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My Beef with Stoicism

If you haven’t read Rod’s post on Binx Bolling’s Aunt Emily, please do. It’s a good ‘un.

Rod’s right about how deeply Stoicism saturates the culture of the South — the Old South, anyway: the homogenization of America has diluted this mix significantly for recent generations. But even when it was at the height of its influence, this Stoic-Christian synthesis — Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South describes it well — was pretty class-specific. It was among the aristocracy and those who aspired to enter it that the Stoic traits, especially the uncomplaining acceptance of suffering, were most highly valued and consistently practiced.

As Aunt Emily hints, among the lower classes — white and black alike — the story was and is different. Consider for instance the typical poor or working-class attitude towards funerals: the burial of a loved one is a time to weep, to mourn, and to do these things if necessary in a loud voice. Those of a Stoic disposition are of course appalled at such exhibitions, but it makes as much sense to be appalled by those who can bear the loss of a dear friend or family member with an unmoved countenance.

I come from the kind of people commonly known as white trash — the weepers and wailers. Stoicism has never felt natural to me, and I often struggle to find it desirable. Wyatt-Brown and others speak of the Southern "Stoic-Christian synthesis," but the two ways of living seem like oil and water to me, almost impossible to keep together. The Israelite king who wept inconsolably over the death of his son Absalom, and the apostle who counseled followers of Jesus to "rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep," seem to me worlds distant from the Stoic virtues. And we might notice that nothing Aunt Emily says to Binx even comes close to touching on Christianity.

The big problem with Stoics, as I have known them anyway, in the Midwestern as well as the Southern variety, is that they tend to demand that others become as uncomplaining as they are and can be pretty unsympathetic to those whom they believe to have fallen short. I hold no brief for Binx at that moment of his life, but I have to say that I don’t care much for Aunt Emily either. Maybe Binx really does need a good dressing-down, but maybe some basic compassion wouldn’t go amiss either.

When my wife was seriously ill some time ago, people from our church contacted me to ask if we needed anything. When I replied that it was nice of people to offer meals but that Teri’s chief problem was simple loneliness — no one to talk to, as she lay in her sickbed, except a very busy husband — people were, not to put too fine a point on it, shocked. I had said something unexpectedly shameful. One person even commiserated with Teri: how difficult it must have been for her to have a husband who so openly admitted that she had personal needs in her illness. (To be sure, there were also deeply sympathetic friends, though not as many as we had expected to find.)

Of course, this whole situation speaks of more than Stoicism: it speaks perhaps most eloquently of a way of middle-class American life so consistently hectic that the one thing you simply cannot ask from other people is their time. But it was nevertheless clear that what we were supposed to do was to say that we were doing just fine and didn’t need a thing, though under considerable pressure we might consent to receiving a meal or two. To admit that illness is worsened by loneliness was several steps beyond the socially acceptable. So says the Stoic Creed, and most of the time what I say in return is: To hell with it.

about the author

Alan Jacobs is a Distinguished Professor of the Humanities in the Honors Program at Baylor University in Waco, Texas, and the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography.

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