Author Interviews

Stoic Wisdom

At a time of extraordinary uncertainty and anxiety, we are all searching for ways to stay calm and keep despair at bay. In STOIC WISDOM: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, Nancy Sherman draws on the wisdom of Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, and others to bring ancient ideas to bear on 21st-century concerns—from workers facing stress and burnout to first responders in a pandemic, from soldiers on the battlefield to citizens fighting for racial justice.

Today, Stoicism has made a big comeback—from Silicon Valley and the business world to the military, in self-help circles, in the field of psychotherapy, and even with the alt-right. A renowned expert in ancient and modern ethics, Sherman provides a corrective to the misconceptions, and in some cases toxic distortions, that have come along with Stoicism’s revival. In the process, she reveals a profound and surprising insight about the Stoics: They never believed, as Stoic popularizers often hold, that rugged self-reliance or indifference to the world around us is at the heart of living well. Instead, she presents a compelling, modern Stoicism that teaches grit, resilience, and the importance of close relationships in addressing life’s biggest and smallest challenges— at a time when we’re all facing many of both.

In nine lessons that guide readers in the Stoic way of finding calm, living with emotions, grit, and resilience, and healing through self-compassion, among others, STOIC WISDOM offers an essential field manual for the art of living well.

Tell me a little about your new book “Stoic Wisdom”

Stoic Wisdom focuses on the social supports of resilience, and so debunks the idea that ancient or modern Stoicism is primarily a philosophy of rugged self-reliance.  “Being at home” in the world, a key Stoic notion is a matter of being connected to others, locally and globally, and through emotions as well as reason. 

A social and emotional connection might seem a strange Stoic theme, But I argue not so at all. Listen to Marcus Aurelius writing meditations to himself after a day of battle during the Germanic campaigns along the Danube. The intimate killing off the battlefield is likely on his mind: Picture a dismembered hand and head lying apart from the rest of the human trunk, he writes. That’s what “man makes of himself . . . when he cuts himself off” from others with whom he is connected.  The image is graphic. It’s one modern warrior we know all too well. And it’s about the cost of thinking of Stoic grit as go-it-alone endurance. It wasn’t then. And it isn’t now.

In the book, I explore how Marcus develops this idea of Stoic “social” grit. I also probe its foundations in Seneca’s writing, in his Letters, and in his plays.  I won’t give away too much, but Seneca’s plays Hercules Rages and the Trojan Woman are really theater of war plays–about showing mercy to yourself in the face of massive moral injury and suicidal rage, and toward others, who are the innocent victims of war and its horrors.

So, in a nutshell, I rethink modern Stoicism as yes, about grit and resilience, but grit and resilience built through our deepest relationships and our shared commitment to virtue and the common good.

What is the backstory behind your book? And why did you decide to write “Stoic Wisdom”?  

The backstory to Stoic Wisdom is that I have been in conversation with a number of modern Stoics who popularize the idea of Stoicism as self-reliance. For some, Epictetus’s writings are a treasure trove of lessons for self-sufficiency. Here’s popular advice some quote from Epictetus: “Yes, my nose is running. And what have you hands for, then… Is it not that you may wipe your nose.”  The surface point is: Don’t complain. Suck it up, as military folks might say. But for many it becomes the only and all-purpose Stoic lesson:  Don’t ask for help. Don’t rely on others. You can tough it out alone. It’s weak to ask for help.

That’s a deeply flawed reading of ancient Stoicism. We are connected in our shared humanity. My virtue is not just about me, but us, about our mutual thriving and as Seneca would put it, as the to and fro of giving and showing gratitude.

Also, the Stoics were the first real cosmopolitans–a term meaning literally, “citizens of the universe.” And Stoic tools, or “lifehacks,” we might say, are in part for building that shared, cooperative world. That’s a deep part of the ancient tradition of moral virtue as about living together in a political world. Again, Marcus puts it well and debunks the idea of tough-it-alone grit: We are “beings endowed with reason, constituted for one fellowship of cooperation.” 

What experience caused you to see a need for your book?

As I was writing during the pandemic, I saw the idea of being connected in a global world so clearly. The virus knows no borders. We are in the war against the virus together.  We are interlocking pieces of a global puzzle, in terms of protection and social behavior, enlightened leadership and clear messaging, financial markets, travel, supply chains, and crucially, testing, treatment, and the development of safe and effective vaccines equitably distributed around the world. This is the Stoic global community, ideally, of cooperative reason.

But also, I saw the importance of Stoic tools, such as facing our mortality squarely (memento mori), of preparing for the future through strategic planning. I was reminded here of something Dr. Anthony Fauci said early on in the pandemic about preparation. His words have Stoic tones. Like Epictetus, he knows messaging is critical. This is from an early interview: “When you are dealing with an infectious disease, you know, you always have that metaphor that people talk about. That Wayne Gretzsky, he doesn’t go where the puck is, he’s going where the puck is going to be, as well as where it is now.” As the Stoics would put it, we need now to be acting as if we are already facing the future. We have to be proactive, not just reactive. We have to anticipate.

Those are Stoic concepts: “Pre-rehearsal,” “anticipation,” learning how “to dwell in advance,” by vividly imagining worst-case scenarios as if you are now facing them. The Stoics dub this kind of forward-thinking: “pre-rehearsal.”  Pre-trauma exposure to reduce stress is one kind of pre-rehearsal. Think of live tissue training in the military– taking troops to ER’s or other sites for a visceral experience of what they might encounter on the battlefield and how best to respond. That’s facing the future in advance.

How has writing helped you personally? And changed the way you think? 

In writing Stoic Wisdom I thought long and hard about my own experience of preparing for the future, including preparing for death. I reflected back to my mom, who died a few years ago.  She was one never to talk about death.  She was a woman of few words. Her standard response to a book she read during the week was “fine,” and she read three to four novels a week! She was also in denial of death. It wasn’t something you talked about. And so at some point, I decided we would have to make a joke of it. I would ask her every so often as we talked about her friends and caregivers at the nursing home: “Remind me, Mom. We didn’t sign up for the immortality plan, did we?  Because if we did, this nursing home is going to be really expensive!”  She smiled and chuckled. 

If she were Epictetus, she might say, “I always knew I was mortal.”  But at least, she now thought the idea. And I think our like repeated pre-rehearsal, our joke about the immortality plan, made her last days easier for both of us. We shared our mortality, and we shared not dreading death, together. I tell that story in the book. We were Stoics together, in our fashion.

Is there one short story from your book you would like to share? 

The Stoics talk about true mentors and models. 

The Stoics argue that moral training requires mentors and models. Socrates is a near-sage, on the Stoic view. And so, too, Cato. Stoic mentors show you what’s possible to endure—as in our times, in Jim Stockdale’s remarkable “courage under fire” as a POW in Vietnam for more than seven years. C8.P38  

In an unwitting way, when I was the ethics chair at the US Naval Academy, I helped keep alive the story of a man of remarkable moral courage whom the Army had once tried to forget.

It was the spring of 1998, 30 years after the My Lai Massacre in which a group of US Army soldiers tortured and killed some five hundred unarmed Vietnamese civilians, many women and children, and Buddhist priests. Hugh Thompson was the 25-year-old Army helicopter pilot who, with his 18-year-old door gunner, Lawrence Colburn, and his 22-year-old crew chief, Glen Andreotta, landed his helicopter that day and stopped the massacre, likely preventing the massive slaughter of hundreds more. I invited Thompson to speak at the Naval Academy. I knew something of his story, but I also knew that initially, the Army had tried to cover up the massacre and that some in Congress at the time had urged him to be punished. What was his crime? When he landed his helicopter, he gave his crew the order: If the GIs try to stop me, “open up on ’em and kill them.” “It was time to stop the madness,” he said to himself, even if he risked court-martial. Leaving the helicopter with just a sidearm, he put himself between Lieutenant William Calley and Captain Ernest Medina, and the civilians they were marching out of a bunker into a ditch already teeming with bodies. Calley and Medina did not open fire. C8.P39

I taught with many Navy and Marine retired senior officers who had served in Vietnam. We were committed to teaching midshipmen about the massacre and about the example of an officer who put his career on the line to stop an atrocity. C8.P40

The lecture was an academy-wide event, but also open to the public. I somewhat naïvely advertised the evening as featuring Hugh Thompson, “the hero of My Lai.” I got a flood of inflammatory emails from those in the greater military community who told me that no service member who gave an order like his could be called a “hero.” I had my examples wrong. C8.P41  

The night of the event came. Thompson gave his talk, followed by a Q&A. A Vietnam vet, from outside the Academy, stood up, and seething with rage, demanded how Thompson could possibly have given an order to turn on fellow soldiers. It was treason, he implied. Thompson kept his calm and gave his reasons. Other questions followed and Thompson was equally composed. At the end of the talk, that angry veteran went up to the stage and in tears embraced Thompson, with the words: “Welcome home, bro.” We all watched. We didn’t know how it was going to play out. C8.P42  

Reconciliations of that sort don’t always happen. Thompson was a hunted and haunted man for a long time. The Army wanted to forget him and blot out the stain of the atrocities. It took 30 years, that same spring, for the Army finally to recognize Thompson and his crew’s moral courage with the Soldier’s Medal awarded to Thompson and his crew at the Vietnam War Memorial. C8.P43

Would Thompson’s example figure among the exemplars in modern Stoicism? Would an updated, retold tale of Seneca’s Letters to Lucilius that emphasizes the importance of mentors and models include Thompson? It’s an odd thought experiment. Still, I reflected on something similar when I came to write Stoic Warriors about my years at the Naval Academy and the Stoic culture of the military. And again, in writing Stoic Wisdom. C8.P44

I was struggling with the Stoic view of anger. It was an emotion, Seneca argued, that would run rampant if given license. It was too dangerous an emotion to allow in any form. There were better ways to motivate justice than through anger, he insisted. Whetting a warrior’s appetite with anger can unleash payback and revenge, precisely the sort of venom that motivated the GIs of the Charlie Company who carried out the My Lai massacre. They wanted payback for buddies who had been killed in mines and booby-traps. It was time to get even. C8.P45  

That may be, but Thompson’s courage that morning in March 1968 stood as a vivid counterexample to me. Here was someone whose anger set him in motion, but who then acted with restraint and justice and courage to stop the atrocity. Nonviolent resistance is not a part of armed warfare. But restraint is. Thompson exited his helicopter with only a sidearm. He was not looking for payback, but a way to rescue innocent civilians who were being murdered. By my lights, he was a Stoic hero. And a pre-eminent model of a just and courageous warrior.

What is the biggest takeaway that you hope a reader will learn from “Stoic Wisdom”?

What I hope readers will take away from Stoic Wisdom is that a modern, healthy Stoicism cannot be about building an inner citadel that leaves the outside world and its structures just where we find them. For some of those structures are profoundly unfair and unjust.

The Stoics give us tools for correcting how we see, when we see with distortion and bias. They teach us how not to fall prey to false values or ideas. They teach us how to use reason to unite us to face our individual and shared challenges.   They teach us that empathy and mercy course the veins of reason.  Seneca puts it best at the end of On Anger:  “Let us cultivate our humanity.”   That could be the rallying call, too, of Stoic Wisdom.

Purchase Stoic Wisdom here

NANCY SHERMAN, University Professor at Georgetown University and Guggenheim Fellow (2013-2014), holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in ancient philosophy. An ethicist with research training in psychoanalysis, she lectures worldwide on ethics, emotions, moral injury, and resilience. The author of Afterwar (OUP, 2015), The Untold War (2010 and New York Times editors’ pick), Stoic Warriors (OUP, 2005), and several other books on ancient and modern ethics, she served as the Inaugural Distinguished Chair of Ethics at the United States Naval Academy. She has written for the New York Times and contributes frequently to many other media outlets.

Nancy can be reached via Website, Facebook, twitter

Leave a Reply....