Nancy Sherman


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


from Stoic Warriors

In a remarkably prescient moment, James B. Stockdale, then a senior Navy pilot shot down over Vietnam, muttered to himself as he parachuted into enemy hands, "Five years down there, at least. I'm leaving behind the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus." Epictetus's famous Stoic handbook, the Handbook, was Stockdale's bedtime reading in the many carrier wardrooms he occupied as he cruised the waters off Vietnam in the mid-60's. Stoic philosophy resonated with Stockdale's temperament and profession, and he committed much of Epictetus's pithy remarks to memory. Little did he know on that shoot-down day of Sept. 9, 1965, that Stoic tonics would hold the key to his survival for seven and a half years of POW life. They would also form the backbone of his leadership style as the senior officer in the POW chain of command.

It doesn't take too great a stretch of the imagination to think of a POW survivor as a kind of Stoic sage. For the challenge the POW lives with is just the Stoics' challenge: to find dignity when stripped of nearly all nourishments of the body and soul. On a strict reading, Stoicism minimizes vulnerability by denying the intrinsic goodness of things that lie outside of one's control. For some, like Stockdale, POW camp can offer an extreme experiment in Stoicism.

Stoicism teaches how to endure torture. But it also teaches how to avoid its infliction. We are creatures with propensities for unbridled anger and rage. In positions of power, whether as Roman household masters or American soldiers and prison guards, we can turn abusive all too quickly.

Philip Zimbardo, in his famous Stanford prison guard experiments in the early 1970’s, showed just how fast legitimate authority devolves into sadistic and psychopathic abuse. Twenty-four students were divided into prisoners and prison guards. None had criminal records. None showed signs of sadism. They knew it was a matter of chance whether they would be prisoner or guard. In the basement of the Stanford University Psychology Department, they simulated detention life. What ensued? Zimbardo had to stop the experiment after 6 days, a week short of its scheduled run, because of the escalating brutality of the guards. A consensus and conformity emerged not around the behavior of the “good” guards,” but the “bad guards.” Guards subjected prisoners to sleep and food deprivation. They made them live with their own excrement. They took away blankets and companions. They put in solitary confinement those who protested their incarceration through hunger strikes. As Zimbardo explains, “I called off the experiment not because of the horror I saw out there in the prison yard, but because of the horror of realizing I could have easily traded places with the most brutal guard or become the weakest prisoner full of hatred at being so powerless.”

Zimbardo reminds us of the psychological degradation and shame that can come with victimization. The Italian title of Primo Levi’s account of Auschwitz speaks volumes here: Se Queste è un uomo…. How is this a Man? But we are often less attuned to the damage to the victimizer. It is on this subject that Seneca is often his most forceful. And his words have application to all torturers, whether in ancient Rome or modern day Iraq. Seneca puts it this way: “Raving with a desire that is utterly inhuman for instruments of pain and reparations in blood, careless of itself so long as it harms the other, it [anger] rushes onto the very spear points, greedy draws down the avenger with it.” Any interrogator should take heed from these words.