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Epictetus

Epictetus

The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has released another dire report on the condition of the humanities in the United States.  It’s called “The Heart of the Matter” (get it?), and despite the metaphorical promise of its title, it arrives lifeless–no beating heart at all.  It does, however, make a depressingly reasonable case for how ignorant we are becoming, losing our grip on basic historical events and foundational ideas.  It’s just that the damned thing, being the product of a committee of about sixty presumably spirited individuals (all of them artists, writers, philosophers, etc.), reads like it was written by one robot.

“The humanities remind us where we have been and help us envision where we are going. Emphasizing critical perspective and imaginative response, the humanities—including the study of languages, literature, history, film, civics, philosophy, religion, and the arts—foster creativity, appreciation of our commonalities and our differences, and knowledge of all kinds.”

Whose syllabus is this?

We need some pop, man.  Fortunately, being the humanities and all, there are a number of good “reasons” why art, literature, and philosophy are good for us–all of them expressed artistically, not bureaucratically (ever seen Guernica, or read “Leaves of Grass?”).  But the goal of a committee such as this is to appeal to politicians, the dudes who write the checks and set the policies, and in this particular case, conservative ones who are afraid that their spending a little scratch on art and literature will make them appear wasteful to their constituents at home.  Never mind that most of the Tea Party’s supposed ancestral heroes–the don’t tread on me dudes–read Seneca in Latin and Plato in Greek.

James B Stockdale

James B Stockdale

Perhaps these politicians are unaware of the deeply moving and patriotic statement on the power of the humanities from former fighter pilot, Admiral and Vietnam prisoner of war, James B. Stockdale.  It’s called “Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior.”  The laboratory is a North Vietnamese prison camp in which Stockdale spent six years–two of them in leg irons, four in solitary confinement–and where he was tortured fifteen times.  Remarkably, he lost neither his dignity nor his humanity. And for this he thanked the wisdom of an old ex-slave philosopher named Epictetus.

You may remember Stockdale from the 1992 presidential campaign.  He was Ross Perot’s supposedly goofy Vice Presidential side-kick–the guy who brought down the house with his opening remarks in the Vice Presidential debate: “Who am I, and why am I here?” (then, as I recall, he fiddled with his hearing aid the rest of the time, as if tuning out the distortion of a political life for which he had little taste).  Turns out this silver-haired gentleman’s meandering ways disguised the heart of a true Stoic.  He was easily the wisest and most virtuous man of that bunch (o.k., not much of a test).  But it is in his account of his experiences as a prisoner of war that we come to know how deep that wisdom runs, and how much it owes to the philosophy of Epictetus.

Epictetus, as you may know, was a Stoic philosopher of Greek origin, born 55 CE, who lived as a slave under the Roman rule of Nero and as a free man after Nero’s death.  Like Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and other Stoics of his age, Epictetus drew inspiration from the earlier Greek Stoics (ca. 300s BCE) who believed that real happiness was not a fleeting moment of pleasure, but rather an enduring commitment to self-improvement, a long-term process of putting oneself in accord with “nature” (by which the Stoics meant destiny as well as the virtues appropriate to one’s present social situation).  The problem, of course, is that destiny is ultimately out of our control–call it Fate, God, Nature, Zeus, or just “shit happens” (well, it does).  As Epictetus says, “Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”  Easier said than done, right?

Well, right.  The key here is that for Epictetus this insight is the first step toward true freedom.  Rather than viewing destiny as a restriction on one’s freedom, we should see it as an opportunity to act virtuously no matter what life throws at us.  Our popular thinking about freedom, and happiness for that matter, is really childish:  the ability to do whatever we want whenever we want.  But Epictetus understood that real freedom flows from the ability and courage to act in the best possible way in every situation (which for him could include suicide, if that is truly the most dignified possibility available–see Stockdale’s story below, for example).  In other words, while much of life seems to be out of our control–tornadoes that flatten schoolhouses, the drunk driver that kills our best friend, and the shithead that cuts in line at the ticket counter to buy the last twenty front row seats–we can control our reaction to these events.  Of course, we should try to influence them (in the most virtuous way) as much as possible: fortify schoolhouses, enact restrictions on drinking and driving, etc.  But once the deed is done, the measure of our humanity is our reaction to it.

So for Epictetus, the choice is whether to accept this load and be happy, or be dragged along by it and be miserable.  As a friend of mine put it, paraphrasing Plato: are you going to be the dog that pulls the chariot with gusto, or are you going to be the dog that whimpers and complains because the chariot is too heavy and the work too hard?  The fact is, you’ve still got to pull the damned thing.

That is exactly what James B. Stockdale put to the test as he endured six years, between 1965 and 1971, of being tied, beaten, and tortured by his North Vietnamese captors.  What sustained him?  Certainly not his bureaucratically concocted military training (he was actually taught that if he didn’t tell any secrets the first few times he was tortured, then his captors would get bored and give up!). Rather, it was that Greek-born ex-slave from 1st century Rome, Epictetus.

Stockdale was a thirty-eight year old naval pilot pursuing a masters degree at Stanford when he was introduced to Epictetus.  Although his degree was in international relations, he would meet weekly with a philosopher named Philip Rhinelander…just because he thought he could learn something from him. And with that spirit, I’m sure Rhinelander felt the same.

Phil Rhinelander opened my eyes. In that study it all happened for me––my inspiration, my dedication to the philosophic life. From then on, I was out of international relations––I already had enough credits for the master’s––and into philosophy. We went from Job to Socrates to Aristotle to Descartes. And then on to Kant, Hume, Dostoyevsky, Camus. All the while, Rhinelander was psyching me out, trying to figure out what I was seeking. He thought my interest in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was quite interesting. On my last session, he reached high in his wall of books and brought down a copy of The Enchiridion. He said, ‘I think you’ll be interested in this.’”

Talk about destiny.  The Enchiridion is the distillation of Epictetus’s thoughts on virtue.  Translated, the title means “Handbook.”  And for Stockdale that is exactly what it was, especially during his time in prison.

“Remember, you are an actor in a drama of such sort as the Author chooses––if short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man, or a cripple, or a ruler, see that you act it well. For this is your business––to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to Another.”

After ejecting from his fighter jet, Stockdale’s parachute descends toward a North Vietnamese town, and the Stoic pilot assesses his fate:

“As I glide down toward that little town on my short parachute ride, I’m just about to learn how negligible is my control over my station in life. It’s not at all up to me. I’m going right now from being the leader of a hundred-plus pilots and a thousand men and, goodness knows, all sorts of symbolic status and goodwill, to being an object of contempt. I’ll be known as a “criminal.” But that’s not half the revelation that is the realization of your own fragility—that you can be reduced by wind and rain and ice and seawater or men to a helpless, sobbing wreck—unable to control even your own bowels—in a matter of minutes. And, more than even that, you’re going to face fragilities you never before let yourself believe you could have––like after mere minutes, in a flurry of action while being bound with tourniquet-tight ropes, with care, by a professional, hands behind, jackknifed forward and down toward your ankles held secure in lugs attached to an iron bar, that, with the onrush of anxiety, knowing your upper body’s circulation has been stopped and feeling the ever-growing induced pain and the ever-closing-in of claustrophobia, you can be made to blurt out answers, sometimes correct answers, to questions about anything they know you know.”

Stockdale was the ranking officer, which meant that he was in charge of the well-being of all American prisoners at the camp.  To take the Stoic view, however, his job was to guide them in the most dignified way possible toward freedom, which meant in these circumstances, the will to act in accordance with honor and courage, as opposed to fear and shame.  For this he spent two straight years in leg irons, and four in solitary confinement (in between torture sessions).  He had never been so free.

In fall 1969 a situation arose in which Stockdale decided that it was time to check out…permanently.  His Vietnamese interrogators knew that he had information that they wanted.  Up to this point, according to Stockdale, he could endure any amount of torture as long as he did not think his captors knew that he actually had the information.  But this time they knew, so as he sat alone in chains awaiting interrogation, Stockdale inched his way toward a window, broke the pane and slashed his wrists on the jagged shards.  He did not fear death–he despised dishonor.  And again, call it destiny, fate, God, Zeus, or whatever, it happened…or “it just so happened that”… his wife Sybil (unbeknownst to Stockdale, of course) had been conducting a very high-profile, public campaign to end North Vietnamese torture of U.S. prisoners.  She had been on television in the U.S., France…all over the world, and the Vietnamese, being wary of their reputations, were getting worried.  And Stockdale, being a high-profile captive, was not allowed to die.  When the guards found him in a pool of blood they were quick to seek medical help.  His dignity and the hand of destiny saved him.  This episode marked the end of torture in that prison.

When Stockdale had recovered sufficiently from his self-inflicted wounds, he was once again taken to isolation where he received a secret message from a fellow prisoner.  On a scrap of toilet paper, written with rat droppings, were the following lines from Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Now that’s the heart of the matter, eh?

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