If— Guidance for a Virtuous, Stoic Life

After my last poem interpretation for The Gods of the Copybook Headings I saw a recommendation to another poem of Rudyard Kipling: If—. It is a shorter poem, but each sentence has a deep meaning. Kipling must have had a deep understanding of human nature.

As I described in my article Learning Poems in August, I wanted to learn this poem and I did. It became my serenity prayer for these times.

Historical Background

The poem was written in 1895 and published in 1910 in Brother Square Toes. It is considered to be a prime example of Victorian Stoicism. Kipling wrote this poem for his son as a guideline to become a man.

The Poem

The poem consists of four stanzas of equal length with a rhyme scheme of ABABCDCD (exception the first stanza with AAAABCBC). It summarizes virtues and moral values to follow for a good life and a good character. He tells his son how to deal with loss and failure.

Each stanza consists of multiple sentences starting with if, the last stanza resolves what will happen if the reader follows these virtues.

Stanza 1

If you can keep your head when all about you
    Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
    But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
    Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
    And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

The first sentence describes a virtue that only a few people possess: Tranquility. I’m puzzled and shocked how easy it was to scare at least a third of the population to give up freedom and liberty for perceived protection against a respiratory virus with a IFR between 0.05 and 0.2 percent that mostly affects the very old and overweight.

We are caught in an ever-worsening vicious circle of hate, agitation, and exclusion. This scapegoating against a minority (“the unvaccinated”) is a well-known behavior that brought us previously the inquisition, witch trials, lynch-mobs, and darker behaviors we promised to never repeat. It is a result of “externalized fear”, as Prof. Dr. Ulrike Guerot explains in the documentary “Eine Andere Freiheit” (Another freedom).[1]

The next sentence of the poem deals with self-confidence. It is a reminder, that you don’t need the approval of others, but should trust in your reason and judgment. Mark Twain wrote once, it doesn’t matter what the press says. It doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. It doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. […] When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move. Your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth and tell the whole world: No, you move.

Everybody has the responsibility to decide for themselves what is right and what is wrong in a free society. This faculty cannot be passed on to others. A rule by edict or an “expert-class” that can’t be questioned should have been something we left behind us with the Enlightenment, but apparently, we didn’t. The second part of the sentence is a reminder to allow other people to come to a different conclusion and try to find a compromise.

Patience is another important Stoic virtue. Some things need time and can’t be accelerated.

The next part covers lies and hate and how to deal with them. It’s tremendously hard to not answer lies with lies and hate with hate. The Corona crisis is a prime example. I’ve never seen so many lies and destructive hatred as now in my whole life. It takes character to not return the hate.

The last sentence of the first stanza is a warning against vanity and arrogance, a reminder to always stay humble.

Stanza 2

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
    If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
    And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
    Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
    And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

To be able to dream up a better future is an important virtue, but following a “dream” can become an end in itself. It is important to not be obsessed with them and to re-evaluate and discard the ones that are not useful anymore.

Reason is one of the Four Virtues of the Stoics. Thinking clearly is important for everything. But here, again, the reminder to make sure it doesn’t become an end in itself.

The next sentence is a reminder to keep serenity. The Stoics reputation is to be calm, no matter if good or bad things happen. The works of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca are filled with examples to remind them that all fame and suffering is impermanent.

Marcus Aurelius reminded himself, that this is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are.[2]

The third sentence is a reminder, that you’ll need to be able to endure wickedness. Other people will take your words and misrepresent your intend on purpose, take you out of context, or misquote you. And fools will fall for it and you can’t do a lot about it. It is all the more important to speak carefully and have sources that support your case.

The last sentence of the second stanza is about the maxim of Amor Fati (love of one’s fate). It is [to treat] each and every moment—no matter how challenging—as something to be embraced, not avoided. To not only be okay with it, but love it and be better for it. So that like oxygen to a fire, obstacles and adversity become fuel for your potential.[3]

We will inevitably suffer defeats, injuries, and suffering. But again and again, we should bend down and repair as much damage as possible. The Japanese art of Kintsugi (金継ぎ) is an example of how to deal with damages. The shards of a broken vessel are reassembled and the cracks are connected with gold.[4] [5]

Stanza 3

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
    And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
    And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
    To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
    Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

Sometimes in life, you need to risk something to change your life. As philosopher Gunnar Kaiser recently said in his video essay “Sprung ins Ungewisse” (Jump into the unknown), we know we have to get out of here, but we don’t know where. And that’s why we persist. That’s why we stay where we are. Unhappy, unable to break out. […] We don’t dare to jump. […] People only achieve significant things in a leap. […] At some point, you have to take the plunge into the unknown. […] Even if we don’t know where we are going to hit, we sometimes have to jump, sometimes we have to let go to not perish in a standstill. A leap into freedom is always a leap into the unknown. But at a time when the certainty of repression seems to be overwhelming, we must learn to fly. What is supposed to go wrong?[6]

Of course, we can fail. But then we start again and we don’t complain.

The last part of the third stanza is a reminder that we should live not only for ourselves but for a cause. As long as we live we can force ourselves to aim our motivation, thoughts, and body to a target that will live on when we are gone. This will not only improve the world, but it is additionally an anchor for ourselves, a compass needle that shows us the direction when we are lost at sea and all our strength has been used up. We need to keep at least the will that forces us to push forward.

Stanza 4

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
    Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
    If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
    With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
    And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

It is hard to keep our virtue when we are around a lot of other people because most people are not in pursuit of virtue. With whom we spend our time, will be who we become. Marcus Aurelius reminded himself in his second chapter on how hard it is to keep our virtue: When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.[2:1]

As equally hard is it not to become arrogant and aloof if we are around power. The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius are filled with reminders to himself to not forget this. As the most powerful man on earth, he could get everything he wanted, kill whomever he wanted, but he did not. He is one of the rare exceptions to the wisdom that “power corrupts”.

The Stoics don’t take insults personally, because it is outside of our control, what others think of us. We have only control over how we react. Marcus Aurelius continued but I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own—not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel angry at my relative, or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.[2:2]

The second part of the sentence is speaking about being reliable to others, but not to the point where they depend on you too much.

The third sentence of the last stanza is a reminder to use the day (Carpe Diem) because we can meet death at any time (Memento Mori). Even the wasted minute waiting in line or a traffic jam can be used and filled with something useful. Be it the reflection of the day, taking a few breaths, or the acquiring of new knowledge and skills.

Finally, Kipling concludes the listing of virtues. When we follow and train these virtues, we will be able to handle everything the world is throwing at us. Kipling directed this poem to his son to show him the way to be a future leader and an example of a good man.


Footnotes

  1. Schutzfilm (2021): Eine Andere Freiheit, https://www.eine-andere-freiheit.com/. ↩︎

  2. Marcus Aurelius and Gregory Hays (2002): Meditations, Modern Library. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  3. Ryan Holiday (2017): Amor Fati: The Formula for Human Greatness, https://dailystoic.com/amor-fati-love-of-fate/. ↩︎

  4. Evan Puschak (2014): Kintsugi: The Art of Embracing Damage, https://youtu.be/lT55_u8URU0. ↩︎

  5. The School of Life (2016): Eastern Philosophy – Kintsugi, https://youtu.be/EBUTQkaSSTY. ↩︎

  6. Gunnar Kaiser (2021): Sprung ins Ungewisse, https://youtu.be/f4WfDY9Gals. ↩︎