Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience by Nancy Sherman (Oxford University Press, May 11, 2021, 304 pages)
When I hear the term stoic wisdom, the image that comes to my mind is of “dudes in togas” spouting philosophy on a street corner in ancient Greece or Rome. Despite having read Marcus Aurelius and other ancient Greco-Roman philosophers, however, my default perception of stoicism has been to think and act in the manner of the fictional Star Trek Vulcan, Mr. Spock. Essentially, no matter what happens, never let them see you sweat.
But actual stoic philosophy is quite different than the rigid logic of Spock. And in her book, Stoic Wisdom, Sherman does an effective job explaining the suitability of stoicism to the military experience. She does so through nine lessons that illustrate how stoic wisdom can be used to implement a personal resilience program. Sufficiently detailed information on the lives and philosophical contributions of the major stoics are also provided, allowing the reader to conduct follow up on the works of individual stoics.
The author illustrates both the benefits and the “how” of adopting stoic philosophy or at least incorporating some facets of the philosophy into daily life. In one example, she suggests understanding what is and is not in your control and managing your response to life accordingly. Anyone who has read Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning will recognize the main theme of that book in Stoic Wisdom and appreciate the practical framework provided for implementation.
Sherman cites the stoic stand-out Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ graphic description and discussion of the human “debris” of a fresh battlefield; and she tells of Vietnam prisoner of war Rear Admiral Jim Stockdale’s the reliance on stoicism to see him through his seven-year ordeal in the Hanoi Hilton. The author also includes stories of two stoic philosophers, Socrates, and Seneca to illustrate how they stoically faced the constant threat of death from, and eventual execution by, their governments. Another fundamental stoic philosopher mentioned in the book was actually an enslaved Greek, Epictetus, subject to the daily uncertainty, physical and mental abuse, and debilitating culture surrounding slaves.
Stoic Wisdom was written during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic and the contentious national political scene and civil unrest of 2020. While Sherman attempts to bring the lessons of the two thousand-year-old philosophy to today’s landscape, considering that “news is the first draft of history,” and these contemporary events are as yet unresolved, she runs the risk of distracting readers. On balance, however, given the uniqueness, applicability, and utility to military veterans, Stoic Wisdom is recommended strongly to anyone seeking practical methods to build or rebuild mental resilience.
Note: This review is based on a pre-release manuscript.
Book review submitted by Terry LLoyd who retired from the Air Force in 2000, at the rank of Senior Master Sergeant. He retired again in 2019 from a career in civil airport management and is currently a consultant in the airport and aviation industry and a paid freelance journalist and writer. His writing includes articles for a regional Orlando Florida area newspaper, focusing on veterans and our military history and heritage. He is also the National Director, Legislative Affairs for the Armed Forces Retirees Association (www.afra.org).