431. Preponderance of the small (VII)
Vice Admiral James Stockdale was a US naval aviator who was shot down and spent seven years in North Vietnamese imprisonment—four of these in solitary confinement. Luckily, before he departed for combat, Stockdale had studied the Stoic philosopher Epictetus; particularly his Handbook (Enchiridion). At one point, Stockdale cut his own scalp with a razor so the North Vietnamese could not parade him on TV; and when he feared he might give out under torture he slit his own wrists to put himself in the prison infirmary—both acts were facilitated by a strict Stoic outlook. He organised a code of conduct for the prisoners and coordinated resistance against the prison regime; eventually, he was placed in solitary confinement in a cell where a bare lightbulb remained on perpetually.
When he was repatriated, Stockdale had severe injuries—he remained in the Navy, but could no longer fly. Still without compromise, he urged that the Navy prosecute two of his fellow prisoners who had collaborated with the enemy—the authorities demurred. Later, Stockdale ran as VP candidate for Ross Perot’s third party challenge; he was roundly mocked by the press as stupid, although he had tutored the future astronaut John Glenn in physics and maths.
Stockdale knew he was correct to set great store by Epictetus; his imprisonment had proved it—and he produced several excellent books about practical Stoicism. Epictetus himself was born a slave in around 50 AD; he even had his leg broken by a cruel master, just as Stockdale’s leg was broken in captivity. Epictetus works—I have used his techniques myself—because the man really lived through circumstances where he had absolutely no control as to what happened to him. Remember that at the time a master could do pretty much whatever he wanted to a slave; the Emperor Hadrian—grandfather to the temperate Marcus Aurelius—once stabbed a slave in the eye in a fit of anger; remorse later overtook him—the event perhaps later led Aurelius to the Stoic path.
Better than any psychology experiment, Epictetus lived utter helplessness; so his techniques are demonstrably useful for POWs, seafarers, extreme sportsmen, and the terminally ill—for anyone who faces a situation where they have little to no control over their circumstances. These techniques prevented Stockdale from dying in captivity; he especially noted that the optimists died easily, those who expected release by next Easter or Christmas—many men pined away because they had too many hopes and expectations.
There is a Stockdale Center that supposedly carries on this legacy; yet, as Twitter user Carlsbad noted, the academics that staff the centre mainly teach patchy leftist versions of their studies into Aristotle and the like. A real Stockdale Center worth its salt would be staffed by people who had similar experiences to Stockdale—POWs, shipwreck survivors, ISIS hostages. The ideas they utilised to survive may have been in the Bible or How to Win Friends and Influence People—no matter—but the point would be to preserve Stockdale’s spirit; a man who used ideas to survive extreme circumstances. The letter of the law trumps the spirit: Stockdale used an ancient Roman text, ergo the centre devoted to his memory must regurgitate dry academic texts on the ancients.
Similarly, I see people complain about “No Nut November”, a jokey annual online challenge to reduce masturbation. “Why can’t they do Lent instead?” say Christians—these kids must learn why Lent is important. As the Buddhists say, “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him.” Jesus made the same point when he argued people should pay attention to the spirit, not the letter, of the law. If people refrain from vice due to some ludicrous Internet joke, why bother that they are not doing it at Lent? All that matters is that it works; similarly, the real *spirit of Stockwell* is preserved in YouTube videos where people describe a hundred days spent in a lifeboat, and not in a dry thesis on Stoicism.