Somewhere along the way in the last thousand years, stoic philosophy has gotten something of a bad rap. To be called “stoic,” is something of a mixed bag, implying that you are calm and composed but also unfeeling, cold, and generally a buzzkill. While the philosophy itself has been largely maligned since its hey-day in the ancient and antique world, it has always attracted me for some reason. As I started to read up on the subject with books like A Guide to the Good Life, The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca’s Letters to a Stoic, I noticed that many of the basic concepts were familiar to me. This is not because I was some stoic-savant, but because I had learned these lessons as a child – from superheroes and comic books.
I have always been a fan of superheroes and in the last few years have taken a liking to comic books as well. Maybe it’s the mythic level of storytelling found in this medium, or maybe it’s just because it’s a fun diversion, but I’ve always loved them. What I began to realize while reading up on stoicism is that many of the core principles and beliefs that the ancient stoics espoused were actually perfectly represented by the heroes I idolized. In fact, as I kept reading I realized that all of my favorite superheroes were in fact characters that embraced this philosophy.
Contrary to popular belief, stoicism does not require some absence of emotion, but rather merely recommends that you strive to control them and mitigate all negative emotions. Stoicism arose in ancient Greece from the teachings of a philosopher named Zeno of Citium, who taught it as a milder alternative to the more extreme philosophy of Asceticism. Whereas the ascetics advised an extreme distaste for their bodies, the stoics prized the intellectual life without actively opposing the physical. Zeno taught underneath a porch called the “stoa poikile,” giving stoicism its name.
What personally attracted me to stoicism was its approach to fear, and its tactics for conquering anxiety. I have always been something of a worrier, largely because I think too much and find ways to stress myself out over everything. In some ways this can be positive, because it forces me to work hard out of sheer panic. However, there is no doubt that it has negatively affected my life, and I felt that I needed a method to cope with it. Stoicism’s novel approach to these concerns is simple, and recommends that one think through the situation logically.
One such example of this would be the one that plagued me most as a young man, “What if I fail this class?” It is tempting to begin to spiral out of control and become convinced that your world will end and your life will crumble around you if you fail. However simply by thinking through it logically, one begins to see the holes in this argument.
If I fail the class then I will simply take it again. It might not be pleasant, but I will not be injured, and I won’t face any kind of serious repercussion. Perhaps someone will be disappointed in me, but ultimately they will probably forgive me if I apply myself and try again. Without too much effort, this technique helps to show us how irrational many of our biggest concerns truly are. There is a certain amount of fatalism to this method and the good stoic should embrace the fact that although bad things may happen, he/she is strong enough to overcome it.
This approach to our concerns demonstrates the philosophy’s near-obsession with reason. The stoics believed that reason could conquer all challenges, and that it was the duty of a stoic to exercise it. Only by seeing things clearly and eliminating our negative emotions can we make the right decision. This is closely paralleled in the approach of the Dark Knight himself: Batman.
Batman is perhaps the most stoic of all superheroes, and a large part of this is the high premium that he places on reason. He is bound by his principles, never taking a life, but is also willing to exercise a kind of utilitarianism if necessary. For example, he famously concocted a contingency plan to defeat all of the members of the Justice League by praying on their greatest weaknesses. This was a logical precaution, which he created to ensure that any and all of them could be stopped should they somehow go out of control.
Not only is this a pure example of the stoic virtue of reason, but it is also a form of their approach to anxiety. It should be remembered that despite all of their occasional arguments and disagreements, the Justice League is Batman’s colleagues and friends. He cares about them, and it could not be easy to determine exactly how to brutally murder them if he had to do so. Batman has endured countless losses throughout his life, and perhaps this is his way of preparing himself for the inevitable deaths of the people that he cares about. He accepted that this was a possibility, and took steps to prevent it despite his personal feelings.
Another key stoic principle was the importance of the will and will power. Although the stoics were not actively neglectful of their physical bodies, they did believe in being willing to be indifferent to it. All pain and torment was seen to be secondary to having a keen reason and a free spirit. Because of this they chose to refrain from luxury and vice that would weaken the spirit. As such they were expected to maintain a kind of constant vigilance and discipline in order to cultivate a great spirit. While the body could fade away, a noble spirit and an honorable death was something that a stoic could aspire to in his life.
Although many heroes certainly exercise phenomenal willpower, none do so as directly as the Green Lantern. His ring itself is fueled from an outside power source but the Green Lantern’s strength derives from the strength of his/her will. It is provides the wielder with only as much power as they can generate, and will fail if this is somehow impaired. It they are strong enough, they can wield immense power, but they are limited only by their force of will their creativity. Kyle Rayner, my favorite Green Lantern, managed to become a formidable foe largely by harnessing his skills as an artist. This idea of willpower being a force in and of itself has always appealed to me, and the Green Lantern has always fascinated me for this reason.
It would be wrong to discuss the stoic superhero however, without talking about the most famous superhero of them all: Superman. I initially did not think of the Man of Steel as a stoic, until I considered that he actually is an epitome of the stoic approach to discipline. The stoics felt that it was important to always be in control of one’s self, and to never let negative emotions govern your actions. They were not willing to let themselves be overcome with sadness or rage, and believed in doing their duty. No one exemplifies this virtue more than Superman.
It is tempting to be lured in by the inherent power fantasy of Superman, and be caught up in the immense physical abilities of the character. However, upon further consideration his life is more than a little terrifying. Superman lives in a “world made of cardboard,” where even the smallest error could result in a broken bone or a stopped heart. If he ever lets himself fly out of control, people will die.
He must exercise constant discipline, and he cannot ever let himself be overcome by the petty emotions that we take for granted. While fans sometimes chide him for his Boy Scout behavior and his goody-two shoes mentality, they fail to see that is the only solution available to him. He does not have the luxury to fly out of control or express his unfettered emotions like Batman. If Clark Kent allows himself to lose control for even a short time then people could die. Perhaps this is why he forces himself to be kind and even-tempered, because the alternative could have earth-shattering consequences.
The one aspect of stoicism that fascinated me the most was their approach to hardship and to personal tolerance. As a child I often entertained grim fantasies about what I would do if my family suddenly lost everything. I felt very strongly that I had to mentally prepare myself for the worst, so that I could be ready if it happened. This is, oddly enough, something that the stoics strongly advocated.
The stoics believed that one must prepare himself for the worst, and be ready to abandon everything and everyone if need be. This was not because they did not value these things, but because they recognized that all things are ephemeral and that losing them is inevitable. By reminding one’s self that our time is limited and that we are lucky to have the things and people in our lives, we are able to enjoy them more. Forcing one’s self to sleep on the floor, dress in rags, and eat gruel was a way of enforcing this. The stoics believed in having the personal fortitude to weather any storm and this is happens to be the subject of my personal favorite graphic novel.
Frank Miller is an American comic book writer and artist who has created some of my favorite pieces graphic novels. In addition to writing the legendary Dark Knight Returns, he also was the writer who put my favorite character Daredevil on the map. Prior to Miller’s influence Daredevil was an unremarkable hero with a strange and gimmicky power. To use my friend Eric’s description, “So does he have like heightened other senses or is he just… blind and better than you?” The answer to both of course, is yes. By far Miller’s most famous work with the superhero is his arc, Daredevil: Born Again, a work of genius that just so happens to show the character’s stoic nature.
Daredevil had always occupied a strange space as both a lawyer and a vigilante (Get it? Justice is blind.) and Miller chose to destroy this. He created a story where everything was slowly and methodically taken away from the character of Matt Murdock. The machinations of the evil villain Kingpin and the betrayal of Matt’s ex-girlfriend Karen Page left him disbarred and on the streets. All of the things that he had used to identify himself, his job, his home, and even his costume, were taken away from him. Matt Murdock becomes a homeless man in New York City with twelve dollars to his name and little will to go on.
In true comic book fashion of course Matt Murdock manages to piece his life back together, but not without a great deal of personal change and sacrifice. Beginning the story completely dissatisfied and constantly seeking to blame others, he is forced to evolve. Matt finds a new job as a short order cook and takes pride and pleasure in his work. He learns to accept where he made mistakes and even forgive those who have so deeply and profoundly wronged him. In the end he even defeats his nemesis, but without ever directly attacking him. Matt builds himself back up from the ground up and demonstrates that he is still a hero.
Miller writes Daredevil as a true stoic in the face of misfortune, and that is why I love the character so much. Daredevil is a man who has, time and again, faced extreme hardship and personal loss. Despite this however, he always finds a way to rise above it and come out on the other side. After the laundry list of tragedies that have devastated him it would be reasonable for anyone, even a comic book superhero, to lash out. Yet Matt Murdock soldiers on, taking the beatings and rolling with the punches.
Daredevil also exemplifies a topic that I have discussed in a previous blog on my affection for Batman, the Choice of Hercules. While I had initially chosen to discuss it in the context of Batman, I suppose that it really applies to all of these heroes. I love this story, so I hope that you will indulge me by letting me tell it again. I promise I will keep it brief this time.
While faced with something of a quarter life crisis, a young Hercules goes to the woods to meditate on what he will do with his life. Two beautiful goddesses appear to him and attempt to convince him to follow them. The goddess Pleasure tempts him with promises of material comfort and satisfaction, food, women, wealth, and all of the things he craves for no real effort. The other goddess promises him nothing. Her name is Virtue, and she tells him that if he devotes himself to her he will get nothing that he does not earn through the sweat of his brow and the toil of his labors. But she promises him that this is the path of honor, that will cultivate his character and make him a man to be respected. Naturally Hercules chooses this path, as do all of the heroes I idolized as a child.
In a brilliant interview for the Men Without Fear documentary, Frank Miller had this to say about the character he helped recreate:
“Matt should have been a villain. He had a terrible childhood, his romantic life is the worst… Sure the girls all look great but they end up dead or killing him or something… But somehow this guy redeems himself and moves ahead. He just doesn’t give up. He’s just like his dad.”
The same could be said about any of the characters in this post. It is not easy to do the right thing, and to choose to try to be more than what you are. These characters have the choice to rule like gods over mankind, (or at least to have a pretty decent law career) but they choose to follow virtue instead. The stoics, and the superheroes, are committed to this. Despite their own temptations and desires, they force themselves to continue to strive for excellence.
I admired this quality as a child and I admire it now, because I don’t think that I have it. I know myself and I know my weaknesses, so I continue to look to ancient texts and modern comic books for inspiration to be more than what I am. Is it silly? Yes. Does that matter? No. If I can learn to emulate the great stoics like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Cato the Younger, Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Hal Jordan, and Matt Murdock, perhaps I can borrow some tiny portion of their strength. Perhaps they can make me a better stoic.
This is the interview from Men Without Fear that I am obsessed with: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fok-0F3LBlY