The Stoic Man (as well as Woman)

Ancient Stoic literature often uses terms like "manly" to describe the Stoic ideal. It's unfortunate that they couldn't see past the gendering of human capabilities* but thankfully we can have clearer eyes and need not promote the same mistakes. Still, they used the manly vs effeminate concept more than a few times.We can understand that when Stoics speak of a manly ideal, they are pointing towards the ideal philosopher, whatever that philosopher's gender happens to be. I personally advocate changing the language of quotes to be more inclusive. I often switch "man" to "human" for instance. Today however, for the sake of clarity, I will leave Marcus Aurelius' words alone because they illustrate my theme.

*Not to say that they totally missed the mark. Stoics were vocal advocates of female equality, at least concerning education. 

The practicing Stoic is kind and courteous. After all, if we are truly unperturbed by fortune, what reason do we have to be abrasive to those we meet? And yet I sometimes come across fellow Stoics who un-stoically claim that they have no duty to change their own offensive actions because, "isn't it the other person's fault that they are offended?" Stoicism is not a means of deflecting blame. It isn't a bludgeon to use against the feelings of those we meet nor a shield to deflect our social duties. The ideal Stoic is beyond the pettiness that drives such defensiveness. We need to remember to aim for such heights.

To ward off anger, keep these maxims handy:

  • There is nothing manly about petulance.

  • Because they are more natural to our species, qualities like courtesy and kindness are the more manly. These qualities, not irritability and bad temper, bespeak strength and fiber and manly fortitude.

  • The freer the mind from passion, the closer the man to power.

  • Anger is as much a proof of weakness as grief. Both involve being wounded and giving in to one's wounds.

Meditations 11:8

I suspect that Stoics sometimes allow the more martial forms of supposed "manliness" to inform our image of the ideal Stoic. It would be easy to do, seeing as our philosophy speaks in such strong terms. As we learn to live an unassailable life, we picture ourselves as lone Spartans before the Persian horde, but in the Stoic view the only real enemy is our own undisciplined will. That's why Marcus Aurelius challenges martial manliness in his Meditations.

Marcus steels himself against anger by remembering what it means to be "manly," but Stoic manliness has nothing to do with machismo. He reminds himself that defensiveness is weakness. Anger, irritability, and their whiny cousin petulance, are all forms of licking wounds. Kindness, in contrast, flows from a position of strength and courtesy aligns with our Discipline of Action. Stoic manliness and womanliness are informed by an appreciation of our common humanity. Lived Stoicism allows us to be fearless in our devotion to others. We act with courage when we affirm the dignity of those we meet. At the same time, Stoics don't need to defend our own dignity because we understand that it can not be taken from us.

A Stoic meets other people where they are. Stoics act with compassion because we don't expect others to be anything other than human. We should, however, expect ourselves to be examples of what human can mean. So don't choose to be weak, choose to be Stoic.

The Need for a Humanist Chaplain

More than 13,000 service members identify themselves as atheists or agnostics, according to a Pentagon survey this year. That's more than the number of Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists in the military combined, yet each of those religions has its own chaplains.
-David Zucchino (Los Angeles Times)  

The Los Angeles Times recently ran a story about a man who is asking to become the Navy's first humanist chaplain. Jason Heap would like to bring comfort and guidance to service members that don't believe in a god. 13,000 members identify as atheist/agnostic and another 276,000 have no religious preference. All of these people, when turning to the Chaplain Corps for moral guidance or a confidential ear to talk to, presently have to talk to a theist. I believe this is a problem.

Mr. Heap says that, "just as a Roman Catholic would prefer to speak with a priest, or a Jewish person with a rabbi ... nontheist people would prefer to have access to someone who understands their basic points of view." This is definitely the case. Non-theists are often poorly served when discussing deep issues such as morality with theists. Many theists, even the best educated of them, are incapable of perceiving a basis for morality that does not rest on a first-cause God (this is a particularly common issue with mono-theists). When a theist chaplain is confronted with a service member's shaken sense of self, I expect it can be difficult to address anything but the most superficial aspects of "spiritual" care. Deeper conversations may misfire since the chaplain and the service member hold radically different worldviews.

I served for six years as an active duty Marine. Full disclosure, I was a Christian at the time. I found the majority of chaplains to be thoughtful and friendly people who were capable of being kind and gracious to service members from all walks of life. There are very few chaplains serving a very large military, so a Catholic chaplain is likely to talk to a Muslim, Baptist, or Buddhist Marine, and the chaplains are trained and ready for such an event. This wouldn't change with the addition of Jason Heap. However, the ability for the Chaplain Corps, as a whole, to properly address the needs of service members grows as chaplains of different faiths share best practices with each other. A non-theist chaplain could only add to that skill set. I understand that the idea of non-spiritual spiritual care will sound odd to many people. However, the Chaplain Corps provides much more than weekend rituals. They perform an important universal service as counselors. In a military that still shuns professional psychiatric care due to stigma, chaplains provide a safe space that our over-stressed service members desperately need. Non-theist soldiers, sailors, and Marines deserve equal respect and care.

I certainly hope that the Navy decides to approve Mr. Heap's application, or that of another qualified non-theist. The military is often progressive on such issues, from a state-sanctioned point of view. Their recent changes concerning homosexual service members, for instance, have amounted to, "that's legal now? Ok. Here are your benefits." On the religious belief front, Thor's Hammer is now allowed on veteran's tombstones. I would hope that the military can honor the beliefs of living service men and women as fully as they honor the dead.

He wants to be the Navy's first humanist chaplain -The Los Angeles Times