You’re not tough enough to be Stoic

Marcus Aurelius: man of stone.

Marcus Aurelius: man of stone.

‘You’re not tough enough to be Stoic’ is a sentence I have never read verbatim, yet it’s prevalent as subtext in both Stoic literature and among contemporary so-called Stoics. Even in the way we use everyday English, “Stoic” as an adjective is much closer to “badass” than “serene.”

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Google:

A person who can endure pain or hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.

Notice the verb “showing”: Stoicism, as we now conceive of it, primarily consists in the ability to hide pain, not to manage or transcend it. Stoic = good at repression of socially unacceptable emotions. A search of the word leads to advertisements for rugged sports clothing and a 2009 film with the tagline, “A lesson in brutality.” In short, the term appears to be deployed in popular English as a sort of august version of “manly”—which really means, “machismo.”

This isn’t purely innovative. Read through the classic Stoic literature and you’ll find all kinds of references to “manly” Stoicism. Here’s Seneca, responding to an imagined defender of anger in On Anger:

Anger, therefore, is a vice which for the most part affects women and children. “Yet it affects men also.” Because many men, too, have womanish or childish intellects.

And here’s Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations (apparently plagiarizing Seneca, as we’ll see): be moved by passion is not manly, but...mildness and gentleness, as they are more agreeable to human nature, so also are they more manly...

Get it? “Anger is for pussies, bro.” This is the ancient corollary to the ‘Real Men Don’t Rape’ campaign, which tried to harness gender supremacism in the fight against sexual violence, i.e. against the fruits of gender supremacism. Call it ‘Real Men Don’t Get Angry.’ But the problem isn’t just that classic stoics are sexist (though they are); it’s also that they sometimes flirt with self-contradiction in their impassioned pleas to resist passion.

Seneca again: be moved by passion is not manly, but...mildness and gentleness, as 
they are more agreeable to human nature, so also are they more manly; and he 
who possesses these qualities possesses strength, nerves and courage, and not 
the man who is subject to fits of passion and discontent.

In his argument for how and why you should jettison vanity, Seneca appeals to your masculine vanity. In urging you not to allow your emotions to manipulate you, Seneca tries to manipulate you through your emotions.

But if the Stoics were just wannabe macho-men, I wouldn’t be wasting my time thinking about them. Read another way, the Stoic warning against emotion is just uncommonly sensible common sense: ‘Don’t let your emotions control you.’ Consider this much more lucid section from Marcus Aurelius:

When thou hast been compelled by circumstances to be disturbed in
a manner, quickly return to thyself and do not continue out of tune
longer than the compulsion lasts; for thou wilt have more mastery
over the harmony by continually recurring to it.

There’s no machismo here, just applied common sense. Calm self-command is presented not as a test of strength, but a strategy for dealing with difficulty. The prestige-tainted concepts ‘Strong’ and ‘weak’ have no place here; there’s only what works and what doesn’t work.

It might help to think of the difference between this passage and the preceding ones in terms of perspective: earlier, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were urging you to think about what other people would think of you. In this passage, though, Marcus Aurelius urges unadulterated self-reflection: ‘When you start to get carried away, slow down and think about how you’re feeling, where it’s coming from, and how you can regain your balance.’


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