Prince Philip: Farewell to the Stiff Upper Lip

Plenty of observers have remarked that Prince Philip’s death marks if not the end of an era, then at least its imminent passing.

After all, the Duke of Edinburgh was of that generation that came of age in the chaotic aftermath of The War to End All Wars, lived through and fought in the war that followed, and approached the rebuilding of a devastated postwar society phlegmatically, determinedly.

His was a unique experience, of course. A descendent of the near incestuous monarchic dynasties that were crumbling at the beginning of the 20th century, he was a very particular product of imperial disintegration and ruling-class disorder – a fact registered in the tallish tales around his infancy, from the kitchen-table birth and his rushed, smuggled exit from Corfu in an orange crate, to his orphan-like youth at Gordonstoun.

Still, as particular as his experience was, there was something inescapably general about it, too. And it is because of this that his death marks the imminent passing not just of his era, but also of the general character forged and cultivated during that era. One defined by a broad Stoicism. By a sense of duty. And by a sense of the importance of self-control. As Tory grandee Nicholas Soames put it this week, Philip was ‘the epitome of the stiff upper lip’.

But so were many others of Philip’s generation. Because maintaining a stiff upper lip, remaining in control of one’s emotions, especially in public, was long considered by many to be a mark of one’s character. It was something to be cultivated, worked on. Because it meant that one was able to act according to something beyond one’s own impulses. It meant that one was committing oneself to something – a duty to others, perhaps, or to an idea or a cause – over and above one’s feelings. To not be in control of one’s emotions, to succumb easily to tears or anger, was the mark of a lack of character, a sign of immaturity.

But no more. The character valued and cultivated by those of Philip’s generation has now been turned inside out. Maybe this has been a long time coming. To be in control of one’s feelings was readily demonised first in high-cultural and then countercultural circles from at least the interwar years onwards. It was seen in the psychoanalytic jargon of the time as a sign of ‘repression’, an indication of the excessive pressure exerted on the individual by the public, social world. Yet it does seem that the thorough devaluation of self-control – the loosening of the stiff upper lip – is a more recent phenomenon. Its decline has accelerated in recent decades, just as notions of public duty and formality have fallen away.

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