Critique of Epictetus and Stockdale

A line drawing of Epictetus writing at a table with a crutch draped across his lap and shoulder

I recently wrote about the story of James B. Stockdale, who survived as a prisoner of war with the help of the philosophy of Epictetus. Since writing that piece I came across a more negative view of Stoicism, particularly as it is embraced by the American military, in a New York Times piece, “A Crack in the Stoic’s Armor.” It was penned by Nancy  Sherman, University Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown and the first Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the U.S. Naval Academy.

Sherman notes that “In the military, even those who have never laid eyes on a page of Epictetus, still live as if they have.” In other words, many military personnel embrace the Stoic doctrine of being undisturbed by external events. In short, they tough it out as best they can to deal with various stressors. But Sherman found, after interviewing soldiers, that many wished “to let go of the Stoic armor.” They were tired of sucking it up, and wanted to deal with “feelings blocked off by idealized notions of Stoic purity and strength that leave little room for moral conflict and its painful residue.”

Even Cicero, after losing his daughter in childbirth, said: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we believe to be evil…They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us — and you tell us to forget about them?” Many soldiers told Sherman the same thing about the experience of war. And I think many of us would benefit from removing our armor. Many tough it out until they break, trying to be good Stoics, but the strongest minds can be broken. At some point physiological change ensues, at which point more than willpower is necessary for psychological health.

It is one thing for Epictetus to say “he was never freer than when on the rack,” but that is a high standard for most of us to achieve.1 We shouldn’t consider ourselves failures if we don’t live up to such standards.

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1. Aristotle quotes this variously attributed proverb in the Nicomachean Ethics, pp. 7, 13, but he disagrees with it.

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