Stoic Warriors – Nancy Sherman


Paperback: 258 pages ISBN-10: 019531591X ISBN-13: 978-0195315912



An investigation of what makes Stoicism so compelling not only as a guiding principle for the military, but as a philosophy for anyone facing the hardships of life.


It is tempting to read Epictetus as urging complacency in his listeners or at least a retreat to a narrow circle of safety. But this is not the message. We are to continue to meet challenges, take risks, and stretch the limits of our mastery. We are to continue to strive to the best of our efforts to achieve our ends. We are to push our agency to the limit. In this sense, the message is one of empowerment. But at the same time, we are to cultivate greater strength and equanimity in the face of what we truly can’t change. We must learn where our mastery begins, but also where it ends.

In the specific case at hand, the enlightened Stoic will neither assent to torture as a genuine evil nor fear it as a threat to his well-being or happiness. For he will hold that only one’s own vice or failure of character is truly evil and, conversely, that only virtue is unqualifiedly good and the source of genuine happiness.

Put concretely, we can control whether or not we say yea or nay to the suggestiveness of wealth and status or to the negative connotations of various forms of offense or hurt.

So, for example, the fear that comes with anticipating physical harm is based, they hold, on a false opinion that physical harm is a real evil in the way that vice is; conversely, the joy that comes with health, wealth, or fine reputation is based on mistaking those goods for the real good that virtue is.

Wisdom is stably beneficial to its possessor; it cannot be misused in the way that money without wisdom can be.

For such an aspirant, catastrophic loss may well upset happiness and throw substantial challenges in the path to regaining it. But even so, as Epictetus puts it, we do best if we fight the good fight and try to recover an attitude that puts us back in charge. Our job is to find and refind our agency, however vulnerable and constrained it is.

But as we approach Stoic and military themes, we should not be so zealous as to demand of ourselves or others either infallible control or perfect virtue. Just as there has never been a certified Stoic sage, so too, I believe, we can vouchsafe that there has never been a military leader who has made no command mistakes.

It is the will defying human limits. Stoicism, too, is a philosophy about disciplined control and perfectionism, and its practical focus is in limiting our vulnerability to goods and circumstances that lie outside our dominion. More specifically, our happiness, the Stoics argue, cannot be vulnerable to what lies outside our vigilant control. To this end, Stoic practice aims to help us cultivate the kind of mind-set whereby we might be able to endure the cruelest torture and survive the most devastating psychological deprivations.

Reissuing a Platonic argument, the Stoics argue that goods such as physical health and strength can be used for good or ill in a way that genuine virtues cannot. We can use our healthy bodies or strength either to rescue innocents who are trapped or to impede their safety. But true courage or kindness are unconditionally good—they can be used only for fine ends. Epictetus asks, “Is health a good, and sickness an evil? No, man. What, then? Health is good when used well, and bad when used ill.”

In conclusion, whatever means are applied to the body by those who are exercising it, may also be valuable for training [in general] . . .; but if their aim is mere display, these are the traits of a man who has turned to externals, and is hunting after something other, and is seeking for spectators to exclaim, “What a great man!”

Isn’t the part of happiness that we prize most not prosperity or luck, but how we bear up and make the best of ourselves, whatever the circumstances? Isn’t real happiness, then, the strength and dignity we show in facing whatever hand we are dealt, and the stability and equanimity with which we pursue our desires in those circumstances? Aristotle himself lays stress on the point when he says, “The good . . . is something of one’s own and not easily taken from one.”

The contest of life has as its prize our own individual happiness. We compete against ourselves, not others. And we compete over and over, through repeated opportunities for achievement. To be defeated need not mean that we are out of the race. Life gives us new contests and new opportunities in which happiness can prevail.

The notion that we are actors in a play is a recurrent Stoic theme. Epictetus famously says: “Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be . . . what is yours is to play the assigned part well.” For Epictetus, the seminal point is that what we value most is making the best of ourselves, whatever the constraints of our roles. Cicero, we can assume, is voicing a similar theme.

Still, the sage remains the moral ideal for all those who are trying to make progress. (In a similar spirit, Epictetus, whose counsels can be uncompromisingly severe, cautions his students against thinking that their actions can ever be error-free in the way requisite of a sage: “So is it possible to be altogether faultless? No, that is impracticable; but it is possible to strive continuously not to commit faults. For we shall have cause to be satisfied if, by never relaxing our attention, we shall escape at least a few faults.”)

One qualification is important here. There is no suggestion, at least in the works we have just studied, that a Stoic stance, however controlled, must be a uniform armor of stolidness or imperturbability. Rather, Seneca, in particular, suggests that emotional expressions of kindness, warmth, gratefulness, disappointment, and hurt are all part of a complex palette of morally mature and fitting responses.

Elaborating on the voluntary nature of emotions, Stoics claim that emotions are opinions or beliefs insofar as they are voluntary assents to appearances or impressions regarding goods and evils. As Seneca explains, “Anger is . . . set in motion by an impression received of a wrong. But does it follow immediately in the impression itself and break out without any involvement of the mind? . . . Our view is that it undertakes nothing on its own, but only with the mind’s approval.”

Some of Seneca’s techniques for the prevention and treatment of one’s own anger seem fairly homespun and moderate: “postponement” allows anger to abate; suppressing facial expressions that “inflame the eyes and alter the countenance” can short-circuit internal feed-back responses; “putting ourselves in the place of the person with whom we are angry” can shift our judgments; taking stock daily of our habits can help curb our impulses. Meditate at the end of each day, as Seneca says is his own wont (“when the light has been taken away and my wife has fallen silent”). Replay all your interactions and “conceal nothing” from yourself—ask your-self whether you lost your temper at the party, whether you spoke “too pugnaciously,” whether when you were the butt of a few jokes you forgot to “stand back and laugh.”

While an orthodox Stoic will argue that all attachments to externals and fear of their loss (including attachment to oneself as embodied) rest on false evaluations, a more moderate Stoicism might distinguish between trivial and tragic losses, and between trivial and life-sustaining attachments.

But what I wish to underscore is that Seneca constantly struggles within his own writing to articulate a more supple form of Stoicism. In this spirit, we too need to see if there is a brand of Stoicism that prepares us for enduring the worst tragedies without compromising our fundamental humanity. That, it would seem, is a Stoic ideal worth supporting.

The more human face of Stoicism also emerges when we adjust our focus, as Seneca often does, to include not only the sage but also the advanced moral learner, or “progressor,” to use the Stoic term. This is the morally decent yet morally imperfect adult whom Seneca addresses in many of his essays and letters. The work of exhortation is not for the sage, who has already arrived, but for those who are still aspiring.

The Stoics argue prescriptively that reactions of fear and distress, of the sort Thompson manifested, have no role in the truly virtuous action of the wise person. Moreover, to rely upon them is to rely upon systematic misinformation. Were Hugh Thompson a Stoic sage, and assuming what he did was truly right, he could and would act as he did without the kind of emotional sensitivity limned above. Perception and reason could do the job alone. Or at least if he had emotions, they wouldn’t be the ordinary ones that we non-sages have.

For the inexperienced, “a large part of evil,” he explains, “consists in its novelty.” But “if evil has been pondered beforehand, the blow is gentle when it comes” Continual reflection on the unfamiliar, no matter how imposing the evil, makes for a kind of bulletproofing.

Both Stoics and contemporary PTSD researchers concur on the transformative power of the belief that one can carve out some domain of control even in the most constrained of circumstances. In the case of Vietnam POW Jim Stockdale, cultivating an Epictetan sense of agency meant that he constantly set himself the task of devising ways to make his torturer work for the information he demanded. Even at his breaking point, Stockdale could still assure himself that tomorrow was a new day, another opportunity to put challenges in the path of his captor.

What resource do we find, then, in the face of these losses? Simply this—to keep in memory the things we have lost, and not to suffer the enjoyment which we have derived from them to pass away along with them. To have may be taken from us, to have had, never.

Some seventeen centuries later, Ralph Waldo Emerson echoes this Stoic sentiment in his celebrated essay on self-reliance. Those who have the virtue of self-reliance know that the “secret of fortune is joy in our own hands.”

A sage’s detachment, according to Stoic theory, is an achievement of philosophical therapy. It is a conscious and studied realignment of values. It is not an involuntary disintegration caused by profound psychological stress. But interestingly, in function it serves a somewhat similar goal: to arm us against the fragility and worst tragedies of life so that we can endure them, as if from the outside. Yet security often comes at a price. The price in this case may be a kind of distance that is simply too costly.

It is not just that we need to ask ourselves whether in those circumstances we would find such treatment demeaning, humiliating, or an assault on dignity. We need to ask whether they would find it so. And this most likely requires some sort of active process of trading places in imagination.