Courage Under Fire

Testing Epictetus's Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior
by James Stockdale | Hoover Institution © 1993 · 21 pages

James Stockdale spent 7 1/2 years as the highest ranking prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. 4 years in solitary confinement. 2 in leg irons. This book is about how he endured all of that with the wisdom of Stoic philosopher Epictetus in mind. In the Note, we explore the key tenets of Stoicism, the Stockdale Paradox, playing your role well and mastering your emotions.

So what Epictetus was telling his students was that 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.
James Stockdale

“I came to the philosophic life as a thirty-eight-year-old naval pilot in grad school at Stanford University. I had been in the navy for twenty years and scarcely ever out of the cockpit. In 1962, I began my second year of studying international relations so I could become a strategic planner in the Pentagon. But my heart wasn’t in it. . . .

Phil Rhinelander opened my eyes. In that study it all happened for me—my inspiration, my dedication to the philosophic life. From then on, I was out of international relations—I already had enough credits for the master’s—and into philosophy. We went from Job to Socrates to Aristotle to Descartes. And then on to Kant, Hume, Dostoyevsky, Camus. All the while, Rhinelander was psyching me out, trying to figure out what I was seeking. He thought my interest in Hume’s Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion was quite interesting. On my last session, he reached high in his wall of books and brought down a copy of The Enchiridion. He said, ‘I think you’ll be interested in this.’”

~ James Stockdale from Courage Under Fire

The Enchiridion means “ready at hand.” It’s a handbook capturing the wisdom of the ancient Stoic philosopher, Epictetus.

That handbook would become a guide for James Stockdale as he spent seven and a half years as the highest ranking prisoner of war during the Vietnam War. He spent four of those years in solitary confinement and two years in leg irons. He was tortured fifteen times.

He endured all of that with Stoicism in mind.

This is a tiny little booklet—the 21 page transcript of a speech delivered at the Great Hall, King’s College on Monday, November 15, 1993 that captures how Stockdale applied the Stoic ideals to his life.

If you appreciate the wisdom of Stoicism and/or the modern-day application of ancient wisdom, you will find this book deeply moving and inspiring. (Get it here.)

Most of my copy is underlined. Let’s take a quick look at a handful of my favorite Big Ideas.

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About the author


James Stockdale

One of the most decorated officers in US Navy history