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Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior by James Stockdale is the transcript of a speech given by fighter pilot James Bond Stockdale at the Great Hall, King’s College, London in 1993. It’s very short—about 21 pages long.
In this little book, Stockdale talks about how he was introduced to Stoicism and Epictetus while he was a student at Standford in 1962. He did a pretty good job of explaining Epictetus’s central teaching, that of understanding the difference between things that are within our control and things that are not.
In 1965, while flying in combat in North Vietnam, Stockdale was shot down, captured, imprisoned, and tortured for eight brutal years. And the teachings of Epictetus are what made him survive, even grow stronger and more resilient while in prison.
The following summary of Courage Under Fire by James Stockdale is meant to be concise, reminding me of high-level concepts and not trying to recreate the whole book. This summary is basically a bunch of notes and lessons paraphrased or quoted directly from the book and does not contain my own thoughts.
• Epictetus was a very unusual man of intelligence and sensitivity, who gleaned wisdom rather than bitterness from his early firsthand exposure to extreme cruelty and firsthand observations of the abuse of power and self-indulgent debauchery.
• The Stoic viewpoint is often misunderstood because the casual reader misses the point that all talk is in reference to the “inner life” of man. Stoics belittle physical harm, but this is not braggadocio. They are speaking of it in comparison to the devastating agony of shame they fancied good men generating when they knew in their hearts that they had failed to do their duty vis-à-vis their fellow men or God.
• A man is responsible for his own “judgments, even in dreams, in drunkenness, and in melancholy madness.”
• Each individual brings about his own good and his own evil, his good fortune, his ill fortune, his happiness, and his wretchedness.
• It is unthinkable that one man’s error could cause another’s suffering. Suffering, like everything else in Stoicism, was all down here—remorse at destroying yourself.
• There can be no such thing as being the “victim” of another. You can only be a “victim” of yourself. It’s all in how you discipline your mind. Who is your master? “He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart.” “What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity.”
• Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I’ll show you a Stoic.
• Do you not know that life is a soldier’s service? One must keep guard, another go out to reconnoiter, 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?
• 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. Why, then are you vexed? Would you have someone else be sick of a fever now, someone else go on a voyage, someone else die? For it is impossible in such a body as ours, that is, in this universe that envelops us, among these fellow-creatures of ours, that such things should not happen, some to one man, some to another.
• A Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are “up to him” and (B) those things that are “not up to him.” Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are “within his power” and (B) those things that are “beyond his power.” Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of “his Will, his Free Will” and (B) those things that are beyond it.
• All in category B are “external,” beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.
• Good and evil are not just abstractions you kick around and give lectures about and attribute to this person and that. The only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your power, where it’s up to you.
• Things that are not within our own power, not without our Will, can by no means be either good or evil.
• “Evil lies in the evil use of moral purpose, and good the opposite. The course of the Will determines good or bad fortune, and one’s balance of misery and happiness.” In short, what the Stoics say is “Work with what you have control of and you’ll have your hands full.”
• “Station in life” can be changed from that of a dignified and competent gentleman of culture to that of a panic-stricken, sobbing, self-loathing wreck in a matter of minutes.
• To live under the false pretense that you will forever have control of your station in life is to ride for a fall; you’re asking for disappointment. So make sure in your heart of hearts, in your inner self, that you treat your station in life with indifference, not with contempt, only with indifference. And so also with a long long list of things that some unreflective people assume they’re assured of controlling to the last instance: your body, property, wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain, reputation.
• He who craves or shuns things not under his control can neither be faithful nor free, but must himself be changed and tossed to and fro and must end by subordinating himself to others.
• A man’s master is he who is able to confer or remove whatever that man seeks or shuns. Whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave.
• “For it is better to die of hunger, exempt from fear and guilt than to live in affluence with perturbation.” Begging sets up a demand for quid pro quos, deals, agreements, reprisals, the pits.
• If you want to protect yourself from “fear and guilt,” and those are the crucial pincers, the real long-term destroyers of will, you have to get rid of all your instincts to compromise, to meet people halfway. You have to learn to stand aloof, never give openings for deals, never level with your adversaries.
• Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the Will; and say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens. For you will find such things to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.
• Look not for any greater harm than this: destroying the trustworthy, self-respecting well-behaved man within you.
• For Epictetus, emotions were acts of will. Fear was not something that came out of the shadows of the night and enveloped you; he charged you with the total responsibility of starting it, stopping it, controlling it.
• Controlling your emotions is difficult but can be empowering. Epictetus: “For it is within you, that both your destruction and deliverance lie.”
• The judgment seat and a prison is each a place, the one high, the other low; but the attitude of your will can be kept the same, if you want to keep it the same, in either place.
• The lecture-room of the philosopher is a hospital; students ought not to walk out of it in pleasure but in pain.
• The thing that brings down a man is not pain but shame!
• Epictetus emphasizes time and again that a man who lays off the causes of his actions to third parties or forces is not leveling with himself. He must live with his own judgments if he is to be honest with himself.
• It is neither death, nor exile, nor toil, nor any such things that is the cause of your doing, or not doing, anything, but only your opinions and the decisions of your Will.
• “What is the fruit of your doctrines?” someone asked Epictetus. “Tranquility, fearlessness, and freedom,” he answered. You can have these only if you are honest and take responsibility for your own actions. You’ve got to get it straight! You are in charge of you.
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