Mandela’s Stoicism


I saw Richard Stengel, editor of Time magazine and the interviewer for Long Walk To Freedom, present his latest book this week at the LSE, called Mandela’s Way: Lessons on Life. You can listen to a podcast of the event here.

One thing that particularly struck me was Stengel’s description of how Mandela’s 27 years in prison made him the man he was. A fine example of ‘post-traumatic growth’, and reminiscent of the experience of James Stockdale in the Vietcong’s POW camp, for you neo-Stoics out there.

Stengel said:

Prison was his great teacher. It burned away a lot of his character, a lot of the youthful impulsiveness and recklessness, and taught him incredible self-control, because in prison that was all he could control. There was no room for outbursts or self-indulgence or lack of discipline.

I used to ask him, over and over, how prison had changed him. This question annoyed him. He either ignored it, went straight to a policy answer, or denied the question. Finally, one day, he said to me in exasperation, ‘I came out mature’.

By maturity, he meant that he learned to control those more youthful impulses, not that he was no longer stung or hurt or angry. It is not that you always know what to do or how to do it, it is that you are able to tamp down your emotions and anxieties that get in the way of seeing the world as it is. You can see through them, and that will see you through.

Mandela thought Africa needed discipline and self-control, and he wanted to be a guiding light for Africa in his own self-conduct. For example, he was extremely punctual. There’s an expression in Africa, ‘African time’, which means very late and casual about appointments. In some ways, he was trying to rebut that racial stereotype. He would look at his watch and sigh ‘Africa time’ if someone was late for an appointment.

You could compare Mandela to Gandhi or Luther King – all three were trying to rebut racist stereotypes which said their races were incapable of governing themselves, incapable of controlling themselves. And they rebutted this racist stereotype through their own example of self-control and self-government. As Gandhi once put it, ‘real home rule is self-rule or self-control.’

By showing that they could control themselves even in such exasperating and provocative conditions, these great leaders took away the excuse that others used to rule them and their people.

Both Mandela and Stockdale, by the way, were inspired in their incarceration by the very Stoic Victorian poem, Invictus. It goes like this:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

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 strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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