On September 9, 1965, while flying from the flight deck of the USS Oriskany on a mission over North Vietnam, Naval aviator James Stockdale’s Douglas A-4 Skyhawk was hit by antiaircraft fire. His plane was disabled and began to fall out of the sky. Stockdale made the decision to eject from his aircraft over enemy held territory. In 1993, in a speech delivered at the Great Hall of King’s College, Stockdale described his thoughts immediately after realizing he must abandon his plane:
After ejection…I whispered to myself: I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus… as I ejected from that airplane was the understanding that a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for (A) those things that are ‘up to him’ and (B) those things that are ‘not up to him.’ Another way of saying it is (A) those things that are ‘within his power’ and (B) those things that are ‘beyond his power.’ Still another way of saying it is (A) those things that are within the grasp of ‘his Will, his Free Will’ and (B) those things that are beyond it. All in category B are ‘external,’ beyond my control, ultimately dooming me to fear and anxiety if I covet them. All in category A are up to me, within my power, within my will, and properly subjects for my total concern and involvement. They include my opinions, my aims, my aversions, my own grief, my own joy, my judgments, my attitude about what is going on, my own good, and my own evil.
Stockdale, who upon his return to the United States was awarded the nation’s highest medal for valor, the Medal of Honor, explained what he meant by what “my own good, and my own evil” by quoting Alexander Solzhenitsyn who suffered in the Soviet Union’s gulag system:
It was only when I lay there on the rotting prison straw that I sensed within myself the first stirrings of good. Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not between states nor between classes nor between political parties, but right through every human heart, through all human hearts.
As Stockdale put it, “The only good and evil that means anything is right in your own heart, within your will, within your power, where it’s up to you. Enchiridion [of Epictetus] 32: ‘Things that are not within our own power, not without our Will, can by no means be either good or evil’…In short, what the Stoics say is ‘Work with what you have control of and you’ll have your hands full.’”
Stockdale learned from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus that we must differentiate between what lies under our control and what lies outside it. We may attempt to influence Fate, but we cannot change it. This sentiment is reminiscent of the Serenity Prayer given at meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
Epictetus also taught the prisoner pilot that negative circumstances provide the observer with an opportunity to act virtuously instead of being consumed with the notion that happiness is derived from being able to do what we want at all times. As Epictetus says, “Do not ask things to happen as you wish, but wish them to happen as they do happen, and your life will go smoothly.”
While we may never experience the travails of being a prisoner of war, being tortured for days on end, deprived of basic necessities, or witnessing the horrors of captivity, we still experience deprivation and agony in degrees. Each day we hear of new wars, terrorist attacks, diseases, and economic collapse. The time we inhabit is one of struggle. Stockdale’s depiction of his time spent in a North Vietnamese prison cell and his use of the teachings of the Stoics to give him resilience to the slings of his adversaries may also give us, those that inhabit this time of decadence and decay, the resilience to accept the things we cannot control and focus instead “[w]ork with what [we] have control…”
Our present age has been called many things, but one term, which may be the most descriptive, is that of the Kali Yuga. This denotation is derived from the Sanskrit term meaning the “Age of [the demon] Kali” or the “Age of Vice.” Modern scholars from the Traditionalist School seized this ancient Hindu concept and applied it to the time in which we now live. One such scholar was Julius Evola. He believed that mankind is living in the Kali Yuga of the Hindu tradition, the Dark Age of unleashed, materialistic appetites.
Evola described this present darkness by quoting from Hindu scripture: “In reference to what I previously said concerning what ancient traditions called the Dark Age (Kali Yuga), I will now describe some of the features of this age found in an ancient Hindu text, the Visnu Purana. I will put in brackets what I consider to be the contemporary applications”:
Outcastes and barbarians will be masters of the banks of the Indus, Darvika, the Chandrabhaga and Kashmir…The prevailing caste will be the [Outcasts]… Vaisyas will abandon agriculture and commerce and gain a livelihood by servitude or the exercise of mechanical arts [proletarization and industrialization] …Kshyatrias instead of protecting will plunder their subjects: and under the pretext of levying customs will rob merchants of their property [crisis of capitalism and of private property; socialization, nationalization, and communism]…Wealth [inner] and piety [following one’s dharma] will decrease day by day until the whole world will be wholly depraved. Then property alone will confer rank [the quantity of dollars – economic classes]; wealth [material] will be the only source of devotion; passion will be the sole bond of union between the sexes; falsehood will be the only means of success in litigation….
The Visnu Purana continues its depiction of the Kali Yuga and Evola continues his application of that ancient text to this present age. There will be the exploitation of the earth and its resources; cowardice and a death of honor in political forms; simple ritual will replace higher forms of religion, a democratization of the rites; men will lose faith in the gods; all men will be considered equal; traditional nobility will dissolve and be replaced with the bourgeoisie and plutocracy; greed will be the ultimate driving force; pseudo-intellectuals will consider themselves equal to the priesthood; superstition will reign; and “men having deviated into heresy, iniquity will flourish, and the duration of life will therefore decrease.”
Given this portrayal of the Age of Vice, no one can wonder why Evola and other Traditionalist
School philosophers grasped onto the Kali Yuga as the proper term of our present epoch. Degeneracy, leveling, weakness, and disrespect for tradition all prevail in our modern culture. Those who accept strength, honor, virtue, or tradition in any form are called bigoted or worse. What is a man of honor to do but abandon the world?
Some have called for a return to the earth and a preparation for the collapse of civilization. Evola himself said that we must be “men among the ruins.” I too believe that society is a breaking point and that we must prepare for all eventualities, but I also believe it is wrong to assume that the Traditionalist ideal can be found in an agrarian tribe somewhere in the wastelands of a post-apocalyptic tomorrow. Instead we must look to the Golden Age where mankind made the most achievements to science, art, literature, and the industry. The computer used by the anarcho-primitivist Heathen was not developed in a tribe of 200 souls, but in a city of millions.
Admiral Stockdale’s account of his time spent as a prisoner of war leaves those of us inhabiting the Kali Yuga with a prescription to ease our burdens and harden our bodies, minds, and spirits to the vicissitudes of this age. We may find this salve in the words of the Stoics who understood that we must focus on the things that can be changed, the weaknesses in our own bodies, minds, and spirits. Evola likewise admits, “certain connections [with his philosophy] could even be established with ancient Stoic ethics, which likewise advocated an interior sovereignty,” which would enable a man to stand among the ruins of the Kali Yuga.
Stockdale describes such a methodology: “Man had to take command of his inner self; control himself. The Stoic goal was not the good society, but the good man…To get my message today, you have only to have a general understanding of the message of one man: the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, the outstanding pagan moralist of the Roman Empire… we’ll discuss the worthiness of what I’ll call Epictetus’s ‘Code of Conduct’ to be part of us as warriors…‘What do I care,’ Epictetus asked, ‘whether all existing things are composed of atoms, or of indivisibles, or of fire and earth? Is it not enough to learn the true nature of the good and the evil?’”
At the end of his talk in the Great Hall of King’s College, Stockdale concluded with an anecdote about a note given to him by a fellow prisoner:
“Back in my cell, after the guard locked the door, I sat on my toilet bucket––where I could stealthily jettison the note if the peephole cover moved––and unfolded Hatcher’s sheet of low-grade paper toweling on which, with a rat dropping, he had printed, without comment or signature, the last verse of Ernest Henley’s poem Invictus:
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishment the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.”
One thought on “Stoicism: Panacea for a Modern Dark Age”
Thank you for writing about this noble man.
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