of Stoicism — “a desperate strategy to preserve both life and honor” — the reversal of early Roman values was complete: “the worst imaginable spiritual condition for an ancient Roman — petrification, the cold stony unbeing of dishonor — inverts and becomes the ideal and honorable condition of the Roman soul, the ultimate remedy for dishonor — salvation.”
Walking on Coals
“If the ancient ideal was the make of oneself a target, to say in effect: ‘Here I am, come and get me,’ the Stoic ideal was to declare, ‘I am not what you see; you can’t get me because I’m not here at all.’”
Stoicism’s popularity rose in ancient Rome as citizens began to feel that it was less painful to disengage than to continue to put themselves out there. When the rules of the “contest” became unclear, and the playing field seemed tilted. When participation in civic affairs, in society, seemed an exercise in futility and frustration. A sucker’s game.
Stoicism has surged in popularity today for the very same reasons. When it seems pointless to engage, we are drawn to a philosophy that says that becoming callous and indifferent is not only okay, but noble even, honorable.
It is of course a question of great debate as to whether or not the “pure” philosophy of Stoicism does or does not endorse and encourage a more passive approach to life. For all the lines cited above that point to the fact that it does, other evidence could be marshaled to reach the very opposite conclusion. Stoic philosophy is much like the Christian religion (or any religion); people can use the same scriptural source to come to completely divergent theological conclusions. But while I think legitimate arguments could be made on both sides of the question, I’m actually not interested in making a quixotic attempt to “settle” it.
The question for our purposes is not whether Stoic “doctrine” necessitates passivity, but whether, when it mixes with human nature, it can have a tendency to do so. Lived philosophy, or lived religion, can be something quite different than how it is ascribed on paper, e.g., lived Christianity is much different than Christian theology. So it is with what is better termed “stoicism” — with a small “s.”
The question of how Stoicism affects human behavior is certainly not an academic one, or a niche one, limited to wholesale subscribers of the philosophy. No, we are all arguably stoics now, whether consciously or not. Shades of its principles have in fact become axioms that seem so self-evidently true, they needn’t even be examined.
But, they should be.
It’s axiomatic that we shouldn’t care what other people think, and that no one’s opinions can harm you. But what if there’s actually something to be said for feeling ashamed, at least if the one shaming you is someone you respect — and they actually have a point? What if the hurt of an insult can actually be a good thing, a spur to action? What if “I’m going to prove you wrong” can sometimes be the best possible source of motivation? What if revenge isn’t always a misguided, destructive pursuit, but, especially in the form of critic-silencing success, can be a productive endeavor?
It’s dogma that personal conscience is superior to the opinions of others as a form of moral authority. And yet research shows that shame — the penetrating eyes of the public — is a stronger motivator of ethical behavior.
It’s a truism that the best kind of contest is the one you have with yourself, and yet here again research contradicts this sacred shibboleth, showing that in fact, you absolutely cannot push yourself as hard or achieve as much of your potential when by yourself, than when you’re competing against others.
It’s accepted that self-mastery is one of the best and highest qualities, but what if a focus on self-control rises in inverse proportion to how much control we have in the world around us? What if a retreat to an inner fortress is simply a way of stuffing down one’s disappointment, fear of being hurt, and sense of impotence? The historian Ira Berlin argued that this was the real source of Stoicism’s popularity:
“When the road towards human fulfillment is blocked, human beings retreat into themselves, become involved in themselves, and try to create inwardly that world which some evil fate has denied them externally. This is certainly what happened in Ancient Greece when Alexander the Great began to destroy the city-states, and the Stoics and Epicureans began to preach a new morality of personal salvation, which took the form of saying politics was unimportant, civil life was unimportant, all the great ideals held up by Pericles and by Demosthenes, by Plato and by Aristotle, were trivial and as nothing before the imperative need for personal individual salvation.
This was a very grand form of sour grapes. If you cannot obtain from the world that which you really desire, you must teach yourself not to want it. If you cannot get what you want, you must teach yourself to want what you can get. This is a very frequent form of spiritual retreat in depth, into a kind of inner citadel, in which you try to lock yourself up against all the fearful ills of the world. The king of my province — the prince — confiscates my land: I do not want to own land. The prince does not wish to give me rank: rank is trivial, unimportant. The king has robbed me of my possessions: possessions are nothing. My children have died of malnutrition and disease: earthly attachment, even love of children, are as nothing before love of God. And so forth. You gradually hedge yourself round with a kind of tight wall by which you seek to reduce your vulnerable surface — you want to be as little wounded as possible. Every kind of wound has been heaped upon you, and therefore you wish to contract yourself into the smallest possible area, so that as little of you as possible is exposed to further wounds.”
It’s taken for granted these days that stoic values are simply superior: competitions are just pissing contests for the insecure; being anxiously engaged in proving yourself makes you a “try hard”; caring about what others think, being thin-skinned, is the mark of an inferior man who lacks real confidence. Is it possibly too convenient, though, that the values which are put down, which were once considered the heroic, warrior values in ancient times, happen to be the ones which make men dangerous and unsuited to the modern capitalist economy?
“In contemporary American culture, the ‘honorable’ person is ‘honest and true,’ someone who is above all consistent. He . . . is conscientious, predictable, stable, solid, four-square, a rock, a brick.” We need bricks to stolidly build society. We need men willing to keep their head down, accept their role, be completely unruffled by the ding-dong in the cubicle next to them. We need men who will choose to retreat into their inner citadel, who, rather than becoming completely unhinged by the banality of modern life, will constantly repeat incantations that the meaninglessness of modern work, the irritation of a daily commute, the loneliness of an empty apartment cannot ultimately harm them.
It seems objectively true that you shouldn’t try to change what is outside of your control. But dive just a bit deeper, and a sticky question arises: what is and isn’t up to us? Stoics would say that things like wealth, health, and reputation are not completely within our control, and that we should only concentrate on the things that are: our desires, judgements, will. But of course many aspects of wealth, health, and reputation are up to us: we can’t completely control whether we get cancer or not, but we can choose to exercise and eat right; we can’t completely control what other people think of us, but we can choose to act in a way that generally garners respect; we can’t completely control our cash flow, but we can work hard and save.
The Stoics will say that even though we should accept things as they are, we can strive to make the best of the lot which falls to us. But what exactly is the line between submitting to our Fate and trying to change it? The Stoic answer is unclear, and it is in this ambiguity that the philosophy, in its lived form, can become an excuse for inaction.
Stoicism is certainly not all wrong; there is much in the philosophy that is right and true. Adopting some of its principles, in some circumstances, is arguably a necessity for surviving and staying sane in the modern world. But to say something is a necessary way of living, is not the same as saying it is the best way, or the only way, certainly not in all circumstances.
It doesn’t have to be an either-or thing: you can decide to keep a stony face towards those you do not respect as equal peers, but to be more emotional, more vulnerable, more competitive with those you do. To care, and care deeply, about what some people think. You can choose to restrain your emotions in some circumstances, and yet decide you want to feel it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly — in others; you can decide that you’d rather feel deeply, even when such emotions sear the soul, than live a life that is peaceful, but flat. You can accept the whims of Fortune in some things, and yet decide you want to be the best in others, even if it means fighting Fate tooth and nail, even if in attempting to will a new reality, you burn yourself up.
For there is a risk in taking a stoic approach in every area of your life.
Every code of ethics, every philosophy, every religion, involves certain existential tradeoffs — you gain certain energies and perspectives and powers while losing others — and with stoicism it is no different. In embracing the philosophy we gain certain strengths, certain abilities to deal with life. But we also shut off other currents of existence.
In stoicism we lose some of our fellow feeling. The interesting thing about an honor culture, a contest culture, is that you only challenge someone, and respond to the challenge of another, if you consider him an equal; the challenge thus confers respect. The more competitive a culture is, the more intimate, paradoxically, are its ties. If, however, no one can penetrate our mask of indifference, then no one is our equal; all are beneath us. Others risk becoming inanimate objects, projectiles that can assault our fortress, but only succeed in dashing themselves upon the rocks. “Why should I care what you think?” is a question that de-values the other. When it’s hard to discern which opinions and forces to care about, it’s easy to decide not to care about anyone, or anything. “What could be more dishonorable,” Cicero asks, “but now we harden ourselves to these humiliations and shed our humanity.”
In stoicism we also lose some of the wildness, the immediacy of life. In active engagement there is radical presence, there are stakes, there is weight. There is tension, there is conflict, there is risk. A life of volatility and unpredictability and danger is certainly more challenging than the tranquil life, but it has its own consolations. If one path can be said to be “happier” than the other, it is based entirely on one’s particular definition of happiness.
There is security in being a rock, in being immovable, but is that ultimately what we want — at least in all areas of our lives? Is it better to be safe and inert than vulnerable and alive?
There can be honor (redefined as integrity) in stoicism but no glory.
In ancient Rome, men found that “The ideals of peaceful autonomy and hardness remained ever poor seconds to the contest. . . . If the Roman Stoic wanted to be a rock, he longed to be a flame . . . [for] there remained for the Romans, even after the adoption of radically new ideas of honor, a nostalgia for life on the edge, for the Roman way.”
Today we too experience a similar longing. As “like the Romans of the early Empire, we are walking on the coals of a fire that is not yet out.”