A man’s master is he who is able to confer or remove whatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which comes from others; else he must necessarily be a slave. –Epictetus
James Stockdale became a student of Stoic philosophy when a favorite professor gave him a copy of the Enchiridion as a parting gift. When he found himself in a North Vietnamese POW camp, he knew that he’d have Epictetus to keep him company. For seven and a half years he was humiliated, beaten, tortured and mutilated. He responded to his captors’ attempts to break him by organizing a resistance network among the prisoners, the activities of which would repeatedly bring him even more ire, interrogation and torture. He knew they could never really touch him, because he was a Stoic.
His legendary hardness was an inspiration to the rest of the prisoners, and many of those who returned attribute their survival to his example. For his unflappable leadership and defiance in the face of the enemy, he was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
When people say the word “Stoic,” they usually mean “without emotion.” Its really more about controlling ones emotions than eliminating them, and there’s far more to it than that. Accept responsibility. Perform your role with honor. Don’t fret about things you can’t control. Do your duty. Stay cool. Don’t take stuff personally. Ignore your selfish impulses. Desire only virtue. Fear nothing.
These are some ideals of a Stoic.
Constructive introspection is necessary for real growth as a leader. In this post I hope to convince you that reading philosophy is one of the most fruitful endeavors you can undertake to that end. There’s a lot of it out there, though, and I think if there were only one body of philosophy I’d recommend to a JO, it would have to be that of the ancient Stoics. There’s no Stoic “church” or religion to join; there is, however, a club that is infused with Stoic principles to its very core. You are already a member of that club.
He never exhibited rudeness, lost control of himself, or turned violent. No one ever saw him sweat. Everything was to be approached logically and with due consideration, in a calm and orderly fashion but decisively, and with no loose ends. –Marcus Aurelius, of his adoptive father
The goal of a Stoic is to progress from life as a typical weakling, vulnerable to human impulses, temptations and distracting passions, and to transition into the stone-faced, calculating serenity of a Stoic Sage. The Sage is an ideal; it represents total mastery of one’s thoughts and actions. For someone in between the two states, which represents pretty much all real students of philosophy, progress toward a Sage-like status is pursued in two ways: Increasing one’s knowledge or “understanding,” and reducing or eliminating the role of emotions in one’s behavior.
According to Stoics, emotions are not just feelings that happen to us beyond our control—they are judgment calls. If the promotion board does not select me for O-4, I will probably be sad about it. According to the Stoics, I’m sad because I judge the increased pay, prestige, and authority as good things I’ll miss out on. A Sage would suggest that they’re merely things, and their goodness or badness is determined by what I would do with them. In any case, it does me no good to fret about an event which has already occurred, for the outcome is completely beyond my control at this point.
Therein lies the real power of Stoic philosophy—indifference to that which we cannot control. If I am doing three knots to nowhere on Christmas Eve, I shouldn’t allow it to affect me because the ship’s schedule is not in my power (cutting out alarms so the panel blinks in the shape of a Christmas tree is totally in my power, though). If my new boss is a screaming prick, I must understand that he will not change, and develop a way to channel his unfortunate personality to the achievement of my own objectives. I certainly must not forfeit control of my emotional state to him.
Remember that it is not he who reviles you or strikes you, who insults you, but it is your opinion about these things as being insulting. When then a man irritates you, you must know that it is your own opinion which has irritated you.
Fatalism: The Stoics are all about accepting one’s role and playing it well. This implied passivity is dissonant with our natural inclinations toward action and personal responsibility. If we all accepted our given roles in life, how would we ever create the outrageous, unthinkable achievements that have made America great? How would anyone ever become the first in their family to achieve a college education? The Stoics’ fatalistic outlook runs directly against the grain of American self-determination. Or does it?
Here’s another conundrum: Somehow, Stoicism managed to become the favored school of thought among the Greek and Roman ruling classes. This is a philosophy which castigates materialism and the pursuit of base novelties such as wealth, prestige, or power. How does it even make sense that the wealthy Greek and Roman elite would take an interest in it?
For this is your duty, to act well the part that is given to you; but to select the part, that belongs to another. -Epictetus
The trick is in defining what exactly our “role” is, and it still comes back to what is and is not in our power. Epictetus was a slave and a cripple. He would ultimately gain his freedom, found a school, and become one of the most influential philosophical minds in history (He continued to live a very humble life with few material possessions). His role was not to be a mere slave. Rising above his family’s poverty was in his power, just as it is in our power (and indeed, our very way of life) to improve upon our conditions in America. Stoics are expected to be anything but passive; they are to maximize their impact by focusing energies only on those endeavors within their sphere of influence. Quit whining about the evil corporations. Work hard and kick ass.
Furthermore, Stoics don’t consider things like wealth, prestige and power to be necessarily bad ; they’re just things that can be used in good or bad ways. If they come with one’s office, then so much the greater opportunity to act with virtue. Compared to virtue, though, things like wealth and power are just petty trinkets. A genuine Stoic leader would be truly formidable, because they would behave only in accordance with their duties, invulnerable to the traps and temptations that regularly bring down titans.
Receive wealth or prosperity without arrogance, and be ready to let it go. –Marcus Aurelius
Mysticism: The ancient Stoic philosophy does have a mystical component. The Stoics believed that the universe is arranged by a natural order known as the Logos, a rational, all-powerful, all-good force of rational goodness. The Logos is a pantheistic angle on God; it is everywhere and everything (parallels to Yoda’s explanation of the Force are entirely coincidental), but it isn’t necessarily conscious or imbued with human personality traits. We as humans are part of the Logos because we are rational beings; to become closer with the Logos we must seek knowledge– so as to become more rational.
So is it necessary to buy into the Logos to be a real Stoic? Opinions differ. It isn’t a religion and there is no real canon; Stoic thought has evolved over the years and has been incorporated into various other schools of thought, including early Christian philosophy. The Stoics believed that everything that happened outside of our control was a necessary “part of the plan,” and therefore was necessarily good. Some would contend that without that reassurance, a prospective Stoic would be unable to find satisfaction in the events which occur beyond their control. Others would argue that the real power in Stoic philosophy is derived from recognizing that which we cannot control and adjusting our emotional investment appropriately, completely independent of belief in the Logos. Personally, I subscribe to the latter point of view.
On that black night somewhere in the Philippines, the advice of my grandfather returned to me: ‘Don’t worry about things over which you have no control.’ So I set up a cot on deck and went to sleep. – C.W. Nimitz
Why should I care? Stoic ideals are woven into every fabric of military service– at the very least, an officer should be exposed to the ancient philosophy in its pure form. Personally, I’ve found it to be a very thought-provoking, powerful lens through which to sort reality. It is an incremental endeavor; you can’t just declare that you won’t let things bother you and expect to have Stockdale-like superpowers. If I’ve piqued your interest here, then further reading is in order. Here are some pre-deployment Kindle suggestions:
Epictetus: The Enchiridion. Translated “the Handbook,” the Enchiridion is probably the closest thing you’ll find to Stoic canon. It’s a very efficient read and can be digested in one sitting, although it’s meant to be something you return to frequently for inspiration. Don’t be discouraged if Epictetus seems unrealistically harsh; he’s the most academic of the Stoic writers, and is teaching to an ideal. The “handbook” was issued to Roman centurions.
Seneca: Letters from a Stoic. Broader and more prosaic than the Enchiridion, Seneca’s famous letters to his friend provide a more forgiving slant on Stoicism, and in my opinion, a more palatable and enduring read. Seneca’s my personal favorite of the ancient Stoics; I think he’d be much more fun to have a beer with than Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius. Take this one on when you’ve got a bit more time.
Marcus Aurelius: The Meditations. Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius is the quintessential philosopher-king. Written from the battlefield, his personal journals were never intended for publication, but the collection went on to became one of the most influential works in history. His entries are mostly personal self-exhortations, and provide a window into the mind of the most powerful man in the world as he struggles to live by the impossible standards of Epictetus. Meditations remains the one of the most practical of the Stoic works, and also the most popular. If you have 50 minutes to burn, I also highly recommend this awesome lecture on MA.
If you’re looking for some more modern reflections, you can try these:
William B. Irvine: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy. This is probably the most user-friendly modern book on Stoicism you’ll find; its basically a self-help book written for mass consumption. As a starting point, I’d recommend it as a companion to the Enchiridion but not as a replacement. Irvine gets a hard time from academics because he takes a few liberties in his attempt to mold an ancient school of philosophy into something palatable for regular schmucks; he is, however, upfront about what he’s doing. My only real knock on this book is that I find it overly focused on emotional tranquility while insufficiently concerned with virtue. Again, it’s a starting point.
James Stockdale: Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. This is a collection of essays and speeches by Vice Admiral Stockdale. The work is generally defined by Stockdale’s POW experience, and is very Epictetus-centric. I bought it years ago and was disappointed to discover that it was just a collection and not a uniform text; I’ve only recently picked it back up and changed my mind. It’s absolutely worth reading; not just as a Navy-tinged look at Stoicism, but also as a philosophical reflection on the Vietnam War.
Nancy Sherman: Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind. I wouldn’t start here, but if you’re looking for a very broad overview of Stoic values and how they relate to modern military service, might be your book. As an academic (she taught Ethics at the Naval Academy for a stint), Sherman takes a few opportunities to work in her own views, and dives into some pretty deep rabbit-holes. It’s a lot more about the military than it is about Stoicism, so it can get a little boring if you’re already familiar with military culture. Still, she weaves together a practical and forgiving slant on the Stoic philosophy, and I think her ultimate conclusions are spot-on. Worth it as a follow-up study.
The Stoics: A Guide for the Perplexed. If Irvine’s book was the quick-start guide, think of this as the detailed tech manual, where you can really get into the academic nuts and bolts. I’m of the opinion that the level of granularity in this book is far more appropriate for a philosophy student than someone looking for perspectives on life, but if you’re looking for a single complete, comprehensive overview of the ancient philosophy, this is your book.
That should be plenty enough to chew on. There are also ample resources online that don’t require you to pay anything– just be on the lookout for the weirdos. You know what I’m talking about; crazies and hyper-opinionated bloggers who feel the need to push their worldview on you. Watch out for those guys.
TL;DR: Stoicism is a hard-assed ancient philosophy based on self-control and virtuous living. It has many practical applications, especially within military service, and is worth investigating further.