You could summarize this poem in one word by just saying "stoicism." That's sto-i-ciz-um. Stoicism was originally a philosophical movement that taught that true sages did not experience emotions like fear and anger, that the truly wise man would be impervious to misfortune. "If" is a poem all about this philosophy. The speaker tells his listener not to tell anybody when he loses all his money, not to give in to hate, not to allow his friends or enemies to hurt him, and so on. It is a poem that essentially says that it is only by being stoic (by having a "stiff upper lip") that a boy can become a man, and that a man can master the universe. Okay, so the poem is a little rigid, and maybe a little unrealistic at times, but the basic premise—that success is based on one's ability to master negative emotions and to maintain balance in one's life—rings only too true.
Questions About Philosophical Viewpoints: Stoicism
Is there anything cold about this poem's outlook and/or advice? Why might this attitude be in the poem?
Why do you think the word "stoicism" is never directly mentioned in this poem?
Does the speaker lose anything (personality-wise) by being so stoic? If so, what?
What is the effect of the poem's form on the theme of stoicism anyway? Are the rhymes, meter, etc. in any way "stoic"? Why or why not?
Chew on This
You got this. Stoicism is about being in complete control—of one's emotions, of one's feelings, and of just about anything else that might distract us from the tasks at hand.
Sheesh, stoicism is a difficult philosophy to adhere to. It is almost inhuman to expect people to not experience negative emotions when they lose things or when they're defeated.