Wednesday, 20 January 2010

cast a cold eye on life, on death

One response to mortality has long been a deliberate and carefully-worked out stoicism. I don't only mean the sort of "grin and bear it" response to life's temporary pains and difficulties, I mean stoicism as a way of living, and a way of facing death.

Without going too far into the Stoic school of ancient philosophers (a very worthwhile thing to do, no doubt), let's stay with the usual meanings around the word "stoical." I mean a resolute indifference to the continual ups and downs of life: comfort/discomfort, pain/pleasure, success/failure. And therefore a resolute indifference to the fact of our deaths. Keep doing what you do until you can't. Endure until it is no longer possible to endure, because it is ended.

It's a very worthwhile approach to lots of life's trials; we often seek to distinguish whingeing from real pain, making a fuss from real distress. After the Paddington rail disaster, an American who was on the train and escaped injury said he was impressed by the way people showed "grace under pressure" as they went to help others, even though they were shocked and suffering minor injuries themselves. That description of stoicism, compassion (and style, even) was moving.

Or the way those exhausted fireman went on trying to force their way up the doomed towers on 9/11 - they must have known they were unlikely to survive, to put it mildly. That sort of stoicism - endurance of desperate circumstances whilst a human duty is to be done - we at once understand and respect, even whilst doubting we could do anything like it ourselves. (Except that no-one knows how they would respond until they have to.)Do you recall the man on the capsized ferry "Herald of Free Enterprise" who made a human ladder of himself so that passengers could climb over him and escape through a window? That stuff. The right stuff.

Most of the time, you hope, you won't have to help people escape from capsized ferries, burning trains or collapsing buildings. But we all have to depart this world. Can a stoical indifference to mortality help us to do so?

Possibly, it seems to me, if that's our temperament. But cultural change influences individual ways of thinking and feeling. Stoicism related to duty - staying at your post, doing what you should, not making a fuss etc - was characteristic of imperial cultures and warrior castes. I don't mean unique to them, of course - but the Romans valued in their ruling class what they called "gravitas." Allowing for cultural translations, so did high Victorian Brits. Public schools, naval and military training, produced a warrior caste and a ruling class of people who were expected to stay at their posts and do their duty, according to various codes. We like to satirize all that stiff upper lip stuff, but that is now, not then.

Doing your duty when a broader view of human responsibility was needed, beyond duty to the Empire, produced some people who we now know were monsters. Eichmann said he was only doing his job, i.e. his duty to the Third Reich. What about his duty to other human beings? Any vile torturer could claim to be preserving public order, defending his country, doing his duty, doing his job.

Maybe stoicism as duty is difficult to sustain in a climate of moral relativity and complexity. Life is more often shades of grey than black and white, "my country right or wrong" won't really do, we all have to deal with apparently conflicting loyalties and duties. So stoicism in the pursuit of duty to one's country is not above qualification and examination. And this growth of a more flexible and relative view of duty could perhaps be part of changes in us at the individual level - we talk more directly about our feelings, we express our own needs and priorities more firmly, than we used to. We show less "gravitas," less stoical reserve.

Maybe as technological developments in, for example, heating, pain control, the manufacture of cheap warm clothing, public hygiene and nutrition, gave us more comfort, they also made "grin and bear it" a less important survival response. So perhaps stoicism at the basic daily level is less easy to deploy.

We all vary of course - someone close to me is more stoical about pain and illness than I am. I don't know if that is because things hurt her less than they do me, or because she makes less fuss about the same level of pain (though I've a sneaky feeling it's the latter.) Such things are unknowable.

Some people are perhaps more inclined to a stoical view of the end their lives, whatever their beliefs, and that may help them. I'm heartened by the families I meet who have lost someone to a painful and unpleasant illness, who tell me that "she/he never/rarely complained," "we didn't realise until the last two days how ill he really was, because he didn't tell us." This isn't just an affectionate enhancement of their view of the deceased by the bereaved family; sometimes, as in the last statement, they unintentionally supply evidence for their relative's stoicism and concern for the family's well-being.

As Alan Bennett says, "illness is a bore," but it's difficult not to talk about it. The consideration for others that generates a stoical reserve is admirable, surely - provided it's not a version of "I don't want to be a nuisance," which can, unfortunately, result in a great deal of unintentional nuisance! "But if you'd only told us, then we could have done..." Recently, some family members had a difficult job getting back from the other side of the world for the funeral because they had no idea how ill their relative was, even though they knew it was terminal.

My summary: if we can manage it, stoical indifference may help us face our own mortality, both at the level of enduring suffering, and also at a higher level of thought: facing the end of your life. But I suspect many of us may look for and need more than that. Stoical indifference, "cast a cold eye on life, on death," as Yeats ordered up for his nown gravestone, might only suit some of us.

I'm going to leave stoicism there for now - I may return another time.


  1. A most interesting argument - and an informative one, too. I have learned about all sorts of things; and you have adduced very telling examples!

    One thing I think I have learned: that to die bravely (with cheerful, uncomplaining stoicism) is the greatest gift we can give to those who will have to endure our going out. So, I think, we all need to develop a philosophy and an attitude to death which also takes others into consideration.

    Welcome to blogland, Gloriamundi. I look forward to more of your thoughtful and very stimulating musings!

  2. Thanks, Charles - I very much value the comment that we need to develop a philosophy and an attidue to death which takes others into consideration. I'll look to develop a few thoughts on the "others," both at the level of the "deceased" person's family and friends, and from a wider social perspective. Since I don't believe we survive the death of the body, it seems to me that this really is a paramount consideration. It's not about you, corpse - you've had your go round - it's about them!