Imagine being a naval aviator in 1965, flying your second combat tour over North Vietnam. Enemy fire completely disables your A-4 fighter bomber, and you’re forced to eject.
Imagine your captors forcing you into a bath stall, your legs locked in irons. You are regularly beaten and tortured. Twice your leg is broken.
Since you’re a senior Naval officer, the enemy plans to parade you around in public. You thwart them by cutting your scalp, disfiguring yourself. When your captors conceal the injury with a hat, you beat your face with a stool, thus swelling unrecognizably.
Despite captivity and torture, you manage to help organize the prison resistance. You take care of your fellow prisoners. You lead by example, and never cooperate with the enemy.
How would you stay true to yourself?
How would you martial the strength to do all this? How would you stay true to yourself and your principles in the face of captivity, deprivation, and torture?
The late United States Navy Vice Admiral James Stockdale did everything described above. He was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1976. After his military service, he became the President of The Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina. Then he became a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.
The main focus of Admiral Stockdale’s writing and teaching was ancient Stoicism. Specifically, the philosopher who most influenced Admiral Stockdale was the Roman slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus.
Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will
Epictetus was born a slave around A. D. 55 in Hierapolis, Phrygia. in the eastern outer regions of the Roman Empire. He was crippled from a broken leg.
“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.” -Epictetus
Early in his life, Epictetus developed an interest in philosophy. His owner (a wealthy freedman and secretary to the Roman Emperor Nero) allowed him to study Stoic philosophy under the guidance of Musonius Rufus.
Epictetus had a strong mind and became educated from his Stoic studies. He gained his freedom after the death of Nero in 68 A.D. He taught philosophy in Rome until Emperor Domitia kicked all philosophers out of the city. Epictetus settled in Greece, where he opened a philosophy school that grew in popularity.
Epictetus was a man of sensitivity and intelligence. A man of modesty who lived simply. A man who, despite his origins as a disabled slave, found wisdom rather than malice in his suffering.
“The essence of philosophy is that a man should so live that his happiness shall depend as little as possible on external things.” -Epictetus
Later Stoic philosophers like Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius and Seneca may be better known, but it was the former slave Epictetus who helped inspire their philosophy.
I am the master of my fate
Author Sharon Lebell, in her book on Epictetus titled, “A Manual For Living” wrote:
“Whereas our society, practically if not always explicitly, regards professional achievement, wealth, power, and fame as desirable and admirable, Epictetus views these things as insignificant and irrelevant to true happiness. What matters most is what sort of person you are becoming, what sort of life you are living.”
According to Epictetus, our focus should be on moral progress. The on-going refinement of our behavior and personal character. We should learn to master our desires, perform our duties, and think clearly about ourselves (particularly as we relate to others).
As Lebell goes on to note in her book:
“The point is not to perform good deeds to win favor with the gods or the admiration of others, but to achieve inner serenity and thus enduring personal freedom.”
Epictetus taught that some things are within our control, and some things are outside it. We don’t always get to choose our circumstances (as Admiral Stockdale discovered), but we can decide how to respond to them.
The late Author and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in his book, “Man’s Search for Meaning,” echoed Epictetus’s view about our power to decide how to respond to our circumstances:
“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” -Viktor Frankl
Other great writers have reflected the thinking of Epictetus. Read Shakespeare’s Hamlet: Act 2, Scene 2:
“There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.”
Consider these words from the English poet and intellectual John Milton:
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.”
Shades of Epictetus’s Stoic philosophy come to mind in the last verse of the English poet William Ernest Henley’s Invictus:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
The superficial at the expense of the significant
So much of mainstream society seems focused on the superficial at the expense of the significant. We fixate on physical appearance, status, wealth, political one-upmanship, and fame far more than virtue, character, and the common good.
“I don’t like living around too many fancy-pantsy folks. That ain’t my thing. I’m not into phony people.” -James McBride
Despite living in a time of relative peace and abundance, people today struggle with unhappiness and a lack of fulfillment. They buy into the entertainment industry gods of beauty, wealth, and fame. They envy popular social media darlings, who post carefully curated gym photos and their latest travel pics.
To what end are we chasing all this stuff? Where does this need to look better or be more successful than the next person come from? Has shallow egocentrism taken up residence in our souls, replacing the deeper inclinations towards virtue and kindness for others?
“Vanity is the quicksand of reason.” -George Sand (Amantine Lucille Aurore Dupin)
Are you sculpting an amazing body because you love health and fitness, or because you want attention for your looks? Are you killing yourself at work because of your passion for business, or because you want more income to show everyone how successful you are?
Are you pursuing fitness and success for vanity and keeping up with the Joneses, or for deeper, more noble motivations? Motivations like wanting to be a good example to your children. Taking care of yourself so you can take good care of your family. Succeeding to make a difference, inspire others, and give back to society.
The power of self-reflection
Philosophy is not taught as broadly as it once was in our schools and universities. It has fallen victim to STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) courses, which promise a good return on investment in today’s job market but don’t necessarily help us think about a meaningful life.
Many graduates leave universities uneducated in how to think about themselves and life. They may know how to code computers and embrace the entrepreneurial spirit but are unequipped for life’s deeper questions. Perhaps this is partly why we have so much depression and unhappiness?
One of the benefits of studying philosophy, and the Stoics, in particular, is that they invite self-reflection. Reading deep thinkers like Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius enables us to reflect on our own lives. We begin to ask questions. We start to re-evaluate what matters.
“Education begins the gentleman, but reading, good company, and reflection must finish him.” -John Locke
Here are a few self-reflection questions we should all ask ourselves:
Am I a good person?
Am I living a virtuous life?
Am I following my core values and beliefs?
Am I performing at my best?
Am I properly taking care of myself?
Am I worthy of the respect of others?
Am I using my talents fully?
Do I help others?
Self-reflective questions encourage us to evaluate who we are and where we are headed. The sooner we learn to do this and correct our shortcomings, the more meaningful our lives will become.
The power of self-reflection is that it enables us to lead a better life. We can make course corrections, and improve our depth of character.
“Character is like a tree and reputation like a shadow. The shadow is what we think of it; the tree is the real thing.” -Abraham Lincoln
We don’t want to reach the twilight of our lives with a landscape of regrets behind us. We want to look back on a virtuous life, one in which we stayed true to our values.
Do the right thing
Mahatma Gandhi didn’t tell us to “Chase money, looks, and fame,” but rather:
Be the change that you wish to see in the world.
We don’t do good deeds to win the attention of others, we do it for inner serenity and thus enduring personal freedom. It simply feels good to do the right thing.
If you want to live a meaningful life, there are four words we should all live by. Four words that Epictetus and the other Stoics would applaud. The four words are:
Do the right thing
Whenever we strive to do the right thing, we not only invest in our good character, we spread a sort of grace in the world. Living with virtue, being kind to others, and guarding our moral character, help insulate us from low self-esteem.
Think about how you feel when you treat others with kindness. Consider how you feel when someone does right by you.
What impresses me more than the guy driving a Lamborghini is the kind woman in the Honda Civic who slows down to let me into busy traffic. I’m moved more by the chubby store clerk who volunteers to push my cart than the six-pack ab guy who hogs the bench press in the gym.
The important thing in life is not vanity or lifestatus, but character. Doing the right thing requires more than good intentions. It requires action.
The long-range risks of comfortable inaction
According to Epictetus, don’t just theorize. Apply. Take action in your life. Make things happen. Make a difference.
“Thinking is easy, acting is difficult, and to put one’s thoughts into action is the most difficult thing in the world.” -Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
It’s much easier to think about doing the right thing than to take action in support of the right thing. Yet, the best recipe for living a meaningful life is to take action in support of the right things.
When you use your talents and abilities to help others, improve a condition, or make the world a better place, you are living the kind of virtuous life that Epictetus and the Stoics advocated.
“There are risks and costs to action. But they are far less than the long-range risks of comfortable inaction.” -John F. Kennedy
Admiral John Stockdale survived being a prisoner of war by following the teachings of Epictetus. Epictetus rose above disability and cruel servitude by studying Stoicism and understanding what he could control and what he could not.
Epictetus taught us that we should master our desires, perform our duties, and think clearly about ourselves and our relationship with humanity.
The power of philosophy lies in its ability to foster self-reflection. For when we think deeply about our ideas and who we wish to be, we open the door to positive change and personal growth.
If we are to have meaningful lives, we must move past the superficiality and vanity in our society. We must focus on our character, virtues, and then learn to do the right thing.
Finally, we cannot afford to merely think about doing the right thing, we must have the courage to take action.
Do these things, and you will have found the recipe for a meaningful life.
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss. I draw cartoons, paint, and write about life. Get on my free email list here for the latest cartoons, artwork and writing.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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