"Five years down there at least. I'm leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus."
- Admiral James Stockdale, 1965, while being shot down over Vietnam.
He would spend the next seven and a half years as the highest ranking American officer in a Vietnamese prison. He was tortured fifteen times; he spend four years in solitary confinement - two of those in leg irons.
Upon returning home, he had a successful career as a college president and a researcher with the Hoover Institute. He was Ross Perot's vice presidential candidate; his debate appearance, unpolished and honest, was mocked by the rapidly expanding American idiocracy.
Before the war, Stockdale had been floundering through a graduate program at Stanford University when he took up philosophy and loved it. Right after finishing a class, the professor handed him the Enchiridion, telling him that Fredrick the Great never went into battle without a copy on him. The Enchiridion is a short notebook of the most famous sayings of Epictetus, the famous Stoic philosopher and tutor to Emperor Nero.
He was attracted immediately to the philosophy. As Epictetus says, it was not about "revenues or income, or peace or war, but about happiness and unhappiness, success and failure, slavery and freedom."
Epictetus advises, "Some things are in our control and others not," and to only focus on what was in your control: your thoughts and emotions. Stockdale found that focusing on controlling his emotions, even in the face of horrible torture, to be incredibly empowering. The main weapons of torture evoked fear and guilt; Stockdale talks about avoiding all types of guilt - even collective guilt. In Stockdale's words, "the thing that brings men down is not pain but shame."
"Remember, you are an actor in a drama," as Epictetus put it. You do not choose your part, but "how well to act it." Stockdale experienced how little control he had over his station in life. He went from commanding over a thousand men to being a prisoner, beaten and mocked, within minutes. But he was determined to act his part well.
His fellow American prisoners looked to him for guidance in prison, and he gave them courage. Often, the men under his command would mock their tormentors. One gave the name "Lieutenant Clark Kent" when asked to give the names of American soldiers who protested the war. The Vietnamese press published it and was the laughingstock of the world.
Many adults find Stoicism, especially Epictetus's take on Stoicism, to be "harsh." (They would do well to read Seneca) But kids find his teachings interesting, relevant, and empowering. Students - remarkable students - have found his teachings relevant and empowering for two thousand years. Why is Stoicism so obscure today?
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