Philosophy and Ideas

Stoicism and the Profession of Arms

He who has a Why to live for can bear almost any How.
—Friedrich Nietzsche

stoicIn the new millennium Western militaries spend a great deal of their resources on training and arming uniformed professionals for the instrumental rigours of operational service. Most modern armed forces equip their personnel with the latest body armour, the best protected vehicles and the most sophisticated counter-explosive electronics, as well as expending millions of dollars acquiring the most advanced medical services for those physically wounded or maimed. Much less time is devoted to providing military personnel with existential or inner armaments—with the mental armour and philosophical protection that is necessary to confront an asymmetric enemy who abides by a different set of cultural rules. Much is also made in today’s Western political and military circles about the need to relearn counter-insurgency with its central tenet of winning “hearts and minds” among contested populations. Yet little is done to provide Western military professionals with sufficient moral philosophy to protect their own hearts and minds against the rigours of contemporary warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan.

It is true that all English-speaking Western militaries possess codes of behaviour that govern the ethical conduct of their members. These codes tend to cover the law of armed conflict, just-war theory and the importance of upholding humanitarian values. However, such guides, while essential, tend to be rooted in social science, law and psychology rather than in moral philosophy with its grounding in the great humanities. Moreover, while modern ethical codes emphasise correct rules of behaviour, moral philosophy emphasises the development of personal character and the reconciliation of the individual with the social environment in which he operates. Ethics need, therefore, to be complemented by a stronger focus on moral philosophy—a focus which as Tom Frame, Bishop of the Australian Defence Force, observed in 2005, permits the professional military to fully become “a self-conscious moral community committed to maintaining traditions that are essential to the integrity of its people and the discharge of its core responsibilities”.

This essay first appeared in Quadrant‘s edition of January, 2010.
It is reprised for Anzac Day, 2018

This article analyses the importance of teaching Stoic moral philosophy in today’s armed forces. First, it assesses the serious challenge posed to the professional military ethos from a Western society increasingly based on three melancholy currents: postmodern relativism, the self-esteem movement, and the cult of celebrity. Second, a case is made for upholding a moral philosophy in the professional military that is based on adapting what Bertrand Russell once called the virtues of “Stoic self-command”. Finally, the article seeks to demonstrate how philosophical values based on Stoicism might serve as a guide to today’s military professionals by employing principles and lessons drawn from Western literature, politics and history.

The Forces of Postmodernism and Anti-Rationalism

The greatest challenge to the Western profession of arms comes not from our external enemies, formidable though some of them are, but from within our own society. The rise of postmodernism and anti-rationalism since the 1960s combined with the celebrity culture of the mass media and the social revolutions in youth pacifism, radical feminism and the rise of psychotherapy have created a self-esteem society based on moral relativism. One of the casualties of the rise of such a society has been what the American cultural analyst Susan Jacoby, in her 2008 book The Age of American Unreason, calls Western middlebrow culture—the very culture which was traditionally responsible for supplying the armed forces with many of its best recruits.

As Jacoby recounts, middlebrow culture represented a culture of aspiration that was located halfway between lowbrow or common culture and the highbrow intellectual culture of the literati and the learned professions. In the English-speaking West, middlebrow culture lasted from the 1880s until the 1970s and embraced the best of the working class and of the lower middle class. It was a culture of effort and self-improvement that aspired to higher education and an appreciation of the arts. Middlebrows included liberal Protestant, Jewish and Roman Catholic families, all of whom shared a common pride in the primacy of family values, in the importance of community identity and in the imperative of religious faith. Many aspects of middlebrow culture could often be found in the Australian Labor Party, and the rise and fall of its values is well captured by Kim Beazley Snr’s famous remark that when he joined the ALP in the 1930s it was composed of the cream of the working class; when he left it in the 1970s it was made up of the dregs of the middle class.

What gradually destroyed the West’s literate middlebrow culture as a bastion of community knowledge and moral standards were the combined forces of three upheavals: the sexual revolution of the 1960s; the insidious rise of postmodernism and moral relativism inside the universities in the 1970s; and the mass media technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. The late social historian Christopher Lasch catalogued the grim impact of these revolutions on middle-class culture in his books The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995). Lasch demonstrated in devastating fashion how the ominous combination of decaying public institutions, a coarse electronic media and the rise of an academic pseudo-rationalist elite have created an increasingly banal society defined by “the abolition of shame”.

In the new millennium, traditional middlebrow values based on family, church and school have long since been swamped by a tsunami of secularism and moral decline that has left us with a public culture dominated by effete celebrities and corporate media billionaires united by their lack of civic virtue. The “abolition of shame” has bequeathed to us a growing underclass of single-parent families led by unmarried mothers on welfare. This underclass has, in turn, produced a generation of fatherless and dysfunctional boys dominated by dangerous varieties of street culture. Increasingly, the kind of traditional manly virtue passed from fathers to sons that has been central to the success of Western civilisation has been replaced by fatherless social alienation, drug abuse and gang membership. This process of social dislocation is daily accelerated by a twenty-four-hour infotainment media that appears devoted to endlessly portraying crude language, misfit behaviour and violent action as acceptable norms of male social behaviour.

Central to the West’s middlebrow collapse of good taste and decorum is the belief that popular culture transmitted by the internet—surely the biggest toilet wall in the history of the human race—can in some way replace the study of great books as a serious medium for education. In educational circles today one can find any number of defenders of the virtues of electronic learning from behind screens. Such people are merely the latest purveyors of junk thought.

Those aspects of the collapse of middlebrow culture that have disturbed me most in my work as a scholar of military affairs and as teacher of strategy at the Australian Defence College are the disappearance of essential cultural knowledge and the apparent end of the West’s distinctive honour culture—both of which have occurred at the hands of postmodernism and relativism. Two examples will suffice to illustrate the problems. In mid-2009, in a College syndicate activity that included a discussion of moral philosophy, a Directing Staff member proceeded to discuss the Old Testament Book of Job and its teachings on the unfair moral economy of the universe. As the staff member spoke, he was met by secular bewilderment and it rapidly became evident that no Australian officer in the class had ever heard of Job. Indeed, the only course member who could discuss the sufferings of Job proved to be a Pakistani Army officer who, because he had attended a British-modelled private school in Lahore, had been exposed to a course in Western civilisation and had thus studied the Old Testament. It is a sobering thought that at a time when we in the West are preaching the need to understand foreign culture, many in our society barely understand our own.

Related to ignorance about the story of Job has been my deep concern that in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Western military professionals are confronting pre-modern Islamic honour cultures by employing a distinctly postmodern approach to the conduct of warfare. I am not alone in this concern. The Islamic scholar Akbar S. Ahmed has argued persuasively that the greatest weakness the West has in fighting against an Islamic fundamentalism conceived in the “shadow of swords” is an existential one, in that we have become a “post-honour society”. Ahmed goes on to argue that the West’s honour culture was destroyed in the twentieth century by three factors: revulsion against the horrors of mass industrialised warfare; the revolution in modern psychotherapy; and the rise of radical feminism.

It is certainly true that since the 1960s an anti-honour culture has been prevalent in the West. For example, much of academe has long since abandoned respect for social virtues such as duty, honour and country in favour of the identity politics of gender, race and class. As the American writer Tom Wolfe has written, the cult of anti-honour became firmly established during the time of the 1960s anti-Vietnam War movement when draft dodgers were upheld by the New Left as heroes, transforming “the shame of the fearful into the guilt of the courageous”.

From the 1960s onwards, the Chevalier de Bayard, that fifteenth-century exemplar of the knight sans peur et sans reproche, was replaced in Western culture by sensitive New Age men who wore Che Guevara T-shirts and read Germaine Greer. Rudyard Kipling’s immortal poem about manhood, “If’, became the title for an anarchic and surreal Lindsay Anderson film, in which an English public school’s cadet company shoots its own teachers on speech day. A dark cocktail of assorted feelings, narcissism, therapy, dysfunction and victimology has largely replaced honour in the modern West. Even the criminal honour code of gangsters has not been immune to these trends. As the perplexed American television gangster Tony Soprano puts it in one of his many visits to his shrink, “Whatever happened to Gary Cooper? The strong, silent type. That was an American.” Today what passes for a Western code of honour is safely confined to the world of Hollywood fantasy in the cartoonish movies of assorted male and female superheroes such as Rambo, The Rock, Lara Croft, and Uma Thurman as a kung-fu swordswoman in Kill Bill.

Jacob Burckhardt, the great nineteenth-century Swiss historian, wrote in his masterly book The Civilisation of the Renaissance in Italy that “honour is often what remains after faith, love and hope are lost”. Yet in the contemporary West what Aristotle called honourable fame has given way to celebrity—that is, fame without genuine distinction—fame that is linked to self-esteem without virtue, courage, prowess or merit. As the American scholar and journalist James Bowman has observed in his excellent 2007 study, Honor: A History, a powerful example of the prevailing anti-honour culture occurred in Britain in September 2005 when a new rotating statue—designed to showcase the best of British sculpture—was unveiled in Trafalgar Square next to the statues of the military heroes Admiral Lord Nelson and Generals Napier and Havelock. The new marble statue, Alison Lapper Pregnant, was a representation of Ms Alison Lapper, an artist and single mother born with a rare disease that left her with no arms and only rudimentary legs. In a sculpture that was on display from September 2005 until March 2007, Ms Lapper is portrayed in the pregnant nude as a tribute to disability and victimhood.

Unveiling the plinth, the Mayor of London, Ken Livingstone, said, “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle. Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.” In her response, Ms Lapper, with a glance at the cohort of military heroes surrounding her, stated, “At least I didn’t get here by slaying people.” As Bowman notes, the unveiling of the Lapper statue compressed into a single moment the three forces that have most undermined the concept of Western honour: radical feminism, reflexive pacifism and the rise of psychotherapy. In the contemporary West, Alison Lapper’s disabilities can be regarded as morally superior to those incurred by Lord Nelson (loss of an eye and an arm, and chest injury) because they were conferred by nature and did not involve service under arms in defence of the nation.

With the Lapper statue, sympathy for the disabled replaces the honouring of noble sacrifice above self. From a radical feminist perspective such a representation rebukes the celebration of military heroism on the grounds that the waging of war is little more than a masculine expression of “menstrual envy”. The Lapper statue is thus a metaphor for how deference to virtue has all but disappeared in our age of celebrity—courage in men, chastity in women, loyalty, duty and courtesy—these are now mainly associated with prudishness, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. There is little consolation in noting that the great French Nobel laureate Albert Camus anticipated these anti-honour trends in the West when he warned against the emerging currents of narcissism and moral self-indulgence in his 1957 novel, The Fall:

I sometimes think of what future historians will say of us. A single sentence will suffice for modern man: He fornicated and read the papers. After that vigorous definition, the subject will be, if I may say so, exhausted.

If one replaces Camus’s papers with today’s screens, then we have an accurate picture of the cultural detritus that has largely succeeded in replacing refined taste and honourable purpose in the West.

We are now, of course, light years away from the virtues of selfless service that for centuries defined the Western code of honour—a code that runs from the Spartans at Thermopylae through the Thin Red Line at Waterloo to the Few in their Spitfires during the Battle of Britain—virtues so memorably captured in Sir Henry Newbolt’s 1892 poem “Vitai Lampada”:

The sand of the desert is sodden red—
Red with the wreck of the square that broke;
The Gatling’s jammed and the Colonel dead,
And the regiment blind with dust and smoke.
The river of death has brimmed its banks
And England’s far and Honour a name,
But the voice of a schoolboy rallies the ranks:
“Play up! Play up! And play the game!”

The Case for Reviving Stoicism

How does one, then, counter what James Bowman memorably describes as “the gravitational pull of the celebrity-culture death star”. Given the cynical spirit of our age, we clearly need to arm the inner selves of our men and women in the armed forces. In order to accomplish this effectively, we must re-embrace the moral philosophy of the ancient Greek and Roman Stoics as taught by such great thinkers as Epictetus, Seneca, Cicero and Marcus Aurelius. Yet Stoic philosophy runs against all postmodern philosophical trends—trends that so often emphasise the importance of materialism, celebrity, self-esteem and victimology. As Tad Brennan comments in his 2007 book The Stoic Life, those who seek to adhere to Stoic philosophy are likely to be seen as out of touch with their age, seeking only to cling to a jumbled-up “mixture of tough-guy bravado, hypocrisy and heartlessness [that is] neither personally compelling nor philosophically interesting”.

Yet what is most attractive about the Stoic school of moral philosophy is its central notion that character is fate. The ideas of Stoicism infuse much of the edifice of Western civilisation and this debt is evident in the writings of such towering intellectual figures as Montaigne, Pascal, Kant and Hume. Moreover, Stoicism, in some form, underpins much of Christian theology from St Augustine through St Thomas à Kempis to Justus Lipsius as symbolised by the famous Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.” Prominent public advocates of Stoicism have included the Prussian general Frederick the Great, the Holocaust philosopher Viktor Frankl, the Russian writer and dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn and the South African statesman Nelson Mandela.

It is often argued that members of the armed services are natural Stoics. Such a belief is mythical and can be rapidly disproved by the epidemic of post-traumatic stress disorder and multiple psychological traumas that have plagued modern military establishments in recent years. As the American scholar Nancy Sherman notes in her 2005 study, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind, there is no such phenomenon as a “bulletproof mind” that is capable of indefinitely defying the stress and terror of modern combat. In mid-January 2005, surveying the growing number of neuro-psychiatric casualties returning from the Iraq War, the New York Times editorialised, “emotional, mental and psychological problems will be the Agent Orange of this war”.

For the most part, most contemporary military notions of Stoicism are based on second-hand platitudes and common stereotypes about “stiff upper lips” and “can do” willingness. Popular Stoic stereotypes range from the emotionless Mr Spock in the television series Star Trek, to Russell Crowe’s Roman character Maximus in the 1999 movie Gladiator. Maximus is inspired by the nobility of the great soldier-emperor Marcus Aurelius, and upholds a simple Stoic doctrine of “strength and honour” that reinforces his deadly martial skills in the arena.

Of course, there is much more to Stoic philosophy than popular culture allows. Stoicism represents a powerful method of reasoning involving the rigorous cultivation of self-command, self-reliance and autonomy in which one seeks to develop inner character based on the four cardinal virtues of courage, justice, temperance and wisdom. Properly studied and applied, Stoic philosophy delivers profound insights into the complexity of military life and offers, in the words of the former US Navy SEAL commando, Richard Marcinko, “a spiritual and moral gyroscope” for members of the profession of arms. As Marcinko puts it in his important 1997 memoir, Rogue Warrior:

it is my unshakeable belief that when . . . two intrinsic values—the total acceptance of death as a natural condition of life, and the total acceptance of an absolute moral code—are combined, the Warrior becomes invincible.

In recent years, the most prominent and systematic advocate of military Stoicism has been the distinguished US naval officer, Medal of Honor recipient and 1992 Vice-Presidential contender, Vice-Admiral James Bond Stockdale, who died in 2005. Stockdale’s 1995 book Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot is one of the finest introductions to Stoicism and its meaning for the profession of arms. Stockdale’s personal embrace of Stoicism helped him to survive seven and a half years of systematic torture and solitary confinement from 1965 until 1972 as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese in the dreaded “Hanoi Hilton”. More than any other warrior-scholar in the English-speaking West, Stockdale disseminated the value of Stoic philosophy within the US and allied military establishments. In particular, he did much to elevate the writings of the Stoic slave-philosopher Epictetus over those of Marcus Aurelius by turning the former’s Stoic teachings from the Enchiridion into what Stockdale called “a manual for combat officers”. In the pages of the Enchiridion, Stockdale says, “I had found the proper philosophy for the military arts as I practiced them. The Roman Stoics coined the formula Vivere militare—‘Life is being a soldier’.”

What are the central tenets of Stoicism and how do they fit into the cosmology of the twenty-first-century military professional? As a philosophy Stoicism teaches that life is unfair and that there is no moral economy in the world. Martyrs and honest men may die poor; swindlers and dishonest men may die rich. In this respect, the fate of Job, God’s good servant, and of Shakespeare’s King Lear, the devoted father, are reminders of what we must endure from a life that fits the Stoic creed. The spirit of Stoicism as an unrelenting struggle for virtuous character in a world devoid of fairness is hauntingly captured by the Greek poet Aeschylus: “He who learns must suffer. And even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop on the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

In the Stoic catechism there is no such category as “victimhood” because there is no moral economy outside of the workings of our inner selves. Stoicism is thus about empowerment by perception—a cultivation of an invincibility of the will through minimising personal vulnerability by a mixture of Socratic self-examination and an emphasis on control of the emotions. Stoicism teaches concentration on what individuals can control, what Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations called the “inner citadel” of the soul. Stoicism’s four great teachings may be summarised as the quest for virtue as representing the sole human good; the understanding that external goods do not amount to human happiness; the belief that a good life strives to control emotions to enhance reason; and the conviction that virtue consists in knowing what is in one’s control and what is not.

The Quest for Virtue as the Sole Human Good

To the Stoic, character is formed by freedom of personal choice. Stoicism is a thus a formula for maintaining self-respect and dignity through the conscious pursuit of virtue and the avoidance of vice in times of both adversity and prosperity. The realities of poverty and wealth only matter insofar as they are used to shape the essential goodness of our character. As Epictetus puts it in the Enchiridion, true wealth stems from righteousness, honour and decency viewed as absolute virtue. True virtue is wholly a matter of indifference to all things that are merely products of fortune, including health and illness, wealth and poverty, and even life and death.

The Stoics firmly reject that beloved cause of much contemporary Western political activism, namely the notion of collective or social guilt as a force in shaping virtue. For the Stoic, collective guilt is an impossible proposition simply because guilt is always about individual choice and personal wrongdoing. No one can ever be guilty of the act of another and no society can be held accountable for the actions of individuals from a previous generation.

Externals Do Not Amount to Happiness

In his Discourses, Epictetus teaches us that every individual has a fundamental choice about living for inner or outer values. This is summed up by his famous doctrine:

There are things which are within our power, and there are things which are beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, and in a word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own affairs.

Epictetus goes on to warn that, as long as a person occupies himself with externals he will neglect the inner self. Since one cannot control external issues, they must become “indifferents”—that is, they are outside our will. As Epictetus puts it, “he who craves … 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”.

Such an unrelenting concentration on the inner self at the expense of a life in society may strike some as a harsh doctrine of human conduct. However, it is important to note that the Stoics never suggest that an individual should not partake of “the game of life” in the form of a search for public success or worldly goods. They only warn that one should not become caught up in the activity of the game to the extent that it reduces individual freedom of choice and the pursuit of virtue.

A true Stoic will never be dismayed by any happening that is outside his span of control, for as Cicero puts it, real freedom is the power to live as one wills, free from external compulsion. One of the most fundamental of Stoic attitudes, then, is what the French scholar Pierre Hadot, in his study of Marcus Aurelius, calls “the delimitation of our own sphere of liberty as an impregnable islet of autonomy, in the midst of the vast river of events and of Destiny”.

Striving to Control Emotions is the Essence of Rational Activity

The ancient Stoics believed that all moral purpose must be grounded in reason, not emotion. Consequently, emotions such as desire, pleasure, fear and dejection must be transformed into acts of free will. For example, one only suffers fear if one decides to fear. As Epictetus puts it, everything is connected to “decisions of the will”. For the Stoic, the unhappiest people are those individuals who “have the desires of immortals combined with the fears of mortals”. Such unfortunates allow emotional fears concerning their bodies, worldly possessions and relationships to assail and overcome them.

In contrast, as Seneca urges in his essay “On Providence”, “the only safe harbour from the seething storms of this life is scorn of the future, a firm stand in the present, and readiness to receive Fortune’s arrows, full in the breast, without skulking or turning one’s back”. The central ideal of the Stoic will is thus to master all conflicting emotions in favour of the power of reason and so create an inner self that is in Cicero’s words “safe, impregnable, fenced and fortified”—a harmony of mind and soul that is capable of functioning both in isolation and yet also in comradeship with other virtuous minds.

Virtue Comes from Knowing What is in One’s Control

In the inner citadel of the Stoic soul it is important to delimit the things that depend on human activity and the things that do not, for “it is in the power of any person to despise all things but in the power of no person to possess all things”. The true meaning of personal freedom is summed up by Epictetus when he writes in the Enchiridion, “whoever then would be free, let him wish nothing, let him decline nothing, which depends on others; else he must necessarily be a slave”. Moreover, in order to maximise the realm of personal freedom, a Stoic only competes with others as a matter of moral choice when the stakes involve a quest for virtue and self-knowledge. As Epictetus puts it, “you can be invincible if you never enter a contest where victory is not up to you”.

Ultimately, Stoicism, while challenging to modern sensibilities, is not an impossible creed. It is not about creating a race of iron men who are miraculously invulnerable to the ways and whims of our harsh world. Rather, Stoicism it is about fostering a spirit of invincibility in the sense of a willingness to endure and to overcome life’s many challenges, difficulties and inevitable tragedies. Moreover, the Stoic who seeks such invincible resolution should not be viewed as an individual on a search for moral perfection, but rather as a person seeking constant moral progress. The Stoic life is a profoundly human quest for moral knowledge. It is a philosophical journey, never a destination; an archetype to be approximated, never an ideal to be achieved. The Stoic overcomes the playground of the furies that life represents by developing an endurance that is marked by the cultivation of reason and the practice of willpower—both of which are born out of a lifelong pursuit of good character.

A Stoic Guide for Military Professionals

How can the demanding personal philosophy of Stoicism work within a Western military profession that is assailed by the prevailing postmodern cults of moral relativism, victimhood and shallow celebrity? In this realm, one can only proceed by selecting enduring moral lessons and choices from the annals of Western philosophy, literature and history that assist in arming the inner selves of uniformed officers as they undertake the process of professional military education. Accordingly, this article summarises eight moral lessons and seven moral choices that are used in “Captains of the Soul: A Stoic Guide for Military Professionals”, a fifteen-tenet document that I issue every year to those army, navy and air force officers whom I am privileged to teach at the Australian Command and Staff College in Canberra.

Eight Moral Lessons from Stoicism

The first lesson in “Captains of the Soul” concerns the need to develop an understanding of the meaning of a human life that assails us from three directions—the body, the external world, and our relationships. The lesson is drawn from the works of Epictetus and Seneca and emphasises that life will often resemble a storm-tossed sea, not a tranquil ocean, and that one should seek to live according to moral purpose. Epictetus sums up our parlous condition with precision in his Enchiridion:

Life: Duration: momentary. Nature: changeable. Perception: dim. Condition of Body: decaying. Soul: spinning around. Fortune: unpredictable. Lasting fame: uncertain. Sum Up: The body and its parts are a river, the soul a stream and a mist, life is warfare and a journey far from home, lasting reputation is oblivion.

For many Stoics, good living is symbolised by Hercules’s meeting with the two Goddesses, Arête (Virtue) and Hedone (Pleasure) each of whom offered him a different path in life. Arête offered Hercules an arduous path with much pain, labour and tumult but also a life adorned with true meaning, moral purpose and enduring honour. In contrast, Hedone offered Hercules a pleasurable path of sensual ease, repose and sumptuous living but an existence without lasting significance. Hercules wisely chose Arête and a life of struggle but one defined by righteous action, fidelity, honour and decency.

The second lesson reflects on how a military professional should face his day and draws upon the writings in Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. The latter, composed in the campaign tent in innumerable frontier wars against German barbarians, have an obvious resonance for those in the profession of arms. For the great Roman soldier-emperor, daily moral life is about honourable action irrespective of the circumstances that an individual must face and, to this end, he offers the following sage advice:

When you wake up in the morning tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they cannot tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil, and have recognised that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own … And so, none of them can hurt me; no one can implicate me in ugliness.

The third lesson imparts the central tenet of Stoicism, namely knowing what one can control and what one cannot control. It urges the military professional to take to heart Epictetus’s advice to the effect that we always have a choice about the contents and character of our inner lives and that trying to control or to change what we cannot only results in anguish and torment. As Epictetus puts it:

the things within our power are naturally at our disposal, free from any restraint or hindrance; but those things outside our power are weak, dependent, or determined by the whims and actions of others.

The fourth lesson deals with how happiness can only be found within and again makes use of Epictetus’s writings—this time in the form of his teaching that freedom is the only worthy goal in life and that “happiness depends on three things, all of which are within your power: your will, your ideas concerning the events in which you are involved, and the use you make of your ideas”.

The fifth lesson argues that events do not necessarily hurt us but our views of them can. Taking its inspiration from various works of Seneca, Cicero, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, it urges the use of reason to ensure correct perception, since we cannot always choose our external circumstances, but we can always choose how we respond to them. At this point “Captains of the Soul” analyses the Stoic teaching that death is everyone’s fate and should not be unduly feared. As Marcus Aurelius observes, “it is a useful help toward contempt of death to pass in review of those who have tenaciously stuck to life”.

The discussion of the Stoic view of death as a natural part of life is reinforced by a recounting of Somerset Maugham’s 1933 fable, “Appointment in Samarra”, about the Arab servant, who in the market of Baghdad encounters the shrouded figure of Death. When Death beckons to him the servant, terror-stricken, entreats his master to lend him a fast horse so that he can ride to Samarra in order to escape his fate. The master agrees and, following the servant’s departure goes down to the market himself. Encountering Death, the master says, “My servant is young and healthy. Why did you beckon to him?” to which Death replies, “I did not beckon. Mine was a gesture of surprise. I did not expect to see him this afternoon in Baghdad, because he and I have an appointment tonight in Samarra.”

The sixth lesson upholds the great Stoic truth that character matters more than reputation. Here “Captains of the Soul” uses Howard Spring’s 1940 novel Fame is the Spur to tell the tale of the rise of an idealistic British working-class politician, Hamer Radshaw, who in pursuit of high office is corrupted, renouncing every principle he ever espoused and every person who ever placed faith in him. Making a cavalry sabre his honour symbol, he gradually allows its blade to lie dormant in its scabbard. At the end of his life, resplendent with accumulated honours and a peerage, he tries to remove the sword but it has rusted in the scabbard—a metaphor for a career in which Bradshaw’s soul has rusted in his body and his moral principles have withered in the face of unrelenting personal ambition.

The seventh lesson is that in the Stoic world, effective leadership and good conduct are always dependent on a conscious decision to renounce self-conceit and arrogance because both inhibit rational thinking. As Epictetus puts it, conceit represents “an iron gate that admits no new knowledge, no expansive possibilities, nor constructive ideas” and leads only to a dishonourable life of self-interest.

The eighth and final lesson in “Captains of the Soul” concerns the question of where the line of goodness may be found in life. Here the emphasis is upon Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s famous book The Gulag Archipelago, in which the author reaches a Stoic consciousness about the essential individual nature of good and evil and the power of personal revelation. As Solzhenitsyn writes:

It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between classes nor between political parties but right through every human heart, through all human hearts. And that is why I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say … ‘Bless you, prison, for having been in my life.

Seven Moral Choices from Stoicism

The second section of “Captains of the Soul” then goes on to deal with seven Stoic moral choices—all drawn from literature and history—that will, in the course of time and experience, face all military professionals. The first of these choices is about deciding the kind of officer you want to be and is drawn from Anton Myrer’s acclaimed 1968 novel about the American profession of arms between the First World War and the beginnings of Vietnam, Once an Eagle, in which two officer archetypes are contrasted.

The first archetype is the dutiful and Stoic Sam Damon, a moral warrior dedicated to pursuing the profession of arms and to the proposition that the real enemy of the soldier is the beast in man. The second archetype is the Epicurean but brilliantly cynical careerist Courtney Massengale, an officer of silken talent and of many social connections, but whose moral compass is as corrupt as that of Oscar Wilde’s Lord Henry Wotton.

As Damon and Massengale rise to become rival American generals their careers are brought into stark contrast. Damon is no match for the ambitious Massengale in the Washington political world of the US Army staff which eventually determines success; Massengale, however, cannot match the moral decency and professional military skill of the Stoic Damon. The book becomes a meditation on the moral choices involved in military officership and on the dangers that the Massengales of this world pose to the Damons. Indeed, the book takes its very title from Aeschylus’s lines:

So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
“With our own feathers, not by other’s hands,
Are we now smitten.”

The second moral choice highlighted in “Captains of the Soul” deals with how the substance of officership is a choice between a quest for status and a search for achievement. It takes as its model the tempestuous career of a brilliant strategist, US Air Force Colonel John Boyd—a man often called “the American Sun Tzu” following his invention of the famous OODA decision-cycle (observe, orientate, decide, act). Boyd’s career was idealistic, idiosyncratic and intellectual; a triumph of perseverance over adversity, the spirit of which is conveyed in his 1974 “to be or to do” speech delivered to his subordinates in the Pentagon:

“There are two career paths in front of you, and you have to choose which path you will follow. One path leads to promotions, titles and positions of distinction. To achieve success down that path, you have to conduct yourself a certain way. You must go along with the system … The other path leads to doing things that are truly significant for the Air Force, but you may have to cross swords with the party line on occasion. You can’t go down both paths, you have to choose. Do you want to be a man of distinction or do you want to do things that really influence the shape of the Air Force? To be or to do, that is the question.”

“Captains of the Soul” then presents the third moral choice: the vital need to resist the corrosive influence of bureaucratisation on the Stoic warrior spirit. The true combat officer must always keep his intellect focused on the art of war and not upon bureaucratic politics. The example here is drawn from Emmanuel Wald’s 1992 book, The Decline of Israeli National Security since 1967, in which General Israel Tal describes how bureaucratisation and conformity work to destroy the creative imagination that is fundamental to future generals:

Officers at the rank of captain or major, naive and full of youthful enthusiasm, believe they will be judged by their achievements. If these officers do not grasp that it is forbidden to damage bureaucratic harmony they will quickly be dropped from the IDF [Israeli Defence Force] system … If they are able to last in an organisation which, by its very nature, enslaves and constrains the thinker, then they will eventually reach the rank of general. By then, of course, not much can be expected from them in terms of creative thinking.

The fourth moral choice deals with the proposition that no individual can be neutral in a moral crisis, and looks at the 1930s “wilderness years” of Winston Churchill when, with Stoic grandeur, he waged a lonely crusade, warning the British people about the mortal threat that growing Nazi power posed to Western civilisation. Churchill’s book The Gathering Storm is instructive, for in this volume of his history of the Second World War, the great statesman writes of the danger of a moral compromise contrived through appeasement with evil, observing:

it is my purpose as one who lived and acted in those days … to show how the malice of the wicked was reinforced by the weakness of the virtuous, how the councils of prudence and restraint may become the prime agents of mortal danger … and how the middle course, adopted from desires for safety and a quiet life, may be found to lead direct to the bull’s-eye of disaster.

The fifth choice in “Captains of the Soul” revolves around the necessity for a military professional always to make the best of adversity. As Douglas MacArthur once pointed out, suffering is one of the combat soldier’s closest companions. In this respect, the anonymous Soldier’s Prayer from the American Civil War, a prayer that was found scraped on the walls of the dreaded Confederate military prison, Andersonville, by Union troops in 1865, repays reading as a Stoic testament:

We asked for strength that we might achieve;
God made us weak that we might obey.
We asked for health that we might do great things;
He gave us infirmity that we might do better things.
We asked for riches that we might be happy;
We were given poverty that we might be wise.
We asked for power that we might have the praise of men;
We were given weakness that we might feel the need of God.
We asked for all things that we might enjoy life;
We were given life that we might enjoy all things.
We received nothing that we asked for
But all that we hoped for
And our prayers were answered. We were most blessed.

The sixth moral choice is about the terrible price that may be required when choosing to act out of conscience and principle. This section of “Captains of the Soul” explores the moral decision-making of those German Army officers who joined the abortive July 20, 1944, plot to kill Hitler, as recounted in such books as Sir John Wheeler-Bennett’s The Nemesis of Power: The German Army in Politics, 1918–1945 and Joachim Fest’s Plotting to Kill Hitler: The German Resistance to Hitler, 1933–1945. The focus is on the actions of Brigadier General Henning von Tresckow who, along with Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, was the noblest spirit behind the 1944 conspiracy. The two men viewed Hitler as the arch-enemy of both Germany and the world.

Following the failure of the assassination attempt, von Tresckow prepared to commit suicide with a grenade in order to deny the SS the opportunity to torture him to reveal the names of other conspirators. As this young general, a devout and cultured German patriot, left his headquarters to take his own life, he turned to his adjutant and said with Stoic poignancy:

When, in a few hours, I go before God to account for what I have done and left undone, I know I will be able to justify in good conscience what I did in the struggle against Hitler. God promised Abraham that He would not destroy Sodom if just ten righteous men could be found and I hope God will not destroy Germany. None of us can bewail his own death; those who consented to join our circle put on the robe of Nessus. A human being’s moral integrity begins when he is prepared to sacrifice his life for his convictions.

The seventh and final moral choice in “Captains of the Soul” concerns the nature of courage as a conscious choice to submit oneself to the spirit of endurance and is drawn from the 1959 book Man’s Search for Meaning, by the Austrian humanist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, and from the writing of the distinguished American war correspondent and novelist Glendon Swarthout. Frankl reminds us, in true Stoic tradition, that every individual facing danger and adversity has at his disposal the key to courageous endurance in the form of “the last of human freedoms—[the right] to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”.

Nowhere is Frankl’s “last of human freedoms” more starkly illustrated than in Swarthout’s 1958 novel They Came to Cordura—one of the most insightful literary meditations ever composed on the subject of what constitutes courage under arms. Swarthout’s novel is set during the US Army’s abortive 1916 punitive expedition into Mexico to chastise Pancho Villa and his revolutionaries. The central figure is Major Thorn, Awards Officer of the campaign, who is ordered to escort five cavalrymen cited for the Congressional Medal of Honor across the desert of Chihuahua to the town of Cordura and safety. As the patrol moves across the stark terrain, Thorn, a middle-aged soldier tortured by the memory of his sudden failure of nerve in a previous military engagement, ponders the qualities of the five heroes in his charge, whom he regards as members of Socrates’s “golden race”.

The journey to Cordura—which means courage in Spanish—becomes a dark metaphor by which Swarthout examines the character of courage in wartime. Ambushed by Villistas and tormented by heat, thirst and adversity, Thorn’s five “heroes” soon reveal base qualities in their golden mettle. All but Thorn falter under the strain of prolonged exposure to danger and risk. Facing the need to exhibit continuous courage, each of the five heroes chooses to become a moral coward. It becomes clear that the physical gallantry under fire demonstrated by the five Medal of Honor candidates is little more than a momentary accident in their otherwise undistinguished lives. In the end, Thorn, with classic Stoic fortitude, comes to Cordura—and thus to the meaning of courage—by delivering the flawed nominees to safety against all odds, but only at the sacrifice of his own life. His journey has seen him discover the reservoirs of an enduring bravery that he feared he did not possess, and allows him to fulfil a sworn duty to five apparently courageous, but in reality morally unworthy comrades.


Much of contemporary Western culture is dominated by the trivial and the banal, by the “abolition of shame” that has followed the rise of moral relativism, the cult of celebrity and the spread of psychotherapy. Bowman’s “celebrity-culture death star” with its coarseness, vanity and self-indulgence has eclipsed the notions of civic duty and honour as well as the idea that essential cultural knowledge is fundamental to the health of our civilisation. Under such circumstances, the teachings of Stoicism may seem redundant; yet to believe this is an illusion. Human nature is unchanging and it is hubris to suggest that any generation can somehow escape the long shadow cast by history.

As the ancient Stoic thinkers teach us, life is an unending form of warfare from which one may run but from which ultimately no one can hide. For these reasons, the Stoic philosophy bequeathed to us by the Hellenistic Age will continue to find new adherents in the twenty-first century.

Stoicism does not aim to make human beings invulnerable to adversity. Rather, it seeks to create in individuals a citadel of the soul based on the cultivation of rational thought and moral values that foster an indomitable spirit. For obvious reasons, in a post-honour culture of therapeutic victimhood, a Stoic philosophy has much to offer today’s Western military professionals. Nowhere is this truer that in the Stoic teaching that courage is endurance of the human spirit based on a resilience and steadfastness in which individuality is embedded within a larger community of comradeship that upholds a balance between the principles of public duty and private excellence. In many respects the Stoic ideal recalls Alfred Lord Tennyson’s famous injunction in Ulysses, “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”.

The most eloquent tribute to the noble essence of the Stoic spirit is found in the poem “Invictus”, written in 1875 by William Ernest Henley, an Englishman who endured a lifetime of debilitating illness and infirmity. Despite great personal suffering, Henley chose to remain undiminished, and the unconquerable spirit he represented is enshrined in the immortal lines he penned:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutches of circumstance,
I have not winced or cried aloud
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.

Dr Michael Evans is a Fellow at the Australian Defence College in Canberra. This article is based on a Veterans’ Day Address he gave to staff and students of the US Marine Corps University at Quantico, Virginia, in November.

4 thoughts on “Stoicism and the Profession of Arms

  • says:

    I remember this article well and recommended it to others. It is inspirational in my view. Angus Fraser would benefit from reading it, as would all those in the higher echelons of the armed forces. Quite excellent.

  • whitelaughter says:

    Stoicism may be preferable to the selfcentredness of the ‘me’ generation, but does not compare to the broken body on the Cross. As a pre-Christian belief, I’ll leave it to pre-Christians.

  • staffnsnake says:

    I am so pleased this essay has been reprised. I linked to it the other day and I have been recommending it to people for the last 8 years. It is now more prescient than ever.

  • Jacob Jonker says:

    Most modern armed forces are best equipped, yet some are not. The above article is like a Curate’s egg. Commendable in parts, it looks nevertheless rather dated now. Stoicism has become, if it not ever was, a useful psychological tool for tyrants and exploiters. The early Greeks, or the later and latter ones for that matter, except some friendly co-workers, were never my favourites. Stoicism must originally have been an admirable personal trait, but it easily morphs into sado-masochism and same by proxy. Was Nietzsche a stoic? More a philologer turned philosopher who eventually saw the tragedy of the human condition. He just did not have the stoicism of the deeper Buddhist philosophers who understand.

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