The Act of Doing Nothing: One Battlefield of Reason and Emotion

So often we feel called to action–to make statements, implement plans, or take measures. I would wager that more often than not we would be better off doing nothing at all. Delaying action in the hope that the urge to act will dissipate  is one prescription for anger management and likewise the antidote to all the troubles that come from indulging one’s negative or excessive emotions. Just do nothing and the situation might resolve itself—take action and a series of unfortunate events unravel. This holds true on all levels—from an individual to a national entity—but I am interested in the personal level. It would seem that inaction would require less fortitude than action, but that is a complete misconception because doing something is a short-term relief and an indulgence of insistent emotion, whereas not acting requires the prevalence of reason. What helps achieve unspoken words, unsent messages, untraversed space?  Intellectual honesty about the consequences of taking action and the self-serving nature of the proposed act.  Perhaps also a relinquishment of any sense of the importance of the thing at issue would help as well—most things are trivial. What if we took action only if we reasonably believed it would produce on balance a beneficial outcome. If we subjected our actions to that test how inactive we might become and how many meddlesome, officious, histrionic, time-wasting, rash and passionate words and deeds we would be spared and would spare ourselves from having to regret.

Things Stoics Think About

A group of Stoics walk into a bar and fall into a lively discussion about the ways in which Stoicism has helped and the ways in which it has fallen short.  Or there could be a survey: “Which of the following best describes the ways that Stoicism has had a beneficial effect on your life…” (a) controlling my emotions in petty daily circumstances; (b) bringing an acceptance of the larger vicissitudes of life; (c) clarifying general goals to aspire to in my conduct for myself and in relation to others; (d) understanding the pitfalls in seeking joy, etc. . . Or conversely, in what situations do you feel Stoicism does the least good?

I will start the ball rolling by addressing the two ways in which I encounter the most difficulty in effectively bringing my philosophy to bear to enhance tranquility and self-sufficiency.

I have a problem with the really big picture. Stoicism proposes that nature is an unassailable given.  I find myself pointlessly pondering why it must be this way from start to finish.  As Woody Allen said, if there is a god, he must be an underachiever. Given the context in which we exist, I can set about making sense of suffering and death—but the context itself fails miserably by any common standards.  Suffering, pain, illness, decrepitude, injustice, acrimony, stupidity, self-serving insincerity, laziness, greed (and other grim nouns) define existence just because. And, please, let’s not say that there are many wonderful things as well—there are a few, but why are they not predominant?

Seneca delved into this question of a miserable context for individual existence, and it is clear from his discussion that he had the incidents of the daily life of an upper class Roman in mind when he laments the state of things. By the way, I cannot imagine how anyone would have kept a modicum of sanity in the Rome of Seneca’s day.  One trip to the Coliseum on circus day would have done me in—I despair of mankind at the thought of boiling lobsters alive and force-feeing geese so some pretentious palette can enjoy a delicacy; how would I tolerate the slaughter of scores of caged African animals, not to mention the hapless human victims.  He writes: “But to get rid of the causes of personal sorrow gains us nothing, for sometimes hatred of the human race possess us. When you reflect how rare simplicity is, how unknown innocence, how seldom faith is kept unless keeping it is good policy, when you recall the long calendar of successful crime, the profits and losses of lust, alike odious and ambition that no longer keeps its proper confines but rises to eminence though skullduggery, then the mind is plunged into black night and darkness envelops us, as if the virtues were overthrown and we could no longer possess them or aspire to them.”

He then continues to counsel to accept the world as it is with a dispassionate state of mind and with whatever tolerance you can muster.  That does not entirely address my underlying concern about why the world must be this way—but I can imagine Seneca’s response would boil down to acceptance of those things that we cannot control.  That is valid and must be coupled with a true, inner resignation, a degree of apathy, a letting go. By the way, Seneca, at that juncture of the above quote, veers into a related statement that I have pulled out of my pocket on many occasions, perhaps on a daily basis: “To be tormented by other people’s troubles is misery.” Considering that other people’s misery is usually something over which I have no control, dwelling on it is pointless—it does not help them and only disturbs me.

My second problem area is with the little things in life—and I know precisely why these situations test severely my Stoicism; because they are founded on expectations.  I expect my lap top to work every morning, I expect air travel to get me to my destination on at least the day of the scheduled arrival. Stoicism warns that expectations threaten tranquility; like having hope, expecting is living life in suspense, like a person in fear. That understanding is at odds with commonly accepted modes of thought, however. We feel very justified in these expectations; indeed when we doubt ordinary expectations we are blackly labeled pessimists. Therefore, to mitigate the distress of the common nit-picking annoyances of life I must paradoxically accord them a greater importance—the expectations associated with them must be diminished, just as those expectations and hopes on a larger scale (like having a good marriage or a fulfilling career or good health) and their unpleasant arrival must be greeted as in the ordinary course and as something over which I have only a small degree of, or no, control. Meeting the small distresses in that way might blunt their power to disrupt my tranquility.


Emily Brontë, Another Stoic

I have been immersed in a world of immoderate emotion because for quite some time I have read, thought about, and written about poetry, Emily Brontë’s poetry. I am writing a book about her poetry called The Poetic World of Emily Brontë. Her poems lavish anguish, pain, suffering, sorrow, nostalgia, passion, and despair on the pages. The Stoic mind in confronting such feelings might struggle to remember that they do not have to hold sway over our lives. I wrote in an earlier post how Byron was the Anti-Stoic: suffering nostalgia; lamenting; and sighing—yet what beautiful lines. I would say the same for Emily Brontë, except it does not always seem that the emotions filling the pages are actually her own, but rather frequently those of some poetic character.

I have, it turns out, surfaced from her poetic world with Stoic principles intact, maybe because I have made great use of them during this project. When undertaking something that has been long in the works, such as this book, one might tend to become ecstatic and have certain hopes. First, ebullience is distracting, at best. Also, it will end one way or another and then one will feel like something was lost, when nothing was ever possessed. As for various hopeful scenarios, focusing on how others might react to my work represents the epitome of pointless thinking. Some may like it, others could not care less, some might wonder how the thing got published—who knows and really what difference could it make.  One might say—oh there might be money.  There will be no remuneration, but even if there were, my imagining it and hoping for it has no effect on whether it comes and can only set me up for a defeated sensation, even when there never was a battle. I wrote it for myself and, as for readers — few are enough, one is enough, none is enough.

My observation about poetry opposing Stoicism does not pertain, however, if a poem has as its theme an overt or tacit endorsement of the precepts of the philosophy, which does occur. I wrote an article, “The Stoic Philosophy of John Keats,” which appears on this blog under the “Start Here” heading.  Part of it identifies the Stoic statements in Keats’s poems; the rest reveals how Keats was coincidently a compatriot of Seneca in his approach to life and death.  I found it fascinating how two minds could arrive at the same point without the path of influence. Emily Brontë is not a candidate for that kind of scrutiny, but she does make some pointedly Stoic statements in a few poems, which not surprisingly, echo at times lines from Keats’s poems. In particular she observes that the trivial and treacherous in life defeat tranquility and that mirth beguiles because, “Every phase of earthly joy will always fade and always cloy.” As for joy, it is simply “the shortest path to pain.” Those are her ingredients for unhappiness; however, on the other hand, she endorses things that are worth pursuing for a tranquil life: learning, friendship, self-sufficiency, and a love of nature.  Emily Brontë was rather a Stoic after all, in her own way, despite imagining all those emotion-roiled characters in her poetry and in her novel.


The Parable of the Red Jeep

And so it came to pass, that my husband desired a car that would be inexpensive, yet sporty—useful, but fun. He made his way to the Jeep dealership calm of heart because he was not certain that he really desired a jeep—it was not comfortable, had the reputation for tipping over, and  would be another car to dwell in the driveway. Moderate of mind, he entered the dealership and soon fell into discussions with the salesman on how much every extra feature would cost. He found unacceptable the prices and voiced that view consistently and without fear because the deal held no sway over him.  The salesman observed and stated that it appeared that my husband didn’t really want the car. And when my husband returned to our dwelling, he spoke unto me, “What a great feeling it was to not really want the car—to not care that much one way or the other.”  Verily, though you enter the dealership, let not the desire for the earthly goods overwhelm you—have your dreams but remain their master.

The factual conclusion of this tale might or might not be that he closed the deal on terms wholly satisfactory to himself. Actually, the former did occur, but this is not a guide to skilful negotiating, but rather an illustration of a Stoic ideal.

Stoicism is frequently impugned by the uninitiated as advocating an unhealthy frame of mind that vitiates the very fiber of life—the ups and downs, the thrills and pains of existence.  Bah! It feels good not to be on that rollercoaster, to be in control.  Oh! that all of life could be approached like the purchase of that red jeep. Here ends the Stoic lesson of the day. Amen.

Dear Seneca

December 4, 2013

Lucius Annaeus Seneca

Rome, Italy


Dear Seneca, or should I say, “Salve Magister,”

You have on many occasions given Stoic advice through letters to friends, so perhaps I might impose upon you with my own particular difficulty in achieving the tranquility that is the Stoic goal. I have no philosophical school where I can gather with young and old students of philosophy under a columned portico, as you have, to refine or rehearse my philosophy.  I have only your essays and letters to read and, I might add, the book of one other acolyte: a tidy and modern compendium of Stoic thought that is helpful. You, unlike him, however, seem genuinely interested in helping others create their own Stoicism: to develop the faculty of reason as the tool to blunt the brutality of negative and excessive emotion, curtail pointless thinking, vitiate the power of external events, and find the present moment satisfactory.

So what is my problem?  It is one of practice more than of understanding. I am too often at the whim of external events and I am at times at a loss to keep my thoughts from wandering into the past and future with painful consequences. As for the first, I suffer too much my external losses more than I am jubilant about any external gratifications.  Actually, I have few gratifications and minimal expectations, so going overboard with joy is less of a concern than withstanding the blows that fate has handed to me. With regard to my thoughts drifting to the past and present (those two vast regions over which I have no control) I have fears, yes that would be the word, of the future, although Reason repeats the senselessness of that:  how do I know there is such a future?  After all, I might die tomorrow. Such thoughts of possible future pain and losses are pointless and serve only to disturb my tranquility.  And the past—I have cured myself to a large extent of the worst symptoms of nostalgia, but transience can still afflict me. That nocturnal creature still waits for the dark and quiet moment to spring.

How troubled am I by these two weaknesses in my philosophical practice? To do my feeble Stoicism justice, I will point out that I understand that the mind is its own place—an apt summation of the centrality and vitality of the internal world, penned by John Milton, a writer centuries after your time. A mind, i.e. the rational part of a human being, has the power to create its own tranquility, and the “place” is the world within ourselves, free from the buffets of daily events.  As you have noted, the person who is raised up or cast down by external events is bound to be cast down much of the time and made miserable.  And why should such externalities enjoy sych great weigh and power anyway when so much is trivial? For the external world, I try to confront events as an inevitable series of pleasant and unpleasant curiosities, knowing that things can always be worse, and that I have not been bereft of much good fortune, even in my misfortunes.  My misfortunes have made me who I am, and the person who has not known suffering is as limited in mind and character as an infant.  Also, I discount the views and opinions of others, valuing only those belonging to a few people who create with me an audience unto ourselves. Yet, I find myself “hoping for good news” –a compliment, an acknowledgment, recognition, a job.

Further to my credit, regarding emotions, I will say that Stoicism is a bulwark, and without it I would flounder in a morass of emotion, even worse tangled in the belief that such an emotional state was necessary and typical.  To that end, I do keep death in mind to lend perspective in its own unique way, and I do remember that suffering forms the common lot of us all; I do grasp the usefulness of suffering, the triviality of most occurrences, and the pointlessness of pointless thinking and that dwelling on the unchangeable past and remote future, over which I have no control, constitutes the most pointless kind of thinking. I do cling to reason as what we have that distinguishes us from other animals and I do see emotion for the evil that it is. However, I do not do any of those things with sufficient consistency.

Have you any techniques for teaching Reason how better to confront and conquer these errant thoughts and encroaching feelings?  Or maybe you could state the same ideas, just packaged in a new, handy aphorism, or made accessible through comparison, anecdote, or example?

I await your response in the certainty that your thoughtful words will lead to greater wisdom and tranquility and I will be less of a burden to myself and others. If not, I will re-read your writings, take recourse to literature, stick to Reason, and attempt to carry on with the given day as if it were my last.




The Recovery

I have never felt at a loss for opportunities to bring my Stoic philosophy to bear, but I have recently had special need for it, as I have been in the throes of and am slowly emerging from what would generally be regarded as a tough time.  On the surface, my circumstance is not particularly noteworthy—I can even remember at least one time more challenging, so I would not be tempted to say that fate has doled out any trump cards; however, it has been a protracted and stressful time.  The mere statement, “I broke my ankle,” does not reveal the variety or depth of the experience: the pain and suffering, the mounting costs and inconveniences, the perceived lost opportunities, and the drawing down of blinds on a way of life—that last vicissitude being for me the worst. I broke my ankle on July 30th and now on October 16th, I think I might have chronicled the stages of my ordeal, like Aaron Ralston in the cave (although I readily admit he, as well as innumerable others, had it far worse).  I question whether it is pointless to reflect and attempt to commit to paper the experience.  I can think of no immediate purpose, except that, as a Stoic, the only real reason to learn anything or to write is for yourself, and I, myself, have a hankering to spend time remembering.

Life always changes in an instant; however long the preamble, there is the defining moment.  My moment came without warning, I might say, except as a Stoic I know that anything can happen to me if it can happen to others.  Also, horseback riding is dangerous and the horse involved was not fully known and had hinted that he had a quirky side.  Without provocation during a forward but controlled canter up a slope in a familiar field, he made a sudden, violent, dip and dart out to the right, leaving me suspended in mid-air waiting for gravity. My position changed so little that I landed as if still in the saddle, except that my right leg was lightly more extended than the left.  Maybe if my knees had been equally bent I would have broken two ankles instead of one. Falling entirely on my right foot, the ankle snapped into pieces on both sides.  I knew instantly of course that a dreaded event had befallen me. While the ankle swelled my mind calculated the most pressing logistical problems: I was over an hour and a half from home, with my puppy; I needed to get to a hospital and then find an orthopedic surgeon as quickly as possible. I made my phone calls for help, to my husband who had one foot out the door to leave town and my son who luckily was able to make the trip upstate with him to retrieve me, the puppy, and my car.  I called my parents to let them know that I would have to cancel the long-awaited trip to visit them in early August, causing me to make a large donation to American Airlines.

Then comes the series of necessary events: ambulance, emergency room, getting home, sobbing at night alone with my new reality; live on the sofa in the family room; realize that this is not permanent and think about those who lost limbs in the Boston bombing– cry anyway; relive the fall again and again—the jump, the canter up the slope the fall, the snap; remember my axiom that we never know what else might have happened, that to lament one occurrence assumes knowledge of all of the other possibilities.

First visit to the orthopedist; I acquire another heavy cast that feels like a block of concrete against which the unset bones swell; days later, another emergency room for relief from the cast and better drugs where I dispense with all decorum and cry in pain with abandon. Surgery at last and the skillful and amazing fix: two little scaffolds of screws and plates on both sides of my ankle to put the pieces back together again; anesthesia dream in which I am passing over to the great beyond and don’t want to wake up; another cast; immobility, helplessness, bad detective novels—how do they get published? bad television. The knee walker arrives and I can wheel around the kitchen.  Crawling upstairs works; a bath is possible. I miss the radio from the car and buy a radio. The caregiver shows up—I learn all about her pecuniary difficulties, her family, her religion, and her stream of consciousness thoughts; dispatch her to the grocery store. Fight the urge to complain—what good does it do? Remember that I must comfort myself, complaining is pointless.  Opportunity presents itself: I find new dog walkers for the puppy, better than the previous one.  Another opportunity: discovering who is helpful and who is not: wonderful neighbor who walks the puppy every day, not so wonderful sister- in- law who doesn’t visit. Phone calls from people who just want to check up, not helpful—have an entertaining anecdote, if not an invitation to get me out of the house.

The end of every day is the best part–another one down. I am living a posthumous existence of unrelenting dullness, marking time like all prisoners must do.  Tipp over on the knee walker twice and fall for added mortification and bruising. Disregard doctor’s orders and take walking cast off at night—what a cruel proposition to sleep with a ski boot on for over four weeks. Go out with a friend, try to drink away my suffering and realize that three margaritas on one leg and crutches is a bad idea.  Take recourse to the classics and find an essay by Seneca not yet read.  Thoughts of how much worse it could be—at least I am at home, I have my husband and two sons, I only broke one ankle, it will heal.

I start to be able to put weight on the ankle.  Weight bearing in increments over three weeks and the big event–physical therapy begins–wonderful physical therapy.  Some place to go, albeit in a cab of course, still not driving.  I have the distinction there of being the most injured.  My fellow patients want to play tennis or get the kinks out of the neck; I yearn to get to the bathroom at night without crutches.  Driving is a week away, but doesn’t happen on schedule.  October 13, I can drive; October 16, take steps without debilitating pain shooting up the inside of my calf; develop deep love for my physical therapists.  The bliss of putting my foot under the covers and rolling onto either side has not diminished yet.  Still can’t walk the dog or make it to the basement; I ration my walking. Am I up to 100 steps a day?

Yet, strangely to me, I wonder, in the waning days of this debacle, about regaining my non-injured lifestyle. Have I become attached to my injury? It has become a way of life and has taken the place of everything else and has been self-defining.  Like Byron’s Prisoner of Chillon, have I adjusted to love my confinement?  What happens now that I am pretty normal, but just can’t walk very far or much?  I am just a dull, slow mover missing a big part of my life.  For more than twenty years horseback riding formed my identity and occupied my time. It provided exercise, activity, camaraderie, challenges, self-satisfaction, thrills, life lessons, contact with nature and animals–but also, over the last two years, particularly, it has meant frustration, difficulty, great expense, and way too much driving.  How could I ask my family to tolerate all the cost again and the risk for that matter, after I put them through this?  How much would I want to resurrect my old life; it is one thing to miss an aspect of the past and another to go to great lengths to revive it. A good horse does not show up like a stray cat, and even if I had one at my disposal, would my mind allow me to enjoy it?

If riding is gone, I will have to adjust to this in the same way I adjusted to not putting my leg on the ground.  One adjustment after the other.  Seneca noted our ability to adjust as one of the great gifts of nature: “Reflect that men newly shackled chafe at the ball and chain on their legs, but necessity teaches fortitude and habit indifference.  Nature has done better by us here than in any other department, knowing that man was born to sorrow she invented habit as an anodyne to calamity, thus reducing extreme hardship to the level of the ordinary.  If adversity kept the force of its first shock, no one could bear it.” Amen. By the way, if I have sounded like an underachiever as a Stoic, given I cried, had a breakdown in the second emergency room, and fell into despondency, I will point out that I could d have been much worse. At least I understand the best way to act to benefit myself and others who must live with me. I have the knowledge to try to reign myself in.  Like the chubby guy at the gym, how much fatter might I be without it?  I am not a sage, but as Seneca queried, “Who is?”

Soon I will return the rented knee walker and get rid of the crutches. Physical therapy will end and walking will seem normal. This episode will fade and be followed by the next defining moment of gravity, convergence, hapless timing, inevitability, or other force, already in motion.

A Few Stoic Basics

From Seneca’s letters and essays

On Adversity

“You are a great man, but how can I know if Fortune has never given you a chance to display your prowess? For self-knowledge testing is necessary; no one can discover what he can do except by trying.  I account you unfortunate because you have never been unfortunate.”

On Moderation:

“All excesses are injurious.”

On Seizing the Day:

“How much of your life has been pilfered by others, how much of it you have lost, or dispensed on groundless regret, greedy desire, foolish gladness, polite society—only then will your death seem premature.  Why should this be? It is because you live as if you would live forever; the thought of human frailty never enters your mind.  You squander it as though your store were full to overflowing when in fact the very day of which you make a present to someone else may be your last.”

On the Shortcomings of Pleasure:

“All very great blessings involve anxiety; good fortune is less to be trusted than any other.  To preserve felicity new felicity is needed.  Anything that comes by chance is unstable, and the higher it rises the more liable it is to fall.”

On Hoping:

“When men dare not or cannot attain as much as they crave and rest wholly on hopes, they are unstable and vacillating, as is inevitable for persons in suspense.”

“Expectancy is the greatest impediment to living. In anticipation of tomorrow it loses today. Everything future is uncertain.”



On Meditation

While listening to the radio show “on Being” broadcast on public radio on Sunday mornings, I heard an interviewed guest mention meditation and in particular the mantra used by a group of meditators.  It stuck with me because if Stoics had a mantra, that would be it. Before I explain what is essentially Stoic about the mantra, let me say up front that I have found little if any value in meditation– sitting in one spot and letting some word rattle around my brain is not Stoic per se or useful in my opinion, that view being based on experience with transcendental meditation (TM) in the late 1970s—TM, that cleverly marketed version of ancient practices. To learn how to do TM, I paid my fees and got my mantra, which was a German woman’s name, Inge.  It turns out now I have a friend and neighbor from Berlin whose name is my mantra.  The TM gurus cautioned the initiates strongly not to ever reveal one’s mantra.  Why?  It would weaken it, they said.  And why should that be?  I came to understand that if the TM folks aren’t handing out mantras they are offering little in exchange for their fees other than the chance to gather to watch video tapes of a bearded man rattling on about cosmic consciousness in an abstruse and boring dialogue heavy with repetitive metaphors. There was another element (which philosophy does not have): the gathering together to share experiences in meditation and to meditate together—the latter of which is a bizarre and uncomfortable experience.  In the end, I found meditation in the morning was simply an invitation to fall back to sleep; I felt no benefits, doubted the attainability or the existence of cosmic consciousness, and concluded that if there were such a state of mental improvement it waited at the end of other methods than repeating “ Inge” to myself twice a day. These many long years later, I recognize the similarity between cosmic conscious and a Stoic sage—a person whom Seneca readily admits is not to be found except in the rarest of cases!

So, back to the radio show. I am listening to an interview of a Catholic brother (a member of another group of people whose notions do not square with mine) who mentions a group of meditators and he reveals that their mantra (apparently they are free to divulge their mantra) is “here.” Given that he spoke that word on the radio he had to spell it to distinguish it from “hear.”  As a Stoic, I right away saw the value of that word as something one might focus on.

“Here” denotes the present moment, denying the importance of the uncontrollable past and the uncertain future.  Any happiness (or more moderately phrased, any respite from trouble) can be found only in the present moment; confine whatever miseries we have to the present without compounding them with the ones that have not yet arrived.

I feel particularly under attack these days by anticipation and call upon my reason to stop thinking pointlessly, knowing that by living in the future I miss this day and whatever good it might bring, or, if little good, at least more tranquility  than if I import past and future ills. Hence I need to focus on “here” — this day, this moment.  Lying awake a few nights ago, unable to sleep, a common occurrence, the word “here” popped into my head. I used it as my mantra, corralling my wandering thoughts repeatedly back to that word as they ran riot around my too-busy brain.  It worked—I fell asleep.


“If” Reason Prevails

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:

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:


If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:


If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’


If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!