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Courage Under Fire
Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior
By James Bond Stockdale
Hoover Institution PressCopyright © 1993 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
COURAGE UNDER FIRE
Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior
James Bond Stockdale
Speech delivered at the Great Hall, King's College, London, Monday, November 15, 1993.
I came to the philosophic life as a thirty-eight-year-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 wasn't in it. I had yet to be inspired at Stanford and saw myself as just processing tedious material about how nations organized and governed themselves. 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 "feel out pass" in stunt flying, I cruised into Stanford's philosophy corner one winter morning. I was gray-haired and in civilian clothes. A voice boomed out of an office, "Can I help you?" The speaker was Philip Rhinelander, dean of Humanities and Sciences, who taught Philosophy 6: The Problems of Good and Evil.
At first he thought I was a professor, but we soon found common ground in the navy because he'd served in World War II. Within fifteen minutes we'd 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.
Phil Rhinelander opened my eyes. In that study it all happened for me — my inspiration, my dedication to the philosophic life. From then on, I was out of international relations — I already had enough credits for the master's — and into philosophy. We went from Job to Socrates to Aristotle to Descartes. And then on to Kant, Hume, Dostoyevsky, Camus. All the while, Rhinelander was psyching me out, trying to figure out what I was seeking. He thought my interest in Hume's Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was quite interesting. 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."
Enchiridion means "ready at hand." In other words, it's 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 extreme cruelty 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 "bought cheap" by a freedman named Epaphroditus, a secretary to Emperor Nero. He was taken to live at the Nero White House at a time when the emperor was neglecting the empire as he frequently toured Greece as actor, musician, and chariot race driver. When home in Rome in his personal quarters, Nero was busy having his half-brother killed, his wife killed, his mother killed, his second wife killed. Finally, it was Epictetus's master Epaphroditus who cut Nero's throat when he fumbled his own suicide as the soldiers were breaking down his door to arrest him.
That put Epaphroditus under a cloud, and, fortuitously, 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 were the philosophers of Rome in those days. Epictetus eventually became apprenticed to the very best Stoic teacher in the empire, Musonius Rufus, and, after ten or more years of study, achieved the status of philosopher 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 Testament. The Stoics held that all human beings were equal in the eyes of God: male/female, black/white, slave and free.
I read every one of Epictetus's extant writings twice, through two translators. Even with the most conservative translators, Epictetus comes across speaking like a modern person. It is "living speech," not the literary Attic Greek we're used to in men of that tongue. The Enchiridion was actually penned not by Epictetus, who was above all else a determined teacher and man of modesty who would never take the time to transcribe his own lectures, but by one of his most meticulous and determined students. The student's name was Arrian, 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 parchment!" With Epictetus's consent, Arrian took down his words verbatim in some kind of frantic shorthand he devised. He bound the lectures into books; in the two years he was enrolled in Epictetus's school, he filled eight books. Four of them disappeared sometime before the Middle Ages. It was then that the remaining four got bound together under the title Discourses of Epictetus. Arrian put The Enchiridion together after he had finished the eight. It is just highlights from them "for the busy man." 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."
I'll never forget that day, and the essence of what that great man 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 proved more praticable than a modern cynic would expect. The Stoic viewpoint is often misunderstood because the casual reader misses the point that all talk is in reference to the "inner life" of man. Stoics belittle physical harm, but this is not braggadocio. They are speaking of it in comparison to the devastating agony of shame they fancied good men generating when they knew in their hearts that they had failed to do their duty vis-à-vis their fellow men or God. 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. In fact, one of their early theoreticians, named Chrysippus, made the analogy of what might be called the soul of the universe to the breath of a human, pneuma in Greek. This Stoic conception of a celestial pneuma is said to be the great-grand father of the Christian Holy Ghost. Saint Paul, a Hellenized Jew brought up in Tarsus, a Stoic town in Asia Minor, always used the Greek word pneuma, or breath, for "soul."
Rhinelander told me that the Stoic demand for disciplined thought naturally won only a small minority to its standard, but that those few were everywhere the best. Like its Christian counterparts, Calvinism and Puritanism, it produced the strongest characters of its time. In theory, a doctrine of pitiless perfection, it actually created men of courage, saintliness, and goodwill. Rhinelander singled out three examples: Cato the Younger, Emperor Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. Cato was the great Roman republican who pitted himself against Julius Caesar. He was the unmistakable hero of George Washington; scholars find quotations of this man in Washington's farewell address — without quotation marks. Emperor 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.
Marcus 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 as follows: "If 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 prosperous, he would without hesitation name that which elapsed from the accession of Nerva (A.D. 96) to the death of Marcus 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 government."
Epictetus drew the same sort of audience Socrates had drawn five hundred years earlier — young aristocrats destined for careers in finance, the arts, public service. The best families sent him their best sons in their middle twenties — to be told what the good life consisted of, to be disabused of the idea that they deserved to become playboys, the point made clear that their job was to serve their fellow men.
In his inimitable, frank language, Epictetus explained that his curriculum was not about "revenues or income, or peace or war, but about happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, slavery and freedom." His model graduate was not a person "able 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 tortured." "Let others practice lawsuits, others study problems, others syllogisms; here you practice how to die, how to be enchained, how to be racked, how to be exiled." A man is responsible for his own "judgments, even in dreams, in drunkenness, and in melancholy madness." 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 unthinkable that one man's error could cause another's suffering. Suffering, like everything else in Stoicism, was all down here — remorse at destroying yourself.
So what Epictetus was telling his students was that there can be no such thing as being the "victim" of another. You can only be a "victim" of yourself. It's all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? "He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart." "What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity." "Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I'll show you a Stoic."
When I got my degree, Sybil and I packed up our four sons and family belongings and headed to Southern California. I was to take command of Fighter Squadron 51, flying supersonic F-8 Crusaders, first at the Miramar Naval Air Station, near San Diego, and later, of course, at sea aboard various aircraft carriers in the western Pacific. Exactly three years after we drove up to our new home near San Diego, I was shot down and captured in North Vietnam.
During those three years, I had launched on three seven-month cruises 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 North Vietnam; and on the third, I was flying in combat almost daily as the air wing commander of the USS Oriskany. But on my bedside table, no matter what carrier I was aboard, were my Epictetus books: Enchiridion, Discourses, Xenophon's Memorabilia of Socrates, and The Iliad and The Odyssey. (Epictetus expected his students to be familiar with Homer's plots.) I didn't have time to be a bookworm, 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 my introduction to philosophy and especially to Epictetus. I was on a different track — certainly not an antimilitary track but to some extent an antiorganization track. Against the backdrop of all the posturing and fumbling around peacetime military organizations seem to have to go through, to accept the need for graceful and unself-conscious improvisation under pressure, to break away from set procedures forces you to be reflective, reflective as you put a new mode of operation together. I had become a man detached — not aloof but detached — able to throw out the book without the slightest hesitation when it no longer matched the external circumstances. I was able to put juniors over seniors without embarrassment when their wartime instincts were more reliable. This new abandon, this new built-in flexibility I had gained, was to pay off later in prison.
But 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?" Enchiridion: "Remember, you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author chooses — if 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 ruler, see that you act it well. For this is your business — to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to Another." "Every one of us, slave or free, has come into this world with innate conceptions as to good and bad, noble and shameful, becoming and unbecoming, happiness and unhappiness, fitting and inappropriate." "If you regard yourself as a man and as a part of some whole, it is fitting for you now to be sick and now to make a voyage and run risks, and now to be in want, and on occasion to die before your time. Why, then are you vexed? Would you have someone else be sick of a fever now, someone else go on a voyage, someone else die? For it is impossible in such a body as ours, that is, in this universe that envelops us, among these fellow-creatures of ours, that such things should not happen, some to one man, some to another."
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." Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of "his Will, his Free Will" and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are "external," beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.
To explain why "your own good and your own evil" is on that list, I want to quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn from his Gulag book. He writes about that point in prison when he realizes the strength of his residual powers, and starts what I called to myself "gaining moral leverage"; 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 "ascending" and names the chapter in which this appears "The Ascent":
It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. 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 through every human heart, through all human hearts. And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me, "Bless you, prison, for having been a part of my life."
I came to understand that long before I read it. Solzhenitsyn learned, as I and others have learned, that good and evil are not just abstractions you kick around and give lectures about and attribute to this person and that. The only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your power, where it's up to you. Enchiridion 32: "Things that are not within our own power, not without our Will, can by no means be either good or evil." Discourses: "Evil lies in the evil use of moral purpose, and good the opposite. The course of the Will determines good or bad fortune, and one's balance of misery and happiness." In short, what the Stoics say is "Work with what you have control of and you'll have your hands full."
Excerpted from Courage Under Fire by James Bond Stockdale. Copyright © 1993 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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