One of the many military manuals on my shelf opens with a quote from Marcus Aurelius: “Look well into thyself; there is a source of strength which will always spring up if thou wilt always look.” – Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 7.59.
Long-bearded philosophers and the modern soldier may seem as far apart as possible. However, if you look closer, you’ll find that Stoicism and the mental readiness of soldiers are nearly one and the same.
The military has long recognized the need for soldiers to develop mental readiness. One military training manual, the FM 7-22 Holistic Health and Fitness, defines mental readiness as “the capacity to adapt successfully in the presence of risk and adversity.” Half of winning the battle is conquering your mind first.
Stoicism focuses on conquering your mind through mental and physical exercise. Therefore, it’s become a source of inspiration for most US military branches, including Special Forces Units. You can’t go very far in the military world without coming to a quote from a famous Stoic.
If anyone is focused on applying Stoic philosophies as practically as possible, it’s the military. Below, we’ll look at exactly how they do this and how you can do it too.
Stoicism in the Military
Stoicism was widely accepted by the Roman military since the early years of the philosophy. Even those at the highest level considered the philosophy important for military readiness.
In line with that tradition, the modern military recognizes Stoicism as a way to train soldiers to cope with extreme stress. Even when the military isn’t quoting famous Stoics, many of their mental exercises and readiness philosophy can be traced back to Stoicism.
For instance, you’ll find the concepts of negative visualization spread throughout many military manuals.
It isn’t surprising that the military utilizes Stoicism, as it can be an effective way to train mindset. For example, in a combat situation, a soldier may be confronted with hostile fire and chaotic circumstances. Stoic principles allow the soldier to accept that the threat is beyond their control and instead focus on what they can control, such as their conduct and the protection of their unit. This lets them stay focused on their task and make informed judgments under duress.
Furthermore, Stoicism teaches that all things are impermanent, including life. It can help soldiers cope with their own mortality and make peace with the inherent risks of their professions. Stoicism can also help soldiers cope with combat trauma and other difficult experiences by allowing them to process their emotions healthily and productively.
Key Principles of Stoicism
The military draws from many of the key principles of Stoicism. Let’s take a look at some of them:
Acceptance of what is outside our control
One of the biggest principles of Stoicism the military draws from is the dichotomy of control. This concept involves accepting what you can’t control (most things). For the most part, all we can control are our thoughts, emotions, behavior, and character. Everything else is beyond ourselves.
By accepting that we don’t control everything, we can focus on what we can control, making use much more effective.
Understanding the impermanence of all things
Stoicism teaches us that all things are subject to change. Nothing stays the same forever, including our own lives. This concept hits particularly close to home for soldiers, so it’s no surprise that many soldiers find this teaching particularly useful.
By recognizing the impermanence of all things, we can avoid becoming attached to material possessions, external circumstances, or even our identities. This can help us feel more grounded and less anxious about the future.
Practicing gratitude and self-reflection
Stoicism teaches that practicing gratitude and self-reflection are the keys to a safe and fulfilling life. Focusing on the good things in our lives and reflecting on our actions and attitudes can cultivate a more positive and fulfilling outlook.
While Stoicism is full of different concepts, many are accomplished through self-reflection.
Military life isn’t particularly glamorous. While the movies often make military life heroic, you spend much time in the mud. Living as a soldier makes you remember the little things, like a warm meal. Once upon a time, a soldier I know spent his daughter’s first Thanksgiving eating cold, leftover turkey and “mystery sauce” while spending months in the field. You can probably guess that he never looked at Thanksgiving dinner the same again.
Applying These Principles to Your Life
Of course, most of us aren’t soldiers. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t draw inspiration from their struggles:
Recognizing and accepting what is outside of our control
The first step to staying calm and focused in stressful situations is accepting what you can control. This concept helps you apply yourself where it matters. While sitting in traffic isn’t nearly as dangerous as being shot at, the same concept works for both situations. You don’t control the traffic or the enemy.
Therefore, practice recognizing what you can and can’t control quickly, then focus on where it matters. By focusing on what we can control, we can maximize our resources and feel more empowered and motivated.
Letting go of attachment to material possessions and external circumstances
In the military, soldiers are taught that nothing is permanent. Not only does this apply to their lives but also to their possessions. Soldiers aren’t allowed to bring many things with them, and the things they bring regularly get destroyed.
However, the same could be said about our things, too. At any moment, all or some of our things could get destroyed. Therefore, it’s important to focus on matters, such as our personal growth and relationships.
We can cultivate a greater sense of inner peace and contentment by letting go of attachment to external things. We won’t get upset quite as much when things do get destroyed.
Practicing gratitude and mindfulness
We may not have it as bad off as soldiers do. However, many of us still get stuck on things that don’t matter. We get upset by small, insignificant circumstances. Practicing mindfulness and gratitude can go a long way.
Practicing gratitude and mindfulness can cultivate a more positive and fulfilling outlook on life.
If gratitude can help a soldier stay mentally fit while sleeping in the dirt for three months, it can help us get through the minor inconveniences of our life.
Stoicism has always been about getting through tough circumstances, and it’s no doubt that those in the military go through some of the toughest situations. The military has long embraced Stoicism to prepare soldiers mentally for combat situations and the challenges of military life.
Military members go through far tougher situations than most of us face daily. If they can help them, they can also help us.
So whether you’re facing a difficult challenge or simply seeking to live a more fulfilling life, consider embracing the principles of Stoicism and see what benefits they can bring.
Kristin Hitchcock is an army wife and content manager for Survival Stoic. She spends her free time volunteering with a local emergency preparedness not-for-profit organization. You can read more about her work at www.survivalstoic.com.