Byron is the great complainer. Put in more poetic terms, he penned haunting laments for the past—his childhood, his lost loves, his wasted youth. By the age of 39 he felt like one hundred and wrote a poem about seeking death. “Look around and choose thy ground and take thy rest.” Such thoughts that underlie these poems run counter to one of the most crucial precepts in Stoicism, at least for me: do not dwell on the past. Reason tells us that the past is the great territory over which we will never have any control, so there is no need to think about it as if we could launch expeditions to conquer it and change its miasmas and bogs into tillable soil. All thoughts about “the days that are no more” (to quote Tennyson) are rife with pointlessness and, more often than not, for one reason or another, are a fast chute into the most painful misery. My quandary, as a struggling Stoic, is that I love Byron’s poetry—and elegiac poems by various others, Shelly and Tennyson come to mind—“ Mutability” and “Tears Idle Tears,” for examples.
Stoicism would vitiate literature if applied to it as to life: a story of moderate and reasonable individuals who meet with adversity but reason with it, are self-sufficient and thrifty would be the most terrible bore. I have thought about a story, though, of a person who makes the acquaintance of a Stoic, a real good one– if not a sage, a paradigm. My protagonist is a convert of the mind, but has a personality and background that make most of Stoicism a challenge. A climactic scene would occur when he/she losses it and starts screaming how he/she wants to throw a fit and moan about the past and act out of bounds and whine and complain—yes complain loudly. After the outburst, he/she would regain composure and keep trying.
Stoicism has made random cameo appearances, no doubt, in literature. I have a rather lengthy paper under the static heading of this blog “John Keats,” discussing Stoicism in a few of his poems. I think perhaps in Stendhal’s The Red and The Black Stoicism lurks. I wish someone who is familiar with that novel could tell me if I am remembering it correctly to observe that any time Julian Sorrel fails to think rationally and gives into emotion, it is to his extreme detriment—there’s a good Stoic motif. Aside from the rare Stoic theme, literature will always revel in pain, suffering, excess, and nostalgia and, in a word, emotion. How can Stoicism and literature co-exist? I have a use for all that emotion that aids reason. It shows the world as a difficult place in which it is the human condition to confront adversity. When beset with a harsh event, I can reason from experience (including the vicarious experience afforded by literature) that I am not alone, but live in a world of fellow sufferers. Knowing that makes the vicissitudes of life easier to bear. As for literary characters, there is of course no need to take impassioned characters as role models.