Conan the philosopher

Robert E. Howard

Stoicism has inspired many writers, including Matthew Arnold, Walker Percy, and Ambrose Bierce. I strongly suspect it also influenced Robert E. Howard, whose character Conan of Cimmeria exemplified Stoicism.

In fact, I’d say Conan was the very model of a Stoic. He could shrug off bad luck, pain, and looming disaster like no other fictional character, whatever the genre. Conan fumed at cowardice, punished betrayal, and battled opponents savagely, but he never complained, never felt sorry for himself. He accepted fate with a shrug.

What is Stoicism? Here’s a short, useful definition from WhatIsStoicism.com:

“Stoicism, or Stoic philosophy, is a philosophy of personal ethics and a methodology for seeking practical wisdom in life. A key principle of the ancient Stoics was the belief that we don’t react to events; we react to our judgments about them, and the judgments are up to us. They also advised that we should not worry about things beyond our control as everything in life can be divided into two categories – things that are up to us and things that are not.”

Sounds like Conan to me.

I believe Robert E. Howard’s most famous character reflected his author’s courageous and clear-headed embrace of the human condition, from its brief, tenuous life span to its deep-seated connections to a rich, sprawling past. I like the way David Smith puts it in his magnificent Robert E. Howard: A Literary Biography:

“His work is shot through with a relentless awareness of time, hurtfully so. This tragic appreciation is exhibited as powerfully in his writing as his acute awareness of the body — the weight of time, its passage and its cost to us. He grew up, of course, listening to recollections of the immediate past, frontier tales in which “the past is never past,” in Faulkner’s famous phrase.” p. 191.

The Stoic philosopher Seneca observed that an extensive and intimate relationship to the past broadens and deepens a person:

“Of all people only those are at leisure who make time for philosophy, only they truly live. Not satisfied to merely keep good watch over their own days, they annex every age to their own. All the harvest of the past is added to their store. ”

Howard, a life-long and passionate student of history, appreciated the wealth of wisdom and adventure the past holds. That passion –and his unique worldview — supercharged his fiction.

5 thoughts on “Conan the philosopher”

  1. I’ve never put Stoicism and Conan together before, but it makes sense. As you suggest, his “courageous and clear-headed embrace of the human condition, from its brief, tenuous life span to its deep-seated connections to a rich, sprawling past” illustrate Stoic ideals well. He also realized that happiness and contentment were not something outside of himself, which is another Stoic element, in my understanding.

    Liked by 1 person

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