So much of our world today hinges upon technology, and technology grows in what is mostly a straightforward progression of improvement: first there was radio, then black and white TV, then color, and now we can live stream anything we want on our handheld devices. It is easy to forget that the inner life of human beings does not progress along this same trajectory. We are no wiser today than the Greeks were 2500 years ago. The trajectory of human life is cyclical: we follow cycles and patterns that repeat themselves through time and echo throughout generations. Each human life follows an almost archetypical evolution that resonates repeatedly throughout time and space. The only path to progress is through personal growth founded in the experience of our predecessors.
Contemporary American life is more deeply suffused with the influence of Ancient Greek philosophy than many of us recognize. Our nation’s Constitution and Declaration of Independence were created by our founding fathers based on enlightenment principles emphasizing man’s natural right to freedom. Underpinning the enlightenment, a European philosophical movement? The works of the Greeks. As English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once famously stated, “The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” In the West, we are all descendants of the Greeks. It is not an exaggeration to say that, as Americans, our entire nation was founded upon a philosophical tradition that originated from a warrior class of philosophers.
Bryan Doerries, author of “Theater of War,” wrote: “Many of the greatest humanistic achievements of ancient Athens—arguably one of the most militaristic democracies ever to inhabit the earth—were forged in the crucible of constant military conflict. Storytelling, philosophy, art, and war were vitally and inextricably interconnected.” Is it thus so surprising that today, as our country is set to complete our second straight decade at war in 2021, that ancient philosophy should be experiencing a resurgence as millions of Americans are now rediscovering ancient thought—particularly that of the Stoics? A war-fatigued nation, grappling with the moral and ethical challenges laid bare before us by a hyper-connected world, we are seeking solace, guidance, and understanding.
The time is now ripe for the return of the warrior-philosopher. We are hungry for it: the wisdom and guidance which can be brought to us by someone with firsthand experience of the real world. What does it really take to lead other human beings? If we are to seek a true substance matter expert on the topic, it behooves us to ask someone who has not only led, but who has led under the most adverse conditions. Only the warrior philosopher can bear witness to the actuality of other humans performing at the apex of their personal capacity while simultaneously witnessing death and downfall in a way that those of us with purely academic expertise can merely conceptualize.
Philosophy on its own can’t save us. Left to its own devices, philosophy becomes a self-fueling fire of navel-gazing that spirals quickly into the realm of impracticality. The great Stoic philosopher Seneca himself warned of this when he observed, “There are indeed mistakes made, through the fault of our advisors, who teach us how to debate and not how to live. There are also mistakes made by students, who come to their teachers to develop, not their souls, but their wits. Philosophy, the study of wisdom, has become philology, the study of words.”
While we need philosophy, as a culture we currently tend to seek motivation from our warriors—and in this, we are missing the mark. Philosophy fills a gap that motivation can’t fill. Motivation—whether in the form of a quote, book, meme, song, or social media post—can get us fired up to take the first or the next step towards a goal. On rare occasion, it may get us out of bed for a pre-dawn workout. But motivation has a shelf life; it does nothing when it comes to answering the big questions. It is a cheap (if sometimes necessary) impetus to ask from a sect of society that has so much more perspective to offer us.
All this being said, the book you are holding in your hands is not a work of pure philosophy. It is not designed to pass academic muster or to inspire esoteric debates. The exclusive, erudite, competitive pursuit that philosophy has become, in some academic circles, is not what it originated to be. Philosophy—the marriage of “philo” (“love of”) and “sophia” (“wisdom”)—is and has only ever been for the sake of one thing: understanding.
And to truly understand, we must seek perspective from people who are different from us. In the following pages, you will find exactly that: a glimpse into the lessons learned from one Army Ranger’s insights into life and leadership—forged in the crucible of war but elaborated here in a broader context that renders them applicable to all of our lives, regardless of profession.