Courage Under Fire – James B Stockdale


Paperback: 32 pages ISBN-10: 0817936920 ISBN-13: 978-0817936921



A short but engaging account of James Stockdale’s time as a prisoner of war and how he used Stoicism to cope in the worst circumstances imaginable.


The Stoics held that all human beings were equal in the eyes of God: male/female, black/white, slave and free.

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.

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.”

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.

“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.”

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?”

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.”

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.”

As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, I’m just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life. It’s not at all up to me.

To live under the false pretense that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; you’re asking for disappointment. So make sure in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference, not with contempt, only with indifference.

And so also with a long long list of things that some unreflective people assume they’re assured of controlling to the last instance: your body, property, wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain, reputation.

For Epictetus, emotions were acts of will. Fear was not something that came out of the shadows of the night and enveloped you; he charged you with the total responsibility of starting it, stopping it, controlling it. This was one of Stoicism’s biggest demands on a person.

I whispered a “chant” to myself as I was marched at gunpoint to my daily interrogation: “control fear, control guilt, control fear, control guilt.”

I’m talking about having looked over the brink and seen the bottom of the pit and realized the truth of that linchpin of Stoic thought: that the thing that brings down a man is not pain but shame!

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.