by JB Stockdale · Cited by 9 — COURAGE UNDER FIRE. Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. James Bond Stockdale. I came to the philosophic life as a thirt y

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COURAGE UNDER FIRETesting Epictetus’s Doctrines ina Laboratory of Human BehaviorJames Bond StockdaleI came to the philosophic life as a thir t y – e i g h t – y e a r-old naval pilot in grad school at Stanford University. I had been in the navy for twenty years and scarcely ever out of a cockpit. In 1962, I began my second year of studying international relations so I could become a strategic planner in the Pentagon. But my heart wasnÕt in it. I had yet to be inspired at Stanford and saw myself as just pr o c e s s i n gtedious material about how nations organized and governed them- selves. I was too old for that. I knew how political systems operated; I had been beating systems for years. Then, in what we call a Òfeel out passÓ in stunt flying, I cr u i s e dinto Stanfor d Õs philosophy corner one winter morning. I was gray- h a i red and in civilian clothes. A voice boomed out of an of f i c e ,ÒCan I help you?Ó The speaker was Philip Rhinelander, dean of Humanities and Sciences, who taught Philosophy 6: The Pr o b l e m sof Good and Evil. At first he thought I was a professor, but we soon found commonground in the navy because heÕd served in World War II. Withinfifteen minutes weÕd agreed that I would enter his two-term course in the middle, and to make up for my lack of background, I would meet him for an hour a week for a private tutorial in the study of his campus home. Speech delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College, London, Monday, November 15,1993.Courage under Fire James Bond Stockdale1

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Phil Rhinelander opened my eyes. In that study it all happened for meÐÐmy inspiration, my dedication to the philosophic life. Fr o mthen on, I was out of international relationsÐÐI already had enough c redits for the masterÕsÐÐand into philosophy. We went from Job to Socrates to Aristotle to Descartes. And then on to Kant, Hume, D o s t o y e v s k y, Camus. All the while, Rhinelander was psyching me out, trying to figure out what I was seeking. He thought my inter e s tin HumeÕs Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was quite inter e s t -ing. On my last session, he reached high in his wall of books and b rought down a copy of The Enchiridion. He said, ÒI think youÕll be i n t e rested in this.Ó E n c h i r i d i o nmeans Òready at hand.Ó In other words, itÕs a hand book. Rhinelander explained that its author, Epictetus, was a very unusual man of intelligence and sensitivity, who gleaned wisdom rather than bitterness from his early firsthand exposure to extr e m ec ruelty and firsthand observations of the abuse of power and self- indulgent debauchery. Epictetus was born a slave in about A.D. 50 and grew up in Asia Minor speaking the Greek language of his slave mother. At the age of fifteen or so, he was loaded off to Rome in chains in a slave caravan. He was treated savagely for months while en route. He went on the Rome auction block as a permanent cripple, his knee having been shattered and left untreated. He was Òbought cheapÓ by a freedman named Epaphroditus, a secr e t a ry to Emperor Ner o .He was taken to live at the Nero White House at a time when the e m p e ror was neglecting the empire as he frequently toured Gr e e c eas actor, musician, and chariot race driver. When home in Rome in his personal quarters, Nero was busy having his half-br o t h e rkilled, his wife killed, his mother killed, his second wife killed. F i n a l l y, it was EpictetusÕs master Epaphroditus who cut Ner o Õs t h ro a twhen he fumbled his own suicide as the soldiers were breaking d o w nhis door to arrest him. That put Epaphroditus under a cloud, and, for t u i t o u s l y, the now cagey slave Epictetus realized he had the run of Rome. And being a serious and doubtless disgusted young man, he gravitated to the high- minded public lectures of the Stoic teachers who w e ret h ephilosophers of Rome in those days. Epictetus eventually became a p p renticed to the very best Stoic teacher in the empire, Musonius Courage under Fire 2

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Rufus, and, after ten or more years of study, achieved the status ofphilosopher in his own right. With that came true freedom in Rome, and the preciousness of that was duly celebrated by the former slave. Scholars have calculated that in his works individual freedom is praised six times more frequently than it is in the New T e s t a m e n t .The Stoics held that all human beings were equal in the eyes of G od: male/female, black/white, slave and fr e e .I read every one of EpictetusÕs extant writings twice, thr o u g htwo translators. Even with the most conservative translators, Ep-ictetus comes across speaking like a modern person. It is Òlivingspeech,Ó not the literary Attic Greek weÕre used to in men of that tongue. The E n c h i r i d i o nwas actually penned not by Epictetus, who was above all else a determined teacher and man of modesty whowould never take the time to transcribe his own lectures, but by one of his most meticulous and determined students. The studentÕsname was Arrian, a very smart, aristocratic Greek in his twenties.After hearing his first few lectures, he is reported to have exclaimed something like, ÒSon of a gun! WeÕve got to get this guy down on parchment!ÓWith EpictetusÕs consent, Arrian took down his words verbatim in some kind of frantic shorthand he devised. He bound the lecturesinto books; in the two years he was enrolled in EpictetusÕs school, he filled eight books. Four of them disappeared sometime before theMiddle Ages. It was then that the remaining four got bound togetherunder the title Discourses of Epictetus. Arrian put The Enchiridiontogether after he had finished the eight. It is just highlights fr o mthem Òfor the busy man.Ó Rhinelander told me that last mor n i n g ,ÒAs a military man, I think youÕll have a special interest in this.F rederick the Great never went on a campaign without a copy of this handbook in his kit.ÓIÕll never forget that day, and the essence of what that gr e a tman had to say as we said good-bye was burned into my brain, It went very much like this: Stoicism is a noble philosophy that p ro v e dm o re praticable than a mo d e rn cynic would expect. The Stoic viewpoint is often misunderstood because the casual reader misses the point that all talk is in r e f e rence to the Òinner lifeÓ of man. Stoics belittle physical harm, but this is not braggadocio. They are speaking of it in comparison to the devastating agony of shame t h e y3James Bond Stockdale

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fancied good men generating when they knew in their hearts that they had f a i l e dto do their duty vis-‹-vis their fellow men or Go d .Although pagan, the Stoics had a monotheistic, natural re l i g i o nand w e re great contributors to Christian thought. The father h o odof G od and the br o t h e rh o od of man were Stoic concepts before C h r i s t i a n i t y. In fact, one of their early theoreticians, named Chr y -sippus, made the analogy of what might be called the s o u lof the universe to the b re a t hof a human, p n e u m ain Greek. This Stoic conception of a celestial pneuma is said to be the gr e a t – g r a n d f a t h e rof the Christian Holy Ghost. Saint Paul, a Hellenized Jew br o u g h tup in Tarsus, a Stoic town in Asia Minor, always used the Gr e e kw o rd p n e u m a, or breath, for Òsoul.Ó Rhinelander told me that the Stoic demand for disciplined thought naturally won only a small minority to its standard, but that those few were ever y w h e re the best. Like its Christian coun- t e r p a rts, Calvinism and Puritanism, it produced the strongest char- acters of its time. In theory, a doctrine of pitiless perfection, it actually c reated men of courage, saintliness, and goodwill. Rhine- lander singled out three examples: Cato the Y o u n g e r, Emperor M a r-cus Aurelius, and Epictetus. Cato was the great Roman r e p u b l i c a nwho pitted himself against Julius Caesar. He was the unmistakable h e ro of George Washington; scholars find quotations of this man in Wa s h i n g t o n Õs farewell addr e s sÐÐwithout quotation marks. Emper o rM a rcus Aurelius took the Roman Empire to the pinnacle of its power a nd influence. And Epictetus, the great teacher, played his p a rt in changing the leadership of Rome from the swill he had known in the Nero White House to the power and decency it knew under Marcus Aur e l i u s .M a rcus Aurelius was the last of the five emperors (all with Stoic connections) who successively ruled throughout that period Edward Gibbon described in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire a sfollows: ÒIf a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and pr o s p e rous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva ( a . d .96) to the death of M a rcus Aurelius ( a . d .180). The united reigns of the five emperors of the era are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of a great people was the sole object of gover n m e n t . ÓCourage under Fire4

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Epictetus drew the same sort of audience Socrates had drawn five hundred years earlierÐÐyoung aristocrats destined for careers infinance, the arts, public service. The best families sent him their best sons in their middle twentiesÐÐto be told what the good lifeconsisted of, to be disabused of the idea that they deserved to becomeplayboys, the point made clear that their job was to serve their fellow men.In his inimitable, frank language, Epictetus explained that hiscurriculum was notabout Òrevenues or income, or peace or war, butabout happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, slavery andfreedom.Ó His model graduate was not a person Òable to speak fluently about philosophic principles as an idle babbler, but about things that will do you good if your child dies, or your brother dies, or if you must die or be tor t u red.Ó ÒLet others practice lawsuits, others study p roblems, others syllogisms; here you practice how to die, how to be enchained, how to be racked, how to be exiled.Ó A man is responsible for his own Òjudgments, even in dreams, in dr u n k -enness, and in melancholy madness.Ó Each individual brings about his own good and his own evil, his good fortune, his ill fortune, his happiness, and his wretchedness. And to top all this off, he held that it is u n t h i n k a b l ethat one manÕs error could cause anotherÕs s u ffering. Suffering, like everything else in Stoicism, was all down h e reÐ Ð remorse at destroying y o u r s e l f.So what Epictetus was telling his students was that there can be no such thing as being the ÒvictimÓ of another. You can only be a ÒvictimÓ of y o u r s e l f. ItÕs all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? ÒHe who has authority over a n yof the things on which you have set your heart.Ó ÒWhat is the result at which all vir t u eaims? S e re n i t y.Ó ÒShow me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and IÕll show you a Stoic.Ó When I got my degree, Sybil and I packed up our four sons andfamily belongings and headed to Southern California. I was to takecommand of Fighter Squadron 51, flying supersonic F-8 Cr u s a d e r s ,first at the Miramar Naval Air Station, near San Diego, and later, of course, at sea aboard various aircraft carriers in the western P a c i f i c .Exactly three years after we drove up to our new home near San Diego, I was shot down and captured in North Vietnam.5James Bond Stockdale

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During those three years, I had launched on three seven-monthc ruises to the waters off Vietnam. On the first we were occupied with general surveillance of the fighting erupting in the South; on the second I led the first-ever American bombing raid against NorthVietnam; and on the third, I was flying in combat almost daily as the air wing commander of the USS Oriskany. But on my bedsidetable, no matter what carrier I was aboard, were my Epictetus books:Enchiridion, Discourses, X e n o p h o n ÕsM e m o r a b i l i aof Socrates, and The Iliadand The Odyssey. (Epictetus expected his students to befamiliar with HomerÕs plots.) I didnÕt have time to be a bookwor m ,but I spent several hours each week buried in them.I think it was obvious to my close friends, and certainly to me, that I was a changed man and, I have to say, a better man for myintroduction to philosophy and especially to Epictetus. I was on ad i ff e rent trackÐÐcertainly not an antimilitary track but to some extent an antiorganization track. Against the backdrop of all theposturing and fumbling around peacetime military or g a n i z a t i o n sseem to have to go through, to accept the need for graceful and u n s e l f -conscious improvisation under pr e s s u re, to break away fr o mset procedures forces you to be reflective, reflective as you put a newm ode of operation together. I had become a man detachedÐÐnot aloof but detachedÐÐable to throw out the book without the slightesthesitation when it no longer matched the external cir c u m s t a n c e s .I was able to put juniors over seniors without embarrassment whentheir wartime instincts were more reliable. This new abandon, thisnew built-in flexibility I had gained, was to pay off later in prison.But under g i rding my new confidence was the realization that I had found the proper philosophy for the military arts as I practicedthem. The Roman Stoics coined the formula Vi v e re militar e !Ð Ð Ò L i f eis being a soldier.Ó Epictetus in D i s c o u r s e s: ÒDo you not know that life is a soldierÕs service? One must keep guard, another go out toreconnoitre, another take the field. If you neglect your responsibil-ities when some severe order is laid upon you, do you not understandto what a pitiful state you bring the army in so far as in you lies?Ó E n c h i r i d i o n: ÒRemember, you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author choosesÐÐif short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man, or a cripple, or a r u l e r, see that you act it well. For this is your Courage under Fire 6

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of his residual powers, and starts what I called to myself Ògaining moral leverageÓ; riding the updrafts of occasional euphoria as you realize you are getting to know yourself and the world for the first time. He calls it ÒascendingÓ and names the chapter in which this appears ÒThe AscentÓ: It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of g o o d. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between classes nor between political parties, but right thr o u g he v e ry human heart, through all human hearts. And that is why I t u rn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me, ÒBless you, prison, for having been a part of my life.Ó I came to understand that long before I read it. Solzhenitsynl e a rned, as I and others have learned, that good and evil are not just abstractions you kick around and give lectures about and attrib- ute to this person and that. The only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your p o w e r, where itÕs up to you. Enchiridion 32 : ÒThings that are not within our own power, not without our Will, can by no means be either good or evil.Ó D i s c o u r s e s: ÒEvil lies in the evil use of moral purpose, and good the opposite. The course of the Will deter m i n e sg o od or bad fortune, and oneÕs balance of misery and happiness.Ó In s h o rt, what the Stoics say is ÒWork with what you have control of and youÕll have your hands full.Ó What is not up to you? beyond your power? not subject to your will in the last analysis? For starters, letÕs take Òyour station in life.Ó As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, IÕm just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life. ItÕs not at all up to me. IÕm going right now from being the leader of a hundred-plus pilots and a thousand men and, goo d n e s sknows, all sorts of symbolic status and goodwill, to being an object of c o n t e m p t. IÕll be known as a Òcriminal.Ó But thatÕs not h a l ft h erevelation that is the realization of your own f r a g i l i t yÑthat you can be reduced by wind and rain and ice and seawater or m e nto a helpless, sobbing wreckÑunable to control even your own bowelsÑ Courage under Fire8

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in a matter of m i n u t e s. And, more than even that, youÕre going to face fragilities you never before let yourself believe you could haveÐÐlike after mere minutes, in a flurry of action while being bound with t o u rniquet-tight ropes, with care, by a professional, hands behind, jackknifed for w a rd and down toward your ankles held secure in lugs attached to an iron bar, that, with the onrush of anxiety, knowing your upper bo d y Õs circulation has been stopped and feeling the ever- g rowing induced pain and the ever-closing-in of claustrophobia, you can be made to blurt out answers, sometimes correct answers, to questions about anything they know you know. (Her e a f t e r, IÕll just call that situation Òtaking the r o p e s . Ó )ÒStation in life,Ó then, can be changed from that of a dignified and competent gentleman of culture to that of a panic-stricken, sobbing, self-loathing wreck in a matter of minutes. So what? To live under the false pretense that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; youÕre asking for disappoint- ment. So make sure in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with i n d i ff e re n c e, not with contempt, only with i n d i ff e re n c e.And so also with a long long list of things that some unr e f l e c t i v epeople assume theyÕre assured of controlling to the last instance: your bo d y, pr o p e rt y, wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain, reputation. Consider Òreputation,Ó for example. Do what you will, reputation is at least as fickle as your station in life. O t h e r sd e c i d ewhat your reputation is. Try to make it as good as possible, but donÕt get hooked on it. DonÕt be ravenous for it and start chasing it in tighter and tighter circles. As Epictetus says, ÒFor what are tragedies but the portrayal in tragic verse of the sufferings of men who have a d m i red things external?Ó In your heart of hearts, when you get out the key and open up that old rolltop desk where you really keep your stuff, donÕt let ÒreputationÓ get mixed up with your m o r a lp u r p o s eor your will power ; they a rei m p o rtant. Make sure Òr e p u t a-tionÓ is in that box in the bottom drawer marked Òmatters of indif- f e rence.Ó As Epictetus says, ÒHe who craves or shuns things not under his control can neither be faithful nor free, but must himself be changed and tossed to and fro and must end by subor d i n a t i n ghimself to others.Ó I know the difficulties of gulping this down right away. You keep 9James Bond Stockdale

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thinking of practical problems. Ever y b ody has to play the game of life. You canÕt just walk around saying, ÒI donÕt give a damn about health or wealth or whether IÕm sent to prison or not.Ó Epictetus took time to explain better what he meant. He says ever y b od yshould play the game of lifeÐÐthat the best play it with Òskill, for m ,speed, and grace.Ó But, like most games, you play it with a ball. Your team devotes all its energies to getting the ball across the line. But after the game, what do you do with the ball? Nobody much c a res. ItÕs not worth anything. The competition, the game, was the thing. The ball was ÒusedÓ to make the game possible, but it in itself is not of any value that would justify falling on your sword for it. Once the game is over, the ball is properly a matter of indif f e r-ence. Epictetus on another occasion used the example of shooting diceÐÐthe dice being matters of indif f e rence, once their numbers had turned up. To exercise j u d g m e n tabout whether to accept the numbers or roll again is a w i l l f u lact, and thus n o ta matter of i n d i ff e rence. EpictetusÕs point is that our u s eof externals is not a matter of indif f e rence because our actions are products of our will and we totally control that, but that the dice themselves, like the ball, are material over which we have no control. They are exter n a l sthat we cannot af f o rd to covet or be earnest about, else we might set our hearts on them and become slaves of such others as contr o lt h e m .These explanations of this concept seem so mo d e rn, yet I have just given you practically verbatim quotes of EpictetusÕs remarks to his students in Nicopolis, colonial Greece, two thousand years ago. So I took those core thoughts into prison; I also r e m e m b e red a lot of attitude-shaping remarks. Her e Õs Epictetus on how to stay off the hook: ÒA manÕs master is he who is able to confer or r e m o v ewhatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be fr e e ,let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave.Ó And her e Õs why never to beg: ÒFor it is better to die of hunger, exempt from fear and guilt, than to live in affluence with perturbation.Ó Begging sets up a demand for quid pro quos, deals, agreements, reprisals, the pits. If you want to protect yourself from Òfear and guilt,Ó and those a re the crucial pincers, the real long-term destroyers of will, you have to get rid of all your instincts to compromise, to meet people Courage under Fire James Bond Stockdale10

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h a l f w a y. You have to learn to stand aloof, never give openings for deals, never level with your adversaries. You have to become what Ivan Denisovich called a Òslow movinÕ cagey prisoner . ÓAll that, over the previous three years, I had u n k n o w i n g l yp u taway for the future. So, to r e t u rn to my bailing out of my A-4, I can hear the noontime shouting and pistol shots and whining bullets ripping my parachute canopy and see the fists waving in the str e e tbelow as my chute hooks a tree but deposits me on the ground in g o od shape. With two quick-release fastener flips, IÕm free of the parachute, and immediately gang tackled by the ten or fifteen town roughnecks I had seen in my peripheral vision, pounding up the road from my right. I donÕt want to exaggerate this or indicate that I was surprised at my reception. It was just that when the gang tackling and pum- meling was all over, and it lasted for two or three minutes before a man with a pith helmet got there to blow his police whistle, I had a very badly broken leg that I felt sure would be with me for life. My hunch turned out to be right. Later, I felt some reliefÐÐbut only m i n o r Ð Ð f rom another Epictetus admonition I r e m e m b e red: ÒLame- ness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the Will; andsay this to yourself with r e g a rd to everything that happens. For you will find such things to be an impediment to something else, but not tr u l yto yourself.Ó But during the time interval between pulling the ejection handle and coming to rest on the street, I had become a man with a mission. I canÕt explain this without unloading a little emotional baggage that was part of my military generationÕs legacy in 1965. In the aftermath of the Korean W a r, just over ten years befor e ,we all had memories of reading about, and seeing early television news accounts of, U.S. government investigations into the behavior of some American prisoners of war in North Korea and mainland China. There was a famous series of articles in the New Y o r k e rmagazine that later became a book entitled In Every War but One .The gist of it was that in prison camps for Americans, it was every man for himself. Since those days, IÕve come to know officers who w e re prisoners of war there, and I now see much of that as selective re p o rting and as a bum rap. However, there were cases of young soldiers who were confused by the times, scared to death, in cold 11James Bond Stockdale

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