‘The World of Epictetus,’ by James Bond Stockdale

James Bond Stockdale served in the United States Navy as a vice admiral and was one of the most decorated officers in the service’s history. He studied philosophy at Stanford University while serving in the military as a pilot. He chose to study philosophy on his own initiative because he had never taken a philosophy course in his previous schooling. ‘The World of Epictetus’ is a memoir of his time as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and how the philosophy education he received at Stanford aided him in surviving as a prisoner of war to a large extent. The personal contact with Philip Rhinelander, a professor of philosophy whom he consulted much before and after taking the philosophy course played a noble role in applying the philosophical concepts during his captivity. The story narrates clearly his capture in September 1965 and his experience during the incarceration in Vietnam alongside with other prisoners.

In 1965, the year that Stockdale was captured, he was a senior pilot and commander of Air Wing 16 (Stockdale, 7). He was flying combat missions in the southern Hanoi using an air aircraft carrier, Oriskany. By the time of his capture, he had grown accustomed to the duty of briefing pilots and leading them in daily air strikes during the Vietnamese war. He had flown about 200 missions and had known very well the Northern Vietnam. On the 9th of September 1965, he was leading nearly thirty-five airplanes to Thanh Hoa Bridge in the west of the Hanoi city (Stockdale, 7). The raid of that day meant a lot to the Oriskany pilots as they carried an improvised bomb to destroy the bridge that was serving the Vietnamese as a source of resistance. The plans of destroying the bridge succumbed to the bad weather that tempered with visibility and destructed pilots from accomplishing the mission.

It is the bad weather which also contributed to hitting of Stockdale’s plane. He was left with no option but to exit the plane as he could not keep it flying after the hit. It was a sad day that marked the beginning of his capture as a prisoner of war. As he descended in a quiet chute, his mind was very clear, and he was certain of only one thing; he has descended into captivity. For the first time in his life, he was on his own without veneer despite the saying by the Durant that culture is fragile and thin veneer which superimposes itself on humankind. At that moment he knew he was to spend several years searching through his memories to find things of value that could help him during the period of captivity. He would now face real torture, and therefore he needed such memories for his survival.

He narrates that the values he wanted were there, but they were not very clear on his mind. The tools were there, but they had been mixed up with bureaucracy, technology, and expediency and therefore he had to bring them up in the open (Stockdale. 9). He begins by arguing that education needs to illuminate values instead of burying them in trivia. He wonders if students get the message that integrity is essential in making the intellectual skills worth. According to Stockdale, many people find it hard to embrace integrity in their daily lives. To such people, it is only a fancy topic during cocktail parties and at dinner tables. Stockdale argues that when integrity is supported with education, personal integrity can be of great value by giving a person something to rely on particularly when his perspectives blur while rules and when rules and principles waver. Such situations pose hard choices between right and wrong, and it is a point when integrity that has been polished with education aids one to make the right decision.

During his time in captivity, Stockdale recalls how he was faced with numerous dilemmas that were accompanied with torture and great suffering. The hardest part of his captivity was staying loyal to fellow prisoners and overcoming the manipulations and brainwashed by his captors. His captors were very manipulative with enticing offers of “making deals” with prisoners. One had to break his loyalty to fellow prisoners and be an informer and a propagandist to the captors. Such behaviors would result in one getting preferential treatments from the captors. However, for one to attempt such behaviors, it meant breaking one’s integrity. It is against the military codes to inform on fellow countrymen as it goes against the morality of patriotism to the country. He gives an account of one of the prisoners who was so desperate and decided to take the enemy’s side of the “benefits” that they could offer him. However, there were some other prisoners like Stockdale who stayed firm and loyal to fellow prisoners and declined to collaborate with their captors.

One needed a high level of personal integrity to stay firm and true to his country and people and turn down the captors enticing “deals” for personal gains. Accepting such deals was similar to selling one’s soul which is the lowest form of degrading one’s personal integrity that matters most in life. Prisoners were faced with such dilemmas as whether to stay true to fellow prisoners continue suffering or collaborate with the captors and get some preferential treatments. It took Stockdale a lot of the philosophy lessons he had learned to overcome such temptations by the captors into falling a victim of their manipulations and brainwash. In this story, he narrates how his lessons especially those with his professor of philosophy, Philip Rhinelander helped him very much during such trying moments as a prisoner. Going against fellow prisoners did not only mean breaking the military codes but also disgracing oneself. It meant soiling personal integrity and losing the sense of patriotism. You lose the sense of belonging once you decide to be an informant and a propagandist for the captors.

Those prisoners who collaborated with their captors and informed on fellow prisoners lost respect from the same prisoners. Their integrity was greatly compromised as they became less respected during and after captivity. It needed one a great level of reasoning to escape their captors’ manipulations and brainwash because of their enticing deals. It is at this point the philosophy knowledge that Stockdale had acquired during his time at Stanford chipped into his memory and helped him to outsmart his interrogators. Interrogations were regular encounters in captivity, and they were used by the captors to entice prisoners to collaborate with them so as to get some valuable information that could help them in the war. Quite a number of the prisoners had fallen into the trap, and they have stripped off their integrity. Some of those who got tired of working as informants and defected from it did not fully feel the sense of belonging to their kinsmen even after they have been forgiven and accepted back.

After his release from captivity, he realized that many of the prisoners had combated constant physical and mental pressure. One needed some kind of ritual to avoid becoming a useless man. To many of the prisoners, rituals were built around exercises, prayers, and clandestine communication amongst themselves. It is during these trying moments that Stockdale came close to his God and said prayers of great substance for his creator to save him in captivity. The minds of the prisoners developed a huge capacity for introspection and invention. Stockdale’s mind went back in time and remembered how Descartes had used his philosophy to separate the mind and body during trying moments like the ones Stockdale was facing in captivity. He realized and cursed the way the body decayed his mind and hated it so much. He wished to become a Gandhi just to prevent his captors from using him for their propaganda agenda. He resolved to fast for ten days, but after doing so, he realized that he had become so much depressed that he would risk going for the regular interrogations to express his guts with the intention of looking for a friend.

When he was about to give up on himself and considering Descartes was wrong in his application of philosophy to survive, he discovered a large volume of his human mind that later became an important tool for his survival to avoid falling a victim of spreading propaganda for his captors. He went back in time and recalled some of the memorable events in his life. He synthesized some of the very important materials that came to his mind at that time. As he puts it, a person can recall the very deep things in one’s life like recalling the people who attended your fifth birthday after a great effort. However, the hardest thing lies in learning how to use such device in one’s head which he terms as the greatest computer on the earth. Many of the things they recalled while in prison were mostly useless as they were nothing but only a source of strength and practicality. In most of the things, people in his position would possibly recall were barely the classroom days. It is not easy for people in such a situation to recall their classroom days and make a good use of those memories for strength and survival in the harsh and hard conditions in captivity.

Stockdale was lucky and somehow different as his memories went back to his school days and he began to peel the memories one after another. His history in memory was a golden door of classics. He had a very different historical perspective of what he was able to recall in his school time. The memories were a great source of agitation that would enable him to see the real nature of the situation before him and cope up with it in a much better way. He had learned from a Vietnamese prisoner that the cells they were occupying had previously been occupied by the several of the Hanoi government officials for many years. From his history classes, re-recalled that when France allowed communists in 1936, those communists in the Vietnam cells were set free. It was a memory that shed a glimpse of hope that one day they probably are set free. It was a circle of history which that crossed his mind to keep his hopes high.

From the history of the rise of Hitler and the Front in France, he came to realize that these people were very tough of their time. He was now willing to fight his captors to death but realized that hatred would not help him so much. It was an indulgence and inefficient emotion that would not do much for him. From a Pidgin English propaganda book that a guard had given him, he had learned about the speeches by the old communists on how they came to beat their enemy through unity. He realized as prisoners, they were very much united against the administration, and it would help them to beat their enemy in unity, but there was a better way to do in the sixties than what others had done in the thirties. He dismissed the idea of beating a system purely based on political idealism. He preferred the idea of competitiveness as a tool of expressing self-respect as the best way to beat a system. Such an idea is purely philosophical, and it saved Stockdale the troubles of planning to fight their captors crudely and have many casualties at the end.

Stockdale argues that it is a quagmire for a person to have to consider what is good and wrong in a fight. To him, a person makes such considerations is only naïve. He insists that a person needs to get out such a quagmire by recalling how wise people before him used to accommodate the similar dilemmas. For this reason, he believes that classical education and a good understanding of history are important in determining the rules that one should live by. They are very fundamental tools that also give a person the power to analyze different reasons and give the guidance on how to apply the learned concepts in one’s situation. Stockdale recalls that the Naval Academy discipline and sports of body conduct helped him much but he used mostly his graduate school education. The history and philosophy that he used in his captivity were very simple.

The first lesson he that had learned and used in it during this time was the about life being unfair. It was an important lesson which had learned from Phillip Rhinelander. Rhinelander was a professor of philosophy whom Stockdale met in 1961 while studying political science at Stanford University. He had decided to take some courses in philosophy during his study. Rhinelander had also served in the Navy before returning to teach philosophy. He later came to play a very influential part in the life Stockdale. By the time they met, he was teaching a course on ‘The Problem of Good and Evil.’ The message of this course was from the Book of Job. As Stockdale puts it, people are not ready to accommodate the lesson from this book. Although the story of Job didn’t sink deeply on how he could use it at that time of the course, it came to be an important lesson in his later days in captivity.

The story of Job as an honorable man and later losing everything that belonged to him was the saddest moment in Job’s life. Job demanded an explanation from God why he would suffer so much without committing any sin. When God appeared in the whirlwind, he said to Job that life is not fair and Job needed to shape up. That is how Stockdale interpreted the message in the book of Job. From the same book, Job came to enjoy a happy ending when all the sufferings were over. The remembrance of this account was a source of hope for Stockdale as he had learned it from a professor of philosophy during their first meeting. From the story of Job, Stockdale had learned that the sufferings that Jobs endured were not because of his sins but because it is the way of life. What Stockdale insinuates from this story is that sufferings are not only for bad people good people also endure the same but happy endings also in waiting.

The recall of this story offered Stockdale a great comfort while in prison. It was offered him the answer of why he would go through all the sufferings. It helped him realize that he was not being punished for his past actions and he was glad to share the same story to a selected few of fellow prisoners to keep their hopes high (Stockdale, 17). However, the same message upset some of the prisoners, and that is why he decided to be selective on with whom to share the message with. He did not want to give hopes to prisoners who would never see sense in the story of Job.

Rhinelander had also passed another piece of classical information to Stockdale which the latter found to be great value in his captivity. On the day of their last session, Rhinelander said to him, “You’re a military man, let me give you a book to remember me by. It’s a book of military ethics.” (Stockdale, 17). The book was the Enchiridion of the philosopher Epictetus. It was a manual for the Roman, field soldier. At the begging of his reading, he could not imagine that the book would ever be of importance to him given the nature of his Job; a technical man who knows very well how to get things done. He recalled a line from the book which stated, ‘It’s better to die in hunger, exempt from guilt and fear than to live in affluence and with perturbation.’ He came to remember this particular line while in prison because he realized he was living in perturbation.

He says that on when he ejected from his airplane, he had left behind the world of technology and entered into the world of Epictetus. He had read Palo Alto’s book without contentment but with a great level of annoyance. The statements in the book did not have any meaning by the time he was reading it until his time in captivity. He came to realize the stoicism in the book when he was serving his time in captivity. The message of how men are disturbed by the view of things rather than the things themselves stared now to sink slowly. Another message from the book urging people not to be concerned with things that are beyond their power now shed the light of reality about life. Stockdale was now pretty sure that he had very little power as a captive and therefore was supposed to be less concerned with things that were beyond his power. He stopped wishing things to happen according to his wish and instead wished them to flow are they are destined.

The realization of the lessons he had learned both in class and his readings saved him a lot of troubles of trying to change the course of things for his own benefit. When he was about to compromise his principles and personal integrity, he became less concerned about the physical pain that he was going through. He now had new power and courage to face his enemies during the interrogations without fear. He stopped caring what would happen to him as long as he stayed true to his values and principles. The lessons from his philosophy classes were a strong source of courage and insight that kept him strong despite the intimidations, manipulations and brainwash. He knew that sufferings are for men and they do not last forever. The lessons helped him to respond ingeniously to the interrogations without fear. Philosophy gave Stockdale a new ray of hope and accept his situation as a way of part of life that was not meant to last forever. The remembrance of the philosophical readings and reasoning, his spirits were very high and ready for anything on his way.

Works Cited

Stockdale, James Bond. “The world of Epictetus: reflections on survival and leadership.” Ten Years of Reflection: A Vietnam Experience (1986).

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