If, by Rudyard Kipling, is by far my favorite poem. The topic came up in an email conversation and I decided to write down my understanding of the poem. At face value, If might seem to be an appeal to stoicism. But it is actually a brilliant and passionate expression of how experiencing the emotions that arise from moral behavior is the only thing that really matters. Refreshingly, the moral outline is explicitly individualistic – focusing primarily on the actions of the individual and the reasons for those actions, rather than on consequences – for the individual or anyone else. There is no mention of the “greater good” or “giving back” or “a cause larger than oneself”. This is what a proper morality is.
IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise.
The first 7 lines are clear enough. The last line is not so clear. What is “looking too good” and “talking too wise”? Modesty is not a virtue. Honesty is. And being honest includes being honest about yourself. However, an independent man is not concerned primarily with what others think of him. Looking good and talking wise can be driven either by a desire to be seen as good and perceived as wise or as a natural consequence of being good and wise. I take this last line as a caution against the former.
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
A dream is usually about something that doesn’t yet exist. About changing reality to make it better. And it is easy to get carried away by visions of the better reality and lose sight of whether those visions are actually realizable or not.
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
To a thinking man, thinking is a pleasurable activity. But, as with dreams, aimless thinking leads to worthless thoughts disconnected from reality.
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
This does not mean that you should have the same emotional response to triumph and disaster. The only way to do that would be to not feel anything at all. And that is death (“Without pleasure, without pain, …”). This is a rejection of consequentialism. Triumph and disaster are consequences, not causes. Your sense of value should derive from your actions, not the consequences of those actions. This is illustrated in the lines below.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Apart from the above, however painful it may be to see your words twisted, protecting fools from knaves is not the goal of your life.
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools.
You don’t really give your life to things (or people or causes). You act in a particular way for yourself, for your own satisfaction, to achieve the goals you set out for yourself. And if the things break, you build them up again.
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
Rejection of consequentialism again. The end result is not what matters. The experience does. The actions that enabled you to have those winnings matter, that you have those winnings doesn’t. That you have the courage to risk them matters. The loss (consequence) doesn’t.
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 you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Very clear again – especially with so many demagogues and populists around!
‘ Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
The only person you have any real control over is yourself. And no one – friend or foe – should be able to hurt you in a significant way. Rand makes the same point in “The Fountainhead” when Roark talks of a pain that only goes down to a certain point. You should value all men (appropriately) not not be dependent on anyone.
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!