The Stoic Wisdom of Neil Peart

Seneca. Epictetus. Marcus Aurelius. Neil Peart.Rush Discourses

(This is where you do a double take).

No, that wasn’t a misprint.

Rush lyrics (penned almost entirely by Peart from their second album onward) cover a lot of ground. Individual songs meditate on the dreariness of the suburbs, the balance between heart and mind, the individual vs. the collective, intolerance, the perils of fame, nationalism, the tensions of art vs. commerce and so forth.   When you step back a bit to take a wider view, themes that stretch across a number of songs or even albums begin to emerge. Among those that emerge over the course of Rush’s output are themes of Stoicism. So let me just proclaim that Neil Peart is a Stoic and that Stoicism is a significant component in his philosophical approach to life itself.

I should probably give a brief primer on Stoicism here, and will do so with a bit of trepidation, as there are several other contributors to this site whose knowledge of this school of thought and philosophy (or any philosophy) vastly exceeds my own.

The Stoic school of thought originated with Zeno of Citium, who began teaching it in Athens around 300 B.C. It was later adopted by the Romans, including the famous three listed above. A fundamental tenet of Stoicism is to live in agreement with nature, i.e. “the way things are.” Another one is to learn to distinguish between those things which are under one’s control and those things that are not – and to not worry about the latter. A exceptionally difficult goal to attain to be sure, but one well worth striving for. Contrary to popular opinion, Stoicism does not teach the suppression of emotions, but rather that emotions are instinctive reactions to events, while our judgments of the same can either arouse or cool those emotions. Balance is key.

So how does all this tie in with Rush lyrics? Let’s take a look.

I. It Ought to be Second Nature … But It’s Not

“Circumstances do not rise to meet our expectations. Events happen as they do. People behave as they are. Embrace what you actually get. Open your eyes: See things for what they really are, thereby sparing yourself the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation.” – Epictetus

A first step toward Stoic wisdom is seeing clearly the world as it is. A big part of maturing involves losing one’s illusions from their younger years. I suppose that in growing up, we all obtain at least some degree of Stoic wisdom. While there is certainly plenty of beauty in the world, there is plenty of the opposite as well. This is not always easy to accept, but taking this step is fundamental for the Stoics. There are several Rush songs that contain lyrics regarding this first step of Stoicism, Second Nature being one of them:

Folks have got to make choices —

And choices got to have voices

Folks are basically decent

Conventional wisdom would say

Well, we read about

The exceptions

In the papers every day

It ought to be second nature —

At least, that’s what I feel

“Now I lay me down in Dreamland” —

I know perfect’s not for real

I thought we might get closer —

But I’m ready to make a deal

The idea in the lyrics above are familiar to most of us, and are certainly to anyone that studies the Stoics. “I know perfect’s not for real” represents a realization that the world is not necessarily the way we would like it to be, but simply is the way it is. Being “ready to make a deal” represents a acceptance of that. Call it Stoic resignation.

Of course, a Stoic would tell you that you can choose not to accept the world as it is – just be prepared to be frustrated, disappointed, confused, and miserable. Halo Effect is one song in which Peart’s lyrics illustrate the peril of ignoring reality, as the protagonist tells us of “all my illusions projected on her, the ideal, that I wanted to see.” In the end, all he is left with is pain that was all too avoidable.

Or take one of my favorite Peart lyrical passages, from Stick it Out:

Each time we bathe our reactions

In artificial light

Each time we alter the focus

To make the wrong moves seem right

You get so used to deception

You make yourself a nervous wreck

You get so used to surrender

Running back to cover your neck

As in Halo Effect, the above lyrics of Stick It Out express the perils of reality avoidance, of failing to see the world clearly.   In both cases, the lyrics express the idea of the pain of false attachments and avoidable devastation discussed by Epictetus that inevitably result for those that expect or otherwise hope that nature will conform to them rather than the other way around. In a nutshell, Peart is telling us that the world isn’t the way we want it to be – so deal with it.

II.  A Game of Chance

“Happiness and freedom begin with a clear understanding of one principle: Some things are within our control, and some things are not. It is only after you have faced up to this fundamental rule and learned to distinguish between what you can and can’t control that inner tranquility and outer effectiveness become possible.” – Epictetus

So far Peart has taught us that things do not necessarily conform to our wishes and that we should not blind ourselves to that fact. Not to be one-sided though, he’s also penned lyrics that explore the other side of the equation, i.e. the Stoic fortitude that helps one make it through the tough times we all face – if one is willing to see things clearly. The chorus of Far Cry is one such example:

One day I feel I’m on top of the world

And the next it’s falling in on me

I can get back on

I can get back on

One day I feel I’m ahead of the wheel

And the next it’s rolling over me

I can get back on

I can get back on

This is one among several expressions by Peart of dealing with the world as it is and having the perseverance to get Rush Epictetusthrough tough times. This perseverance is borne of seeing things clearly and knowing your sphere of control. Stoic wisdom teaches us that we need to draw a distinction between what we can and cannot control, which is another way of saying one should strive to live in agreement with nature. And this is another idea expressed in Peart’s lyrics:

We draw our own designs

But fortune has to make that frame

We go out in the world and take our chances

Fate is just the weight of circumstances

That’s the way that lady luck dances

Roll the bones

A more practical application of this idea is expressed in Wish Them Well from Clockwork Angels. You can’t control the attitudes and actions of the people around you, all that you can control is how you deal with them. If nothing else, you can walk away and wish them well.   In the end, the only thing you really control, the only thing you can tend to is your own garden … but we’ll get to more of that later.

III.  Integrity

“A noble character alone affords everlasting peace and joy. Even if some unpleasantness does arise, it is but a drifting cloud floating in a sunny sky.” Seneca, Letter XXVII

Personal integrity is a recurring theme in Stoic teachings. So to it is with Rush lyrics, not to mention their music and general artistic approach.   Certainly, integrity of the mind is a Neil Peart’s creed:

No his mind is not for rent
To any god or government

Our Tom Sawyer here must have read some Epictetus:

“Don’t surrender your mind. If someone were to casually give your body away, you would naturally be furious. Why then do you feel no shame in giving your precious mind over to any person who might wish to influence you?”

I wonder if this is something Peart learned the hard way, given the liner note in 2112 crediting the genius of Ayn Rand. Peart himself and Rush as a whole took a significant amount of criticism over this. While some of that criticism is unjustified, as Ms. Rand did have some worthy ideas, she was also in many ways a rather wretched character with some abhorrent ideas. She was certainly not someone to whom you would want to surrender your mind, although many have and many still do. Thankfully, Peart does not fall into that category, regardless of whatever admiration he might have once had for her or for certain ones of her ideas. Rush would certainly be less worthy if their lyrics were informed by strident Objectivism, but thankfully this is not the case.

Integrity as a general concept is explored in the third part of Natural Science, Permanent Waves:

Science, like nature
Must also be tamed
With a view towards its preservation
Given the same
State of integrity
It will surely serve us well

Art as expression
Not as market campaigns
Will still capture our imaginations
Given the same
State of integrity
It will surely help us along

The most endangered species
The honest man
Will still survive annihilation
Forming a world
State of integrity
Sensitive, open and strong

That second verse above is also stated, in different form, on The Spirit of Radio, in which Neil laments the “glittering prizes and endless compromises” that “shatter the illusion of integrity.” On this, Peart and his bandmates do more than just talk (or sing) it, they live it. Rush has never come close to compromising their artistic integrity, never selling out, never trying to write hit singles instead of simply writing good songs. ThisRush Marcus has held true despite decades worth of nasty attacks from the rock critics, whom Rush cared not a wit about.   Nor did they yield to record company pressure early in their career. They stuck to their guns and their vision and presented us with a fine Stoic example of what integrity truly means. We and they are both better for that fact.

The other side of the coin is what happens when integrity is sacrificed. Peart has lyrically explored this as well, in a key verse of Subdivisions:

Some will sell their dreams for small desires

Or lose the race to rats

Get caught in ticking traps

And start to dream of somewhere

To relax their restless flight

Somewhere out of a memory of lighted streets on quiet nights

Of course, maintaining one’s integrity not always easy because we are human beings and are not always ruled by reason, as the Stoic would have it. And that leads us to …

IV. Desires and Aversions

“Our desires and aversions are mercurial rulers. They demand to be pleased. Desire commands us to run off and get what we want. Aversion insists that we must avoid the things that repel us.” – Epictetus

Stoicism is hard. It’s hard because we’re human and our instinct is to react emotionally to our circumstances. Having Stoic knowledge by itself isn’t enough. Even when you know better:

He’s got to make his own mistakes

And learn to mend the mess he makes

He’s old enough to know what’s right

But young enough not to choose it

He’s noble enough to win the world

But weak enough to lose it

He’s not concerned with yesterday
He knows constant change is here today
He’s noble enough to know what’s right
But weak enough not to choose it
He’s wise enough to win the world
But fool enough to lose it
He’s a New World Man…

Stoicism is a discipline as much as it is a philosophy, because our instincts work against reason. Overreaction in the heat of the moment is the antithesis of the Stoic way; it lets emotion overwhelm your reason. Peart addresses this in songs such as Kid Gloves from Grace Under Pressure, in the above-quoted New World Man, and in the opening verses of Stick it Out from Counterparts:

Trust to your instincts

If it’s safely restrained

Lightning reactions

Must be carefully trained

Heat of the moment

Curse of the young

Spit out your anger

Don’t swallow your tongue

However, in my opinion anyway, there is no song in the Rush catalog that deals with the concept of desires and aversions in the context of Stoic knowledge better than Resist – and there is no better version than the Stoically stripped down acoustic guitar duo performance of this song as captured on Rush in Rio. I’m not even going to quote the lyrics, I’m just going to let you watch the video. If you haven’t seen this performance, then it’s a must. If you have, it’s worth seeing again.

While Peart himself was not on the stage for this performance, those are his words. And could he really have said it any better than that? I don’t think so.

V. Time is the Master

“Time is a river flowing with the elements of creations; and a violent torrent, for as soon as a thing appears it is swept away, and instantly replaced by another, which is in turn itself swept away.” – Marcus Aurelius

“Continue to act thus, my dear Lucilius – set yourself free for your own sake; gather and save your time, which till lately has been forced from you, or filched away, or has merely slipped from your hands. Make yourself believe the truth of my words, – that certain moments are torn from us, that some are gently removed, and that others glide beyond our reach.” – Seneca, Letter I

The concept of time figures prominently in Stoicism. In one of the paradoxes of Stoicism is that time – in the form of the present moment – is one of the few things we can truly possess, and yet at the same time it’s something that we have no control over. So to it is with Rush. It’s march is constant, creating anew and mercilessly sweeping away.

Atmospheric phases make the transitory last
Vaporize the memories that freeze the fading past
Silence all the songbirds
Stilled by the killing frost
Forests burn to ashes
Everything is lost
Washed away like footprints in the rain
In a vapor trail

These lyrics from Vapor Trail restate the ides of Marcus Aurelius and Seneca as quoted above. In the finale of Clockwork Angels, lyrics from The Garden do the same:

The future disappears into memory
With only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen

For that matter, so does the excellent Marathon (my favorite song from Power Windows):

From first to last

The peak is never passed

Something always fires the light that gets in your eyes

One moment’s high, and glory rolls on by

Like a streak of lightning

That flashes and fades in the summer sky

“Do not fear death, but welcome it, since it too comes from Nature. For just as we are young, and grow old, and flourish and reach maturity, have teeth and a beard and gray hairs, conceive, become pregnant and bring forth new life, and all other natural processes that follow the seasons of our existence, so also do we have death.”

“Contemplate what sate the human body and soul should be in when overtaken by death; and consider the brevity of life, the inconceivable abyss of time past and time future, the passivity of all matter.” – Marcus Aurelius

Aging and death – both intimately related to time – are contemplated often by the Stoics. Neil contemplates aging as far back as the Caress of Steel album with I Think I’m Going Bald. The same theme appears later in Losing It, which refers to the twilight years of Ernest Hemmingway but could just as easily apply to others. Meanwhile, Afterimage looks at death’s affects on those still living. And our own Tom Sawyer knows that “changes aren’t permanent, but change is.”

The ceaseless progression of time that leads us to death is dealt with in Time Stand Still, expressing the deep human yearning to simply stop time, allow us to catch our breath, and process the change we’ve already seen – all with the full knowledge of that wish being forever unfulfilled.

 I let my skin get too thin

I’d like to pause,

No matter what I pretend

Like some pilgrim —

Who learns to transcend —

Learns to live

As if each step was the end

Time stand still —

I’m not looking back —

But I want to look around me now

See more of the people

And the places that surround me now

So what can we make of all this? We can know that all we really have control over is the present moment, the past is gone and the future is undecided. At any given moment, all we have is now. Make the best of it, and roll the bones.

“Nothing, Lucilius, is ours, except time. We were entrusted by nature with the ownership of this single thing, so fleeting and slippery that anyone who will can oust us from possession. What fools these mortals be! They allow the cheapest and most useless things, which can easily be replaced, to be charged in the reckoning, after they have acquired them; but they never regard themselves as in debt when they have received some of that precious commodity, – time!” – Seneca, Letter I

“Caretake this moment. Immerse yourself in its particulars. Respond to this person, this challenge, this deed.” – Epictetus

VI.Tranquility Base Here … 

“What is the happy life? It is peace of mind and lasting tranquility. This will be yours if you possess greatness of soul. It will be yours if you possess the steadfastness that resolutely clings to a good judgment just reached. How do you reach this condition? By gaining a complete view of truth, by maintaining order, measure, fitness, and a will that is inoffensive and kindly, that is intent upon reason and never departs therefrom, that commands at the same time love and admiration. In short, to give you the principle in brief compass, the wise man’s soul ought to be such as would be proper for a god. – Seneca, Letter XCII

So what is the purpose behind all of this Stoic thought? Serenity, tranquility, call it what you want – a life of inner peace. Stoicism is ultimately a practical philosophy, giving guidance on how to achieve the inner peace that we all desire. Similarly, much of the underlying philosophy that weaves its way through Neil’s lyrics also yields practical advice on how to achieve tranquility. From keeping one’s integrity and being true to one’s self (an example they have lived), to maintaining the balance between heart and mind, to understanding and accepting the absurdity and mere chance beyond our control that governs much of our lives – all of these ideas would be familiar to the Stoics.Rush Seneca

To be sure, Peart’s lyrics are not exclusively Stoic; they are not without regard to other schools of thought. In fact, we are informed here of a forthcoming book in which Rush lyrics are discussed within the contexts of the individualism of Aristotle, and there are other books that further elaborate on the various philosophies behind Rush lyrics. But as I hope I’ve demonstrated above, one can most certainly read and interpret them in a Stoic light in addition to other philosophies.

I’ve mentioned several songs from Clockwork Angels throughout this piece, but have more to say about the album as a whole. From the wide-eyed youthful (and idealisitic) escape of Caravan, to the unlucky circumstances of Carnies, to the avoidable pain of Halo Effect, the acceptance of BU2B2 and Wish Them Well, and finally, to the full realization of The Garden – this is a journey from innocence to Stoic wisdom.   And so here, I will close with a few particularly good verses of The Garden, followed by one final quote from Epictetus that wraps it all up. But before I go, I will say that while I strongly encourage reading the various non-drummer Stoics quoted above, you could do a lot worse than to get a daily dose of Stoicism from a good Rush song … not that I needed to give you another reason to listen to them.

“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect

So hard to earn, so easily burned

In the fullness of time

A garden to nurture and protect

The treasure of a life is a measure of love and respect

The way you live, the gifts that you give

In the fullness of time

It’s the only return that you expect”

“As it concerns the art of living, the material is your own life. No great thing is created suddenly. There must be time.” – Epictetus

18 thoughts on “The Stoic Wisdom of Neil Peart

  1. Drew

    WONDERFUL writing here Erik!!! By using such unique “insights” from past “Thinkers” of men………yet…….Allowing the “Freedom” of the one reading this……… “open” gateway to follow their OWN train of thought on this topic!!! This could be a book in and of itself!!! Well-done My Friend!!!


      1. Drew

        Sorry Erik,but I am not!!! Lol. Which in turn………saves me the trouble of figuring out if that’s a GOOD thing or BAD thing,because I’m not him!!! LOL. Your very welcome Erik!!!


      2. eheter

        No problem Drew – that would actually have been a good thing, but either way it’s great to have you here as a reader of this blog. Thanks for taking the time to read and comment!


    1. eheter

      Dubious was a collaborator with Peart on the lyrics. The certainly reflect much of Peart’s personal ethos that’s evident in other songs.


  2. Eric

    Awesome article. I’ve been dealing with some tough times and an extremely well thought out reminder of seeing my life from other points of view and what I can do to deal with my own stoicism and values is just what I needed to read. Thanks.


    1. eheter

      Thanks for reading. From one Erik to an Eric, let me wish the best of luck to you in making it through your tough times. Stoicism – and Rush – can certainly help. Hang in there.


  3. Pingback: Rush, Neil Peart, and Stoic Week 2015 | Progarchy

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