The last time a politician with a philosophical bent stood up before the American people, as Vice Presidential Candidate James Stockdale did, and asked “Who am I? Why am I here?”, the media and the uninformed public snickered. What was a “philosopher” doing on stage at a vice presidential debate? There is no place for that in politics—least of all his brand of “Stoic” philosophy.
It’s a revealing moment in modern culture. The philosophy Admiral Stockdale had studied, as a grad student at Stanford, was an obscure school known as Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman philosophy of discipline, action, and resistance. He was particularly fond of the work of Epictetus, the former Roman slave whose code of engagement with the struggles of daily life would become a touchstone for the last of the good emperors, Marcus Aurelius. It was Epictetus’s name who Stockdale invoked as he parachuted down from his A-4E Skyhawk into North Vietnam, certain he would be taken prisoner (and was—in the same prison as future Senator John McCain). It was Stoicism that Stockdale used to survive in the camps and what he would write several books about when he was finally released.
Yet even though Stockdale clearly saw philosophy and action—real world application—as inseparable in Stoicism, and even though three of the most famous Stoic philosophers in history (Cato, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius) were actively involved in political life at the highest levels, today, we’re still facing the same haughty ignorance that led us to mock a hero and deprive us of a chance to bring wisdom to the political conversation.