Stoicism in the Military: An Interview with Professor Nancy Sherman

Many of history’s great military leaders have naturally gravitated towards Stoic philosophy and its ready prescriptions for resilience, courage and duty. Frederick the Great rode with the Stoics in his saddlebags, George Washington put on a play about Cato at Valley Forge, and more recently General Mattis carried Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations with him on deployments. Both Cato and Marcus Aurelius saw war and civil war first hand.

This is why we wanted to reach out to Professor Nancy Sherman, who is not only a professor of Stoicism but specifically an expert on Stoicism in the military, writing the book Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind. If you are not yet familiar with Professor Sherman, her credentials as a scholar are unparalleled. She is a distinguished University Professor and Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and holds a Ph.D. from Harvard University in philosophy, where she received Harvard’s George Plympton Adam’s Prize for the most distinguished doctoral dissertation in the area of history of philosophy. She is the author of several other books, including The Untold War: Inside the Hearts, Minds, and Souls of our Soldiers.

In our interview below we ask Professor Sherman about how and why she decided to focus on the connection between Stoicism and the military, why the philosophy has a deep appeal in the military, her time with James Stockdale and much more! Enjoy this interview with Nancy Sherman, and you can stay up to date with her work by visiting her website, nancysherman.com.

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You are well known in the Stoic community for your work Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind. Can you tell us why you decided to write the book and what brought you to philosophy?

Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind has its origins in my time at the U.S. Naval Academy in the mid-nineties when I served as their first Distinguished Chair in Ethics. I was brought in at the height of a cheating scandal and was asked to help “morally remediate” the midshipmen.  I was never quite sure what that term meant, but what followed was my developing an ethics curriculum for the Academy, some of which is still in place. The reading that resonated most with midshipmen and officers alike was Epictetus’s Handbook.  What I discovered was that the military community knew the ethos of “sucking it up” better than most.  In the face of war and long and ugly deployments,  the idea that one can fortify one’s self-sufficiency and happiness through discipline and mental (and physical) exercises really appealed to them. They were hungry for readings that could help them understand their own ways of standing up to loss and deprivation.

I am an ancient philosopher by training and so I thought it would be really important for that community to tangle with the ancient texts, not just superficially, by reading a little Epictetus or Marcus here and there, but by thinking about the blessings and curses of being stoic.  That’s the origin of Stoic Warriors.  In writing the book, I came to think that Seneca was a much underrated philosopher in the academic community. And part of my own “tangling” with texts led to my really appreciating his writing and his own struggles with being stoic and understanding its limitations.

My own journey to philosophy began as an undergraduate through an eliminative process. I came to college with this oversized question: What did it mean to be human? And I thought an elite school like Bryn Mawr, where I was headed, would be just the place to find some answers. I thought anthropology might be the discipline that held the secrets. But intro. anthropology was a physical anthropology course—bones and dessicated artifacts; that wasn’t going to do it for me. So I turned to English. And while I adored reading literature, the critical skills we honed had more to do with literary style and analysis than the meaty questions themselves to do with living a good, human life. I then turned to psychology. We worked with lab rats in those days, and I named mine, “Absalom,” as I was fixated on Faulkner then. But Skinnererian behavioral psych., and rewarding animals with food pellets when they pressed levers in order to condition the response, wasn’t quite what I imagined as answering the big question. Finally, after a brief romance with political science and political philosophy, I fell into philosophy. Aristotle is my real philosophical love, and he left a trail of questions in the Nicomachean Ethics that the Stoics picked up, to do with control, agency, and luck and their role in happiness.  I began to sort out some of those questions in my first and second books, Fabric of Character and Making a Necessity of Virtue.  Stoic Warriors was a way of deepening Aristotle’s worries by considering just how much control we have in our lives and what we lose when we push that desire for control too far. The books that followed Stoic Warriors  and forming a kind of trilogy, Untold War and Afterwar, were further ways of exploring the real (and sometimes tragic) collisions of good character, resilience, and luck in war and its aftermath.

 

Frederick the Great rode with the Stoics in his saddlebags, George Washington put on a rendition of Cato at Valley Forge, today even General Mattis carries Marcus Aurelius with him on deployments. Why is that you think Stoicism and soldiering have such a deep connection?

Stoicism has deep appeal to the military.  You are sailor, say a midlevel officer on a ship; you’re headed for home after a long deployment in the Persian Gulf. You and your fiance have set a wedding date set for August 1. But your ship gets turned around and you’re redeployed, heading back to the Persian Gulf for an unanticipated redeployment. You have to cancel the wedding and rescind all the invitations. You have no idea now when you’re going to get home and when and if you are going to get married. The example is a trivial one, but it points to the pervasive uncertainty of life  as a military person.  Here is where Epictetus’s voice offers solace.  “Some things are up to us and some are not….About the things that are not up to us, be ready to say, “You are nothing in relation to me.”     

The idea of letting go is part of the appeal of Stoicism to the military. Certainly the sailor I worked with who told me this story found consolation in remembering Epictetus.

Being a good soldier, sailor, marine, wingman, depends on smarts, moral conscience (saying ‘no’ to unjust wars and unjust conduct), leadership, strategy and technical skills, resilience, and much much more. But it also depends on accepting that certain things are beyond one’s control and due to the fog of war, the overwhelming lethality of the enemy, the incompetence of leaders you depend on, sheer contingency, and more. As humans, especially in war, where the devastation is so awful, we often want to take responsibility, fill in the gaps of our limited agency and anguish about what we could have and should have done. That is the nature of what I call  the moral guilt that comes with “accident luck,” and the sense of strict liability it can bring on.  The guilt can be reasonable, understandable, yet still not track real culpability.  Sometimes we are somewhat responsible for bad things, but not entirely and we don’t quite know how morally and psychologically to mitigate the feelings of  guilt and shame.   Being able to draw the line between your virtuous agency and what merely happens to you is a useful skill. And it can be psychologically critical.

Still, Stoic writing can at once be hyperbolic and nuanced. What you can’t control ought to be a matter of indifference: “Be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” But the Stoics also teach that what we can’t fully control, we must still care about and “select,” in their lingo, as “preferred indifferents” or “disselect” as “dispreffered indifferents.” We go for positive goods, for health, friendship, love objects, and avoid  negative ones, death, life threat, and so on, but without the clingy attachments or aversions that can derail our happiness.  I, myself, am not sure we can both “select” and “disselect” those goods and bads as the Stoics ask us to and yet stand toward them with the kind of equanimity that the Stoics demand. And that’s not just because most of us aren’t sages.  It’s because emotional attachments to those things we love requires real vulnerability. If you give that up and armor yourself against loss, you give up the possibility for real love.

The lesson here is from Cicero. He lost his beloved daughter Tullia in the winter of 45 BCE in childbirth and retreated from Rome to the Tusculan hills to immerse himself in Stoic self-help literature in order to find ways to cope with his profound grief.  “My sorrow is stronger than any consolation,” he writes to his friend Atticus. “I try all I know to bring my face if not my heart back to composure, if I can. While I do this I sometimes feel I am committing a sin, at others that I should be sinning if i failed to do it.” The Tusculan Disputations lays bare his struggle to find solace in Stoic tonics. The first step is external, to control comportment, in a good Roman way. This, it seems, he is able to do. But to convince himself at a deeper level that he didn’t suffer real loss, that his own happiness is not now marred, is something he cannot bring himself  to accept. Tullia is not just a preferred indifferent. She is a genuine good and a genuine, non-fungible component of his happiness.  What Cicero lays bare is an Aristotelian teaching that stands at sharp odds with Stoic teachings. As Cicero puts it, in a voice critical of the Stoics: “It is not within our power to forget or gloss over circumstances which we belive to be evil, at the very moment they are piercing us. They tear at us, buffet us, goad us, scorch us, stifle us—and you tell us to forget them?” (T.D. 3.35)  

I think we need to read and reread Cicero as we read the Stoics. For he, and to some degree Seneca, remind us routinely of the limits of Stoic aspirations.

 

You’ve had the rare honor to interview James Stockdale, who is probably the most well-known of the modern Stoics and arguably tested it under some of the most extreme circumstances. Can you tell us about what interviewing him was like?

I interviewed Jim Stockdale several times, but the last time was near the end of his life in his home in Coronado, California. Stockdale knew Epictetus’s Handbook by heart, and he could recite its lines seamlessly  in his own James Cagney-like voice. When I listened to him,  I came to think for a short while I was actually hearing Epictetus, or at least, some American re-incarnation of him!  Jim Stockdale was part of a team that included Sybil, his wife and co-author of their book, In Love and War. Stockdale’s release from seven and a half years as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton had much to do with her tireless work in Washington, including a famous visit with President Nixon, on behalf of the POW’s and those missing in action in Vietnam.  She was far from a quiet, demure wife. And she made it clear to me during my visit that day in Coronado that Stoicism was not her cup of tea, even if it was her husband’s.  Their attachment to each other was unmistakeable. Their remarkable correspondence and the uncanny way they buried  their secrets in those highly censored letters was a testament of their courageous love and sheer smarts as a couple that worked together in the most extreme adversity.  

Stockdale, you know, was not a converter. He told me repeatedly that while Stoicism was his salvation, he didn’t preach it to others. In solitary confinement, the POW’s would tap out in code to those on the older side of the wall: “Are you ok?”  He did that once and began, somehow, getting a bit preachy and Stoic. The responses from the other side stopped. There was dead silence. His listener had stopped listening. He told me, he concluded from thereon, more or less:  They had their ducks lined up one way. I had my ducks lined up another way. And that’s where we left it.

That said, as senior officer, he was head of the chain of command in prison, and Stoicism informed his command, both in terms of rules of governance within the chain and rules of engagement with guards. The theme was clearly Epictetan: “We are the masters of our fate,” which I describe at length in Stoic Warriors.

 

Speaking of James Stockdale, the Stoic most closely associated with him is Epictetus. There’s that famous quote when his helicopter was shot in Vietnam, “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” Yet we’ve found Epictetus is often the hardest to start with (and also had the least military experience). When you taught at the Naval College, was there a specific Stoic you felt was the most accessible? That your students were most interested in?

The midshipmen and officers at the Naval Academy, and I have to say, my Georgetown undergraduate students in general, find Epictetus very appealing. The epigrammatic style, the can-do philosophy, the sense of agency, positive thinking, and empowerment, all resonate.  But I also routinely teach Seneca. And I think Seneca, and his corpus as a whole, is far more interesting and nuanced. Seneca struggles hard with shedding tears and yet controlling them, with the different levels of emotional response—from physiological arousal to full-fledged assented evaluations, to wanting to give up worldly goods to being wed to them. He is honest in telling us that he is the Stoic doctor as well as the Stoic patient “lying ill in the same hospital.”  “Listen to me, therefore, as you would if I were talking to myself.” He gives us permission to grieve. He is very much the moral progressor, and not a sage or saint. His epistles and essays are well worth reading and rereading.

 

There is a sense in your book that Stoicism is in part a flawed philosophy, or at least, an incomplete one. Why do you think that is? What do you feel Stoicism is missing for our modern life—and modern warriors?

Stoicism has blessings and curses.  If we think we are bullet proof, whether as civilians or soldiers, we are sorely misled and put ourselves in grave psychological danger. At bottom, we become unprepared for loving and losing and being the kinds of object that can be loved or lost, by parents, spouses, and children alike. In war and peacetime, as combatants or noncombatants, we may face unspeakable horrors and life threats and indignities, large and small. But the very numbness that can be so adaptive to survival,  can also erect walls that stand in the way of human attachment and trust. I am all for Stoic teachings of empowerment of agency. But we are, as Marcus Aurelius knew well, citizens of the universe, attached to each other, and deeply affected by the social worlds and practices and institutions of which we are a part. To forget our membership and responsibilities in the social world and how that affects our life chances is to forget who we are.  

 

Are there any Stoic practices you’ve adopted in your own life? Any favorite passages or practices?

Relevant to the above remarks, there is a passage of Marcus I often bring to mind. It is fairly graphic and drives home its point vividly:  

“If you have ever seen a dismembered hand or food or head cut off, lying somewhere apart from the rest of the trunk, you have an image of what a person makes of himself, so far as in him lies, when he refuses to associate his will with what happens and cuts himself off and does some unneighborly act. You have made yourself an outcast from the unity which is according to nature…you have cut yourself off.” (Meditations 8.34, see Stoic Warriors , ch.7.)

The cultivation of empathy is critical, and what Marcus is calling for is a real affective and visceral appreciation that we are citizens of the cosmos or universe. Cicero repeats the thought in a more cerebral tone that Kant will pick up on in his Enlightenment philosophy. We owe duties of respect to all humans, says Cicero: “We must exercise a respectfulness toward men, both towards the best of them and also towards the rest….In short we ought to revere, to guard and to preserve the common affection and fellowship of the the whole of humankind.” (On Duties,1.153-160; Stoic Warriors , ch.7.)

And so, respect, for the Stoics, is the cement of the global community. We support and sustain each other. Who we are, normatively speaking, owes much to those deep levels of just institutions and benevolent ties, and our hope in them. That teaching needs to be put side by side with any take-home lesson about Stoic individual empowerment and self-sufficiency. The Stoics were globalists. Their vision of virtue and goodness stopped not individual or small polis, but with the global community.

 

Last question: What are you working on next?

I have long been interested in the emotions and how we cultivate and express them. I also have done modern dance much of my adult life. I’m now combining those interests and thinking about emotional expression, in part, in dance. I had a fellowship last year at NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts and began to think about these issues in earnest. It’s, of course, a continuation of my interest in the Stoics, who put forth one of the most sophisticated and enduring account of the emotions.