Stoicism: Courage Under Fire

Book Review of Stockdale’s Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

Donald J. Robertson
Feb 1 · 10 min read

People often see parallels between ancient Stoic philosophy and the brand of existential philosophy described by the Austrian psychiatrist Viktor Frankl in his bestselling self-help book Man’s Search for Meaning (1946). Frankl never mentions the Stoics, perhaps he’d never actually read them, although he arrives at some remarkably similar conclusions concerning human freedom in the face of adversity:

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms — to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. — Man’s Search for Meaning

Frankl, who was Jewish, was incarcerated in several Nazi concentration camps, including Auschwitz, during the Second World War. He developed his personal philosophy as a way of coping with the horrors of life there. After the war, his writings became famous, especially Man’s Search for Meaning. Many people find his ideas particularly inspiring, and credible as a source of finding emotional strength and meaning in adversity, because they were tested in the most extreme circumstances imaginable.

There’s a similar but less well-known story concerning James (or “Jim”) Stockdale, an American naval pilot who was captured and tortured for seven years in a North Vietnamese prison camp nicknamed the Hanoi Hilton. Both men describe how they relied on their philosophy of life as a way of enduring gruelling treatment, and inconceivable abuse at the hands of their tormentors, over the course of several long years. However, whereas Frankl invented his own philosophy, Stockdale had read the Stoics and explicitly drew upon their ideas as a way of responding to his situation.

After the war, Stockdale lectured on Stoicism and coping with torture and imprisonment. He eventually rose to the rank of vice admiral in the US Navy and even had a (somewhat ill-fated) run as a vice-presidential candidate, in 1992, on the same ticket as independent Ross Perot. Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (1995) is a collection of speeches and essays by Stockdale, which outline his views on leadership, ethics, and resilience, in military life.

Although he touches on Stoicism in a number of writings, I’m going to focus on Stockdale’s most explicit discussion of the philosophy, which is in the text of a speech titled Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College, London, in 1993. It’s a relatively short speech, and I think anyone interested in Stoicism would benefit from reading it, whether or not they’ve served in the military themselves.

Stockdale tells how he discovered Stoicism, midway through his life, as a “gray-haired” thirty-eight year old naval pilot in graduate school at Stanford University. Stockdale had become tired of the subject he’d enrolled to study, international relations, but stumbled across the philosopher Philip Rhinelander, Dean of Humanities and Sciences, who took him under his wing. Following a term of weekly private tutorial sessions, Rhinelander handed Stockdale a carefully-chosen book that would change the rest of his life profoundly.

On my last session, he reached high in his wall of books and brought down a copy of The Enchiridion. He said, “I think you’ll be interested in this.”

This happens to echo a passage at the start of The Meditations, where Marcus Aurelius writes of his most-beloved philosophy tutor:

From Rusticus, I gained the idea that my character was in need of correction and therapy [therapeia]… and finally, it was through him that I came to know the Discourses of Epictetus, as he lent me a copy from his own library. — Meditations, 1.7

The Enchiridion, or Handbook, of Epictetus is a concise summary of key passages from the longer Discourses. (Although only four out of the original eight volumes of The Discourses survive today and the Enchiridion therefore contains some material you won’t find in them.)

Epictetus, a former slave, went on to earn his freedom, and became arguably the most influential philosophy teacher in Roman history. However, as Stockdale notes, the writings we usually attribute to Epictetus weren’t strictly-speaking written by him but transcribed from his seminars by Arrian of Nicomedia, one of his most devoted students, “a very smart, aristocratic Greek in his twenties.”

After hearing his first few lectures, he is reported to have exclaimed something like, “Son of a gun! We’ve got to get this guy down on papyrus!”

In fact, under the emperor Hadrian, Arrian was appointed consul and went on to become one of most highly-accomplished Roman statesmen and generals of his age. He was also a prolific writer, penning a variety of works on history and military tactics. I don’t think Stockdale actually mentions that Arrian was a Roman general, although when speaking of the Enchiridion he does add:

Rhinelander told me that last morning, “As a military man, I think you’ll have a special interest in this. Frederick the Great never went on a campaign without a copy of this handbook in his kit.”

Of course, many centuries earlier, another European ruler and military commander had devoted himself to the study of Epictetus’ philosophy.

Rhinelander told me that Marcus Aurelius took the Roman Empire to the pinnacle of its power and influence. And Epictetus, the great teacher, played his part 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 Aurelius.

Although their lives overlapped, Marcus Aurelius probably never met Epictetus. He was only a boy, and in Rome, when Epictetus died in Greece. However, the circle of Stoic tutors that surrounded Marcus included several older men who we can reasonably assume had studied with Epictetus in person. A later Roman historian appears to suggest that Marcus’ tutor, Junius Rusticus, had served alongside Arrian in the military. So it’s tempting to wonder whether Rusticus obtained from Arrian, in person, the copy of The Discourses that he later gave to Marcus.

During the next three years, as a squadron commander in the US navy, no matter what aircraft carrier he was aboard, what Stockdale called his “Epictetus books” were always by his bedside. By this he meant not only the Enchiridion and Discourses of Epictetus but also Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, all of which Stockdale considered essential reading for an understanding of Epictetus’ Stoicism.

Epictetus really grabbed Stockdale’s attention because instead of teaching his students to use empty rhetoric or abstract logic his primary concern, he said, was to use Stoic philosophy to teach them how to endure such misfortunes as imprisonment, torture, and exile, and ultimately how to master their own fear of dying. Stockdale felt very strongly that these lessons from Stoicism had somehow transformed his character and improved his life.

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 my introduction to philosophy and especially to Epictetus.

Stoicism particularly resonated with him because of the analogies it draws between military life and life in general.

Undergirding my new confidence was the realization that I had found the proper philosophy for the military arts as I practiced them. The Roman Stoics coined the formula Vivere militare! — “Life is being a soldier.” Epictetus in Discourses: “Do you not know that life is a soldier’s service? One must keep guard, another go out to reconnoitre, another take the field. If you neglect your responsibilities when some severe order is laid upon you, do you not understand to what a pitiful state you bring the army in so far as in you lies?”

Little did Stockdale realize at this time, though, that his education in Stoicism was about to be put to the test in the most gruelling circumstances imaginable.

At the outset of the Vietnam War, Stockdale was shot down over enemy territory and captured. It’s best to quote his own 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.”

Foremost in his mind was the key Stoic doctrine found in the opening sentence of the Enchiridion: “Some things are up to us and other things are not.” Good and evil, thought Stockdale, do not reside in external events, but in our own freewill, and in the use we make of whatever befalls us.

That was the core philosophy that he clung on to as his parachute snagged a tree, dropping into the jungle. He was nearly beaten to death by a gang of ten or fifteen villagers, and dragged off to spend the next seven years of his life incarcerated in a North Vietnamese torture camp, four of which were spent in isolation. After the fall, Stockdale’s leg was broken and left permanently damaged. This struck him as ironic because, as a slave, Epictetus reputedly had his leg broken by his cruel owner, and he was left lame.

Stoics typically seek to turn misfortunes into memorable philosophical lessons, and that’s exactly what Epictetus appears to have done in this instance.

Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the Will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find such things to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.

As he limped around the Vietnamese prison camp on crutches, therefore, Stockdale inevitably found himself reflecting on the sudden parallels between his own situation and the ancient “world of Epictetus”, where Stoic philosophy became the key to survival.

As the senior US officer in the camp, Stockdale initially found himself in charge of fifty fellow prisoners but as the war rolled on the population grew to over four hundred. They were interrogated at gunpoint on a daily basis and, when they didn’t comply with guards’ requests for information or taped confessions, they were frequently tortured by having their arms bound with ropes behind their back, which were progressively tightened like a tourniquet, cutting off circulation until they couldn’t breathe. Prisoners were clamped in leg irons or kept in isolation for months at a time as part of a concerted attempt to break them.

Stockdale endured this for over seven years before the war ended and he and his fellow prisoners were released. The key, he says, was realize that although his captors could control most things, including torturing his body, he was still free to choose how to respond, as he had learned from Epictetus. It was this focus on what modern Stoics call “The Dichotomy of Control” that allowed Stockdale to endure torture and isolation without having his spirit permanently broken.

Epictetus said: “Men, the lecture-room of the philosopher is a hospital; students ought not to walk out of it in pleasure, but in pain.” If Epictetus’s lecture room was a hospital, my prison was a laboratory — a laboratory of human behavior. I chose to test his postulates against the demanding real-life challenges of my laboratory. And as you can tell, I think he passed with flying colors.

You’ll already have noticed that Stockdale has a gift for using language that’s concise, even blunt, but effective. For instance, he says more about the relationship between Stoicism and Christianity in two short sentences than others have managed to say in an entire books:

Although pagan, the Stoics had a monotheistic, natural religion and were great contributors to Christian thought. The fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man were Stoic concepts before Christianity.

Like many people who are drawn to the Stoics today, Stockdale loved their relentless focus on the practical application of philosophy to daily life. In another speech in the same volume, titled Arrian’s Enchiridion and the Discourses of Epictetus, he writes:

[Epictetus’] manner of speaking was not that of your typical prissy moralist, though he focused explicitly and almost entirely on conduct. He and his philosophic protégé, the seventy-one years younger Emperor Marcus Aurelius, went down in history as practicing Stoics, not boring theoreticians. Both were disinterested in the “intellectual paraphernalia” of most “philosophies,” including their own — Stoic physics, Stoic logic, and so on. “What do I care?” asked Epictetus, “whether all existing things are composed of atoms, or of indivisibles, or of fire or earth? Is it not enough to learn the true nature of the good and the evil?”

Elsewhere Stockdale quotes, with satisfaction, the philosopher Will Durant’s appraisal of the Stoics:

Stoicism was a noble philosophy and proved more practicable than a modern cynic would expect. It brought together all the elements of Greek thought in a final effort of the pagan mind to create a system of morals acceptable to the classes that had abandoned the ancient creed; and though it naturally won only a small minority to its standards, those few were everywhere the best. Like its Christian counterparts, Calvinism and Puritanism, it produced the strongest characters of its time. Theoretically it was a monstrous doctrine of an isolated and pitiless perfectionism. Actually it created men of courage, and saintliness, and goodwill, like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Cato the Younger. It influenced Roman jurisprudence and the building of a law of nations, and it helped to hold ancient society together until a new faith came.

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot isn’t as widely-read or well-known as it deserves to be. Everyone I’ve ever met who’s read it has been impressed both by its style and content. There’s something unique about Stockdale’s way of talking about philosophy, and his personal story, like Viktor Frankl’s, is humbling and inspiring to modern readers.

It somehow validates the claims of Stoicism to offer a philosophy of life that might endure in the face of even the most extreme tyranny and hardship. The vast majority of us today are fortunate enough never to have to really put that to the test so there’s something undeniably of value in Stockdale’s personal account of using Stoic philosophy to survive the Hanoi Hilton. I think anyone who’s interested in Stoicism, or emotional resilience, should read this book, especially the speech we focused on above: Courage Under Fire.

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Donald J. Robertson

Written by

Writer and cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist. Author of How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019)

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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