by S. Hussain Ather
Graphic design by Amy Assabgui
Men are less likely than women to wear face masks and find themselves at greater risk of being infected with COVID-19, but for what reasons? According to a recent study, it is not socially desirable to be seen wearing a face mask.1 Being conditioned not to show fear in light of the pandemic, these men have embraced a form of masculinity that can interfere with their personal health. These tough, “macho” behaviors rely on never showing weakness, suppressing one’s emotions, and remaining self-reliant. Through “Stoicism,” a philosophical school of thought for dealing with distress and anxiety, these men find answers.
With the popularity of websites like “Daily Stoic” and books like “Meditations,” a series of personal writings in which Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius journaled his own self-improvement as he sought peace, Stoicism has offered insights into behavior, attitudes, and lifestyles that could influence to this day. These new attitudes towards life could also bring differences in health outcomes. The ideas and beliefs of Stoicism could lie at the root of many mental health issues men face. Indeed, upon examining the attitudes of Stoic philosophers, it is evident how the philosophy might encourage men to deny or minimize health-related issues.
A Doctrine against Disaster
When Greek philosopher Zeno of Citium founded Stoicism, it was a school of thought that emphasized wholesomeness and peace of mind. Upon finding himself in the disastrous face of a shipwreck, Zeno needed to find the answers to some of life’s deepest questions. By studying the works of Socrates and Marcus Aurelius, he conceptualized Stoicism, a term borrowed from the Greek phrase “stoa poikile”, meaning “The Painted Porch,” where Zeno taught his students. At the heart of the system of belief lies an aversion to fear and pleasure, alongside an emphasis on reason (i.e., logic), sometimes described using the Greek word logos. Stoics used the phrase seminal logos (“logos spermatikos”) to refer to the law of generation in the universe. As in, by the divine law of logos, reason had the power to work and create all things in the universe. If the universe were a computer, then logos would be its operating system.
Orthodox stoicism comprised a set of principles that embodied features commonly used to describe “harmful masculinity”. These include, but are not limited to, behaviours such as hypersexuality, aggression, homophobia, and limited expression of one’s emotional range. In the 17th century, Neostoicism emerged as an amalgam of Stoic and Christian ideas and principles. When upholding this ideology, one can overcome unwanted emotions through reason while also maintaining the Christian ideal that God’s suffering should be endured. This form of Stoicism still retained the ideas or methods of how, through analyzing one’s own judgements, one could find peace from any sort of negativity. This would later evolve into contemporary Stoicism.
Men vs. Reason
What ties the toxic, harmful forms of masculinity that prevents men from seeking treatment to the ideals and principles of contemporary Stoicism? Professor Emerita of Sociology and gender theorist Raewyn Connell describes that when practicing or embracing ideals of emotional restraint and hiding vulnerability, men may refuse or remain averse to seeking treatment for mental health issues.2,3,4 And, in some ways, Stoicism was meant to be a philosophy for men. As the Historian of Medicine Ludwig Edelstein described, “The difference between the Stoics and other philosophers, Seneca says, is the difference between men and women; those who have chosen the Stoa have chosen the manly, the heroic cause.”5 In response to these stiff, rigid norms, men don’t reach out for help, much like a Stoic might refuse to do so as well.6
When performing research, four quantities (stoic taciturnity, stoic endurance, stoic serenity, and stoic death indifference) can be measured to determine how “stoic” one is.7 Although, from here, it is still not clear how differently men and women score in terms of stoicism. While one study showed that about 30% of men had “strongly endorsed stoicism” compared to about 20% of women, another study showed similar scores for both men and women.8
Expressions among Ethnic Groups
For men of color, emotional stoicism within cultures can also disrupt health outcomes. For example, the high-effort masculinity-informed method of coping observed among Black men, known as John Henryism, hinges wholly on emotional stoicism. While this form of “high effort” coping in response to the psychosocial stressors of racism may provide relief for certain psychological distresses in temporary contexts, in the long-run, health outcomes vary by socioeconomic status.9 The risk for hypertension, for example, goes down with increasing levels of education.
There’s an irony in how a philosophical doctrine meant to guide men to peace through a reason-derived approach to their emotions may serve as a detriment to their health. Could a healthier, more positive form of Stoicism emerge from the struggles men face? Stoic emotional repression, as it plays out, can’t be ignored.
- Capraro V, Barcelo H. The effect of messaging and gender on intentions to wear a face covering to slow down COVID-19 transmission. PsyArXiv. Preprint posted online May. 2020;11.
- Connell, R. W. Masculinities. Polity, 2005.
- Connell, R. W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity.” Gender & Society, vol. 19, no. 6, 2005, pp. 829-859.
- Javaid, Aliraza. “Hegemonic Masculinity, Heteronormativity, and Male Rape.” Male Rape, Masculinities, and Sexualities, 2018, pp. 155-193.
- Edelstein L. The meaning of stoicism. Harvard University Press; 1966.
- Moore, Andrew, et al. “Troubling stoicism: Sociocultural influences and applications to health and illness behaviour.” Health: An Interdisciplinary Journal for the Social Study of Health, Illness and Medicine, vol. 17, no. 2, 2012, pp. 159-173.
- Pathak, Elizabeth B., et al. “Stoic beliefs and health: development and preliminary validation of the Pathak-Wieten Stoicism Ideology Scale.” BMJ Open, vol. 7, no. 11, 2017, p. e015137.
- Murray, Greg, et al. “Big boys don’t cry: An investigation of stoicism and its mental health outcomes.” Personality and Individual Differences, vol. 44, no. 6, 2008, pp. 1369-1381.
- James S.A. John Henryism and the health of African-Americans.