I was all of 38 years old when I first encountered the classic text that would influence my life. The year was 1962, the book was Epictetus’ Enchiridion, and we got off to a very unpromising start together. I could not bring myself to see how what that old coot Epictetus had to say bore any relationship to my life as a 20th-century technocrat.
I had so wanted to have this book make an immediate positive impact. It had been a gift of special meaning, because it had come from a man, 16 years my senior, whom I had grown to idolize. He was Philip Rhinelander, professor of philosophy at Stanford University, where I was then finishing two years of graduate school. He had been my mentor for most of a year when, during my very last tutorial session, he had taken down the little worn and marked-up personal volume from a high shelf in his study and said: “Here is a book that a man in your profession should own. Keep it and read it from time to time.”
My profession happened to be that of a career naval officer, more specifically at that time an experienced fighter pilot about to return to sea duty to command a carrier-based squadron flying the navy’s latest supersonic jets. What did I hold in common with a first-century Stoic who went along page after page reciting epigrams like these?
Men are disturbed not by things but by the view they take of them.
Do not be concerned with things that are beyond your power.
Demand not that events should happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do and you will go on well.
Mid-career graduate education is not uncommon in military life, though it is somewhat rare to have it in a field entirely separate from one’s immediate concerns. For nearly 20 years I had been on the operational and technical side of things—an engineering degree from Annapolis, with shore duty as an engineering test pilot bracketed by flying tours in carrier-based squadrons. I was now to return to such an aeronautical life after this sabbatical devoted to the study of political science, economics, and international relations with as much of the humanities as I could pack in. The idea was that I might be so fortunate as to achieve an eventual high command and need the broader base for policymaking, diplomatic and strategic planning duties.
I and others have found that a mid-life second education, particularly one heavily salted with introspective subjects like classical philosophy, can precipitate an unexpected post-graduate wrinkle, an aftershock which develops as one returns to life in the particular—in my case, the world of cutting-edge technology, expediency, and not-infrequent bureaucratic infighting. Throughout the first six or eight months after I arrived back on the operational scene, I underwent a kind of transitional decompression in which I groped for a now-satisfying stable platform of philosophical reference from which I could confidently call my shots. It wasn’t because I was in a new environment that I had to screw my head on a new way; it was simply that I now saw contradictions where before I had seen only order. I had to hook my life to a big idea if I was to stay the course.
It was now 1963. Throughout 1961 and 1962 at Stanford, my mind had been awhirl with a whole new shopping list of big ideas. Rhinelander’s two-term philosophy course in “The Problems of Good and Evil” had taken me from The Book of Job to Camus, with more than a smattering of Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Kant, Pascal, Leibnotz, Spinoza, Descartes, and Hume along the way. But now as I led my squadron on and off the carrier decks in Southeast Asian waters, halfway between war and peace, I gravitated toward a more self-supporting, independent, ethical balance wheel as I suffocated in the moral dilemmas that I could feel closing in on us all. There, my last-found model, Epictetus and his Stoicism, who by then I had made myself better understand, struck the very chord of self-respect and personal autonomy that I so needed to keep my mind clear, to break through the clutter of false hope, of wishful thinking, and to cut myself free.
Had I been an ancient Stoic, I would have expressed what roughly went through my mind, something like this: “Just as in the universe, where the mind of God is immanent and indwelling and moves in a manner selfsufficient and self-ruling, so I as the leader of pilots in times of unexpected change, frequent confusion and occasional duplicity in high places, can do no better than to interpose myself between those pilots and our bumbling bureaucracy as their ultimate guide and protector. I must cast off concern for all things not within my power. Remembering that as I aim for such goals, I must not undertake them by acting moderately, but must let go from within myself that enigmatic mixture of conscience and egoism called honor, and not hesitate to make exceptions to operational rules and procedures as necessary to follow my eternal guides of duty and personal responsibility.”
With such an outlook, those eerie years of national decision, 1963 and 1964, were not times of great soulsearching for me. One big soul search, embracing Stoicism, and I was off and running; once I had made up my mind not to be concerned with things beyond my power, I was no longer hung up on where I began and where I left off in these enigmatic conditions. The conditions were tailormade for Stoicism, and in my new-found freedom, tailormade for me. I came to love the life I lived during those years; in many ways it was unique in modern military history. Washington was determined to call every shot and control every detail, and their operations were compounding and stumbling over one another; normal business was crowded out and chaos frequently reigned. When caught in the crossfire of conflicting imperatives that governed secret missions deep into places like Laos, my conscience counseled, “Follow your duty as you are able practically to interpret it, don’t foolishly endanger your pilots, do what you think is best, improvise with confidence, and be prepared to stand accountable for your actions.”
So it was on that most chaotic night of all nights of those years, August 4th, 1964, when Washington decided to go to war officially. Just before midnight, I had been the eyewitness (with the best seat in the house) to an action that had been reported as an attack by North Vietnamese PT boats against the American destroyers Maddox and Joy. It was in fact a false alarm brought about by the destroyers’ phantom radar contacts and faulty sonar operation on a very dark, humid, and stormy night. This was realized during the event by the boss of the destroyers at the scene, and by me, the boss of the airplanes overhead. Corrective messages were sent instantly to Washington: “No PT boats.”
A few hours later, I was awakened to organize, brief, and lead the first air strike against North Vietnam, a reprisal for what I knew to be the false alarm. It was true that I had helped repulse an actual attack three days before and that I thought it likely that another real one would occur in the future. But what to do, knowing that hours before Washington had received the false-alarm messages and that it would be none other than I who would be launching a war under false pretenses.
I remember sitting on the side of my shipboard bed, all alone in those predawn minutes, fully conscious of the fact that history was taking a major turn, and that it was I, Jimmy Stockdale, who happened to be in the Ferris-wheel seat that was just coming over the top and starting its descent. I remember two thoughts of those minutes. The first was a pledge: that this was an instant that I was going to tell my grandchildren about some day. I was living through a history lesson that would be important to future generations. The second was a reflection: I thought about Rhinelander and “The Problems of Good and Evil” and Epictetus and how prophetic it had been that we had all come together those very few years before. Probably nobody had ever tested Rhinelander’s course as I was likely to test it in not only the hours ahead, but the years ahead. I knew we were stepping into a quagmire. There was no question of getting the truth of that night out: that truth had been out for hours. I was sure that there was nothing I could do to stop the “reprisal” juggernaut pouring out of Washington. My course was clear: to play well the part I had been given. The Author had cast me in a lead role of a Greek tragedy. Who else to lead my pilots into the heavy flak of the city of Vihn and blow the North Vietnamese oil storage tanks off the map?
Remember that you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author chooses—if short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man, or a cripple, or a ruler, or a private citizen, see that you act it well. For this is your business—to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to another.
So much for Stoicism as a guide to where one begins and where one leaves off in the world of free will. I now take leave of that relatively happy place, stale and jaded though it may have become in those years, and shift to the much worse circumstances of the world of compulsion, specifically to that paradigm of a house of compulsion, a political prison. There I found Stoicism an even more perfect fit. I entered that political prison just a little over a year after I blew those tanks off the map. (The Tonkin Golf Resolution had been passed by the Congress two days later, and the air war in North Vietnam was on.) It was on September 9, 1965, after several hundred bombing missions in that war (and just three years after I left graduate school), that my airplane was finally shot out of the sky. I arrived at the old French dungeon called Hoa Lo (“Fiery Furnace”) Prison in Hanoi, as a stretcher case, three days later.
I identify Hoa Lo as a political prison rather than a “POW camp,” not just because of its construction (a honeycomb of tiny cells, each with a cement-slab bed, leg irons at its foot, a food chute above the irons, a toilet bucket beside, and a “rat hole” to the outside drainage ditch for flushing), but because of its purposes and the regime of life inside fashioned to achieve those purposes.
Political prisons are places where people are sent to be used or to have their minds changed or both. They are not to be confused with penitentiaries or prison camps, where people are locked up to preserve the public peace or pay their debts to society. Little attention is given to terms of confinement or time schedules. They are institutions devoted only to the discrediting of the inmates’ causes; when all the prisoner’s juices have been squeezed out, when his forced confession of crimes (usually never committed) are judged to be as convincing as they can be made to be, he is usually free to go. (It’s not generally known, but Americans held in Hanoi were free to go any time, provided the prisoner (1) cut juicy-enough anti-American tapes and (2) that he was then willing to violate our prisoners’ underground organization’s self-imposed creed of comradeship: “Accept no parole or amnesty; we all go home together.” Thus we came to imprison ourselves, for honor, in accordance with our Code of Conduct. I might add that this mystified several high officials of our government in Washington. They didn’t know their own Code.)
Given their charge, the breaking of human will, the character of political prisons’ regimes is as immutable as that of human nature itself That is to say, neither what is done nor how the victims grapple with it changes appreciably, century in and century out (Dostoevsky’s, Cervantes’ and my accounts are all the same). At the heart of the organization is a master extortionist or commissar (Gletkin of Darkness at Noon, the Cat of In Love and War). They use the same methods that were used in the Middle Ages. They don’t use drugs (they want to impose guilt, they want authenticity—no easy outs or plausible denials). They don’t use brainwashing (there is no such thing). They use pain, administered by a few selected torture guards. They use isolation, which requires only the cells described above. They use a trip-wire system of multitudinous regulations, some of which many inmates will inadvertently break because of their number and ambiguity, and other regulations which almost all inmates will eventually intentionally break because their requirements defy human nature. (In particular, a regulation for us never to communicate in any way with another American prisoner.) The whole idea is to induce prisoners to break regulations. Since any violation is considered, prima facie, moral turpitude (“evidence of ingratitude”), it is used as moral justification to recycle the inmate through the torture meat-grinder. From that, the commissars obtain, on a production line basis, confessions, apologies, and atonements (their big payoff item).
Seasoned veterans of these regimes come to realize that pain and isolation, to say nothing of the other commonly discussed deprivations and miseries, are mere accelerators to the major pincers of this will-breaking machine: imposed fear and guilt. “Destabilize with fear, polarize with guilt,” says the graffiti on the cave walls of the alchemists of the Middle Ages who worked on psychic transformation under pressure. In fact, the total regime comes to seem to its sufferers like an alchemist’s hermetically sealed, pressurized, and heated retort, in which they are perpetually stalked, hounded down, and harpooned with barbs of fear and guilt.
Like all good squeeze-play systems, this one is built to destroy the man who chooses the “middle way,” who decides to be “reasonable,” to “meet them halfway.” For hours on end, my commissar would plead with me to follow that track: “You are an American, you are pragmatic; come, let us reason together.” It is only when he can get you to level with him in some small way, to drop your guard and betray an emotional dependence on his goodwill, that he can get his crowbars of fear and guilt behind your armor and begin to twist.
Political prison extortion is one grand leverage game. The inmate is well served to chant the rules he must live by under his breath; “Show no fear.” “Never trigger shame.” “The credibility of your defiance must be maintained.” “The prison onslaught must be contained.” “Never level with a jailer.” The prisoner soon learns that to survive with self-respect, he has to strip out all that remains of that student-body-president personality that lurks in all of us—that willingness to be open and to respond in interesting ways. With time and care, many in their own way and with clear knowledge of themselves are well-served to build a new personality from scratch—one that even under torture does not betray its falsity, one that is calculated to be hard to manipulate. What you need is a personality that does not betray a dependence on externals, on others. To have external psychic needs is to be vulnerable, in Stoic terms, to be vulgar.
The condition and characteristic of a vulgar person is that he never looks for either help or harm from himself, but only from externals. The condition and characteristic of a [Stoic] philosopher is that he looks to himself for all help or harm.
I wouldn’t want to suggest that I understood all this going in or that I had become so familiar with the Enchiridion as to use it as a textbook on exactly how to face the challenge. I can only say that in remembering my experiences in prison, and in becoming ever-so-more familiar with Stoic literature since my return, that the Enchiridion has all the right answers.
On what I will call the tactical side, the main idea I bring away from Epictetus is “stay off the hook.” Every convenience one demands, every favor he accepts, every relief he pleads for, every status he admits aspiring to, every attempt he makes to prove something about himself to others (to “show off”) is to deal with “externals,” and to deal with externals is to give a manipulator an opening. The smart inmate will make it his business to find his tormentor’s exact limits, to know his own, and to demonstrate a commitment his adversary will find it unprofitable to challenge.
A man’s master is he who is able to confer or remove whatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave.
Shun externals, yes. But a man must concern himself greatly, in the world of Epictetus, in the world of extortion and manipulation, with “internals,” matters that are “up to him,” and only to him.
Our opinions are up to us, our impulses, desires, aversions—in short whatever is of our own doing.
Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning speaks of the “freedom” he found, even in the depths of terror in his Nazi prison, in realizing that there was only one thing they could never take from him: his attitude, his opinion of what was going on. As Jean-Paul Sartre said to a priest in another Nazi prison, “Remember, the important thing in here is not what they do to you, but what you do with what they do to you.”
What is inside a man is the only true ticket to freedom, but dealing with the “insides” can also be agonizing. In prison, there is one internal decision that is agonizing beyond all others; when first to say “no,” when first to knowingly force the commissar’s hand to carry out his threats and impose physical torture. This great turning point almost always takes place in a frenzied moment with the new prisoner awash in a sea of guilt and fear. The guilt may well have come from his having “gone along” with the commissar’s demand for a little of this and a little of that, while in the fashion of most of us well-brought-up American boys he had chosen “the middle way” (to his now devastating regret) as he took preliminary measure of his predicament. And the fear! It will likely surpass any he will ever experience again. Arthur Koestler described his initial fear of torture (in a Fascist prison in Spain) as “not a healthy fear, but the obsessional and morbid variety . . . the neurotic type of anxiety . . . the irrational anticipation of the unknown punishment.”
No men avoid this initial terrible fear that only their imaginations can generate, and few if any avoid the initial hesitant step of giving ground grudgingly while taking the measure of their predicament. But having taken that step and then finding himself sinking into the quagmire of complicity, hardly a man exists who does not wish he had stood up and declared “enough’s enough” sooner than he did. For self-respect, and in the long-term sense for mental health, the sooner, the better.
If a person had delivered up your body to some passer by, you would certainly be angry. And do you feel no shame in delivering up your mind to any reviler, to be disconcerted and confounded?
It is better to die of hunger, exempt from guilt and fear, than to live in affluence with perturbation.
If a man’s sense of honour, his good faith, and his prudence are not destroyed, then he too is preserved; but if any of these perish or be taken by storm, then he too perishes with them.
Once he has entered the swim of physical resistance, and our neophyte political prisoner realizes that pain in being is in no way as bad as pain in anticipation, and particularly when the fact sinks into him that he is finally fully engaged, a kind of equanimity and pride comes over him. He now knows that it is the unpunished complicity, not the tortured compliance, that tears a man apart. He has cast aside the error of depending on “what is not up to him,” on another’s sympathy, another’s gullibility, another’s price for making a “deal.” He has used both the rational and irrational elements of his soul (they are both part of the same to the Stoic) to see his proper role in the unfolding drama. He has accommodated himself to fate. He has made a declaration to himself and to the prison regime that in what is up to him, he is now “free.” He has arrived at the point where the “strategic” side of Stoicism, i.e., accommodation to fate and mind over matter, can bring him peace.
To the Stoics, God and the visible universe are two aspects of the same thing. God’s Soul is The Mind, and the visible universe (Nature) is his body. The Mind is the divine reason, immanent in the universe, whose nature reveals itself in the imperturbable and lawlike behavior of Nature. As humans, we are all a part not only of the visible universe, but our minds are also a part of The Mind. The Mind, the universal, divine, all-embracing consciousness, is like a flame, and our individual consciousnesses are sparks in it. Each of us has a divine element in him. Just as God’s Soul or The Mind is the active principle of the universe, and his body (Nature) is passive, so are our minds the active principle in us, and our bodies passive. Mind over matter; it all happens up here, don’t worry about your body. Also, there is no chance in the Stoic ordering of things. All that happens is inevitable, proceeding from God’s nature. By using the divine elements in us, we can know how nature proceeds from God’s Mind by divine necessity. A free man is one who understands this and accommodates himself to fate. The good man plays well the part fate has dealt him.
Stoicism is certainly not for everybody, and it is not for me in every circumstance, but it is a philosophical expression of the human search for purpose in what we have every right to see as a purposeless world. This is certainly the world of those who find themselves in that ever-proliferating human institution, the political prison. But Stoicism has application well beyond that population. It speaks for men everywhere who persist in competing in what they see as a buzz-saw existence, their backs to the wall, their lives having meaning only so long as they fight for pride with comradeship and joy rather than capitulate to either tyranny or falseness.
In recent years I have been working on books that are heavily focused on the 10 years I spent in Vietnam. Publishers always ask writers to think through questions like, “What in your background can you connect with this or that impulsive action?” or ” . . . this or that decision?” I’ll have to say that I date most of the dramatic, intuitive stuff back to the frustrations or fears or guilts I incurred as a very young boy. The intellectual inputs (decisions) are harder to place, but the liberal arts (“as much of the humanities as I could pack in”) at Stanford undoubtedly allowed me to be more comfortable writing my own rule book as I dealt with unusual circumstances, than had I stuck with high tech all the way. But it was Epictetus who played the unique part in preparing me for all this. I walked in his shoes throughout. Particularly in the prison scene, he was a guide of ethics of course, but more importantly, a guide to outlook, to psychology, to will. One of the most valuable memories I had was that of recalling, even if faintly, that serious scholarship existed about a breed of men devoted to a Principle of Life of staying off the hook and with pride and joy prevailing against all odds in a hopeless world.
So it was in Hanoi that after each of us in his solitude brought about his crucial rite of passage from the neurotic anxiety of the vestibule to the comforting pain of the star chamber, he joined a brotherhood of Stoics, dedicated first and foremost to keeping high the spirits of each other, while locked in combat against hopeless odds, under the banner “stick it in their ear.” We flaunted the trip-wire, made them torture us, and prevailed in establishing a civilization of men held together by a network of clandestine wall-tap communication. This civilization matured rapidly (as do all things in the hot and pressurized hermetic), and took on all the usual binding elements of a culture: its own (tap code) dialect, its own traditions, its own heroes, its inside jokes, and of course, its own laws, leaders, and specific rules regarding succession to command.
My name appears to this day in official navy records as a man whose government-paid postgraduate education was never utilized. The bureaucracy scores my 24 months at Stanford a waste of money because I was shot down before I ever had a chance to take that Washington job they had in mind for me. But what better preparation for head-of-government of an autonomous colony for nearly eight years than concentrated study just prior on “The Problems of Good and Evil”? And the lessons of Epictetus paid off in pure gold.
The hardships were many, bones were broken, death visited some, but most of us were sure, deep inside, that we were on the right track by staying with internals, by refusing to make deals, by building a clandestine civilization, by seeking and finding purpose in serving each other, in an otherwise purposeless world.
Difficulties are what show men’s character. Therefore, when a difficult crisis meets you, remember that you are as the raw youth whom God the trainer is wrestling.
To the skeptic, I add one assertion: No psychotics came out with us. Every man felt good about himself That’s the difference.
Did I undergo another transitional decompression, a reordering of values, as I reentered this modern world of freedom? The answer is no. I couldn’t generate the same kind of turmoil in my mind that occurred when I first reentered the world of bureaucratic infighting and expediency from the halls of Stanford’s philosophy corner. I was happy with the philosophic tilt I brought out of prison. Once you’ve spent a few years as a target for the harpoons of fear and guilt in the hermetic hotbox of a political prison, you develop a very keen sensitivity for the first hints of the onset of an extortionistic squeeze play. We who are in hierarchies—whether they are academic, business, military, or some other sort—are always in positions in which people are trying to manipulate us, to get moral leverage on us. The only defense is to keep yourself clean—never to do or say anything of which you can be made to feel ashamed. A smart person, an ethical person, never gives a manipulator an even break. He is always prepared to quench the extortionist’s artful insinuation of guilt with the ice water of a truthful, clear-conscienced put-down.
The more benign the environment, the more insidious is the extortionist’s style. How true the Arthurian legend: “Then Arthur learned, as all leaders are astonished to learn, that peace, not war, is the destroyer of men; that tranquillity, rather than danger, is the mother of cowardice; and that not need, but plenty, brings apprehension and unease.”
Epictetus’ tactics, particularly staying off the hook, are very good advice for those who seek dignity in our modern bureaucratized society. A few years ago I originated and taught a course at Stanford entitled “Combatting Coercion and Manipulation.” Though we concentrated on applications of the course in everyday life, I chose our ease studies not from office politics but from prison literature (the trial and death of Socrates, the confrontation of Christ by Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor, the interrogations of Koestler’s Commissar Rubashov by Ivanov and Gletkin, a day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, and Epictetus’ and my saga). Stoicism was a matter of deep curiosity to the students. There was much discussion about the sense of freedom and dignity it can spawn, about how its adherents so differed from moderns in never thinking of themselves as victims, about its being a seedbed for the idea of the brotherhood of men, all sharing common status as humans, all born with innate and highly principled ideas and with a touch of the divine.
For we come into this world with no innate conception of a right-angled triangle, or of a quarter-tone or of a semi-tone, but we are taught what each of these means by systematic instruction; and therefore those who are ignorant of these things do not think that they know them.
On the other hand every one has come into the world with an innate conception as to good and bad, noble and shameful, becoming and unbecoming, happiness and unhappiness, fitting and inappropriate, what is right to do and what is wrong.
Am I personally still committed to Epictetus’ Principle of Life? Yes, but not in the sense of following a memorized doctrine. I sometimes become amused at how I have applied it, and continue to apply it, unconsciously. One story will serve as an example.
As the months and years wear on in solitary confinement, it turns out that a man goes crazy if he fails to introduce some ritual into his life. I mean by that a self-imposed obligation to do certain things in a certain order each day. Like most prisoners, I prayed some each day, month after month continually altering and refining a long memorized monologue that probably ran to 10 or 15 minutes. Somewhere along the years, my frame of mind became so pure (this, too, happens in solitary) that I started deleting any begging from God, any requests of God that would work specifically for my benefit. This didn’t come out of any new Principle of Life that I had developed; it just suddenly started to seem unbecoming to beg. I knew the lesson of The Book of Job, that life is not fair. What claim had I for special consideration? By then I had seen enough misery to realize that He had enough to worry about without trying to appease a crybaby like me. And so it has been ever since.
I never thought about the implications of this until recently when I reread A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, and it struck home that Solzhenitsyn had the simple soldier Ivan hold the opinion that it is immoral to ask God for any more than your daily bread. It suddenly dawned on me: How Stoic can you get? Ivan and I, so different in background and what is normally called native culture, each caught in so different a predicament (he never alone, I always alone), yet each drawing on a wisdom born of extortion and hardship, a wisdom best articulated by our common ancestor in hardship, the crippled Greek slave, 2000 years before. Through Epictetus, Ivan and I became brothers. Such messages come only through the classics.