The Inadequacies of the Invincible
On the Failure of Stoic Ethics
James Stockdale’s A-4 Skyhawk was on fire. All the warning lights were flashing mad: fire alarms, hydraulic failure, electrical failure. Flak had hit his attack jet as he pulled it off a target. His plane was hurtling just above the trees at 575 miles an hour. It was a beast out of control. Nothing worked. Nothing Stockdale could do. Punch out. Eject. Quick. Tick. Boom — eject.
His parachute opens. He is somewhere above North Vietnam, floating 200 feet over a small village. It’s September 9th, 1965. Stockdale figures he has maybe thirty seconds at the outside before his feet hit the ground. Rifle shots whir through the air. He whispers to himself in his descent, “Five years down there, at least.” There is a lot of fighting left to this infernal war in which he’ll now be a pawn. “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
Stockdale believed he would be a prisoner of war for five years. He sensed Epictetus would help him survive it. Who the hell was Epictetus?
Three years before this, before his plane was blown out of the sky, Stockdale received a book from his philosophy professor, Philip Rhinelander. He had stopped by Rhinelander’s office one last time before leaving Stanford’s campus to return to active duty. Stockdale had finagled his way into Rhinelander’s tutelage when he should have been devoting his time to studying international relations. He was making a mid-career pitstop in grad school on the way to getting a desk in the Pentagon. Philosophy wasn’t meant to be part of that, but Stockdale was hooked. Rhinelander handed him the collected teachings of a Roman slave, a Stoic named Epictetus. The collection had been put together nearly 1900 years ago. Handing him the book, Rhinelander said, “You are a military man — take this booklet as a memento of our hours together. It provides a moral philosophy applicable to your profession.” It was a bit foggy how this dead slave’s ancient teachings were relevant to air combat and cutting-edge aeronautics. He was a fighter pilot in the Navy. What would a dead Stoic have to say about flying A-4s and supersonic F-8 Crusaders? He thought his teacher had no idea what his job required. This ancient rag was irrelevant.
Three years later, floating down like a mote of dust to his captors, Stockdale believed his professor was right.
The core of Stoic ethics is virtue, arete in the Greek, which connotes a blend of excellence, skill, strength, and valor — not a thing to be a attained, like a gold medal or an Oscar, but a way of life, a way of doing things. And if arete secures us anything at all, it is the fulfillment of our highest potential as humans — eudaimonia — sometimes translated as happiness in English, but its sense is more akin to flourishing like a majestic redwood fully grown in the sun.
The Stoics parted company from Aristotle and his students — not without controversy — by distilling the practice of virtue solely down to the exercise of the will and the purification of motive. The success or failure of our actions is not our business. So what you or I might call the goods of life — wealth, health, family, lovers, and friends — the Stoic is morally indifferent to, for what matters to the sage is not that we possess these good things or spend time with them, but how we feel about their relationship to us. No one is made good simply by having them; nor is a life with them necessarily a good one. Take what we cherish away, and we shouldn’t believe that hurts us. Instead, the Stoic implores you to consider: how deep may these so called goods clutch into our hearts. Often we are twisted into vice by hitching our inner most selves to the fate of these external goods, trying to protect them, to hold on to them, to make permanent what can’t last. But the Stoic cultivates a moral, and therefore, emotional detachment from them, knowing that the sum of his worth factors no possessions in. Why feel grief for something over which you have no control?
The other matters you and I might call bad — death, cataclysm, poverty, imprisonment, undeserved notoriety, bodily harm — the Stoic sees as neutral raw material. How do you conduct yourself undergoing these supposed bad things? How do you respond to them? That’s the crux of it all. Not that anything happened to you. In and of themselves, they do not cause you to act wrongly. Just so: crisis, trauma, and deprivation could become strong material for virtuous action. The only thing that matters is whether you let what is outside of your control rob you of your dignity. To the Stoic in extremis, there is always something unmanly about begging for your life in tears in the moments before your death.
“Philosophy does not promise to secure anything external for man,” Epictetus tells us in The Discourses, the book Rhinelander had given to Stockdale. “To make the best of what is in our power, and take the rest as naturally happens.”
And what has the universe placed in our power? “The power to deal rightly with our impressions” or “impulses” — in short, the way we respond to events, objects, and people. All else remains beyond our control. Your grief, your joy, your sorrow, your passion — they’re up to you. Therefore the task of living well is to discipline our own judgment about what is good. If you attend to this emotional response, examine it, and train it, if you discipline the mind not to chase what merely appears to be good, Epictetus says “you will not do a single thing against your will, you will have no enemy, and no one will harm you because no harm can affect you.”
“Who, then, is the invincible man?” Epictetus concludes. “He whom nothing outside the sphere of choice can disconcert.”
Stockdale’s guess about being a prisoner for five years proved wrong. It ended up being seven-and-a-half, with four in solitary confinement wearing leg irons in an old French dungeon in Hanoi. He quickly learned there would be a lot of important things outside of the sphere of his choice.
As soon as his feet hit the ground that day in September, and he unfastened his parachute, he was overwhelmed by a mob of men. They pummeled him. They shattered one of his legs and broke a bone in his back. He knew right away his leg would never properly heal. He wouldn’t walk on it without crutches for a year.
Imprisoned, he was broken and humiliated. “You will help me,” one North Vietnamese captor told him. “You don’t know it yet, but you will.” To coerce confessions, they would often bind him in tourniquet-tight ropes that cut the blood flow to his limbs. Then his interrogators would jackknife him forwards and down, his head towards his ankles, which were both secured in lugs attached to an iron bar. The blood would rush to his head. He would feel his upper body circulation slow to a near stop. Pain. He would feel the most extreme pain. And then the panic of a world enclosing smaller…smaller…smaller to black. He tried his best — all the captured pilots did — but eventually Stockdale would scream out true answers to the questions his interrogators would ask. It was inevitable. With their techniques (learned from their French colonial governors), the North Vietnamese could reduce a confident ace to a self-loathing mess in ten minutes. This became known as “taking the ropes.” He and his fellow American airmen would hold out for as long as humanly possible, submit, give up whatever secrets they had, and confess guilt for things they never had done into tape recorders for propaganda. Afterwards they were thrown into a “cold soak,” a month of isolation to ruminate upon their crimes.
Stockdale remembers spending his first New Year’s shivering without a blanket, his legs in irons, hands in cuffs, lying in three days worth of his own piss and shit. That was only three months in.
There were about fifty Americans imprisoned in the beginning. Week after week, month after month, more and more pilots and backseaters were blown out of the sky by MiGs, missiles, and cannon fire. Many died in the air, but some ejected and floated down to prison. Over the years the total would accumulate to nearly 500. As a wing commander, Stockdale was the senior officer among them. He felt it was his duty to lead his fellow prisoners and maintain their cohesion as a group. They developed a secret community, a network mainly held together by tapping codes to each other through the prison walls.
But these tapped codes didn’t always stay secret. And sometimes the North Vietnamese would find notes or catch whispers and gestures. Every time it was to the ropes they’d go.
Tortured and returned to their cells, the pilots slumped in shame. As strong as their wills were, there was always a breaking point. They would give their interrogators what they asked for. And then back among their friends, they would weep, “I’m a traitor,” utterly ashamed of the secrets they had cried out.
Their friends would respond, “There are no virgins in here; you should have heard what I told them.” No one ever lashed out at someone for being weak. Everyone recognized their own fragility.
Of Stoicism, Stockdale concluded “It’s a formula for maintaining self-respect and dignity in defiance of those who break your spirit for their own ends.” He came to believe something Rhinelander had lectured him on at Stanford that had more of the flavor of Job than Epictetus: there is no double-entry moral bookkeeping in the universe, balancing out the good and the bad. The only proper reckoning is the state of your inner self, the workings of your conscience, the purity of motive. To the Stoic, and for Stockdale, the most grievous harm that can be done to anyone is not physical torture, but the harm a person can do to themselves by shattering their own will — a suicide of conscience — destroying the good man within. What he most keenly remembered and felt was the remorse over breaking himself in confession and the shame of caving in too early.
After seven and half years, they released him and he returned home in 1973 to what he felt was the world of yakety yak. If anyone has heard of Stockdale today, more often than not it isn’t because of his lectures on moral philosophy, but because of his terrible performance as Ross Perot’s running mate in the debates during the 1992 presidential election. At one point on live TV his hearing aid was turned off and so he didn’t hear the moderator’s question. Stockdale fumbled. A parody on Saturday Night Live made him look confused and dim. It was a disaster. That became the lampoon “Who am I? Why am I here?”
Never a good politician, he instead wrote and spoke widely over the years about his prison experience, always grounding it in the context of Epictetus, Solzhenitsyn, and Dostoevsky — all of whom spent time enslaved or imprisoned. A syllabus for his philosophy course at the Naval War College runs from Socrates to Mill to Camus. His most lengthy essay on Stoicism carries the subtitle — “Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior.”
Stockdale died at his home in San Diego in 2005. He was 81. Vixit. If he were alive today, he would be shocked to discover just how big a commercial fad Stoicism has become.
This page contains an organized collection of links to beginner friendly videos, podcasts and articles on Stoicism. To get started, simply choose a topic from the list below.
What is stoicism?
“Stoicism was one of the most influential schools of philosophy in antiquity and its influence has persisted to the present day. Originating in Athens around 300 bce, it proved especially popular in the Roman world, while more recently it has influenced thinkers as diverse as Montaigne, Kant, Nietzsche and Deleuze. Stoicism offers a distinctive and challenging view of both the world as a whole and the individual human being. It conceives the world materialistically and deterministically as a unified whole, of which we are all parts. It presents the human being as a thoroughly rational animal, for whom violent emotions are actually the product of errors in reasoning. In the popular imagination it is now mainly associated with the ideas of emotionless calm and heroic endurance in the face of adversity. As we shall see, like so many popular images this one is based on an element of truth combined with an unhappy distortion.” – Excerpt from Stoicism by John Sellars.
Who were the stoic philosophers?
“The most important of the Roman Stoics—and the Stoics from whom, I think, modern individuals have the most to gain—were Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The contributions these four made to Roman Stoicism were nicely complementary. Seneca was the best writer of the bunch, and his essays and letters to Lucilius form a quite accessible introduction to Roman Stoicism. Musonius is notable for his pragmatism: He offered detailed advice on how practicing Stoics should eat, what they should wear, how they should behave toward their parents, and even how they should conduct their sex life. Epictetus’s specialty was analysis: He explained, among other things, why practicing Stoicism can bring us tranquility. Finally, in Marcus’s Meditations , written as a kind of diary, we are privy to the thoughts of a practicing Stoic: We watch as he searches for Stoic solutions to the problems of daily life as well as the problems he encountered as emperor of Rome.” – Excerpt fromA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine.
- Video: The Stoics – The School of Life [4:53]
- Audio: Anger Management: Seneca – History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps [22:08]
- Article: Seneca – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Article: Seneca – Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
“Central to the Stoic system of ethics was the view that what was morally perfect, virtue (Areté in the narrow sense of the word) and acts and persons that were virtuous, belonged to a class of its own, incomparable with anything else; that to be virtuous was the same as to be happy; that ‘good’ (agathon) was an absolute term applicable only to moral perfection. This alone always had effects of which a wise man would approve: everything else which ordinary speech called good, e.g. wealth, health, intelligence, might be used for bad purposes, to commit wicked acts. Virtue, too, was an absolute term : it was a state such that its possessor would always do what was right, and this was possible only if he always knew what was right: hence the virtuous man must be a wise man, and virtuous because he was wise. By a symmetrical process of reasoning the word ‘bad’ (kakon) must be restricted to what was morally imperfect, and most of the things that were in ordinary speech called ‘bad’, e.g. death, ill-repute, and ugliness, should not be given that name, since they did not necessarily lead to wickedness, but might be the material for virtuous action. All such things like those that were popularly called ‘good’ were per se morally indifferent (adiaphora).” – Excerpt from The Stoics by F. H. Sandbach.
Stoic Metaphysics and Epistemology
“The fully developed Stoic physical system can be summarized as follows. Once upon a time, there was nothing but fire; gradually there emerged the other elements and the familiar furniture of the universe. Later, the world will return to fire in a universal conflagration, and then the whole cycle of its history will be repeated over and over again. All this happens in accordance with a system of laws which may be called ‘fate’ (because the laws admit of no exception), or ‘providence’ (because the laws were laid down by God for beneficent purposes). The divinely designed system is called Nature, and our aim in life should be to live in accord with Nature.” – Excerpt from A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny.
Why is stoicism worth studying?
“Thus, if someone asked me, “Why should I practice Stoicism?” my answer would not invoke the name of Zeus (or God) and would not talk about the function that humans were designed to fulﬁll. Instead, I would talk about our evolutionary past; about how, because of this past, we are evolutionarily programmed to want certain things and to experience certain emotions under certain circumstances; about how living in accordance with our evolutionary programming, although it may have allowed our evolutionary ancestors to survive and reproduce, can result in modern humans living miserable lives; and about how, by “misusing” our reasoning ability, we can overcome our evolutionary programming. I would go on to point out that the Stoics, although they didn’t understand evolution, nevertheless discovered psychological techniques that, if practiced, can help us overcome those aspects of our evolutionary programming that might otherwise disrupt our tranquility.
Stoicism, understood properly, is a cure for a disease. The disease in question is the anxiety, grief, fear, and various other negative emotions that plague humans and prevent them from experiencing a joyful existence. By practicing Stoic techniques, we can cure the disease and thereby gain tranquility. What I am suggesting is that although the ancient Stoics found a “cure” for negative emotions, they were mistaken about why the cure works.” – Excerpt from: A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine.
If you’re new to Stoicism, the following books are a good place to start:
Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
If you are interested in the ideas of the Stoics, the following pages may also be of interest: