Stoicism And The Quest For A Life Well Lived: An Interview With U.S. Naval Academy Professor Marcus Hedahl

As we talk about extensively here at Daily Stoic, philosophy is not just about talking or lecturing, or even reading long, dense books. In fact, it is something men and women of action use—and have used throughout history—to solve their problems and achieve their greatest triumphs. Not in the classroom, but on the battlefield, in the Forum, at court, and, well, in every day life.

Marcus Hedahl got interested in Stoicism for exactly that reason. Hedahl is an Associate Professor of Philosophy in the Department of Leadership, Ethics and Law at the United States Naval Academy, and a Faculty Affiliate at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics, Georgetown University. A former Major in the U.S. Air Force, Dr. Hedahl has reviously served at the Chief, Mission Management within the Imagery Directorate at the National Reconnaissance Office. He holds a B.S. in Physics from the University of Notre Dame and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Georgetown University, and has served as the Dahrendorf Research Officer for Climate Justice at the Grantham Research Center for Climate Change and the Environment, London School of Economics and Political Science.

In our interview below, we ask Dr. Hedahl about his unique journey to studying and teaching philosophy, Stoicism’s real-world applications, how his students react to Stoicism, what the educational system needs to do better in terms of introducing philosophy to young people, and much more. Please enjoy our interview with Marcus Hedahl!

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You have a fascinating background—you graduated with a degree in Physics, then worked at NASA, then became a Major in the U.S. Air Force, and now teach at the Naval Academy. Can you tell us how Stoicism fits into all this? 

Unlike a lot of my colleagues in philosophy, I came into the discipline later in life, using my evenings in a perhaps futile effort to try to understand a small handful of classic texts and what they have to say about a life well lived after spending my days struggling with re-entry simulations or intelligence reports. Even after more traditional M.A and Ph.D. programs and several years in the profession, I have no doubt that original history colors both my expectations regarding the purpose of philosophy and ways in which one should go about it.

I’m very much in line with Seneca on this score, “Why do our philosophers abandon the magnificent promises made? After assuring me in solemn turns that my eyes shall no longer be overwhelmed by the glitter of gold or the sparkle of a sword, that I shall spurn with magnificent purpose the trifles that others pray, fight, and fear for, why do we spend on all of our time on mere theoretical squabbles? Philosophy began as a way to the heavens; it promised nothing less than that she will make us God’s equal. That is the invitation that was sent, and it is for that and that alone that I have come. Be as good as your word.”

So, when presented with the dreaded “I’m not sure what you actually do, but let me take a stab at being friendly” social gathering question professional philosophers sometimes encounter, “What’s the best philosophy?”, I’m guessing most use it as a chance to engage in the Socratic method or to change someone’s belief about what philosophy is, or who knows, maybe they just run for the hills. Maybe because of my history, I go with a different approach. I respond to anyone asking “What’s the best philosophy?” with the simple answer “Roman Stoicism, best exemplified by Epictetus, Seneca, and my namesake and beard guru, Marcus Aurelius.”

As a Professor of Philosophy at the Naval Academy and as part of your work with the Stockdale Center, you’re responsible for introducing a lot of young people to Stoicism. When you first describe Stoicism to these young men and women, what do you say?

I start by saying that any philosophy that denies the first part of life’s proposition—that this world of ours is full of piss and shit, death and suffering—will prove woefully insufficient as we are forced to endure life’s tribulations: when we are on the rack or when a member of our family dies. But any philosophy that denies the second part of life’s proposition—that this world of ours is through it all, rich and lush, sexy and beautiful—will prove insufficient when we are free to live and not merely endure.

Then we try to talk about how Stoicism can answer those challenges, how it can provide analgesics through life’s tribulations, yes, but also how it can allow us to see the world anew, how it can challenge us to recognize, in the words of James Baldwin, the limitations of the infantile American quest of striving to be happy, how it can challenge us to see our lives instead through the lens of a tough and universal quest for daring and growth. How it can force us to take off the masks we fear we cannot live without, but know we cannot live within.

How do your students react to Stoicism? Do they see it as something that makes much immediate sense given their potential careers in the armed forces?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, they react pretty positively. Part of that fact is likely due to their unique military environment. Focusing on improvement and trying not to worry too much about those things outside your control are already baked into the basic operating environment around the Naval Academy. But I think they react well not only because of the ways in which they are different than typical college students but also because of the ways in which they are a lot like other college students (like the students in my very first class on the Stoics at Georgetown University, for example). They’re struggling to find meaning and purpose in a world that’s increasingly hostile to such endeavors. They are fighting to craft an identity in a world that is increasingly pushing us to view everything, even other people, even ourselves, as a brand.

And, I think Stoicism offers something useful for that universal problem. Stoicism lends itself well to aphorisms, to quotes, to introductory exercises that fit well within an existing world view. One does not need to wade knee-deep into a philosophical treatise to get something useful for our lives. But unlike so much that fills the shelves of the self-help section of any bookstore, Stoicism offers much more than a picture of an eagle soaring with a quote that seems uplifting precisely because it is so vacuous. Stoicism provides something for the novice who just wants a simple reminder or a quick quote to help get them through the day, but it also offers something for those who want to dig deeper and spend months, years, or even a lifetime trying to better figure out how these all pieces fit together into a coherent whole.

It’s far from the only system to do that, but it has an additional appeal for students who are about to enter a world that is more chaotic than the one their professors inhabited when they were in their twenties. That’s even more true at a place like the Naval Academy, where our students can find themselves in life-threatening situations pretty quickly after graduation, but I think we’re fooling ourselves if we don’t think that, given the current state of our world, students at other universities aren’t in a similar circumstance; they too are about to enter a world that is far less stable and less predictable than the one their parents found at a similar age.

Someone like Admiral Stockdale really bridges the gap between philosophy and real-world application. But to the Ancients, there was no such gap. Philosophy and the active life—including fighting and politics and a career—were related, if not the same thing. Why do you think that disconnect has happened?

I think it’s important first to recognize that we are likely to overestimate that gap by focusing primarily on certain areas of philosophy. If we shift our focus onto feminist philosophy or climate justice, to consider just two examples, there are scores of philosophers and non-philosophers who would be doing much more to bridge the gap than even those of us who are probably too quick to quote Seneca’s advice that philosophy ought to help us spurn with magnificent purpose the trifles that others fight for. So, perhaps those areas can teach us something about how to bridge the gap, the way Admiral Stockdale did. In all those cases, you have theorists and practitioners who, at times at least, resist the drive towards hyper-specialization. Theorists feel the need to understand practice, to influence it, to have something to say about it and to have something to say to those knee-deep in the muck and the mire. Likewise, you have practitioners who realize the utility of having some basic understanding of theory. They do not shy away from difficult and abstract treatises. They try to engage with theory productively and not dogmatically—even to criticize it when it needs to adapt. Stockdale was perhaps unique in that he played both of those roles so well at different times in his life: he was first a theorizing practitioner and later a practical theoretician. Most of us won’t do that, but we can still follow the advice of Epictetus, and strive to play our assigned part well.

Is there one Stoic or one text that lands with you most personally?  Do you have any favorite quotes?

O man. That’s like asking a parent which child they love the most. I’m actually in the very early stages of development of a Modern Stoic Handbook, something in the spirit of The Enchiridion (Which literally means “ready at hand”) that includes more than just Epictetus. I believe there’s a real benefit to seeing the diversity of opinion within what one of my modern philosophical heroes likes to refer to as “The big tent of Stoicism.” There’s a real benefit, for instance, in struggling to see how Epictetus and Seneca take a different view about the potential corrosive nature of external goods for those of us who are not yet Sages, while nonetheless both maintaining the ultimate unifying Stoic belief that these things have no ultimate value, positive or negative.  But if one were to make me settle on, let’s say a top 5 list of Stoic quotes, for today at least, in no particular order they would be:

“How much longer until you think yourself worthy of joy? How much longer until you do what is required? You have been taught fundamental principles and recognized their truth. For what sort of teacher are you waiting, what more do you require? What could justify your delay? If you busy yourself with idleness, fixing one day after another as the time when you shall begin attending to yourself, then you are certain to live a poor life and die a poor death. Make up your mind before it is too late: to live as one who is excellent, to let all that is best become within you an inviolable law. When you meet with anything burdensome or sweet, glorious or shameful, remember that the hour of struggle is at hand, the Olympic games have arrived, life may put off no longer. The struggle rests on a single day; a single action determines whether your progress is lost or maintained. That was how Socrates became Socrates, heeding nothing but the dictates reason in all he encountered. And you, even if you are not yet a Socrates, ought to live as one who would wish to be a Socrates.” — Epictetus

“Why strive for progress if a Sage is a frequent as a Phoenix? Wherein lies the difference between the Progressor and the common man if both are shackled, if each is joyous only if Fortune smiles upon them. The answer is that some are less closely bound, others fettered hand and foot. A person who has advanced toward the higher realm drags a loosened chain.  They are not yet free, but often they are often as good as free.” — Seneca

“We often find something admirable in the person who tells us “I’m going to tell it like it is.” Yet there is something artificial about such affected proclamations. We shouldn’t have to make explicit declarations of sincerity. It should be obvious, written in bold on your forehead. It should be audible in your voice and visible in your eyes.”  — Epictetus

“Life is long enough. It has been given in generous measure in order for the greatest things to be accomplished if we spend our days wisely. But when we squander our lives in luxury and carelessness we are eventually forced to realize that our greatest days were passing us by before we were even truly aware that we had begun to live. So it is—this life we receive is not short, but we make it so. We do not want for days, we are merely wasteful of those we have been given.” — Seneca

“One has to accept life on its own terms. Things will get thrown and things will even hit you. This life full of grief, sickness, and death can be met with joy, but never by denying its truths.” — Marcus Aurelius

What about Stoic exercises? Any favorites?

This semester the students in my class Stoic Philosophy and Leadership are trying out an exercise called “Let’s go Streaking.” The idea is to take your favorite Stoic activity (it can be any Stoic activity: morning preparations, journaling, evening reflections, death meditations … Actually, let me amend that to say almost any activity,  I once had some students at Georgetown who tried Epictetus’s recommendation to walk barefoot in the snow once a year, that would be difficult to do every day, and probably not advisable even if it were). Anyhow, the idea is for those of us who are not yet sages to use the psychological power of the streak to offer further motivation to continue to work on an activity that’s useful for our personal development. If you’ve journaled for 42 days in a row, each day you create for yourself even more reason to continue to do so on the next day—you don’t want to break the streak. I’ve found that exercise helpful at times in my life. Of course, that’s only a sample size of one; we’ll see what the students think once the experiment is over in May.

You also taught philosophy at the Air Force Academy but say that you “left over disagreement with the Office of Air Force Personnel Management about the importance of philosophy in a life well lived?”   So, what do you think the educational system needs to do better in terms of introducing philosophy and this kind of wisdom to young people?

Ha! Yeah, that’s a line I sometimes use to explain why I left the Air Force to get my Ph. D. But I want to be clear, I have no hard feelings, and not just because doing so would be about as un-Stoic as you could get. At the time, I was working with a top secret SCI clearance as a program manager with national defense contractors. People with that particular skill set were leaving the service every day for huge financial offers from industry. When the Air Force Academy philosophy department wanted to sponsor me for my Ph.D I  completely understand why the larger Air Force thought they couldn’t afford to turn someone working in classified satellite development into a full-time philosopher. Even as much as I love being a philosophy professor, I’d be lying if I didn’t have similar questions myself about the decision at the time. There was definitely a sleepless night or three when I put in my separation papers to go back to school to get my Ph.D. in philosophy and then a few a offers from industry came in. I remember thinking “I’m turning down a $250k a year in defense contracting for $20k a year to study philosophy why again?” But the only reason I had the opportunity to make that choice, a choice that despite the mathematics of economics was by far the better choice for me, the only reason I got to spend the bulk of my 30s studying the Stoics and the nature of rights, to read Plato and Rousseau is because in my 20s the Air Force was willing to send some math and science nerd off to read Wittgenstein and Rawls for a year and a half and then teach for a few years in Colorado Springs. I’m extremely grateful for that.

But to answer your actual question, I think a big part of the solution is professors offering philosophy that speaks to students’ experience and students’ willingness to try something difficult and new, to strive to understand something before dismissing it. I also think there are real benefits as well to finding ways to expose students to philosophy at an earlier age, the way, for instance, the Center for Philosophy for Children at Washington University, and dozens of similar programs, are doing.  I also have a history at Catholic universities and the U.S. military, so I’m probably more comfortable than most in being a bit more directive. My basic belief here pretty closely follows my great-grandmother’s requirements for eating vegetables when we went to the farm. She said we could make our own mind up about whether or not anything was right for us once we took the time to really try it.  When I asked how long it took to really try something, was it one bite, or four, or twenty,  she would always say it took about twenty-five years. That seems about right to me.

Are there any lesser-known Stoic texts (or academic texts) that you would encourage readers to explore?

Well, I suppose that depends upon where in their Stoic journey they may be. Epictetus’s Discourses is the must-read for getting a little deeper in Stoic theory, since working through the original Greek fragments can be disorienting, but it would hardly be considered lesser-known text. Likewise, once you have read Seneca’s letters, you should read his essays, particularly “On Consolation” and “On the Happy Life,” but anyone that’s gotten even knee deep in Stoicism would likely take those to be cannon rather than lesser known. If you’ve already read a fair bit of Marcus, Epictetus, and Seneca, then Musonius Rufus’s (Epictetus’s teacher) Lectures and Sayings is well worth reading, and I think he helps put Epictetus’s contributions in an interesting new light.

But I’m actually a big fan of branching out once you’ve read the big names in Stoicism to consider some of their heroes (e.g. Socrates, the Cynics, Heraclitus) and their Rivals (e.g., the Skeptics, the Epicureans, the Aristotelians). Now, obviously, Stoicism is the best of them all. I mean, anyone coming to the Daily Stoic is likely already aware of that undeniable fact. But I think we would be well served to remember that Seneca favorably quoted the Epicureans so often you might think he had taken up residence in The Garden, and Epictetus speaks in even more glowing terms about the Cynics. So there’s clearly important lessons to be drawn from these traditions—even for the most dyed in the wool Stoic. The Epicureans, for instance, can teach us about the importance of friendship and why we should avoid eating alone, even if Stoics would add that we ought to be able to be joyous on the days when we cannot do so. Likewise, the ancient Skeptics can provide interesting tools to help us avoid FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) and the paradox of choice in a world with so many constantly searching in vain for their next, best Instagram-able moment. They can also help put the Stoics claims about knowledge in an interesting new light. For any that would be interested in branching outside of the tradition in order to better understand Stoicism, four entries from David Hume’s Essays, Moral and Political offer a nice introduction. These short pieces on The Stoic, The Epicurean, The Platonist, and the Skeptic can be helpful before delving into the classics, such as Sextus Empiricus’s  Outlines of Pyrrhonism or Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things (Or for those who prefer more popular recent treatments of your ancient philosophies, Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve on the reemergence of a lost Epicurean text is an excellent read.)

As for academic reading, Tad Brennan’s The Stoic Life will definitely help guide readers into a more technical appreciation of Stoicism. I think his analysis of Stoic knowledge, for instance, is incredibly useful for providing an understanding of the foundations of the Stoic project. Margaret Graver‘s Stoicism and Emotion is extremely good as well, and her chapter on “The Tears of Alcibiades” is helpful for starting to understand the important (and I think too often underappreciated) role of The Progressor in Stoic theory. Although Heraclitus is not technically a Stoic (since he predated Socrates and Zeno), his thoughts on logos are essential to the Stoic framework, and Patrick Lee Miller’s work (e.g. his chapter on Heraclitus in Becoming God: Pure Reason in early Greek Philosophy) on Heraclitus’s seemingly impenetrable aphorisms is incredibly insightful.