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Old 01-23-2021, 06:13 AM
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By: Able Magwitch - Real Clear Defense News - 01-23-21

Stoicism holds special appeal for the military. When a shipmate tells me to "suck it up," I know she means this command, not as reprimand but encouragement, a reminder that the way through hardship or difficult circumstance begins with self-discipline. "No man is free who is not a master of himself," said Epictetus, the Roman slave-turned-Stoic teacher. Whether confronting a determined enemy on the battlefield, completing an arduous course in jungle warfare, or even preparing for a long separation from family, Stoicism encourages servicemen and women to harden themselves, mentally and physically, against inevitable suffering.

Military commanders have drawn strength from the Stoics, particularly Epictetus, but also Seneca and Marcus Aurelius. In the late-eighteenth century, Prussian King Frederick the Great was known to carry books written by the Stoics in his saddlebags while on campaign and ordered statues of Marcus Aurelius built on the grounds of his summer residence near modern-day Berlin. Across the Atlantic in colonial Virginia, young George Washington grew acquainted with the works of Marcus Aurelius, Plutarch, and the Stoic philosophers through his mentor George William Fairfax, and, years later during a lull in the fighting at Valley Forge, staged a play about another famous student of Stoicism, Cato the Younger. During the War in Vietnam, while he floated gently down to earth underneath an open parachute, Admiral James Stockdale knew that he was "leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus." Stockdale would spend more than seven years as a prisoner of war, crediting the Handbook of Epictetus with giving him the strength to endure his ordeal. More recently, retired Marine Corps General Jim Mattis has said he always stashed a copy of Marcus's Meditations in his rucksack whenever he set off on deployment. These examples make clear that seeds planted by Stoics some 2,000 years ago continue to bear fruit for wartime commanders.

But do these books hold lessons for a modern peacetime audience, too? Enter Ryan Holiday.

Beginning with the release of The Obstacle is the Way in 2014, Holiday has published no fewer than five books inspired by Stoics in the last seven years, each one drawing on ancient philosophy to reveal new insights into how we understand ourselves amid the challenges and disorientation of a hyper-digital, self-absorbed modern life. Holiday's books are clear and focused, not on maintaining composure under fire or withstanding torture, but on everyday life, and readers have taken notice. Professional athletes, venture capitalists, celebrities, and government executives are learning from Holiday what young George Washington likely learned from Fairfax: you don't control the world, you only control how you respond.

Sounds simple enough. Perhaps so simple you'll forget the lesson as soon as you turn that final page and close the book. Fortunately, Holiday has a plan to help make reading a "practice," something you can return to each day, incrementally building the habits needed to convert book learning into bone knowledge. In The Daily Stoic, published in 2016, Holiday turns philosophy into a secular daily devotional, organizing selections and quotations from Stoic philosophers into 365 meditations on "wisdom, perseverance, and the art of living." Now, he returns with a new title to help us apply the lessons of the ancient Stoics to our own business and personal lives, drafting mini-biographies of Zeno, Epictetus, Marcus, and others to illustrate timeless principles. Below is an edited transcript of our recent telephone conversation about the new book, combat, and making time to cultivate an inner life.

I like the quote, "that which doesn't transmit creates its own darkness." Thatís an Aurelius quote on openness and acceptance. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. You need to create a mind as a vessel for wisdom. The practice of a daily Stoic meditation makes it easier to cultivate the habits of self-discipline, control, and others. People will criticize me as someone who is trying to get rich, but I can tell you from experience--

Julian the Apostate said to his critics that he spent far more time with the dead than the living. To answer your question, 'yes,' I do. Although I am not a veteran and would not want to over-represent the martial aspects of things I never experienced firsthand, unlike you, I know the oracle does say that you will become wise when you have conversations with the dead. Over the last 15 years, I have come to live with these figures, and it is an immersive world to live with Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius -- it becomes almost real. Itís a strange and insane but also a beautiful experience to become immersed.

Thatís very kind. Aurelius described history as the same thing happening over and over again, the idea of eternal recurrence. You have experiences in war or philosophy or life, whatever a person is doing when a person experiences something and then goes and reads about it, you are struck by how similar everything is, and there is a realization that we have always essentially done things the same ways. Itís beautiful but also humbling to see this repetitiousness.

Do you know Barry Sadler?

He was a Green Beret, and he wrote the Green Beret theme song. He also went on to write the first six books of the Casca series, an eternal warrior series, fantasy genre. The idea is that the Roman soldier who stabs Christ is condemned to live forever in the armies that follow. Cheap reads, but Iíve never forgotten the theme that man is doomed to repeat himself and repeat himself and repeat himself for all eternity.
I do not admire the Cynics or the Zen Buddhists because Stoicism is a balance between a philosophical life and an active life. I was introduced to Stoicism before I had my career, and I did not understand the ideas at the first read. When I pivoted from my marketing life to my writing life, I realized that things were not going in the direction I wanted. Just because youíre good at something doesn't mean you have to do it for the rest of your life. I can say confidently that Stoicism helped me break the chain of recurrence, at least in that phase of life.

Switching topics again. Stoicism is a philosophy of action. How do you bring your ideas to bear on public life?

Writing. The Epicureans said, letís retreat to our garden and avoid pain and enjoy pleasures, but the Stoics said thatís all well and good, but who is supposed to be in charge if everyone does that? Itís not a strategy for all. At least not if you want the Nation to head in the right direction, and Seneca is saying that man should and will be involved in public life and politics unless not possible. Writing is my profession, and I have a career outside of writing books, but my obligation to public life is through my books and writing.

About this writer: Able Magwitch is a U.S. government employee. His views are his own and not representative of the U.S. government or its agencies.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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