Stockdale and Epictetan Communitarian Action by Aldo Dinucci

The piece below derives from Professor Aldo Dinucci’s presentation at the recent online Stoicon 2021 conference.  If you would like to watch the recording of Prof. Dinucci’s presentation, click here to see it.

James Bond Stockdale was a fighter pilot of the US Navy when he was shot down during a combat tour over Vietnam in 1965. He was captured and became a prisoner of war for almost 8 years. In prison, he was the highest-ranking official among his fellow-soldiers and, for this reason, he took the role of their leader.

Two years before, Stockdale was studying at Stanford, where he met Professor Rhinelander, who introduced him to Epictetus and Stoicism. Stockdale read and memorized the Manual of Epictetus, and also studied Epictetus’ Discourses. These two, along with Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, the Iliad and the Odyssey were his bedside books.

Stockdale asserts that these studies made a great difference in his life, transforming him completely. As he points out in his book Courage Under Fire:

I think it was obvious to my close friends, and certainly to me, that I was a changed man and, I have to say, a better man for my introduction to philosophy and especially to Epictetus. (p. 6)

One of the most important things Stockdale learnt from Epictetus is the need to take his role in each situation of life and to act in a communitarian way:

Epictetus drew the same sort of audience Socrates had drawn five hundred years earlier––young aristocrats destined for careers in finance, [fainens] the arts, public service. The best families sent him their best sons in their middle twenties––to be told what the good life consisted of, to be disabused of the idea that they deserved to become playboys, the point made clear that their job was to serve their fellow men. (p. 8)

In the same book, he presents some Epictetus´ quotations concerning these issues:

[1] “Do you not know that life is a soldier’s service? One must keep guard… another take the field. If you neglect your responsibilities when some severe order is laid upon you, do you not understand to what a pitiful state you bring the army in so far as in you lies?” (Epictetus, Discourses 3.24)

[2] “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.” (Epictetus, Manual 17)

[3] “If you regard yourself as a man and as a part of some whole, it is fitting for you now to be sick and now to make a voyage and run risks, and now to be in want, and on occasion to die before your time.” (Epictetus, Discourses 2.5).

Choosing these passages, Stockdale underlined two important points of Epictetus´ philosophy:

  • The need to play well the role which is appointed to each of us (quotes [1] and [2]).
  • The perception that each of us is part of a totality (quote [3])

Stockdale seems to be totally aware of something that many people who study and try to follow Stoicism today do not pay due attention to: Stoicism is not an individualistic philosophy, but a communitarian one.

If, on the one hand, virtue is enough for happiness, it is impossible, on the other, to be virtuous without benefiting others. That is to say, according to the Stoics, if you are virtuous, you necessarily benefit your community, your country, you benefit humanity in general. As Epictetus puts it:

This is not a perverse self-regard, for the animal is constituted so as to do all things for itself. For even the sun does all things for itself… even Zeus himself. But when he chooses to be the Giver of rain and the Giver of fruits, and the Father of Gods and humans, you see that he cannot obtain these functions and these names if he is not useful to humans; and, universally, he has made the nature of the rational animal such that it cannot obtain any one of its own proper interests if it does not contribute something to the common interest. (Discourses 1.19.11-15)

For Epictetus, being virtuous implies contributing to the common interest. In order to achieve this, each of us must understand and play our individual roles in society, the roles of son or daughter, father or mother, neighbor, brother or sister, citizen, human being and also an important part of Nature or God. Epictetus says that roles are parts of relations (in Greek, scheseis) and that, if someone acts adequately concerning them, he understands and plays well his role in this particular relation:

Adequate actions are universally measured by relations (ταῖς σχέσεσι). Is a man a father? The precept is to take care of him, to yield to him in all things… But suppose that he is a bad father. Were you then by nature made akin to a good father? No; but to a father. Does a brother wrong you? Maintain then your own position towards him, and do not examine what he is doing, but what you must do that your will shall be conformable to nature… In this way then you will discover your duty from the relation of a neighbor, from that of a citizen, from that of a general, if you are accustomed to contemplate the relations. (Manual, 30)

In a nutshell, if you are virtuous, you act in a communitarian way. If you act in a communitarian way, you understand and play well the roles assigned to you. Finally, if you play well and understand your roles, you follow nature, since, for Epictetus, these relations are established by Nature itself. Anthony Long summarizes Epictetus’ communitarian Stoicism as follows:

[Epictetus] argues that our identity is so irreducibly social, both globally and locally, that we cannot achieve our own good unless we see ourselves as integral parts of the world in general and of our society in particular. Hence, while there is such a thing as ‘my’ interest, it is no more detachable from the communities of which I am a part than my foot is detachable from the functions I require it to serve. The implication is that, if you isolate your own interest from these social ‘roles’, you turn yourself into the equivalent of a detached limb, and therefore cease to be a functioning person with any genuinely human interests as such. (Anthony Long, Epictetus, A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, p. 201)

These roles and relations ultimately form a web which comprises the whole world: family, city, country, humanity, earth, the whole universe. For the Stoics, the universe is not a bunch of atoms gathered together, but a living being, a system in which humans play an important part:

He then who has observed with intelligence the administration of the world, and has learned that the greatest and supreme and the most comprehensive community is that which is composed of humans and God, and that from God have descended the seeds not only to my father and grandfather, but to all beings which are generated on the earth and are produced, and particularly to rational beings—for these only are by their nature formed to have communion with God, being by means of reason conjoined with him—why should not such a man call himself a citizen of the world, why not a son of God, and why should he be afraid of anything which happens among humans? (Discourses 1.9.5)

Stockdale deeply understood these tenets of Epictetus’ Stoicism and applied them as a P.O.W. in Vietnam. Once in prison, he meditated about the roles attributed to him in that difficult situation:

What is not up to you? beyond your power? not subject to your will in the last analysis? For starters, let’s take “your station in life.” 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.” (p. 8)

Stockdale realized that the roles given to us are among things not up to us: they are external and to be counted among the indifferent things, which are neither good nor bad, but materials that can be used in a good or in a  bad way.

As Epictetus states in Manual, 13,  it belongs to another to select our roles, but it is our duty playing well on the part that is given to us. In Stockdale´s case, his part was as a leader of his companions in prison.

Stockdale thought long about what his first orders should be, and came to this conclusion:

My orders came out as easy-to-remember acronyms. The principal one was BACK US: Don’t Bow in public; stay off the Air; admit no Crimes, never Kiss them goodbye. “US” could be interpreted as United States, but it really meant “Unity over Self.” Loners make out in an enemy’s prison, so my first rule of togetherness in there was that each of us had to work at the lowest common denominator, never negotiating for himself but only for all. (p. 16)

Stockdale’s rule of togetherness, abbreviated as US (Unit over Self), is in full agreement with Epictetus’ philosophy: the commander and his subordinates must, in all acts, aim at the common good and never act in an individualistic or selfishly way. (Stockdale noted that loners corresponded to 5 percent of the Americans who, for different reasons, never joined the prisoner organization, p. 16)

In his book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot, Stockdale reflects upon his experience both as prisoner of war and leader of his companions in Hanoi. He observes that, in prison:

Man´s need for his fellows was certainly spotlighted in those intense circumstances. We found ourselves overcoming what is often billed as the natural selfishness of man, even the survival instinct of man, by clinging to ideas like unity over self and the spirit of other similar axioms of our organization… We learned that the virtues of truthfulness and straightforwardness have their own reward.  (p. 7)

Stockdale comprehends that these virtues have their own reward, that is to say, to have the awareness of being an effective part of a group fulfills ourselves as humans.

In fact, Cicero, an eclectic who transmitted to us several reports about Stoic philosophy in Antiquity, informs us that, according to the Stoics, from the fact that “no one wishes to spend his life in solitude, even with infinity and abundance of pleasures, it is easily understood that we are born for communion, for the congregation and for the natural community.” (On Ends, 3.65) He adds that human community has its origin in the affection, created by nature, from parents towards their children. (On Ends, 3.19.62)

Stoicism acknowledges that human beings have selfish impulses, but, at the same time, their innate tendency to live in community can be enhanced through the study and practice of philosophy. Through this exercise, the Stoics think, the awareness about the urgency of acting unselfishly can be cultivated in human beings.

Ultimately, for the Stoics, since humans are naturally fit for social intercourse, association, and civility (Cicero, On Ends, 3.19.64), acting in a communitarian way is something that interests them and selfishness is an illusion. Stockdale perceives accurately that this was the main objective of Epictetus´ teaching: to show his pupils how to overcome selfishness and, consequently, how to act in a communitarian way, playing well the roles assigned to them both in society and in their own families.

Aldo Dinucci is Professor of Ancient Philosophy at the Federal University of Sergipe in Brazil, the Editor in Chief of Προμηθεύς, and has published, among other books, translations from Greek to Portuguese of the Manual of Epictetus and Epictetus Discourses, Book 1 .

One thought on Stockdale and Epictetan Communitarian Action by Aldo Dinucci

  1. Daisuke Ogura says:

    Thank you very much for sharing an insightful article. The Stoics tell us the importance of focusing on what we can control. Beginners like me might think that Stoicism is a philosophy of resignation. But Epictetus and Vice Admiral Stockdale suggest us how ignorant we are about ourselves. We feel dissatisfied with ourselves due to this ignorance. We can do more and better things if we accept situations around us (even difficulties) with gratitude and concentrate on doing our best there. This mindset will help us particularly in difficult times like now.

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