Courage Under Fire
Testing Epictetus's Doctrines In a Laboratory of Human Behavior
James B. Stockdale
This book can be downloaded and read in Apple Books on your Mac or iOS device.
"On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane--the cockpit walls not even three feet apart--which I couldn't steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty 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.'
"What Epictetus [told] his students was that there can be no such thing as being the 'victim' of another. You can only be a 'victim' of yourself. It's all how you discipline your mind."
No reliable lab results for stoicism but high marks for human kindness
To be accurate, laboratory results must be easily replicated under similar controls and must not be attributable to other factors. The strength of this book is not the somewhat supercilious platitudes about self control and never compromising. Its strength is in the acts of human kindness that allow someone to live with themselves when they were forced to compromise. This book's beginning is not compelling because it's about an internal journey through philosophical structures that he alone found meaningful. By his own admission, he did not speak of stoicism and its importance to the other POWs. But for him, they survived without Epictetus. And, they survived for different reasons. Perhaps, they were lucky in missing a fatal act of brutality or perhaps they had good immune systems or faith or numerous other factors. It would be unkind to say that those who died were less mentally robust or less educated in stoic thought. The most compelling parts of his narrative are when he and others reached out to affirm some human dignity no matter how small. And in that I give it high marks, but I wish the best results were not relegated to the last pages.