Thursday, January 22, 2009

Stoic Warriors

Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind
© 2005 Nancy Sherman
242 pages


This semester's schedules give me a lot of gaps between activities that lend themselves well to spending a few moments in the university library, where I do a little reading -- or napping, as the case warrants. Here I read books unavailable in the public library system, like Stoic Warriors. I picked this one up out of curiosity and found it quite readable. The author, in her words, "uses the contemporary military as a lens through which to study and assess Stoic doctrine." The book is divided into seven chapters: "A Brave New Stoicism", "Sound Bodies and Sound Minds", "Manners and Morals", "A Warriors Anger", "Fear and Resilience", "Permission to Grieve", and "The Downsized Self". There's no concluding chapter, which I found a bit odd.

The author begins by introducing the reader to Stoicism through the story of James Stockdale, a Vietnam-era P.O.W. who uses Stoicism to help strengthen himself and his fellow prisoners. Here we are introduced to Stoicism's tenants and its most well-known practitioners: namely Epictetus, who was less concerned with "theory" and more concerned with the practical matter of living and behaving rationally in an irrational world. I've been studying Stoicism since the end of last year when I decided to figure out the context of Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus' works, both of which I've read here. There's a lot to it. I wouldn't want to try to sum up the whole of the phiolosophy here, but this book is really focused on the more practical side of it, and so that's what I will comment on. Epictetus said in his Manual for Living that happiness begins with the realization that some things are under our control and other are not -- and that we should only be concerned with that which we can control. This is something I realizing myself during the summer, perhaps infering it when I re-read my favorite parts of Aurelius' Meditations.

The next chapter, "Sound Bodies and Sound Minds", almost acts as a prolonged introduction in that the author uses body-training disicipline as a way of showing how our rational minds can exert control over our bodies. The same situation provides a warning against valuing disicpline for disicpline's sake. The next few chapters deal with their titular topics: morals, anger, fear, and so on. The author references Greek literature to provide cultural context while citing generously from Seneca's plays and the writings of Cicero, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius. The author also connects Stoic ideas with other philosophical works of the period and even beyond the period -- referencing philosophy from other periods of history. While she is doing all this, she uses examples from the American military to illustrate and point out the usefulness of Stoic ideas (as well as their limitations, particularly in later chapters).

I was impressed with the book. It was an enjoyable read that limited esoteric terminology. It strikes me as well-organized and well-written: definitely worth my time.

2 comments:

  1. I think that review will bump this book up my reading list. Thanks.

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  2. I hope you enjoy it when you're able to read it. :)

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