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Stiff Upper Lip

Spartans and Stoics

The ideal of the stiff upper lip can be traced back to Ancient Greece - to the Spartans, whose cult of discipline and self-sacrifice inspired the English public school system; and to the Stoics, who invented a whole school of philosophy, based on keeping a stiff upper lip…

"Leonidas At Thermopylae"
"Leonidas At Thermopylae", 5th century BC, c. 1814
Sparta in southern Greece was a militaristic society, whose citizens were full-time soldiers. They lived in communal barracks and spent all their days practising with weapons. According to the Greek writer, Plutarch, the Spartans were the only men in the world for whom war was a welcome rest from training for war!

At the age of seven, Spartan boys were taken from their mothers to live in their own barracks. They were underfed, thinly clothed, and regularly whipped, to teach them to bear pain without complaint. It was a life without any comforts - which is what we now mean when we say "Spartan". The basic diet was a black broth made from pig's blood, which was said to taste revolting. A visitor to Sparta who tasted it said, "Now I know why you Spartans are so willing to die for your country!"

Boys were taught to use as few words as possible, and to speak to the point. Spartans were celebrated for their dry, pithy understatements - sayings we call "laconic", after Laconia, the valley of Sparta. The Spartan King Leonidas, who died fighting against the Persians at Thermopylae in 480 BC, was famous for his laconic sayings. When one of his men said that there were so many Persians that their arrows blocked out the sun, he replied: "Good, we'll fight in the shade!"


The great rival of Sparta was Athens where, around 300 BC, the philosopher Zeno founded the Stoic school - named after the Stoa, or covered colonnade where he taught. Zeno's central idea was that a virtuous and contented life comes from self-control and detachment from all emotions.

Stoic ideas were adopted by the Romans, and famous Roman stoics included Julius Caesar's enemies, Cato and Brutus, the philosopher Seneca, and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who wrote, "If you are distressed by any external thing, it is not this thing which disturbs you, but your own judgement about it. And it is in your power to wipe out that judgement now."

Stoicism reached England in the 1590s, with the translation into English of On Constancy, by the Belgian scholar and stoic, Justus Lipsius. Here Lipsius defined the Stoic virtue, constancy, as "a right and immoveable strength of the mind, neither lifted up nor pressed down with external or casual accidents".

Shakespeare was deeply influenced by stoicism. When his tragic hero, Hamlet, says, "There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so", he is making the same point as Marcus Aurelius. The stoic ideal of constancy is also expressed by Julius Caesar:

... I am constant as the northern star,
Of whose true fixed and resting quality
There is no fellow in the firmament.

Public schools

Henry Irving as Hamlet
Henry Irving as Hamlet, 1874
The founders of the English public schools like Eton and Harrow were inspired by the Spartan educational system. They set out to teach their pupils a code of discipline and devotion to duty, toughening them up with competitive sports, corporal punishments and cold showers.

The Duke of Wellington, an Old Etonian famous for his stiff upper lip, supposedly said that the Battle of Waterloo was "'won on the playing fields of Eton". Waterloo was the scene of a famous laconic exchange, when the Duke of Uxbridge said to Wellington, "My God, sir, I have lost my leg!"  and the Duke replied, "My God sir, you have!"

Public schools were also influenced by Stoicism, and the philosophical works of Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were popular Victorian text-books. In 1875, the Stoic ideal of indifference in the face of suffering inspired WE Henley to write his famous stiff upper lipped poem, "Invictus" (Unconquered):

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.

It matters not how straight the gait,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

In his most famous poem, If, written in 1895, Rudyard Kipling combined Spartan toughness with Stoic detachment:

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 meet those two imposters just the same....
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
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!

In 1995, a BBC poll voted If Britain's favourite poem, and its two best known lines, "If you can meet with triumph and disaster/ And meet those two imposters just the same", are inscribed above the entrance to the Centre Court at Wimbledon.

Find out more about Wimbledon here