“Toxic masculinity” is giving Stoicism a bad name

· Logos/Ethos

February, 2019

The pop psychology flavor of the month appears to be “toxic masculinity”. If you haven’t come across it in your readings, you haven’t been paying attention. As you can tell, the phrase doesn’t appear very flattering to men, of which I am one. The term is meant to describe what experts believe are the basic characteristics of maleness –  violence, sexual aggression, dominance, and status.

We’ll save a discussion of toxic masculinity itself for another day. My interest today is in a commonly alleged symptom of this disease– “emotional stoicism”.  The term bothers me. Stoicism is one of philosophy’s oldest and most valuable ideas. To associate it with bad behavior strikes me as a kind of intellectual slander. To understand and practice Stoicism is to find the answer to the most important question facing all of us in the modern world. How can we possibly find happiness in a world that seems to be constantly distressful? There seems to be no end to the psychic conflicts and agitation that we all feel every day. And yet there can be an end. Stoicism offers men and women an escape from the tensions which seem to dictate our inner lives.

Stoicism originated as an idea in Greece under Zeno and was perfected in Rome by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca. It offers an astonishingly simple path to happiness, a path which puts us, and not the people and events we face each day, in charge of our happiness.

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius describes the philosophy this way: If any external thing causes you distress, it is not the thing itself that troubles you, but your own judgment about it. And this you have the power to eliminate now.

Most of us recognize this two-step pattern: an event occurs in life and then we react to it. This is the pattern that most of us live and is the source of our unhappiness. The Stoics observed that there is a third step, an irrational step, found in the middle that most of us don’t observe. The middle step is when we invent a meaning or judgment about the external event which has occurred. In actuality, the reactions we have to the world are responses to the meaning we have assigned to the event, not to the event itself.

Epictetus says in Discourses: Men are disturbed not by the things that happen but by their opinions about those things… Death is nothing terrible. Rather the opinion that death is terrible – that is the terrible thing. So when we are impeded or upset or aggrieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves – that is, our opinions.

Stoicism encourages us to understand how the mind works, to know where our reactions come from. As Hamlet says, “There is nothing either good bad, but thinking makes it so.” In short, how we talk to ourselves is our choice.

The events of the world may be put into two categories: those that we can control and those we cannot. Practicing Stoics recognize the difference and choose not to be affected by those events which are beyond their control. This puts their personal happiness in their own hands. What percentage of events that confront and disturb us each day are actually within our control? Not many. If it happens that we have some level of control, we may be obliged morally and socially to react. If not, nothing is required of us. Our invitation to happiness lies in not forming opinions about events that are beyond our control.

Hyper-exaggerated, toxic masculinity may well include under-developed emotions, but to associate that condition with an ancient wisdom tradition designed to free men and women from suffering is a mistake. Living in a state of emotional equilibrium, not being tossed about by our unnecessary reactions to the people and events of our day, sounds to me like a pretty nice place to be.