Commentary on Rudyard Kipling’s “If—”

The indifference to circumstance, the stress on self-reliance and endurance, and the utter belief that no one but you can hurt your virtue—all these fall squarely into classic Hellenistic philosophy.

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;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools;

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;
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,
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;
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!

Unlike many of the poets we have encountered in this magazine, Rudyard Kipling was not a Christian. He makes this very clear in his poem Lispeth: “The Three in One, the One in Three? Not so! / To my own Gods I go. / It may be they shall give me greater ease / Than your cold Christ and tangled Trinities.” Doctrine mattered not to Kipling; ethics and life did. Therefore, that Kipling was a Freemason ought not be surprising. Made a Mason in 1885 by dispensation, Kipling wrote overtly masonic poems like “The Mother Lodge” and “Banquet Night,” as well as overtly Masonic prose like “The Man Who Would be King.”

Despite these distressing facts, we ought to enjoy Kipling’s poetry, especially “If,” because it supports the cardinal virtues and natural law. “If” is full of pure, if pagan, virtue.

“If” promotes the virtue of prudence. Prudence is the mother of all virtues, as the ancients rightly believed. To be prudent is to govern yourself by reason and by ethics. Without prudence, a man is a slave to his own wild passions and to ephemeral circumstance. The first line is a statement of rational prudence: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs and blaming it on you.” The next few sections deal not only with rational prudence, but also with ethical prudence: “Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,/ Or, being hated, don’t give way to hating.”

The virtue of temperance also makes an appearance in “If.” Temperance can be described as self-control, moderation, a controlling of the appetites. “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; / If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.” Appetites, even intellectual ones, must be mastered. Otherwise, you will always be a slave to your desires, whether they be lower or higher appetites.

But, with Kipling, temperance is second to fortitude. Fortitude, also known as courage, strength, or endurance, is the main virtue in “If.” Kipling speaks of physical fortitude when he says; “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.’” Kipling also speaks of our fortitude in the face of failure. We ought to treat victory and defeat “just the same.” We should be ready to see our life’s work crumble into dust and then get back to work “with worn-out tools.” We must be able to bear “to hear the truth you’ve spoken / Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools.” Whether it be physical, mental, or social, Kipling places fortitude as his premier virtue.

All in all, Kipling’s “If” reminds me of a latter-day Stoic or Cynical poem. The indifference to circumstance, the stress on self-reliance and endurance, and the utter belief that no one but you can hurt your virtue—all these fall squarely into classic Hellenistic philosophy. While these are virtues that the Christian ought to cultivate, we have to remember that these virtues are not salvific. Indeed, as the prophet Isaiah says, “all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV). While we do well to heed and practice these earthly virtues, we can never forget that everything that does not proceed from faith is sin. Christ is our righteousness.

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Travis Berg

Rev. Travis Berg is Pastor of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in Latimer, IA.

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