Nancy Sherman


Read Excertps from: Stoicism | Grief  | Anger | Body | Torture


from Stoic Warriors

In the military ethics course I taught at the Naval Academy, the allure of Stoicism became explicit at a certain point in the semester. The course covered themes on honesty, liberty, virtue, and just war interspersed with the writings of philosophers, such as Aristotle and Aquinas, John Stuart Mill and Kant, and Epictetus as a representative Stoic. When we arrived at Epictetus (55-135 CE), students and officers alike felt they had come home. What resonated with them was what resonated with Jim Stockdale, senior POW in the Vietnam War, who attributed his surviving 7 1/2 years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton to these words of Epictetus that he had memorized:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

... Remember, then, that if you attribute freedom to things by nature dependent and take what belongs to others for your own, you will be hindered, you will lament, you will be disturbed, you will find fault both with gods and men...If it concerns anything beyond our power, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.

Epictetus’s project is to show that our opinions, desires, and emotions are “up to us” in the sense that we can often control our reactions to circumstances more than the circumstances themselves. A Marine may be killed in friendly fire that he had no way of avoiding, a sailor may be deserving of decoration and promotion, though she is overlooked because of gender prejudice that she alone can't change, an adoring parent or wife may receive a knock on a door from uniformed Marines, who begin, “we regret to inform you.” The circumstances may be beyond our control, but ultimately, what affects our wellbeing are our judgments about them. We undermine our dignity if we make material and external things responsible for our happiness.

It is tempting to read the Stoics as urging complacency or resignation. But this is not the message. We must continue to meet challenges and take risks, and stretch the limits of our mastery. We must continue to strive to the best of our efforts to achieve our ends. We must push ourselves to the limit. The lesson is one of empowerment. But at the same time, we must cultivate greater equanimity in the face of what we truly can't change. We must learn where our mastery begins, but also where it ends. Epictetus puts the point in an extreme way-- what we can't control ought to be a matter of indifference. “Be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.”

This is a central tenet of Stoicism. Another is the belief in cosmopolitanism—that we are global citizens and that a universal ethical community must supplement bonds of tribal, religious, or national affiliation. Cicero (106-43 BCE), not himself a Stoic but one of our best sources for Stoic views, promotes this Roman ideal: “We must exercise a respectfulness towards men, both towards the best of them and also towards the rest…In short…we ought to revere, guard and preserve the common affection and fellowship of the whole of humankind.” This is a lesson for all time, for civilians and warriors alike.