Stoicism is seen a bad thing. Repressing one’s emotions to the point of not even recognizing them, and thus being unable to empathize with others, is at the core of masculinity’s diagnosis.
Stoic philosopher and sometime Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius states Stoicism’s central idea succinctly:
I’m constantly frustrated by events outside of my control. And most of life is beyond my control. We can influence people and events, but the effects are usually small.
Emotions happen – I don’t control them either. The only things I can control are my thoughts and reactions (which is not to say I always do).
But because of its appeal to soldiers since before Aurelius to the present, Stoicism is synonymous with enduring pain through self-detachment.
Which is unfortunate because one need not silently endure pain simply because that pain is beyond one’s control. One can recognize that there’s nothing one can do about it at the moment, but also know that one will have to reckon with it at some point.
But in the popular imagination, Stoicism denies this latter point.
As one blogger notes, preparing boys to become men who will fight in wars is the primary reason our culture teaches male stoicism, even though far fewer men today actually fight in wars than in the past. Boys are taught this, he elaborates, by shaming them into not showing pain with sports injuries; brutal hazing in the military, fraternities, and some workplaces; and violent rituals starting with circumcision (more accurately called male genital mutilation).
Being a man and not a girl is not a denigration of females as females but rather is a denigration of females for the role they are assigned: A man is not dependent and can take care of himself. Girls and women need protection and so are permitted to express their hurt, but men as rescuers must silently endure their pain. The rescuer, however, sees girls’ and women’s dependent status as weakness, so the delicate flower is admired for her purity and discounted for her feebleness.
As such, the pedestal and misogyny are expressions of the same dynamic. And women as victims is merely a modern reforging of this familiar template.
How to restore balance to the Force? The golden mean – a balance between extremes – is the path to one’s best nature.
That the only thing one can control is oneself is an important aspect of Stoic philosophy I don’t want to lose. Defenders of male Stoicism correctly note that no one likes a whiny man. Then again, whiners don’t really understand their emotions nor do they take responsibility for their feelings. This lack of self-control is one extreme.
But self-repression is phony self-control. Rather, self-control requires naming and understanding emotions in order to discipline one’s response to them. Self-repression, then, is another extreme.
Trying to control others is a third extreme. And a subtle type of control is enabling, which is to say rescuing or taking responsibility for others.
Recognizing that one controls nothing but oneself means neither trying to control others nor taking responsibility for others. This requires doing away with the idea that women need to be rescued, which is a tough sell because it means opposing the narrative of women as victims.