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Stoicism and the Invictus Games

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 17 December 2018

I admit that I consciously avoided watching the Invictus Games because I doubted its major premise; that healing comes through sport. I was not quite successful in this as moving scenes of damaged men and women finding the courage to overcome emotional and physical obstacles in order to compete, leaked through to me. Surely, the games provided much positive support for the competitors as well as an outpouring of compassion from the spectators.

In order to research my prejudice I enquired into the games origins and found the poem written by William Earnest Henley entitled "Invictus". This poem in reproduced on the Invictus Games website and is reproduced below.


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.


The poem was published in 1892. Henley had lost one leg due to complications of tuberculosis. Facing the amputation of his remaining leg, he consulted a surgeon in Edinburg who saved his remaining leg. The poem was written in the infirmary after the surgery and became an example of British stiff upper lip.

My problem with the poem is that it is an example of stoicism, the idea that the adept will be immune to suffering and that virtue is sufficient for happiness. This idea is given extra weight in our time since the exaltation of the self in the modern age. This is particularly evident in the Invictus logo of "I AM". Readers may be aware that the tetragrammaton YHWH in Hebrew means "I am who I am" and is the name that God gives to Moses when he asks God's identity. This is repeated by Jesus in the "I am" sayings in the gospel according to John. Thus God is not a being among others but the very ground of Being. There can be no human Being unless it is grounded in the Being of God. The use of the logo in the games appears to me as an ill-advised appropriation of the name of God.

It goes without saying that the Invictus poem is profoundly atheistic even though it references "whatever gods may be". By using the poem as a primary source for the philosophy of the games, the organisers expose themselves as practical atheists. The speaker relies on himself alone and declares that:" I am the master of my fate, /I am the captain of my soul". I wonder what prince Harry's grandmother, Queen of England and head of the Church of England thinks about this?

You may, by now, understand my theological unease at the Invictus games as yet another attempt at individual triumphalism so prevalent in our time. The philosophy of the games are caught in a contradiction. Whilst the poem celebrates the will of the lonely sufferer, those competing in the Games are not alone, they are supported, and this is why there were many genuinely moving moments that helped us all believe in their efficacy. The fact that the Invictus Games is produced by a concerned community betrays its professed philosophy that would isolate the sufferer and only offer the advice of self-determination. The games were about community, something missing in the original stoic philosophy and in Henley's poem. The Games thus masquerade in the clothes of self will and self-determination but are actually something quite different. While the love of others for the sufferer drives the Games, this love is absent from the philosophy that the games advertises.

It seems, try as we might, that it is impossible to escape our Christian heritage in which the whole community supports its members. Paul's theology of the Church describes it as the living body of Christ and each of us individually members of it so that the suffering of one is the suffering of all, the joy of one is the joy of all. Without this understanding of human community the Invictus Games would not be imaginable.

I understand that, since the fall of Christendom, we cannot put a Christian face on public institutions, even though many of those institutions would not exist without it. However, it is important for those institutions to be coherent within themselves. For example, one cannot run a social welfare system whilst holding a fascist philosophy. Similarly, one cannot run a sporting event that promotes the integration into society of men and women damaged in war while professing the stoicism of Henley's poem. They are mutually exclusive.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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