On Epictetus and Post-Traumatic Stress
by Leonidas Konstantakos
‘I have told my sons that they are not under any circumstances to take part in massacres, and that the news of massacres of enemies is not to fill them with satisfaction or glee.’ – Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five
Writing this piece is one of the most personal things I’ve ever been asked to do, and perhaps one of the most difficult as well. When discussing Stoicism and its therapeutic effects on persons with post-traumatic stress, what could I add to the new Stoa that Donald Robertson hasn’t already covered with his Stoic cognitive behavioural therapy? Or to the work of Thomas Jarrett, who applies Stoic principles in his mental-health course, Warrior Resilience and Thriving, which helps instil ‘post-traumatic growth’ in our warriors so that they may move forward with their lives? Let alone to the heroic account of the Stoic fighter pilot James Stockdale, who underwent a brutal, Epictetan experience for years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. I might, however, be able to participate in the Stoic dialectic by adding another first-hand account of one more former soldier who, lost and reaching out from the abyss, found a hand grabbing mine in that spiralling chasm of anger, despair, and grief. One more person who, in reading Epictetus, took the hand of a crippled and scarred former slave- a hand that slowly began pulling me out of the darkness. If this is the story I was asked to tell, then lead me, Zeus, and begin the way you see fit.
I couldn’t sleep well for years after the war. I took night jobs and ruined relationships. I was stone-faced and ‘unfeeling as a statue’ when I did, and yet would sometimes cry uncontrollably at scenes of injuries from explosions and gunshot wounds in documentaries. Not all gunshot wounds though; just the ones from the AK-47. Similarly affected, some of the soldiers I had served with had believed they found some vestige of respite in drugs and alcohol. I had a close comrade who, one night a few months after being kicked out of the Army for drug abuse, took too much of both. To say it was suicide would suggest some thought-out intention, an act of will- an answer to Albert Camus’s only serious philosophical problem. Rather, it was one last random desperate act in a short post-war life full of random desperate acts.
Is there balm in Gilead? Is there philosophical life after post-traumatic stress from the war? Can the Stoics convince us that virtue is the only good? That vice is the only evil? That all else is indifferent? Even if that ‘all else’ means being burned, being maimed, seeing others mangled and torn? Their ears burned off and their eyes blinded by fire and explosives, staring vacantly, asking us if they ‘can go to sleep now’? Even if that ‘all else’ means children too charred to scream? Or the Iraqi woman, quietly hovering over her limp, mangled child, somehow impossibly still standing on her own shrapnel-shredded legs? Or that recurring memory of the road-kill we run past that we realize is in fact the top half of someone’s head, blown a block away by the winds of war? Soldiers are tough and bold, and we make light of it all at the next meal, getting it out, seemingly unaware that there’s still someone else’s blood on our uniforms, our hands, underneath our fingernails. We forget for the moment.
If the intellect is convinced and one accepts the doctrine of adiaphora (indifference of externals), and the mind is shown by reason that it is in the nature of animals like the ones we are to die, to be killed, and to burn like the flesh of any other mammal, that any piece of earthenware eventually breaks and returns to dust, then what do we make of those moments in the night years later, when we wake up fighting for breath and life and can’t remember why? Or alone, staring at walls, when we remember how beautiful our comrades were in life, in all their rough edges and profanity and stubbly dirty beards. The soul jerks and wrenches. When the thousandth memory surfaces, the sand in our mouths, the steaming sweat flowing from underneath the helmet and armour in those years in the relentless desert heat, those shrieking women’s voices in an unintelligible idiom in their grief or confusion, do we still hold the doctrine of the ancients to be true, or no? And if so, is it only possible to be understood by the rare phoenix that is the Stoic sage- that person of the rank of Odysseus, Socrates, and Diogenes among us? Here Epictetus shakes us awake, and pulls us further from the darkness of our thoughts:
‘Things seen by the mind, whereby the intellect of man is struck at the very first sight of anything which penetrates to the mind, are not subject to his will, nor to his control, but by virtue of a certain force of their own thrust themselves upon the attention of men; but the assents, whereby these same things seen by the mind are recognized, are subject to a man’s will, and fall under his control. Therefore, when some terrifying sound comes…or something else of the same sort happens, the mind of even the wise man cannot help but be disturbed, and shrink, and grow pale for a moment, not from any anticipation of some evil, but because of certain swift and unconsidered motions which forestall the action of the intellect and the reason.’ – Gellius, 17.19 [Oldfather’s translation, slightly modified].
As a slave, Epictetus had been crippled by a cruel master, and his many references to chains, sword, rack, and scourging in his few discourses is a window to what his former life may have been like and what he had witnessed done to others. I doubt very much that he would not have been affected, at some level and early in life, with some semblance of what we moderns call post-traumatic stress. What he guides us with in these matters is this: for those of us grappling with these symptoms – hypervigilance, the first stirrings of grief, of anger – we might accept that we have them, perhaps ‘cannot help but be disturbed’ by them at first, and yet come to terms and realize that these impressions are not in themselves terrible. Nor must we necessarily accept that they represent something terrible. If, as the Stoics say, ‘the business of life is being a soldier’ and ‘life itself is warfare,’ then we can accept that we may now, and perhaps always, have these recurring thoughts and feelings of our formidable ‘sojourns in a foreign land’ that “thrust themselves” upon our attention. The first Stoic, Zeno, with an admirably resilient dismissive attitude, calls these ‘lingering scars.’ Seneca even suggests they can be lessened over time. But what are they, for a Stoic like Epictetus? Impressions. Impressions and nothing else. Not the impressions of something morally good, or morally bad, but merely impressions of past trauma. What did we expect to happen in life and war?
Life is chemistry: if we want to see what something is made of, we test it – we burn it, we stretch it, we crush it. For these brilliant philosophers, so it is with these impressions. And with enough time and practice, the soldier’s ‘winter training’ of doctrines attested by the warrior-emperor Marcus Aurelius, the slave-philosopher Epictetus, and Seneca (that household tutor of the brutal, unhinged Nero), we can yet start to see these memories and impressions as nothing more than bogeymen scurrying in the dark, with power only to scare children and fools. They need not make us irascible, bloodthirsty, unfeeling, miserable, or cowardly. We mustn’t let them. For Epictetus, there is a way out of our post-traumatic abyss, and it begins by testing our thoughts and feelings:
‘Soon, however, our wise man does not give his assent, but rejects and repudiates them, and sees in them nothing to cause him fear. This is the difference between the mind of the fool and the mind of the wise man, that the fool thinks the cruel and harsh things seen by his mind, when it is first struck by them, actually to be what they appear, and likewise afterwards, just as though they really were formidable, and he confirms them by his own approval; whereas the wise man, when his color and expression have changed for a brief instant, but keeps the even tenor and strength of the opinion which he has always had about mental impressions of this kind, as things that do not deserve to be feared at all, but terrify only with a false face and a vain fear.’ (Ibid.)
We often choose to assent to these ‘cruel and harsh’ impressions. We allow ourselves to mistakenly believe that death is an evil, that injuries and pain are evils; that comrades should not die. That something bad has happened when nature, Zeus, calls his elements back to himself – whether those elements are momentarily in soldiers or children. To believe all this is unreasonable and, to keep with the ancient pantheism, impious. It is to fall in love with fantasies and externals; to fail to understand necessity and nature- our own and the world’s.
We can, however, accept that a certain type of animal, with a certain neurochemistry and disposition, may perhaps necessarily experience something of the sort after a traumatic event. We can, and perhaps will, shake, become pale, perhaps occasionally even weep. There is no shame in this when it is beyond our control. But we, the rational animals, can also do this without experiencing a violent passion, without assenting that something bad has happened to us. We need not identify with our impressions. The ancient Stoics show us that a rational animal can accept necessity, and to some extent comprehend the web of causality – the mind of Zeus. We can grow past our once-painful experiences and become better people because, in themselves, these impressions are nothing of moral value. Whether we will or not is up to us.
Oldfather, William Abbott (1998) (Trans.) Epictetus: The Discourses as Reported by Arrian, the Encheiridion, and Fragments. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Leonidas Konstantakos became a special education teacher after the Army, has a Masters in Liberal Studies from Florida International University and adjuncts philosophy at night. He has more papers on academia.edu if anyone wants to read further.