Epictetus in PracticeAug 13, 2022
Epictetus in Practice
One of the great ironies of life is that for most of us, it takes a very difficult, trying situation (like in the case of Epictetus’ enslavement) to demonstrate how little control we truly have in life. When life throws a curveball at us, we reach for faith, prayer and philosophy to try to make sense of the world.
This is exactly what happened to a young American fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy on September 9, 1965. During the Vietnam war, James Stockdale took fire to his A-4 airplane and the control system shutdown. He had no choice but to eject. At that moment, Stockdale was forced to face a reality with a skillset he had first learned many years earlier in his studies at Stanford University.
“After ejection I had about 30 seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead,” wrote Stockdale in his book, Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior. “And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’”
“After ejection I had about 30 seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: ‘Five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’”
Stockdale remained a prisoner in Vietnam for eight years, including four in solitary confinement. He was tortured fifteen times and put in leg irons for two years. He gave credit to his Stanford education of the Stoics with helping him cope with the incredibly harsh realities of his imprisonment as a POW. The philosophy of Epictetus is today widely known throughout the U.S. military thanks to Stockdale and his experiences in the Vietnam War. In his book, he recounted his second combat tour in North Vietnam and outlined the lessons he learned as a prisoner of war, including how he used Epictetus and the Stoic philosophy in practice during his capture and how he influenced other prisoners that were with him. Theory is easy—application in the field is where the concepts are proven.
Stockdale’s example serves as an important lesson for both people in regular life situations and those in high performing, highly stressful professional roles. As he was ejected from the airplane, Stockdale immediately brought his mind back to the written works of Epictetus he had studied—specifically, the “separate files” a Stoic always kept in his mind for: “(A) those things that are ‘up to him’ and (B) those things that are ‘not up to him.’” In other words: things within his control and things beyond his control. In highly stressful situations, there are simply more things out of our control than within our control, but the single most powerful - our reaction - is within our control.
“All in category B are ‘external,’ beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them, all in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement.”
“All in category B are ‘external,’ beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them,” wrote Stockdale. “All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement.” Stockdale’s greatest achievement was his application of Stoic principles in the face of huge hardship, not simply his understanding of the concepts.
“George Bernard Shaw said that most people who fail complain that they are the victims of circumstances. Those who get on in this world, he said, are those who go out and look for the right circumstances. And if they can't find them they make their own.”
- James Stockdale
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