Epictetus and Admiral James Stockdale

Formal portrait of Rear Admiral James B. Stockdale in full dress white uniform                                               

Admiral James Stockdale                                                                               Epictetus

In the last few days I have written about each of the three major Stoic philosophers: Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, and Epictetus. The Stoics claim that their philosophy has practical applications, and the story of James Stockdale attests to its power. While a student at Stanford, Stockdale had studied Epictetus’ Enchiridion assiduously. He would soon find out the value of those studies.

James Bond Stockdale (1923 – 2005) was a United States Navy vice admiral and one of the most-highly decorated officers in the history of the U.S. Navy. His plane was shot down over Vietnam in 1965, and he was held as a prisoner of war for seven and a half years. During his captivity he spent more than four years in solitary confinement and was repeatedly tortured—his shoulders torn from their sockets, his back broken, his legs crushed. He walked with a limp and endured other pain for the rest of his life. Stockdale wrote multiple books about detailing how the philosophy of Epictetus was the key to his survival in captivity. Those works include:

Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior

A Vietnam Experience: Ten Years of Reflection

Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot

In Love and War: The Story of a Family’s Ordeal and Sacrifice During the Vietnam Years

What Stockdale learned from Epictetus was that happiness demands that we differentiate between what is, and is not within our control. Yes, we should try to influence fate, but we can’t control it. So when fate strikes, the measure of a person is their reaction to fate. (This is reminiscent of Victor Frankl’s claim that we find meaning through our response to life.) In short, we can either accept what we can’t change or be miserable. Epictetus, like Stockdale, tells us to do the former.

He also learned the importance of seeing bad things as providing us a chance to act virtuously, instead of thinking of freedom and happiness as getting and doing whatever we want. As Epictetus says, “Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”

In 1993, in a speech delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College, London, Monday, Stockdale described his thoughts immediately after his plane was hit:

After ejection … I whispered to myself: I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus … 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 a re “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.

Stockdale explained his “own good and your own evil” by quoting the Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who spent years in Soviet gulags. “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.” As Stockdale puts it:

… 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.” … In short, what the Stoics say is  “Work with what you have control of and you’ll have your hands full.”

Stockdale concluded his moving speech with a story about a note from a fellow prisoner that he received during his long ordeal.

 Back in my cell, after the g u a rd locked the door, I sat on my toilet bucket––where I could stealthily jettison the note if the peephole cover moved––and unfolded Hatcher’s sheet of low-grade paper toweling on which, with a rat dropping, he had printed, without comment or signature, the last verse of Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

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