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From Vol. 5, Issue 10, October 2023

Stoic strength: Gaining character, not charisma

Practicing Stoicism || JOHN KUNA

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Strength, taken out of context

As a younger man, I was drawn to the caricature of Stoicism that most people are familiar with. I wanted to feel tough and resilient. I would read passages from Meditations taken out of context against the backdrop of a black background and stark white marble statue like the following:

Be like the rock that the waves keep crashing over. It stands unmoved and the raging of the sea falls still around it. - Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 4.19

I thought, like many still do, that the strength of a Stoic was to bear adversity with calmness and resolve. That image of a person standing steadfast against a barrage of challenges evokes feelings of admiration for them. Imagining Marcus Aurelius in the Hinterlands, leading legionnaires against the barbarians, unmoved by his austere conditions puts one’s own hardships into perspective.

It was enticing to imagine shaping myself into the type of person unbroken by tragedy or setback. But rocks crumble to sand against the crashing waves. Mountains rend as the earth quakes. The veneer of Stoic strength that many view as antifragile fades with time or breaks under sufficient pressure. It is a veneer of arrogance masking deep insecurity. Once cracked, it opens the raw and tender parts of us up to the world again. That is not true strength. And, as I came to discover, that is not true Stoicism.

Being of resolute character

Once you dig beneath the surface of Stoicism to its core, you realize that the image of the unbroken man amid battered ramparts is not an image of someone handling adversity, but of someone’s character remaining resolute despite temptations to corrupt it. Stoicism is not about being tough, it is about being a good person, a thoughtful friend, a loving partner. It promotes a more nurturing and gentle strength, one that opens us up to the world rather than shielding us from it.

Heraclitus, a pre-Socratic philosopher from whom Zeno and Chrysippus took much inspiration when developing and refining Stoic thought, famously said:

Man’s character is his fate. - Heraclitus, Fragments, 114

It is not, then, the legacy one leaves behind of handling adversity well that matters. Legacy, like stone, fades to dust with time. It is a shallow attempt to seek validation and recognition from others. A strength of character has no need for being remembered or being admired. It requires only that we remain consistent with our principles, only that we develop a virtuous character for others.

The false lesson from the false Stoics: Not developing character

One can take the false lessons of the false Stoics and handle adversity well while never developing their character. Invading generals, corrupt politicians, corporate executives, and other unscrupulous sorts can all develop that stoneline persona and earn a long-lasting legacy. But that facade masks a hollowness that neither renown nor power nor wealth can truly fulfill. That only comes from embracing a strength of character to stand up for what is right, no matter the circumstance.

Little moments of moral compromise

We all face little moments of subtle moral compromise in our lives. When you avoid the gaze of a homeless man as you pass by. When you stay silent while someone is unkind. When you lie when asked if you made a mistake. These moments, more than how you respond to a dispreferred medical prognosis or the death of a loved one, shape who you will become. They show your true strength, or lay bare your moral weakness.

Strength comes from being good

Do you approach the world with wariness, or with kindness? Do you see it as something to shield yourself from, or to embrace with open arms? Do you use Stoicism as armour for your soul, or as the means to form your soul into something greater? Recall this passage from Seneca:

What is the happy life? It is peace of mind, and lasting tranquility. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul; it will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached. How does a man reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of truth, by maintaining, in all that he does, order, measure, fitness, and a will that is inoffensive and kindly, that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration.” - Seneca, Moral Letters to Lucillius, 92

Stoicism is not a philosophy that teaches strength comes from withstanding difficulty. It teaches us strength comes from being good.

John Kuna is a Stoic prokopton, writer, and dog lover. He likes digging deep into Stoic theory, but also writing accessible and inspiring Stoic content.