The recent death of Doris Day severed one of the last links with a Golden Age of Hollywood. Many tributes have been paid to a woman whose talent was rarely fully used in her screen roles. In the course of these obituaries and memorials, it is interesting to note the songs that are picked out as enduring representations of her vocal gifts. One of these is Que Será, Será from the movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. In the film, Day sings it to the boy playing her young son as she puts him to bed. It has aspects of a lullaby but, in context, is also an expression of parental advice on life. Do not obsess about the future but take the day as it comes. The refrain follows various aspirations: “Will I be pretty, will I be rich…Will we have rainbows every day…Will I be handsome, will I be rich?” In response she declares:
Que será será
Whatever will be will be
The future's not ours to see
Que sera sera
What will be will be
Que será será
The popularity of the sentiments is a nice index of the continuing influence of Stoic thought on contemporary culture. Stoicism is very much a philosophy of the present, of the questions about what it takes to do the right thing here and now rather than looking to some distant Utopia. Within the constraints of this moment of living, what would count as a morally correct action?
When I mentioned this to a feminist colleague, she rather snarkily commented on how everything got reduced to Dead White Men in the end. Actually one of the interesting things about the Greek Stoics was their insistence on the common humanity of men, women and slaves, which attracted considerable ridicule from their Athenian contemporaries. In part, this reflects the Stoics’ own backgrounds, as immigrants to Athens rather than citizens. They were already commenting from the margins of civic society. It is also likely to reflect the impact of Hipparchia of Maroneia, who would have been well-known to Zeno of Citium, founder of the Stoic school.
Although Hipparchia’s own writings have not survived, her radical life as the wife of Crates of Thebes is well-recognized. Strictly speaking, both were Cynics but their doctrines strongly influenced their student Zeno and his rigorous vision of the good life. Crates had been a rich citizen of Thebes but had abandoned his wealth in pursuit of a moral life through personal austerity. Hipparchia is said to have rejected all the suitors favoured by her parents and threatened suicide unless she could marry Crates. Her parents appealed to him to repel her attentions, which he tried to do by stripping naked in front of her and declaring that his mis-shapen body was all he had to offer. She made her choice, they married and had two children. There are a few accounts of her attending dinners – a strictly masculine world in Ancient Greece – and delivering some devastating put-downs to male philosophers. Later in life, she is reported to have declared:
I, Hipparchia, chose not the tasks of amply-robed woman, but the manly life of the Cynics. Nor do tunics fastened with brooches and thick-soled slippers and the hair-caul wet with ointment please me, but rather the wallet and its fellow-traveller the staff and the coarse double mantle suited to them, and a bed strewn on the ground. I shall have a greater name than that of Arcadian Atalanta by so much as wisdom is better than racing over the mountains.
Hipparchia’s life has, perhaps, more in common with Doris Day’s role in Calamity Jane, at least until she ends up dressing in flounces and furbelows to get her man. No true Cynic would compromise on the austerity of their way of life to that extent.
The Stoics rejected the extreme austerity of the Cynics, partly. I suspect, because they came from less privileged backgrounds. Where the Cynics rejected luxury, the Stoics accepted it in moderation. Indeed moderation was a key feature of their philosophy, especially as it evolved in later generations. Their model human being accepted the good things of the world – looks, riches, the workings of fortune – without being obsessed by them. ‘Whatever will be, will be.’ The wise person knew that it was impossible to control the future. Gods, diviners, auguries were just so much flim-flam.
If the future brought good things, they should be enjoyed; bad things should be endured. In either circumstance, the Stoic could exhibit their character, in their indifference to the outcomes of the natural lottery of fate. A rich Stoic cheerfully paid their taxes as a civic duty. A poor Stoic might just act with integrity and principle in their everyday life. A sick Stoic accepted that the fate of all humans was to die. None of this precluded a preference for pleasure over pain – but Stoicism insisted that lives would be distorted by the obsessive pursuit of personal benefit over one’s duties to others.
Que será, será is a reminder of a time before greed and self-interest had been elevated by neo-classical economics into the main guiding principles for human action. A more innocent world, perhaps, but one that was certainly truer to the founders of that discipline, and to a great deal of classical sociology. Remember that Adam Smith made his international reputation with his Theory of Moral Sentiments, a profoundly Stoic book, and saw Wealth of Nations as an extension of that approach. Markets could only function if the self-interest of participants was tempered by Stoic morality. The institutional accomplishment of that restraint was a central theme for sociology until the 1940s. It remains a vital, if unfashionable question.