Courage

when it matters

I had never really heard about Epictetus till I read the Brian Johnson’s Philosopher’s note on James Stockade’s book, Courage under fire.

Stockdale was an airforce pilot during the Vietnam war who was shot down and then imprisoned and tortured by the enemy for over 7 years. He ultimately retired from the US Navy as an Vice Admiral.

Epictetus was a Greek philosopher that Stockdale had been studying and this ordeal allowed him to put all that learning into practise !

I have written about Stockdales’s usage of Functional Optimism approach, but this post is about courage and the moment you need it most. Under Fire.

In Stockdale’s words :

“On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane — the cockpit walls not even three feet apart — which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’”

“‘Ready at hand’ from The Enchiridion as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are ‘up to him’ and (B) those things that are ‘not up to him.’ Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are ‘within’ his power’ and (B) those things that are ‘beyond his power.’”

— James Stockdale from Courage Under Fire

In that moment, he saw the event and immediately acknowledged its two components 1) what was within his power = To actively work on that 2) What was not within his power = Accept it. He accepted that he was going to be imprisoned for a minimum of 5 years at least.

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