Tools For Your Mind. Stoic Philosophy And The Profession Of Arms.

A word of note: Much of this post will be drawing heavily from the article written by Michael Evans entitled “Stoic Philosophy and the Profession of Arms” and his “Captains Of The Soul.” It is highly recommend to click the links and read both all the way through. I will be using some quotes to make points, but both are that important. Another important source is blog post from The Defensive Training Group entitled Re-Re-Post: Stoicism: Necessary Development for the NPT Leader and Member.


Stoicism. You may have heard of it before. What does mean? The most common definitions show Stoicism as “the endurance of pain or hardship without a display of feelings and without complaint.” But this is too simple of a definition. Stoicism is more than that. At times it seems that we in the community talk endlessly about this gun, or that bit of gear as if that is all you need. Other talk about the need for training and skills to help you “survive and thrive” in a SHTF situation. But what about skills for your mind and soul? This is where Stoicism can be a tool for you.


First some quick history. In a nutshell stoicism developed around 300 B.C. with the philosopher Zeno and his student Chrysippus in Greece. It grew in popularity and survived even the Roman Empire conquering the region. In fact, stoicism today is heavily influenced by its most famous Roman adherent, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius.

Stoicism at it heart espouses the idea of being free of suffering through peace of mind, but not the peace of mind that most of us think of today. Definitions change over the years. The ancient thought of peace of mind as being objective and being clear minded when judging or thinking about a situation. Being able to clearly think through a decision, with logic and an understanding of natural law and the order of nature was key. Stoicism is thus about empowerment by perception—a cultivation of an invincibility of the will by minimizing personal vulnerability through a mixture of Socratic self-examination and control of the emotions.(Evans, Captains)

To make this a little more understandable in today’s language: Professional victims and purveyors of victimhood need not apply.

Stoicism is not about being a robot, or a Vulcan like Mr. Spock. It is about a conscious effort to understand what you are facing, change what you can change (most often our own thought process), and accept what we cannot change. Much like the well known Serenity Prayer. One of the best known Stoics in American Military History was the late Vice Admiral James Stockdale. As a POW for over seven years in the Hanoi Hilton, he remarked the following: “I never lost faith in the end of the story, I never doubted not only that I would get out, but also that I would prevail in the end and turn the experience into the defining event of my life, which, in retrospect, I would not trade.” But, he also added: “This is a very important lesson. You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” 

(More of Stockdale’s thoughts can also be read in his 1993 speech Courage Under Fire which was delivered to King’s College in London. I have it printed out in a binder with a printed out copy of The Farmer At War, which is about the plight of the farmers in Rhodesia during the late 1970s. Stoics every single one of them.)


So why isn’t Stoicism taught more in schools today? Well, look at the state of education in our country today. Classical Western Civilization is not taught. The history of victim classes is. Evans writes (emphasis mine):

The greatest challenge to the Western profession of arms comes not from our external enemies, formidable though some of them are, but from within our own society. The rise of postmodernism and anti-rationalism since the 1960s combined with the celebrity culture of the mass media and the social revolutions in youth pacifism, radical feminism and the rise of psychotherapy have created a self-esteem society based on moral relativism. One of the casualties of the rise of such a society has been what the American cultural analyst Susan Jacoby, in her 2008 book The Age of American Unreason, calls Western middlebrow culture—the very culture which was traditionally responsible for supplying the armed forces with many of its best recruits.

As Jacoby recounts, middlebrow culture represented a culture of aspiration that was located halfway between lowbrow or common culture and the highbrow intellectual culture of the literati and the learned professions. In the English-speaking West, middlebrow culture lasted from the 1880s until the 1970s and embraced the best of the working class and of the lower middle class. It was a culture of effort and self-improvement that aspired to higher education and an appreciation of the arts. Middlebrows included liberal Protestant, Jewish and Roman Catholic families, all of whom shared a common pride in the primacy of family values, in the importance of community identity and in the imperative of religious faith. Many aspects of middlebrow culture could often be found in the Australian Labor Party, and the rise and fall of its values is well captured by Kim Beazley Snr’s famous remark that when he joined the ALP in the 1930s it was composed of the cream of the working class; when he left it in the 1970s it was made up of the dregs of the middle class.

What gradually destroyed the West’s literate middlebrow culture as a bastion of community knowledge and moral standards were the combined forces of three upheavals: the sexual revolution of the 1960s; the insidious rise of postmodernism and moral relativism inside the universities in the 1970s; and the mass media technology revolution of the 1980s and 1990s. The late social historian Christopher Lasch catalogued the grim impact of these revolutions on middle-class culture in his books The Culture of Narcissism (1979) and The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy(1995). Lasch demonstrated in devastating fashion how the ominous combination of decaying public institutions, a coarse electronic media and the rise of an academic pseudo-rationalist elite have created an increasingly banal society defined by “the abolition of shame”.

In the new millennium, traditional middlebrow values based on family, church and school have long since been swamped by a tsunami of secularism and moral decline that has left us with a public culture dominated by effete celebrities and corporate media billionaires united by their lack of civic virtue. The “abolition of shame” has bequeathed to us a growing underclass of single-parent families led by unmarried mothers on welfare. This underclass has, in turn, produced a generation of fatherless and dysfunctional boys dominated by dangerous varieties of street culture. Increasingly, the kind of traditional manly virtue passed from fathers to sons that has been central to the success of Western civilisation has been replaced by fatherless social alienation, drug abuse and gang membership. This process of social dislocation is daily accelerated by a twenty-four-hour infotainment media that appears devoted to endlessly portraying crude language, misfit behaviour and violent action as acceptable norms of male social behaviour.

Central to the West’s middlebrow collapse of good taste and decorum is the belief that popular culture transmitted by the internet—surely the biggest toilet wall in the history of the human race—can in some way replace the study of great books as a serious medium for education. In educational circles today one can find any number of defenders of the virtues of electronic learning from behind screens. Such people are merely the latest purveyors of junk thought.

Those aspects of the collapse of middlebrow culture that have disturbed me most in my work as a scholar of military affairs and as teacher of strategy at the Australian Defence College are the disappearance of essential cultural knowledge and the apparent end of the West’s distinctive honour culture—both of which have occurred at the hands of postmodernism and relativism. Two examples will suffice to illustrate the problems. In mid-2009, in a College syndicate activity that included a discussion of moral philosophy, a Directing Staff member proceeded to discuss the Old Testament Book of Job and its teachings on the unfair moral economy of the universe. As the staff member spoke, he was met by secular bewilderment and it rapidly became evident that no Australian officer in the class had ever heard of Job. Indeed, the only course member who could discuss the sufferings of Job proved to be a Pakistani Army officer who, because he had attended a British-modelled private school in Lahore, had been exposed to a course in Western civilisation and had thus studied the Old Testament. It is a sobering thought that at a time when we in the West are preaching the need to understand foreign culture, many in our society barely understand our own. (Evans, Stoic)

Evans argues that at it core, especially for those in the profession of arms, that there are Eight Moral Lessons from Stoicism. I will only list them here. Read the article for more detail:

Eight Moral Lessons:

  1. Develop an understanding of the meaning of a human life.
  2. How a military professional (or anyone for that matter) should face his day.
  3. Knowing the difference between what one can and cannot control.
  4. Happiness can only be found from within.
  5. Events do not necessarily hurt us, but our views of them can.
  6. Character matters more than reputation.
  7. Renounce self-conceit and arrogance.
  8.  Finding the line or path of goodness in life.

There is so much more to learn. Look at the popularity of Bushido and the “Viking” culture in our military today. Why do you think they are so popular as opposed to Stoicism. There are many similarities amongst the three of them. I look forward to your thoughts.


Clayton Shackelford