A fellow blogger posted the poem “If” by Rudyard Kipling as part of her goal to post a poem and accompanying commentary every week. I had never read the poem and was struck by the wealth of Stoic sentiment in the poem, so that I have in my mind changed the final words of the poem to “and then you will be a Stoic my child.” Forget the loss of scansion and rhyme–the change is felicitous and eliminates the male bias, as there is certainly nothing in the poem that pertains exclusively to males.
I take this as a paean to Stoicism and wonder if there is anyone who would read the poem and simply disagree with the list of qualities as advisable and admirable. Would anyone think it is better to live subject to the whim of circumstance, complain, follow the worst examples of human conduct, and be roiled emotions, both negative and excessive? The poem has as its underlying assumption that there is a benefit in living a life as described—ostensibly to become “a man”, but what exactly does that mean? Here Kipling, aside from the sexism, falls short in not recognizing the real reason to behave as he has described. It is not to be admired or to have people speak well of you. That would be the exact opposite of what is recommended because it would place your self -worth in the hands and foibles of others and the external world. It isn’t even so you can feel proud of yourself at night. Stoicism makes it clear that the benefit of controlling your emotions and freeing yourself from the buffets of the external world is achieving tranquility—a state beneficial to ourselves and those around us, which is a kind of calm happiness or a freedom from the weight of unhappiness.
Kipling also does not provide the means to achieve the desired qualities. He leaves the effort to a big “if”. Seneca, my main Stoic source, writes that reason, our special talent as humans, the only thing that not only distinguishes us from other animals but makes us in some degree superior, counters emotions. Feelings are not our friends; emotions and feelings—the negative ones and any emotion in excess–can torment us, make us act regrettably and even against our best interests. On the other hand, we benefit from thinking (1) that things could always be worse, (2) that certain things (past, much of the future and some of the present) are beyond our control so that dwelling upon them is pointless thinking, and there is nothing more pointless than thinking pointlessly, (3) that every day could be our last, and (4) that we share suffering in common with all humanity. Reason will also allow us to not be raised up or cast down by many externals, such the opinions of others, by questioning why the opinion of others should matter. Reason allows the consolations of literature and philosophy to make inroads into our lives and gives us the chance to comfort ourselves. Without reason we run amok, indulge our own worst qualities, complain bitterly and make others miserable around us.
This poem’s tacit allegiance to Stoicism is not surprising when considering the stereotypical Britain—dispassionate, with a stiff upper lip. I am sure cultural anthropologists must have studied how one group of people develop a set of qualities or at least hold them as ideals. I can’t see how or why the precepts of the Ancient Romans lingered and spread on the British Isles. Strange to think how on their native soil, Italy, how much less Stoic ideals pertain, at least according to the stereotypical idea of the Italian population. It must be a phenomenon of the coincidence possible in human thought, rather than influence, that would make Seneca nod his head in agreement with this poem from a future, unimaginable world. I have included the poem below: