Special Edition Number 1 - The Profession of Arms

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The Stoics' Inner Fortress and the Health of the Military

CIMVHR Forum 2014
Toronto, Tuesday 25 November 2014

Marc Imbeault, Dean of Studies and Research
Royal Military College Saint-Jean
Adjunct Professor, Université du Québec en Abitibi-Témiscamingue,
Unité d'enseignement et de recherche en sciences de la santé

"The soul that can scorn all the accidents of fortune, that can rise superior to fears, that does not greedily covet boundless wealth, but has learned to seek its riches from itself; the soul that can cast out all dread of men and gods, and knows that it has not much to fear from man and nothing from God; that, despising all those things which, while they enrich, harass life, can rise to the height of seeing that death is not the source of any evil, but the end of many; the soul that can dedicate itself to Virtue, and think that every path to which she calls, is smooth; that, social creature that it is and born for the common good, views the world as the universal home of mankind […]―such a soul, remote from storms, stands on the solid ground beneath a blue sky, and has attained to perfect knowledge of what is useful and essential. […] the soul has once found this safe retreat […].Note de bas de page 1"

Seneca, On Benefits, VII, INote de bas de page 2

This paper, a commentary of this quote by Seneca, attempts to answer the following question: How can this reflection be interpreted today within the context of the profession of arms? If the response remains a sketched outline, it provides the milestones on which could be based, along with other dimensions, a more global approach to operational stress injury prevention, one that fosters resilience in military members who must sometimes experience extremely difficult situations where their own lives and that of others are endangered. Situations where, prompted by the events, they must act quickly in accordance with strict conduct codes and restrictive engagement rules.

To begin, let us mention that the philosophy we will discuss is closely related to the peak of the Roman Empire and its army. It was advocated by Emperor Marcus Aurelius whose strength of character, resilience and constancy exemplify the main teachings of the Stoic School.

1. Principles of Stoicism

This philosophy has very ancient roots. In his famous Roman StoicismNote de bas de page 3, Edward Vernon Arnold links this movement to the philosophy of Heraclitus and Socrates, and to Epicureanism, but also to the science of the Babylonians and Assyrians, as well as to ancient religions such as those of Persia and Israel. In Greece, the Stoics made themselves known for their logic, a discipline that remained one of the pillars of the school until the Roman era. But with time, morals will become increasingly important, as this type of teaching will become pre-eminent during the first two centuries after Christ. It is in this context that Seneca should be understood, since he was born more or less at the same time than Christ and he died in 65 AD. With Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, he is in fact one of the three main representatives of "Imperial Stoicism."

The moral doctrine of the Stoics is based on a few fundamental principles: virtue is the only source of good. Pleasure has no place here and neither successes nor failures can disturb the wise; all goods are equal and, finally, the true philosopher is indifferent to death.

The philosopher is aware that he is never protected from misfortune, no matter how much wealth or influence he has: "No man has ever been so far advanced by Fortune that he did not threaten him as greatly as he had previously indulged ban,Note de bas de page 4" says Seneca. He also knows that there is no force that can ever protect him from his enemies: "Reflect that a highwayman or an enemy may cut your throat; and, though he is not your master, every slave wields the power of life and death over you.Note de bas de page 5" A truth that today's world cannot ignore.

But Seneca also says that there is a form of good that cannot be taken: "For StilpoNote de bas de page 6, after his country was captured and his children and his wife lost, as he emerged from the general desolation alone and yet happy, spoke as follows to Demetrius […] in answer to the question whether he had lost anything: "I have all my goods with me!" The enemy conquered, but Stilpo conquered his ennemy' conqueror.Note de bas de page 7"

But is it possible or even desirable to reach this state? Must one become insensitive to the loss of his children to follow the stoic path? Not quite. Elsewhere in his writings, Seneca tampers his maxime; he writes: "I do not withdraw the wise man from the category of man, nor do I deny to him the sense of pain as though he were a rock that has no feelings at all.Note de bas de page 8" He clarifies further his view in another treaty: "Quite different are the things that do buffet the wise man, even though they do not overthrow him, such as bodily pain and infirmity, or the loss of friends and children, and the ruin that befalls his country amid the flames of war. I do not deny that the wise man feels these things; for we do not claim for him the hardness of stone or of steel. There is no virtue that fails to realize that it does endure.Note de bas de page 9"

The heroism of Stilpo, his victory against the victor, shouldn't be understood as being insensitive to the loss of his wife or children, but rather as not letting himself be devastated by it. As well, can we suppose that notorious American Rear-Admiral James Bond Stockdale–tortured and forced to witness his comrades of misfortune suffer the same fate for several years during the Vietnam War–was not insensitive to pain or to what his companions were experiencing, but didn't allow his torturers to use it to destroy him.

2. The profession of arms

From the profession of arms perspective, there is a first lesson that can be drawn from what has been said about stoic philosophy. Winning or losing is not always the main goal of a military intervention. What counts the most, as recently recalled Colonel Jennie Carignan in an address pronounced at Royal Military College Saint-Jean, is perhaps not so much being victorious or defeated on the field–a concept increasingly difficult to define given today's type of combat–than safeguarding honour. This echoes the appeal to his compatriots by valorous First World War soldier and notorious French writer Georges Bernanos, as early as 1936: "Let's save the honour of the Honour" [our translation]Note de bas de page 10.

In fact, from the perspective of military professionalism, it is more important to know if a soldier behaved with dignity than to know if he or she inflicted more or less damage to an increasingly unstable "enemy". What is the point of accumulating statistics of apparent victories, if we, in reality, sacrificed ourselves what no one could ever take from us? If we inflicted the most dreadful defeat by torturing those we suspect of being terrorists or having them tortured by others? Or, if in the midst of the confusion of the battlefield, we abused of the force that our country has bestowed upon us to defend and represent it?

On the other hand, many military members–whether in service or retired–suffer from post traumatic stress or other mental health problems related to their experience on the battlefield. Actually, the profession of soldier has always been a traumatic one. And this remains true today, even if there were proportionally more casualties on yesterday's battlefields. However, the novelty resides in the fact that the problem is acknowledged, not only by the public who is aware of the problem, but also by military authorities–perhaps with some delay, we must say–thanks to, amongst others, the ongoing struggle conducted by General Dallaire in Canada. Not that these disorders were completely ignored. The term "shell-shock", created during First World War, as well as the terms "commotion", "pithiatie", "trauma phobia" or "war neurosis" that were used in the past, were near equivalents to what is designated today as PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). The Vietnam War produced its share of mental illness, whether diagnosed or not.

But obviously, the question arose way before contemporary wars and massacres, in ancient times and even prehistory. Historically, the problem for the military and civilians has been to withstand the cruelest and (or) most daily adversity. Previously mentioned Rear-Admiral Stockdale who was prisoner of war in Vietnam for seven years is amongst those who faced the most difficult hardships. Yet it is amongst Ancients thinkers, especially Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius that he claims to have found the strength and method enabling him to resist his long captivity in the hands of the Vietcong. Central to this doctrine is the long forgotten notion of inner fortress or citadel.

3. The Stoics' Fortress

Let's first recall the context in which this notion appeared. It is at a time when scientific psychology did not exist, and soldiers very often still fought in close combat with a broadsword or dagger and lived short and painful lives.

This is the context in which the school of thought presented above emerged. In addition to the general principles we already mentioned, the stoics claimed that there are some things over which we have no power and for which it is useless to indulge in self-pity. These are all the things that are generally coveted by human beings: success, fortune, love, glory, and power. However, what is dependent upon us is merely our actions and thoughts.

Here is how Epictetus expresses this idea in paragraphs 5 and 6 of his Maxims: "Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actionsNote de bas de page 11." The things that depend upon us are free and nothing can hinder this. To the opposite, the things that do not depend upon us are enslaved.

"Remember, then, that if you suppose that things which are slavish by nature are also free [my emphasis], and that what belongs to others is your own, then you will be hindered. You will lament, you will be disturbed, and you will find fault both with gods and men. But if you suppose that only to be your own which is your own, and what belongs to others such as it really is, then no one will ever compel you or restrain you. Further, you will find fault with no one or accuse no one. You will do nothing against your will. No one will hurt you, you will have no enemies, and you not be harmed.Note de bas de page 12"

On this premise, the Stoics developed a conception of the human being focused on the very classical distinction between the soul and the body, the soul being the most important part since it bears what is closest to the divine in men: reason, this extraordinary faculty that remains completely independent from the body, and hence, immortal.

It is in the soul that a human being can build an impregnable fortress for oneself, a citadel that can resist the worst attacks. The stoics' inner fortress is this place where each and every one of us can find protection against odds and misfortune. It is where the wise man places his treasures and where Stilpo, evoked by Seneca, places all his possessions that no one or nothing shall take from him.

But building this citadel is not an easy task. This edification requires patience. All that is given is the soul, the ground on which to build, and reason as the only tool–all depends on learning how to use it…But how can we learn? Through assiduous and continued practice of philosophy, as Secena, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius did. "Therefore, gird yourself about with philosophy, an impregnable wall. Though it be assaulted by many engines, Fortune can find no passage into it. The soul stands on unassailable ground, if it has abandoned external things; it is independent in its own fortress; and every weapon that is hurled falls short of the mark. Fortune has not the long reach with which we credit her; she can seize none except him that clings to her. Let us then recoil from her as far as we are able. This will be possible for us only through knowledge of self and of the world of Nature [which is the goal of philosophy, M.I.].Note de bas de page 13" This learning path starts with logic or the art of proper reasoning, before undertaking physics, then politics and ethics (which go hand in hand).

As a brilliant child born in a good family, Seneca received a sound education from his early youth. He will later become an eloquent lawyer―maybe too eloquent, as his success and charm attracted him the jealousy of Nero, who was already dangerous at the time. Upon his return to Rome after spending eight years in exile, he is recruited to become one of Nero's close advisors, but will eventually have to commit suicide on the order of the Emperor.

A former slave, perhaps freed at the death of his master, Epictetus founded a Stoic school in Nicopolis following his expulsion from Rome by Nero. The story goes that one day, his master hit him on the leg and he would have calmly answered: "If you go on you will break it". Then, once the leg was broken, he would have simply added: "It's precisely what I told you".

Brought up to become emperor, Marcus Aurelius rose to throne only around his forties. During his reign, he had to face a plethora of problems: continuous invasion attempts by the barbarians, plague epidemics, court plots, sickness and personal hardships. And so his borders were constantly under attack, and the plague epidemics he had to face would have decimated 20 % to 25 % of his empire's population. But he always faced adversity with great panache and determination, constantly pushing back his enemies to maintain the "Pax Romana". It is during those years that he wrote his Meditations, a work that is still today a source of inspiration for anyone willing to give it time and reflection.

Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius all teach the same thing: that happiness is only determined by how we exercise judgment on what we experience. That we play a role on this earth and that the place we have is not imparted upon us by chance but is the result of a divine purpose, one that calls for respect and requires to be embraced and understood in order to be appreciated. That death is nothing, and what we should fear is not death but fear of death itself. That it is possible to accept physical suffering, given that we don't make it the only center of our attention. As for moral suffering, it rests solely upon us, for it is entirely linked to our judgment. The key is to be able to find refuge at all times in the very depths of one's soul where nothing and no one can harm us. In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote:

"Wilt thou one day, my soul, be good, simple, single, naked, plainer to see than the body surrounding thee? Wilt thou one day taste a loving and devoted disposition? Wilt thou one day be filled and without want, craving nothing and desiring nothing, animate or inanimate, for indulgence in pleasures; not time wherein longer to indulge thyself, nor happy situation of place or room or breezes nor harmony of men? Wilt thou rather be satisfied with present circumstances and pleased with all the present, and convince thyself that all is present for thee from the gods and all is well for thee whatsoever is dear to them to give and whatsoever they purpose to bestow for the sustenance of the perfect living creature, the good and just and beautiful, which begets, sustains, includes, and embraces all things that are being resolved into the generation of others like themselves? Wilt thou one day be such as to dwell in the society of gods and men so as neither to find fault at all with them nor to be condemned by them?Note de bas de page 14"

Stockdale had understood this very well when he was confronted with mistreatment and torture. He later said that it was Stoic philosophy, which he had previously studied, that allowed him to surface from this experience without being completely destroyed.Note de bas de page 15 The inner fortress he had built for himself allowed him to find refuge and protection against the hits, insults and contempt of his torturers, rising above them and himself in a spiritual independence that kept him out of range, he was able to preserve his dignity and, after being liberated, enjoy life and his newfound freedom.

Stockdale's experience is an example that shows how, still today, Stoic philosophy can help military members triumph over hardships and transcend extremes situations, emerging from them, if not unscathed, still capable of enjoying their new life and freedom.

In fact, Stoicism prefigures―to a certain extent and with significant nuances―what Ludwig Wittgenstein named the "therapeutic" aspect of philosophy. Here, the term therapy is used metaphorically, and the sickness in question is neither physical nor mental but rather intellectual. Wittgenstein, much like the Stoics, thought that human beings tend to trap themselves in false problems, impeding them from thinking clearly as they go round and round them.

As a matter of fact, one of the main goals of building such an inner fortress is to heal sicknesses such as envy, unbridled ambition, racketeering, or careerism. The first step is the study of logic and reasoning, a crucial discipline for the Stoics, since reasoning is what distinguishes humans from animals and draws us closer to the Gods. According to the Stoics, the Gods conceive logical truths in the same way we do. Once this base is settled, we can build on it with other disciplines such as physics, politics, and ethics in order to raise our awareness and knowledge of our environment, to know where the common good is, and to seek wisdom, as it is the ultimate goal of philosophy.

No matter how Marcus Aurelius' path as a soldier is understood, it is clear that his actions were based on solid foundations, inseparable from Stoic philosophy, which he had studied starting in his young age and continued to deepen throughout his life. Thereupon he never deviated. The study of philosophy was a source of comfort and a way to strengthen his character. It allowed him to better integrate the things he experienced and perhaps also to accept them better. Philosophy, he said, is "to keep the spirit within […] unwronged and unscathed.Note de bas de page 16"

It is interesting to note that, for him, philosophy was not a mere intellectual activity reserved for a small group of specialists in closed dialogue with themselves. It was rather a way of life. This did not preclude discussions on some of the more technical issues, particularly in logic.


The practice of philosophy is thus an activity that can contribute to forging the character, like fire forges metal, increasing its capacity to cope with the hardships that inevitably come our way as we go through life. Philosophy is undeniably an intellectual activity, one associated with the Arts and Science. But it can also be a sport, considering the energy and continued effort its study requires. Continuing with the same metaphor, we can say that the qualities required are not those of the sprinter but rather of the endurance runner! If the study of philosophy is not a restful activity, it can certainly bring a certain peace of mind to the one who is able to use it to build within oneself a fortress likely to resist life's attacks, be it in on the battlefield or in daily life. This is why Marcus Aurelius concludes that intelligence liberated from passions is a citadel: "[…] for man has nothing stronger into which to retreat and be thereafter inexpugnable. He then who has not seen this is uninstructed; he who has seen it and does not retreat is unfortunate.Note de bas de page 17"

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