I’d like to push a bit further on the theme of the previous post, because I think it points to some important objections people have to Buddhism – and related philosophies.
A long time ago, I was talking to my friend Nic Thorne, a classicist, about Buddhism and virtue. I was explaining the characteristically Buddhist virtue of k??nti or patient endurance – taking unpleasant events with peace and equanimity. He said: “stoicism.”
The word just floored me. At that point I’d never studied the Stoics, and never imagined that there could be a connection between Buddhism and stoicism – whether with a small or big S. I associated the term “stoicism” with icons of old-fashioned masculinity, which seemed at the time almost comical: the British stiff upper lip, John Wayne. Men who refused to display emotion. I assumed such a posture was repression, leading to passive aggression – or perhaps to self-destruction. (Slash‘s autobiography is an interesting case study of a man who, unwilling to talk about or express his worries, instead turns to heroin for a release.)
But through my appreciation for Buddhism, I came to a new appreciation of that traditional masculinity as well. There’s something to the idea that one should control one’s emotions – though, again, this is very different from repressing them. It’s good to be the kind of person who doesn’t get angry – even though it’s terrible to be the kind of person who gets angry inside and represses it outside.
I do think, though, that the association of small-s stoicism with masculinity is misguided. Harvey Mansfield tried to defend it in his book on manliness, and in a talk he gave on the subject at Harvard; but I couldn’t discern a single reason in his talk why this manliness should be a virtue limited to biological males. I asked him why it wouldn’t be a virtue for women too, and he said “well, that’s the gender-neutral society I’m attacking,” but nothing in his reply seemed at all persuasive in claiming there was anything wrong with such a society. I appreciated his attempt to revive the virtues associated with masculinity, but his attempt to maintain a gender link did those virtues no favours.
If anything, it seems to me that the opposite of Mansfield’s position is true. Men should be the ones trying to express their repressed emotions, since they’re so conditioned to repress them – that’s how we avoid ending up in Slash’s position. It’s women, conditioned to be emotional, who most need a healthy dose of Buddhist patient endurance.