by Major Christopher M. Davis, USMC
As his parachute drifted downward, after his A-4E Skyhawk was shot down over North Vietnam, James Stockdale recalled his last moments in freedom: “Five years down there,” he thought, “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” For the next seven years, Stockdale would remain the senior naval officer held captive in the notorious Hoa Lo prisoner of war camp (known as the “Hanoi Hilton”) that housed many American POWs during the Vietnam War, including the late Senator John McCain.
As the senior officer, the Vietnamese sought to exploit Stockdale’s knowledge and influence, both inside and outside of the camp. His captors left Stockdale in isolation, locked in leg irons for days at a time. He was strung up to the ceiling of his cell by ropes bound so tightly that his shoulders dislocated. In one of his most heroic acts of bravery, Stockdale purposely mutilated his own scalp and broke bones in his skull, knowing his North Vietnamese captures would never place a disfigured or malnourished service-member on television to produce anti-American propaganda. Stockdale was routinely tortured and beaten beyond recognition to even his closest friends.
For his actions, Stockdale would ascend the Navy ranks to Vice Admiral, and received the Congressional Medal of Honor in 1976 – a citation that every service member should read.
Many years after his imprisonment, Stockdale often attributed his rigorous study of the classics and lessons of Stoicism as what provided him with the mental strength and perspective to face his most unlikely circumstances as a POW. Specifically, he believed Epictetus’ The Enchiridion – translated “The Handbook” – possessed lessons from which all leaders should be familiar. The examination here of the principles of Epictetus’ Handbook and its role in Stockdale’s captivity is less in admiration of his overcoming those perils, but rather an acknowledgment that he was prepared for and triumphed over these devastating circumstances, in large part because of his study of Stoicism.
Stripped to its core, military indoctrination and training is an immersion in leadership. As members of the profession of arms, every single action we take is compared, examined, and improved upon through the lens of leadership. Thus, the cauldron in which we forge our reputation is on the battlefield and we, as an organization, take great steps to prepare every man or woman who wears the cloth of our Nation for predictable situations.
The military also places leaders in positions where they must rely on their training and experience. We invest in educating and preparing leaders for unpredictable situations – when the “fog of war” overshadows the planning process. Currently, each of the branches produces professional publications regarding leadership. For Marines, MCWP 6-10 Leading Marinesis the broad, foundational text that Marine leaders of every rank should rely upon to address innumerable situations. However, the Marine Corps is not unique amongst the other branches in being long overdue in supplementing its core leadership curriculum with Stoic teachings. (These Stoic principles are so impactful that General James Mattis, USMC (Ret.) famously carried a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations with him on every deployment).
Specifically, Epictetus’s The Enchiridion is the missing “handbook” (if I may) to supplement our leadership development curriculum, across the Department of Defense. “The Handbook” should be read, studied, and discussed at length. As a warfighting organization, we too often spend tremendous time and material investing in our technology and equipment, far outpacing our potential adversaries, yet leave the development of mental fortitude and resilience to individual actions and self-study.
Today, we are living through extraordinary times – in our Nation and our military – exacting a tremendous mental toll on service members throughout our ranks. According to numerous recent studies, data shows that major depression is on the rise among young Americans. The Services have devoted increased resources and training to combat this enemy “within.” Yet, mental health within our ranks remains a real vulnerability.
Stoicism has seen a recent resurgence to combat present-day challenges. However, a broad overview of classic Stoic principles alone will not solve all of these complex issues. Nevertheless, it is my belief this study might serve to make our force more mentally resilient, adaptable, and better equipped to face threats, both foreign and internal. The best way to begin studying Stoic philosophy is to look at living examples. In that spirit, a few unique lessons one will learn from “The Handbook,” that we are missing:
First and foremost, one must understand that Stoic philosophers believe humans are thinking creatures capable of exercising reason. Reason allows us to evaluate our thoughts, feelings, and desires, deciding if they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We have an innate duty to protect our ability to reason and to use it properly. When we reason well and live rationally, we exhibit the virtue of wisdom. Stoicism encourages us to apply reason to our emotions in an effort to improve our lives.
Knowing what is in our control and what is outside of our control is the core lesson of Stoicism. Epictetus put it best when he said, this is “Our chief task in life: ta eph’hemin, ta ouk eph’hemin.” (What is up to us, what is not up to us.)
In application, this allows leaders to guard their thoughts. Epictetus tells his students, “It’s not things that upset us, but our judgment about things.” We grasp wisdom by looking at things objectively and mastering our emotions. This examination of events was called the “view from above” by Marcus Aurelius. Modern psychologists now refer to this practice as “cognitive distancing.” In other words, the leadership skill of being able to remove one’s self from a situation and critically evaluate circumstances as if they did not affect us.
This understanding of control is also helpful in understanding externalities. As leaders, we can provide to our subordinates all the tools, assets, and training, but it is ultimately not up to us if they execute properly. Instead, we must focus our efforts on those things which are within our control; the truly important thing in life is how one chooses to respond to situations. Control over one’s emotions and reactions to the operating environment cannot be overstated. It takes considerable time to develop this skill, but it is well worth the effort.
Leadership is about the subordination of one’s self for the group or unit. This often means that the leader suffers first (and last).
Of all people in history, Epictetus knew hardship. Born a slave, Epictetus obtained his freedom shortly after the death of Emperor Nero. He began teaching philosophy in Rome and for nearly two decades, sharing lessons of his life until Emperor Domitian banished all philosophical scholars from Rome in 93 A.D. Epictetus fled to find freedom (again), eventually settling in Nicopolis and founding a school where he taught until his death in 130 A.D.
By inoculating ourselves to hardship we not only build a tolerance to withstand circumstances, but we also set an example to emulate. The Roman leader Cato was famous for forcing himself to suffer regularly: rather than sleeping in a bed, occasionally he would sleep on the ground, or, in refusal to ride his horse, opted to walk alongside his troops. The lessons from Simon Sinek’s Leaders Eat Last to General Mattis’s now-famous assumption of one of his junior officer’s duties on Christmas Day, further demonstrate this point.
Embracing hardship has a practical, real-world application. It is important to note that the Stoics did not intentionally inflict discomfort. As Seneca remarked, the point is not to wish for adversities, but for the resilience that makes adversities bearable and prepares oneself for future challenges. Similar to how combat arms service-members prepare for an operation by anticipating our threat’s most likely and most dangerous courses of action, the Stoics prepared themselves to cope with adversity by patiently visualizing misfortune as if it were happening: premeditatio malorum (premeditation of adversity). This technique of mentally exposing yourself to stressful situations in repeatedly small, manageable doses helps build a general resistance to emotional disturbances. If nothing else, it hammers home the axiom of not making “comfort-based decisions.” All should embrace challenging situations, as President (and former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy) Franklin D. Roosevelt, said: “A smooth sea never made for a skilled sailor.”
When Epictetus said, “it is impossible to learn that which you already know,” he was describing a lesson from his own role model, Socrates, who famously stated: “As for me, all I know is that I know nothing.”
When someone believes that they already know something, their curiosity is non-existent and their willingness to learn is extinguished. If one believes they know everything, it is unlikely they are really paying attention to their surroundings or determining if things are out of place. Because they already know all things, nothing can surprise them. Until it does.
A good leader is continually learning. For, as leaders, we are striving for constant improvement – both in ourselves and our unit – and this takes hard work and concerted effort. As Epictetus told his students, “if you want to do something make a habit of it.” There is no better daily habit than recognizing your weaknesses and setting a goal of self-improvement.
Practically speaking, that is why the military spends tremendous resources on advancing technologies, professional military education, and planning groups. In a world as dynamic as the one we are asked to operate in, a stagnant force is a defeated force. We must never stop learning.
At the end of each day, one should review how things actually occurred. This might include reviewing key events of the day or the results of an exercise or operation. Then ask yourself: What would that person I am trying to emulate (my role model) have done? When the opportunity next presents itself, how can I better embody the virtues that I want to represent?
This exercise is an opportunity to learn from experiences and prepare for the morning when one will again plan their behaviors and visualize the day in an ongoing cycle of self-improvement.
In the words of Epictetus:
“Allow not sleep to close your wearied eyes,
Until you have reckoned up each daytime deed:
‘Where did I go wrong? What did I do? And what duty’s left undone?’
From first to last review your acts and then
Reprove yourself for wretched acts, but rejoice in those done well.”
By deeply reflecting on our values and actions each day, we all can develop a clearer sense of direction in our life.
These daily reflections should focus on progress, not perfection.
And this process should never cease. No one has perfectly mastered life and no one is without their own faults. “But since you can’t show me someone that [is] perfectly formed, at least show me someone actively forming themselves so, inclined in this way.”
It has been within you all along…
As Epictetus offered plainly, “First tell yourself what kind of person you want to be, then do what you have to do.” At the end of the day, the lessons of Admiral Stockdale and Stoicism show us the importance of resilience and mental fortitude while providing the roadmap for self-actualization. Leaders are defined by the hardship and tough decisions that they overcome. Thus, leaders must welcome the challenges of the un-smooth sea and appreciate its sharpening effect on our skills. Likewise, as an organization, the Department of Defense should invest in the study of “The Handbook” as a supplement to the current leadership curriculum for all ranks.
The challenges of our military are not getting easier. When such challenges arise, remember Epictetus: “You can bind up my leg, but not even Zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.” As leaders, our greatest charge is to determine an appropriate response to challenging situations and own the outcome. This is our greatest weapon – and it has been within each of us, all along.
 James Bond Stockdale, Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1993).
 These beatings left him disfigured and partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. See generally James Bond Stockdale, The Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institute Press, 1995).
 “Medal of Honor Citation: Stockdale, James B.,” Congressional Medal of Honor Society, http://www.cmohs.org/recipient-detail/3423/stockdale-james-b.php (accessed on Oct. 3, 2020).
 Note: Stockdale did not conduct this rigorous study while assigned to operational billets. The U.S. Navy afforded Stockdale the opportunity to study at Stanford University, earning his Master of Arts degree in International Relations and Comparative Marxist Thought. This opportunity was highly impactful for Stockdale and developed the “whole” individual concept desirable for our leaders today.
 Twenge, Jean, “The mental health crisis among America’s youth is real – and staggering,” Wausau Pilot and Review, https://wausaupilotandreview.com/2019/03/14/the-mental-health-crisis-among-americas-youth-is-real-and-staggering/ (last accessed 14 Oct. 2020) (citing“Key substance use and mental health indicators in the United States: Results from the 2018 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (HHS Publication No. PEP19-5068, NSDUH Series H-54) (Rockville, MD: Center for Behavioral Health Statistics and Quality, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration); see also, Hedegaard, H, et. al., “Suicide Mortality in the United States, 1999–2017,” NCHS Data Brief, no 330 (Hyattsville, MD: National Center for Health Statistics, 2018).
 Epictetus, Enchiridion, I.
 Epictetus, Enchiridion, V.
 See Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.23 – 24.
 See generally Donald Robertson, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (New York: St. Martin Press, 2019).
 Modern-day Greece.
 Pat McGeehan, Stoicism in the Statehouse: An Old Philosophy Serving a New Idea, (Proctorville, OH: Wythe-North Pub., 2018), 34.
Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together And Others Don’t (Grand Haven, MI: Brilliance, 2014).
 As a Lieutenant General, Mattis once came upon one of his young Marines who was missing his son’s first Christmas while serving duty. Without hesitation the General dismissed the Marine and assumed his post, only to be discovered by the Commandant, himself, who was making his rounds to see the troops later that same day, “A General Mattis Christmas Story,” U.S. Naval Institute Blog, Dec. 17, 2010.
 Seneca, Letters from a Stoic, 67.4.
 See generally Marine Corps Planning Process (MCPP).
 Ryan Holiday, The Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph, (New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2014), 139 – 41.
 Epictetus, Discourses, 2.17.
 Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.1-5.
 Epictetus, Discourses, 3.10.2-3.
 Epictetus, Discourses, 2.19.25a, 28.
 Epictetus, Discourses, 3.23.1.
 Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1.23.
Chris Davis has published extensively in the area of leadership, law, and Stoicism. After nearly eight years on active duty in the U.S. Marine Corps, he received orders to attend law school at the University of Tennessee where he earned his Juris Doctorate. Since returning to the Fleet, he has served as a Trial Counsel aboard Camp Lejeune and Judge Advocate assigned to MARSOC.
The views expressed in this article are solely the author’s and do not represent an official position of the U.S. Marine Corps, Department of Defense, or the United States Government.