Queen Elizabeth II, we have been reminded frequently recently, is a stoic. It is an attribute widely admired, and features in a long list of supposed-attributes that set her apart as a monarch and as a person. It sits easily with others on the list (constancy, for example, or selflessness) and with references to her deep personal, Christian faith and her constitutional role as Defender of the Faith. But stoicism is more than an attribute. It was originally a philosophical system itself, then became a creed and a code for life. It is not the faith, or one of the faiths, that the Queen and her successor will be charged to defend. But it is, as her own life has shown, one she has defended. It is also, her example reminds us, worth defending.
Stoicism refers to a state of mind rather than an organised set of beliefs. The governing attitude of stoics is that fortune, good and bad, should be met with equanimity. The Queen’s combination of stoicism and Christianity is not without precedent. In Antiquity, Christianity sought, admiringly, to adopt some of Stoicism’s most famous practitioners. The much-used Stoic aphorism ‘This too shall pass’ has several echoes in biblical text.
Stoicism owes its origins and its name not to an individual, but to a place, the Stoa or courtyard in ancient Athens where it was first devised and taught. Its founder was Zeno whose school flourished at the end of the fourth century BC. It was a time particularly rich in philosophical schools, many of which survive now in familiar adjectives: the cynics, the sceptics and epicureans all flourished alongside the stoics. Each school was, in its own way, a response to the collapse of the political system of city states in the late fourth century. They provided individuals in a time of uncertainty a guide to coping and a source of consolation. Epicureanism offered retreat and withdrawal into pleasure; scepticism a belief in systematic enquiry and challenge; and cynicism a critical disassociation from the folly of human endeavour. Stoicism, however, which blended many features of other schools, offered something sturdier: human beings should only worry about what they can control —and this is the one correct moral attitude. It had something mentally extreme about it right from the start.
The Greek philosophers, principally Chrysippus, wove a complicated web around this central belief seeking to provide a thorough foundation in logic. But the systematic philosophy in which they indulged required clarification for the practically-minded Romans, which it received at the hands of Panaetius (185 -110 BC) then Posidonius (135 – 50) whose works have largely vanished. Nevertheless, they helped stoicism become integral to Roman culture. It is largely to the Romans that we owe the features of stoicism as a way of living that are associated with it. Put very simply, since correct moral judgement was founded in understanding, based on logic, the greatest risk to this came from irrational, illogical passions. This was the origin of the idea that stoics do not emote.
But there were other ideas embedded in stoicism, most notably that an individual’s life should be governed by duties — that is, doing things they might not find agreeable. Antiquity saw a number of stoic rulers, including most famously perhaps the Emperor Marcus Aurelius whose meditations are still very much in print and read, as are the self-consciously literary letters of the Roman senator and celebrated stoic Seneca. Both still offer, in very different literary styles, rich quarries for those interested in self-help and the enduring nature of the challenges which public office and private morality pose.
The stoic’s highest duty however, a point of coincidence with Christianity, was to his or her moral self. Life and death were of similar value: what mattered was that in both, the individual acted on the basis of sound moral judgement. That led to some of the extreme examples of conduct, in particular a taste for suicide. Whatever the stoic did in public life, it must not compromise their moral status. Emotions, irrationality, associations with individuals and things, and even comforts, were all hazards to be managed. Stoicism did however see all these perils as part of being human and stoics sought neither to deny them nor expunge them entirely from their or others’ lives. The discipline was to have the correct relationship with them. Stoicism was, in its self-discipline, intensely personal. It held the individual, not others, to the highest standards, through a moral code based on sound moral reasoning. Stoicism, public service, and privacy, went and still go, hand in hand.
In the hands of the Romans, stoicism became practical rather than abstract. It percolated deep into popular and political culture offering a code of conduct which sat well with the Romans’ ferocious engagement with the physical world and, in particular, the speed and cruelty with which the political wheel could turn in Rome. Cicero had deep stoic tendencies, so too did famous generals including Caesar. In a culture that valued physical toughness, military prowess, and practicality, and whose Empire spread across continents ruled often by isolated individual and garrisons, stoicism worked well. Fortune often intervened decisively in human affairs and learning to bear it with equanimity was a valued survival strategy.
And as in Rome so in Britain. Stoicism found its way into British Imperial culture under another queen who seemed to embody the quality, Victoria. Emotional coolness, public morality and service were foundational values, however traduced, for Victorian culture and were knitted into the institutions on which Britain relied (the Armed Forces, its public schools, universities and the Church).
Yet under the long reign of Victoria, as under the even longer reign now of Elizabeth, stoicism thrived alongside an artistic flourishing, an explosion in exposure to other value systems and cultures and, paradoxically, of romanticism where emotions, rather than being the enemy, were the prized source and subject of artistic expression. Stoicism has proved incompatible with relatively little. It doesn’t evangelise; another person’s conduct is their business not the stoic’s. It doesn’t use any kind of force, not since Chrysippus tried to use the force of logic to establish it as an intellectually respectable and independent school. Neither does stoicism threaten: it is impossible to use as a mobilising creed against others as it has no collective identity and is intensely personal and private. It can bolster other belief systems with which it has coincided, but it has remained apart from associations for fear of moral compromise.
Stoicism is worth protecting, especially in a monarch, and we should add to all the other votes of thanks to the present Queen one for having protected it and handed it on. Her generation relied heavily on stoicism to see them through the darkest of wars and it is easy to assume it is always there in the national treasury waiting to be pulled out in time of crisis. But like any defence system it needs care and periodic updates. Happily, however, stoicism is highly adaptable. It also contains paradoxes. One such is that it does well in the apparently selfish ‘age of the selfie.’ It is, after all, the ultimate self-help philosophy. There are other contemporary touch-points: stoicism held that living in harmony with nature was the ultimate goal of humankind, and it also guarded against the tyranny of ‘stuff.’ And an age concerned about compromises to privacy caused by data provides the most powerful assertion of the value of true privacy. Stoics do not, I suspect, need to tweet.
It may be that Britain’s elected representatives in the hour of need, or preferably before, will provide the stoicism we need. That has happened in the lifetime of our present monarch in the person of the very unstoical Winston Churchill. His genius for communication tapped directly into both the deepest emotions of his audience and into British stoicism. Stoics can, above all, endure. But the chances are Britain’s representatives will have been elected for other properties, and educated in a different school than the Stoa. Monarchies are lucky in that they have another source of national leadership. It was a deeply felt, national reassurance that there on the balcony of Buckingham Palace, Queen Elizabeth in her 96th year, in some discomfort, showed how well she has defended and kept this faith.