In three stanzas, Bronte¨’s ‘‘The Old Stoic,’’ also known by its first line, ‘‘Riches I hold in light esteem,’’ briefly invokes several commonplaces about Stoicism (a form of Greek philosophy popular in the Hellenistic and Roman eras), appeals for the grace of Stoic liberty, and seeks to find a type of salvation within Stoicism. The entire text is a quotation from an unnamed speaker, whom Emily’s sister Charlotte, when she edited the poem for publication, chose to call an old Stoic, from his central philosophical ideas and his evident nearness to death. However, it is worth noting that there are no clues in the poem as to the gender of the narrative voice.
Stanza 1 lists a number of ordinary human desires that Stoicism considers to be worthless. The first line addresses the love of wealth. The narrative voice of the poem expresses a complete lack of interest in wealth. The moral perfection and happiness of the Stoic sage (as the ideal archetype of a Stoic philosopher is often called) comes entirely from his own interior psychological condition, so the status of his material possessions and wealth is irrelevant. The Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus (c. 55–c. 135), whom the Bronte¨s most likely read as the source of their knowledge of Stoicism, advises his students in his Handbook to give up all concern for external matters like wealth and property in order to cultivate the tranquility of mind that makes the sage independent of the external world: ‘‘If you want to make progress, give up all considerations like these: ‘If I neglect my property, I will have nothing to live on. . . . ’ It is better to die of hunger with distress and fear gone than to live upset in the midst of plenty.’’ He urges his students to tell themselves that poverty (or any other adverse condition they experience) must be ignored since worry about what they cannot control will only cause unhappiness; to tell themselves about not desiring what they cannot control: ‘‘‘This is the price of tranquility; this is the price of not being upset.’ Nothing comes for free.’’ Epictetus does not think much even of the disinterested use of wealth in philanthropy to help one’s friends. The difficulty is that pursing money, even for a worthy goal, is viewed as an inherently degrading process. So the person who wants charity is asking the person who gives it to injure his own spiritual condition in order to help the recipient. Such a person must ask himself: ‘‘Which do you want more, money or a self-respecting and trustworthy friend? Then help me toward this, and do not expect me to do things that will make me lose these qualities.’’ Wealth, which most people consider to be a great source of happiness, does not concern the Stoic sage because the possession of it is not something that is within his control. Rather, one must usually submit oneself to the control of external forces in order to acquire wealth, and this will inevitably lead to unhappiness.
In line 2, the narrative voice of the poem dismisses love as a matter of serious concern, finding it laughable instead. The meaning of the line is not clear. Bronte¨may mean love in some general sense, or she may be using the word as a euphemism for sexual desire. In the former case, Bronte¨is alluding to one of the elements of Stoic ethics strangest to modern feeling. The Stoic feels able to love himself to the degree that he had perfected the Stoic ethical teaching within himself and freed himself from the perturbations of the world, attaining the perfection that naturally belongs to the world itself as a whole. He values other human beings, that is, loves them, not according to any conventional criteria such as blood relation or marriage, but according to the degree they have attained stoic virtue for themselves, that is, to the degree they are like the sage himself. This leads to a somewhat surprising consequence: the sage’s concern for even his own children extends only to the degree to which they are able to be taught and are able to put into practice Stoic ethics so that they themselves may become sages. The sage is only able to love others to the degree they resemble himself, or to put it another way, to the degree they both resemble god.
While the sage does not disdain love in this specific sense—indeed, it is among his dearest virtues—he does disdain the conventional signs of love as expressed by most people. This conventional love is what the Bronte¨ character mocks. It is within this context that Epictetus is able to say with almost brutal honesty:
“You are foolish if you want your children and your wife and your friends to live forever, since you are wanting things to be up to you that are not up to you, and things to be yours that are not yours.”
And again, ‘‘If you kiss your child or wife, say that what you are kissing is a human being; for when it dies you will not be upset.’’ The sage is no more disturbed by the death of his own wife or child than he would be at the death of a stranger’s wife or child. All such a death amounts to is that something that was given to him for a brief time by powers beyond his control was taken away again in the same way. Like so much else, the ties of family and friendship are revealed, upon Stoic examination, to be external goods that are beyond our control, and so the sage cannot allow his happiness to depend on them or to become sad when they are lost. If, on the other hand, Bronte¨is talking about sex, then the matter is even more clear cut. The satisfaction of desire with another person is clearly something that is not within the power of an individual to control, so the sage will find neither happiness nor disappointment in it or its lack. Epictetus teaches:
“At each thing that happens to you, remember to turn to yourself and ask what capacity you have for dealing with it. If you see a beautiful boy or woman, you will find the capacity of self-control for that.”
In lines 3 and 4 of stanza 1 of Bronte¨’s poem, the narrative voice says that fame is an illusion no more lasting than a dream. Fame, in a Victorian context, as well as in an ancient one, is more likely to mean a political career and the power and influence that come with it, rather than celebrity from working in the entertainment industry as the word might connote in twenty-first century society. Bronte¨, throughout the poem, refers to core Stoic ideas. While Stoicism offered what it claimed to be infallible advice for any sage in a position of power, it disdained seeking fame and power as it did anything that entailed a desire for things beyond human control.While many people might consider that fame or power are goods in themselves that would bring happiness, in the Stoic conception, they are external conditions that one cannot be sure of obtaining, so their desire will inevitably lead to unhappiness. Even if one obtains fame, it will only lead to a greater desire for fame. So the only answer is to recognize that fame is something outside of human control and not desirable. While Epictetus tells his students, ‘‘You can be invincible if you do not enter any contest in which victory is not up to you,’’ he also cautions them that the happiness of the philosopher is of a very different and higher order than the happiness that seems to come from those who gain fame and honor from holding high public office:
“For if the really good things are up to us, neither envy nor jealousy has a place, and you yourself will want neither to be a general or a magistrate or a consul, but to be free. And there is one road to this: despising what is not up to us.”
This thought leads naturally into the next stanza, concerning Stoic ideas of liberty.
Stanza 2 of the poem is a prayer directed toward the gods, asking only that they not interfere with the narrator’s interior psychological condition but grant him freedom. Despite its mechanistic worldview, prayer is by no means foreign to the Stoics who considered piety to be a natural virtue. In fact, one of the greatest masterpieces of Stoic literature is a hymn to Zeus composed by the second head of the school, the Greek philosopher Cleanthes (c. 330–c. 232 BCE. The fact that the freedom the Stoic asks for is contrasted with the gods possibly intervening in the innermost process of his being suggests what freedom is for a Stoic. It is not license to pursue selfish pleasure. It is not even freedom to speak and act as one wishes, since the Stoic realizes that it is in the nature of things that these will be constrained by forces outside of his control. It is instead the freedom to think in accord with nature and discover by his own experiences and reflection how he can attain happiness and how he can make the right decisions about what is within his control and what is not within his control. He cannot ask the gods to supply this knowledge to him, since it is the ruling principle within himself that makes these decisions and that is, for the Stoic, the irreducible core of human identity. If the gods intervened there, there would be nothing left that was genuinely human. For the Stoic, Epictetus makes clear, the gods have no need to intervene in the interior condition of a human being but only in the affairs of the exterior world.
Stoic piety demands belief that the gods arrange the affairs of the universe justly. Therefore, the Stoic need only live in accord with this divine arrangement of the world. He does not require any help through a special revelation or intervention. While the Stoics certainly believed that the gods communicated with humankind through omens and prophecy, the motions of the stars, and the behavior of birds, these communications concerned only the outside world. If a Stoic receives an unfavorable sign, according to Epictetus, he should tell himself: ‘‘None of these signs is for me, but only for my petty body or my petty property or my petty [legal affairs] or children or wife.’’ Since the gods have arranged the world perfectly, it is up to the Stoic to see how any omen, and any outcome of an omen, is actually for the best: ‘‘For all signs are favorable if I wish, since it is up to me to be benefited by whichever of them turns out correct.’’ For the Stoic sage, such as the narrator of the poem, who internalized the divine principles within himself and makes the same judgments as the gods, even divine signs are merely another object on which to exercise his judgment. While to truly live in freedom is to be no different than a god, freedom must come from within the individual and cannot be given by any outside condition, even the gods.
Stanza 3 recapitulates in summary the ideas of the other two stanzas. The narrative voice, even as it sees death approaching, does not wish for a prolongation of life, or for any other apparent good that might not be forthcoming. The narrative voice appears only to live through its innermost self in freedom from desires for the things that are not within its control and the hardihood to endure with indifference circumstances that the world calls misfortunes. The speaker invokes the very factors that elevate the Stoic sage above the world in the only kind of salvation available to the Stoic.
Sara Constantakis (Editor), Poetry for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Emily Bronte, Volume 33, published by Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010