The World of Epictetus

We are in it now.

Marty HeflinSep 67

On September 9, 1965, Jim Stockdale was piloting his A-4 Skyhawk off the deck of the USS Oriskany over North Vietnam. Banking right after making landfall, he felt the air frame shudder and realized his engine had been hit by small arms fire. What some pilots of the era called the “golden BB.” He climbed to 6,000 feet hoping to get back over the water, but the engine gave out and he was forced to eject. As his chute opened and he surveyed the ground below, he said he told himself, “I am leaving the world of technology behind and entering the world of Epictetus.”

Epictetus was a Greek Stoic philosopher who had been born a slave. His principal teaching and a core Stoic principal is that we must not worry about the events that are beyond our control. We must accept these things and dispassionately process them, relying on our own self-control to achieve the best outcome. Stockdale landed in a small Vietnamese village. He was brutally beaten and then sent to Hoa Lo Prison, aka the “Hanoi Hilton,” where he would stay until February 12, 1973. He would endure countless bouts of torture, being hung by his arms in chains for hours on end. Numerous times, the North Vietnamese attempted to get him to make propaganda films, but he would purposely disfigure himself by cutting and beating his own face so they could not use him. Stockdale said that Epictetus taught him to master what he could control and he jokingly said he could control how he looked.

Asked about the experience years later, Stockdale replied, “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.”

He did. When he returned stateside, he was so badly disfigured from the torture that he could no longer fly. However, he had earned the Congressional Medal of Honor and numerous Navy citations. He stayed on in the educational side of the Navy rising eventually to the rank of Vice Admiral. He developed several courses on ethics, one of which I was privileged to take during my Naval career. One of his central teachings in the world of philosophy was the enumeration of the “Stockdale Paradox.” When asked about who didn’t make it out of the hell of the Hoa Lo Prison, Stockdale responded:

“The optimists. Oh, they were the ones who said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ And Christmas would come, and Christmas would go. Then they’d say, ‘We’re going to be out by Easter.’ And Easter would come, and Easter would go. And then Thanksgiving, and then it would be Christmas again. And they died of a broken heart….

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.”

I thought about this when I awoke a week and a half ago to the images of desperate people clinging to the wheel well of a US Air Force jet taxiing for take off. As the grim news of the botched withdrawal permeated the airwaves to the extent that even the lap-dog media could no longer hide the incompetence of the current regime, I mumbled Admiral Stockdale’s famous A-4 exit – “we have entered the world of Epictetus now.” We are no longer in control. To some extent, this has been true of our lives since the madness of the response to COVID-19 was unleashed on the Western world, but I fear it is about to get a lot worse.

  1. NATO – an organization that Democrats mocked President Trump for trying to get our allies to pay their fare share. I believe it is done. No ally for a quarter century or more will be able to trust the United States. How ironic that the regime that came to power on the promise that he would make our allies “trust us again,” just shattered that trust. It’s fine and well for us to get out of Afghanistan and we should have, but not like that. You let your allies know you are doing it. Never in our history has an American President been censured by the British Parliament.
  2. Terrorism – the Biden regime is under the naive belief that the Taliban can be normalized. They are further deluded into believing that the Taliban are distinct from Al Queda or ISIS or ISIS-K (whatever that is). All of these tribesmen may have periodic squabbles, but they share in the Islamist view that the West, and the United States in particular is the Great Satan. Now they have a well-armed caliphate (again) and Afghanistan will become the great salt lick for every whacked out Jihadi in the world. I commented the other day that my fear was we will look back on this time as the “First Afghan War.” In some capacity, we will have to go back.
  3. Military Might – When I apply the Stockdale Paradox to the state of our current military, the brutal truth is our senior officer corps is corrupt and incompetent. Though our boots have won damned near every engagement they have been thrown into, we have not won a war since 1945. I lay that squarely at the quality of our senior officer corps. They are political climbers more concerned with satisfying their overlords in Washington than winning wars. And they know that they are completely unaccountable. When their tenure in the military is up and they start collecting their pensions, they know that they will end up on boards of defense contractors or becoming the next Secretary of Defense – also completely unaccountable.

    The sad fact is, however, our enemies know it too. We were just run out of Afghanistan by a bunch of 6th Century cave-dwellers with 1950’s vintage technology. Not because we couldn’t defeat them, but because we wouldn’t.
  4. The Political Class – utterly and completely unaccountable. We have gone from “failure is not an option,” to “failure is fine…especially when I get paid for it!” This is not only true of the current regime, it is true for both parties and the ossified elite mandarins of DC being escorted around and told what to think by the petty bureaucrats that actually run the joint.
  5. The Economy – I’ll just leave it at this – how long do you think that the Dollar can remain the world’s reserve currency when our enemies now know we are essentially a paper tiger that lacks the will to fight? Do you understand what happens when that fall from grace occurs in an economy that is built on trillions of debt? Short version – not good.

These are but a few of the areas that we must look at the brutal truth. But, staying with Stockdale’s Paradox, we must never lose faith that we will prevail in the end. In Tolstoy’s famous phrase, “what then must we do?”

As my father-on-law was fond of saying, “go from where you are.” I believe we are at a very serious inflection point in this country. I believe we will emerge from it better, wiser and stronger, but there is a good chance it could tear us asunder. Here is what I believe is going to happen.

We will be tested seriously on the world stage militarily and we will fail. I don’t know if it will be Taiwan, the Ukraine, the Persian Gulf or here at home, but our intelligence capability is terribly politicized, bureaucratic and incompetent and we will get caught. As sad and embarrassing as that failure will be, it will bring about a badly needed awakening. This will result – at last! – in a thorough review of the purpose and structure of our military, it’s design and procurement process, it’s training and it’s leadership. This will result in an understanding that the purpose of the military is to kill people and break things in the name of the national interest. A smaller, less bureaucratic and far more efficient and lethal military will emerge from this process. That force will quickly regain the stature of our history – “no greater friend, no worse enemy.”

We will be tested economically and will probably face a severe contraction. As painful as that will be, it will cause a restructuring of our economy. At the Federal level, the government will be forced to shrink. This will return much of the burden of governance to the state level as the Republic was originally designed. States that have adult policies will prosper, those that focus more on social engineering projects and failed technologies will struggle. They will lose population and will eventually start to follow the models of success – the populace will demand it. In the end, we will return to something that more closely resembles the Constitutional Republic we were founded to be instead of the kleptocratic oligarchy we have morphed into. We will once again become the beacon of freedom and prosperity. This is in our DNA, we have been numbed by too many years of comfort into avoiding it, but it will return.

The setbacks I see coming will have one tremendous benefit. It will bring us closer together as a nation. It will bring our families closer together. We will return to an economy of production not consumption and we will emerge stronger, freer and better.

In one of Admiral Stockdale’s classes he was asked how he stayed motivated to keep living in the carnage and pain of the Hanoi Hilton. He related that he recited a lot of verse to himself and one of his favorites was a set of lines from 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.

We will be tested, we have entered the world of Epictetus. We must choose to be the captains of our soul or we will be lost.


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