Fake News, Stoicism, and the Stiff Upper Lip
New Research Findings on Stoic Philosophy
Fake news is not a recent phenomenon. Nor is its propagation limited to Russian bots or extreme right-wing media outlets. In this article my aim is to dispel a long-standing and pernicious myth about Stoicism, the ancient philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium around 300 BCE which is currently enjoying something of a resurgence.
The “fake news” claims that Stoicism is a dour, grim philosophy advocating the repression of emotions — the “stiff upper lip.” The truth about Stoicism is very different. Stoicism is in fact a positive, constructive life philosophy advocating active, virtuous engagement with the world. In this article I will first provide theoretical reasons to challenge the stiff upper lip view of Stoicism and then share recent empirical evidence about Stoicism that I hope will reduce the plausibility of the notion that Stoicism should be equated with a “stiff upper lip”.
The idea that Stoicism is all about the stiff upper lip and resignation is not new. To be perfectly honest, it influenced my view of Stoicism before I began studying Stoicism earnest over the last decade. A recent example (by no means the only one) of the stiff upper lip view of Stoicism is provided by the classicist Edith Hall, author of a popular philosophy book on Aristotle, who wrote in a 2018 article
“Authentic ancient Stoicism was pessimistic and grim. It denounced pleasure. It required the suppression of emotions and physical appetites.” [i]
The truth is that Stoics (ancient and modern) don’t repress negative emotions. They don’t need to. Stoics see the world in such a way that they don’t have these negative emotions in the first place.
The 2020 Stoic Week Handbook explains why this is the case.
“As we make progress towards virtue and happiness, our emotional life changes. We stop having ethically misguided and intense or conflicted emotions (sometimes called ‘passions’) and we move towards having ‘good emotions’… The passions are misguided because the passionate person supposes that happiness depends on acquiring or retaining ‘preferred indifferents’, such as wealth or fame (rather than on exercising the virtues). This mistake generates emotions such as anger, fear, or overwhelming lust; as well as being mistaken, these emotions are often marked by intensity of feeling, instability and inner conflict.“
In other words, Stoics don’t despise pleasure and other so-called external goods , but neither do they overestimate their importance. Instead, Stoics prioritise being a good person which equates with living according to the virtues. Since Stoics place less relative value on pleasure and other external goods (also called “preferred indifferents”), Stoics don’t feel the negative emotions in the first place so there is no need for the stiff upper lip.
Furthermore Stoics do not advocate unconditional resignation — the other part of the stiff upper lip myth. Much as recommended by the Serenity Prayer (a version of which can be found at the beginning of Epictetus’s Enchiridion, long before its use in AA), the Stoic distinguishes between what you can control and what you cannot control. The Stoic accepts with serenity what cannot be controlled, and uses courage — and other relevant virtues — to change those things that can and should be changed. In the words of Epictetus:
“On the occasion of every accident (event) that befalls you, remember to turn to yourself and inquire what power you have (virtue) for turning it to use” — Epictetus, Enchiridion X
A topical example may help to explain this difference between the “stiff upper lip” attitude and real Stoicism.
Imagine your foreign holiday has been cancelled because of Covid-19. Someone with a stiff upper lip would no doubt feel very upset and then repress their feelings and do nothing about the problem. Not a very good response, so we can understand why the stiff upper lip has a bad press! Now let’s contrast this with real Stoicism.
In the first place, a real Stoic would not feel very upset. A foreign holiday is something they would like to have, but it’s not the end of the world if it doesn’t happen. What’s more important for the Stoic is conducting themselves well, which means exercising the virtues.
A Stoic would apply Epictetus’s advice and ask ourselves “What virtues do I need to handle this situation well?” Here’s one possible answer.
- Wisdom — to know the difference between what I can’t control (government policy and the pandemic) and what I can control (my response). I need to focus on the my response.
- Creativity — how can I have a nice time with my family without going abroad?
- Perspective — the pandemic won’t last forever and I can have a foreign holiday next year &
- Cheerfulness — to be positive about the new plans with the rest of the family”
So neither the stiff upper lip or resignation form any part of the Stoic response to adversity.
I put this argument to a friend recently and got this rather sceptical response. “Tim, this is all very well in theory, but do you have any evidence whatsoever that Stoicism helps in practice?” Actually, we do! In 2012 an organisation called Modern Stoicism was founded by Professor Christopher Gill at the University of Exeter, partly to test out whether ancient Stoic life guidance could help people in their daily lives. I had written about practical philosophy and psychology and was a practising psychotherapist who drew on philosophy so I was invited to an exploratory 2 day workshop in Exeter. When I received the email invitation in 2012, I hesitated. Why? Because at that time I too had been influenced by the “stiff upper lip” fake news about Stoicism!
Fortunately, I kept a sufficiently open mind to travel to Exeter. The first Modern Stoicism event was very small scale — there was less than a dozen of us. On the first day, there was a seminar where a small interdisciplinary group of classicists, psychologists, philosophers and psychotherapists discussed the feasibility of running something called “Stoic Week”. The idea was that people would be invited over the internet to “live like a Stoic” for a week. We realised that we could evaluate the impact of Stoicism by administering well-being questionnaires before and after the Stoic training.
On the second day, Chris Gill gave a talk on Stoicism that led me to realise that my previous understanding of Stoicism was but a cartoon caricature of the real thing. I became curious about Stoicism and agreed to lead the initial research project for Modern Stoicism. Still, I was somewhat cautious in my expectations for Stoic Week 2012. Imagine my surprise, then , when we found that not only were a large number of people interested in Stoic Week, but also that they seemed to benefit a lot.
Participants said things like…
“It has made me much more relaxed, more focused on what truly matters, and strangely in command of my life. Not of the externals, but of that which truly matters (the internals)”
“[it] helped relax and put things in perspective”.
They also reported a significant increase in life satisfaction and positive emotions, and a decrease in negative emotions. Flourishing increased by 10% after just one week of Stoicism. Encouraged, we ran more Stoic weeks. Interest grew as many as 8000 people took part in 2017 and we developed more sophisticated measures — the most notable being the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviours Scale (SABS) — which measures how Stoic someone is. We have measured the relationship between Stoicism and other important outcomes as well as well-being, such as anger, character strengths and resilience. We have also developed a longer Stoic training, SMRT — a month long course focussing on Stoic mindfulness and resilience.[ii]
Since I became part of the Modern Stoicism team, I’ve moved from being something of a sceptic about Stoicism to being much more positive about its impact. This is largely because of the very positive findings. Here are some of the headlines:-
- When people in Stoic Week practice Stoicism for a week there is (on average) a significant increase in their well-being.
- People who learn Stoicism generally experience less negative emotions and at the same time more positive emotions, such as contentment and joy.
- There is large association between the degree of Stoicism and well-being. Given the size of sample sizes (several thousand), the chances of this association being accidental is less than one in a million.
- Stoicism had been found to reduce the amount of anger, and the pathway towards this reduction is not by repressing anger [iii]
- All character strengths are positively associated with Stoicism, including gratitude, kindness, hope and love
- Zest turns out to be the character strength most associated with Stoicism and also the strength that increased the most during Stoic Week[iv]
- Stoicism is strongly associated with all the virtues
- Empathy turns out to be the virtue most strongly associated with Stoicism
Are these findings enough to completely dispel the negative view of Stoicism as “fake news?” Alas not. The stiff upper lip view is very pervasive and has even gotten its way into the dictionary! A typical dictionary definition of stoicism reads
“the quality of experiencing pain or trouble without complaining or showing your emotions:” [v]
The negative view of Stoicism also pervades health literature.
“In health literature it [stoicism] is used to describe illness behaviour characterized by silent endurance and lack of emotion — often described as a ‘stiff upper lip’” write Moore and colleagues (2012).[vi] Moreover, research suggests that the stiff upper lip is associated with negative outcomes. “Not acknowledging pain in non-self-limiting conditions, such as cancer, can lead to negative outcomes and poor pain management and treatment (Hillier, 1990)[vii]. Contemporary stoicism is often therefore seen to be ‘maladaptive’ in this context (Spiers, 2006). [viii]
There is even at least one validated psychometric scale, the Liverpool Stoicism scale, that purports to measure Stoicism but in fact measures the stiff upper lip. It includes items like:
“One should keep a stiff upper lip”,
“I don’t really like people to know what I am feeling. “ and
“It makes me uncomfortable when people express their emotions in front of me”
My colleagues and I within Modern Stoicism recognised that we had a problem. On the one hand, we knew that Stoicism, the life philosophy, is nothing to do with the stiff upper lip and has a whole host of potential benefits including resilience and well-being. On the other hand, the term “stoicism” has become synonymous with the stiff upper lip and resignation which is almost certainly not conducive to well-being.
What could be done? Several of my colleagues wrote rather good articles to try to dispel the myth. Patrick Ussher, a University of Exeter post-graduate who was instrumental in developing the first Stoic Week, had an article published in the Guardian entitled” Be stoic for a week (stiff upper lip not required)” back in 2012[ix] Donald Robertson, a leading figure in the Modern Stoicism movement, wrote an article in 2018 emphasising the difference between what he called upper case Stoicism (the life philosophy) and lower case Stoicism (the stiff upper lip). [x]
Yet still the myth persists. Just a few days ago, a correspondent wrote to me telling me of research that showed that Stoicism was associated with reduced well-being. Guess what — this research was all about lower-case, stiff upper lip stoicism, but the research does not make this distinction at all clear[xi]. :
Earlier in 2020, we decided to tackle the problem head on. We resolved to conduct our own research to see whether lower-case stoicism was related to true Stoicism — or not. Modern Stoicism has developed a scale, the Stoic Attitudes and Behaviour Scale (SABS) to provide what we believe is a good assessment of the extent to which someone is truly Stoic. What if we gave enough people the SABS scale (measuring true Stoicism) and the Liverpool Stoicism Scale (measuring stiff upper lip Stoicism). Then we could statistically determine once and for all whether Stoicism was or was not all about the stiff upper lip.
Better still, if we gave participants a month of Stoic training, we could then administer the scales at the end of the training and see whether a month of Stoicism had any impact on the stiff upper lip. If the stiff upper lip really was the same as true Stoicism, we would expect a very high correlation between the SABS and the Liverpool Scale, and we would expect participants’ Liverpool Scale score to increase significantly after a month’s Stoic training
The SMRT training conducted in May and June 2020 allowed us to carry out this research. Over 5000 people enrolled, so we had a very large, statistically significant sample. There were two the key findings[xii]
- The correlation between the Liverpool Stoicism Scale (stiff upper lip stoicism) and SABS (true Stoicism) was actually negative — -.1. (minus point one). So being Stoic if anything means people are less inclined to have a stiff upper lip.
- Whilst true Stoicism (as measured by SABS) increased significantly after a month of Stoic training, the tendency towards the stiff upper lip actually decreased (slightly) So training in Stoicism increases true Stoicism but not the tendency towards the stiff upper lip.
Will this be sufficient for the fallacious , “fake news” equation of
“Stoicism=stiff upper lip and resignation”
to be replaced by more accurate
“Stoicism = prioritising the virtues , controlling only what you can control and taking constructive action where feasible leading to equanimity and happiness”.
Probably not. For one thing the fallacious message is much simpler! My hope is that at the very least the recent empirical research outlined in this article will make writers and researchers pause before they equate Stoicism with the stiff upper lip.
[ii] To see all the reports related to this research, visit https://modernstoicism.com/research/
[xii] See https://modernstoicism.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/09/SMRT-2020-Results-1.0.pdf for the full report.