Do you not know that life is a soldier’s service?
The stirrings of Greek Stoic’s Epictetus philosophy were formed by his early subjugation as slave to Nero’s secretary, Epaphroditus. Freed after Nero’s death, Epictetus went on to write his Discourses and the Stoic Manual: the Enchiridion. Although Epictetus had never been a soldier, his slavery immersed him in the battleground that is the human will. Each time he walked the streets of Rome, the consequences of its evil leadership were evident. His statement, “Do you not know that life is a soldier’s service?” applies to each of us, whether uniformed or not.
Former Roman Centurion Aurelius, from my novel My Name is Saul, describes Nero’s Rome:
The suddenness of my demotion, followed by my return to a Rome I no longer recognized, nearly destroyed me. I had been a centurion since the age of twenty-two and had expected to live out my years as a warrior or die honorably on the battlefield. Although it had been three years since the Great Fire, my native city remained shattered, ruined. Yes, of course, I knew about the week-long fire; we all did. And I thought I was prepared for its aftermath. But nothing could have girded me for such massive devastation.
This Rome was unrecognizable— nothing like the beautiful, vibrant, and cultured center of learning I had grown up in. Even after three years, most of its formerly magnificent temples remained in ruins; there had been no attempt to rebuild them. As I walked the streets, now populated by Idumeans, Hispanians, Numidians, Franks, Syrians, Egyptians, and slavish people from all ends of the Empire, I seldom heard Latin spoken.
These hordes teemed into the city for the free food, housing, and depraved entertainment provided by Nero as he fought to maintain control of the senate. The reasons for my tribune’s decision to send me on this mission are irrelevant to my purpose here; what matters is the fact that I craved a way to externalize my humiliation; to find someone worthy of my enmity. I discovered him in Paul the Apostle, enemy of the Empire.
Life as a soldier did
specifically apply to Viet Nam war Naval pilot James Bond Stockdale. Stockdale’s Stanford graduate school study of Epictetus, Zeno and their Stoic philosophy provided him the fortitude to survive a seven- year imprisonment in Hanoi, Viet Nam.
In a Hoover Essay called Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, the former Naval pilot writes a gripping integration of Stoic philosophy with his experience. I’ve embedded it here, because this astounding tale of one man’s war with the impossible warrants our attention and our reverence.
The truth, beauty, and clarity of Stoicism has been eclipsed by contemporary and superficial interpretation of Stoics as vacuous robots impervious to pain. In so doing, entirely missing the goal of Stoicism: the serenity of mind that can be achieved only through detachment.
Stockdale’s story is far from prideful or even heroic. Because he knew it was impossible to convey the reality of a torture so severe that a man surrenders his soul to avoid it, he writes almost casually. Do you not know that life is a soldier’s service?
Stockdale’s testimony of how and why Stoic philosophers became the foundation of his life is magnificent. And in an odd way, one I can identify with. My undergraduate college years were, at times, spectacularly bleak. The Episcopalian faith I grew up in was gone. Neither family nor friends could understand why attending church was the very worst kind of hypocrisy. And yet I was hungry for wisdom, for truth.
I don’t recall now how Meditations showed up: Marcus Aurelius’s practical Stoic wisdom for life 2100 years ago, and now. But reading it provided me sanity:
When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I will 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 recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own-not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me. No one can implicate me in ugliness. Nor can I feel anger at my relative or hate him. We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth upper and lower. To obstruct one another is unnatural. To feel anger at someone, to turn your back on him: these are obstructions.
Writing the ancient novels.
provided a perfect excuse to return to Xeno, Seneca and Epictetus. I, Claudia and My Name is Saul’s, protagonists Lucius Pontius Pilate and Saul of Tarsus are well-versed in Greek philosophy. Especially Stoicism. I have no passages from Pontius Pilate to support that statement but St. Paul’s letters are replete with Stoic philosophy. If one looks for it.
Both men were born into wealthy families and were therefore tutored by the finest minds of the time: Greek philosophers. The Romans copied the Persians in their benevelance toward the culture and religion of their conquered people. No attempts were made to coerce worship of their gods. This was true especially for Greece.
Until reading Stockdale’s brief monograph, however, I’d not read the “Stoic Handbook”: Enchiridion. Embedded here in case you’d like to refer to its sage counsel. Here’s another pithy fragment of wisdom from Epistetus:
Things that are not within our own power, not without our Will, can by no means be good or evil…Evil lies in the evil use of moral power and good the opposite. The course of the will determines good or bad fortune, and one’s balance of misery and happiness. [Enchiridion]
Early in this brief booklet, Stockdale quotes Edward Gibbon, the famed historian attesting to the power of Stoic training. “If a man were called upon to fix the period in the history of the world during which the condition of the human race was most happy and prosperous,…without hesitation would name that which ended with …the death of Marcus Aurelius. The united reigns of the five emperors of the era are possibly the only period of history in which the happiness of great people was the sole object of government.” Each of the five emperors was a Stoic.
If it’s been a while since you’ve studied the Stoics, Ryan Holiday’s site might be useful to you. Or to someone you know who could use a deep dive into virtue. Ryan’s thoughts and books are worth writing about.
One last point: Here are Ryan Holiday’s thoughts on the value of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.