Magazine article The Spectator

The Stoic Stiff Upper Lip

Magazine article The Spectator

The Stoic Stiff Upper Lip

Article excerpt

Last week, Stoics applauded the idea that the doctor might in certain situations give the patient a book, not a pill, on the grounds that thinking rationally solved all personal problems. So why was Stoicism associated with the stiff upper lip? What was rational about that?

Since Stoics believed that divinity/ reason permeated the universe 'like honey through a honeycomb', they concluded that the will of the divinity ruled our lives inescapably: providence, or fate, must have its way. But this worried Stoics, because they also believed in free will. Square that circle!

They did so by arguing that fate did not necessarily come in single statements.

It could be conditional: 'if I do X (e. g.

go to the doctor), Y will result (I shall recover)'. So the lazy 'don't bother, it's fated' argument did not work.

Nevertheless, one can easily see how Stoicism could encourage a sense of fatality, especially in a world where life always hung by a thread. That being the case, it was wise to develop a mentality that accepted it.

Seneca said that we should try to die as happily as we tried to live, which meant dying gladly, not pointlessly fighting the inevitable, for that would merely make the experience miserable:

'There is only one chain that binds us to life, and that is the love of life. …

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