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Why the Military should teach Stoicism

By February 6, 2021November 28th, 2021Editorials and Policy Papers, Mailchimp, Papers, Print

As published by ABC News by Donald Robertson and Mick Mulroy


(NEW YORK) — The philosopher Socrates once asked why all men praise liberty but so many neglect to acquire self-discipline.  Without the virtue of temperance, he reasoned, none of us can truly become wise or free, as we’re bound to be misled and enslaved by our own passions.  It was the Stoic school of philosophy, though, founded a century after Socrates’ death, which turned this simple insight into a whole way of life. Socrates taught that in order to attain wisdom, we must free ourselves from violent passions, such as greed and anger.  

Today, although we cherish our freedoms more than ever, we’ve largely forgotten that they’re meaningless without the strength of character to make use of them well.  For Stoics, the uncomplaining endurance required in Greek military training provided an obvious means of learning discipline.  Perhaps for that reason, many of the greatest philosophers of antiquity were soldiers.

History of Stoicism in the military

Socrates was a veteran of several major battles of the Peloponnesian War, in which he served as a hoplite, a heavy infantryman. After single-handedly saving the life of a wounded officer during the Battle of Potidaea in 432 BCE, he turned down a decoration for valor.

At the start of the 4th century BCE, he was put on trial on the trumped-up charges of impiety and corrupting the youth.  He gave a defense speech describing being a philosopher itself as a kind of military service — an analogy that influenced generations of Greek and Roman thinkers according to Plato’s Apology. The love of wisdom, he said, required self-discipline and courage, like that of a hoplite facing the enemy in battle.  He was found guilty and executed but became a martyr and hero for generations to come.

At the start of the 3rd century BCE, Zeno of Citium founded the Stoic school at Athens. The Stoics took Socrates as their role model and adopted a disciplined lifestyle based on that of Greek infantrymen. Like Socrates before them, the Stoics also admired the Spartan military cadet training, known as the agoge.

They sought to develop self-discipline through, for example, eating simply and in moderation, wearing rough wool cloaks, sleeping on military camp beds, and voluntarily enduring hardship in other ways.

Although Zeno himself was not a warrior, his most powerful follower, King Antigonus II Gonatas of Macedonia, was an accomplished military commander. In the 2nd century BCE, when Rome began to embrace Greek philosophy, it was Stoicism in particular that resonated with the martial values of the republic. For instance, Scipio Aemilianus — a Roman general and statesman who conquered Carthage in the Third Punic War — was a student of Stoicism.

In the 1st century BCE, during the Roman Civil War, another famous Stoic, Cato the Younger, rallied the shattered remnants of the republican army in their last stand against Julius Caesar. Augustus, the founder of the Empire and Caesar’s great-nephew and successor, also studied Stoicism, setting a precedent for subsequent generations of Roman statesmen.  

The most influential Stoic teacher in Roman history, Epictetus, was a former slave in the household of Emperor Nero’s Greek secretary. Epictetus was not a warrior. However, the student who wrote down his words, Arrian of Nicomedia, became one of Emperor Hadrian’s most senior generals. Arrian was also an expert on cavalry tactics and won a great victory in the war against the Alani around 135 CE.

The last famous Stoic of antiquity, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, also saw active service. With no army training or experience whatsoever, in his mid-forties, he donned the military cape and boots and took command of the largest army ever amassed on a Roman frontier — approximately 140,000 men — during the First and Second Marcomannic Wars (167-180 CE).  

In modern history, the 18th-century Prussian King Frederick the Great modeled himself on Marcus Aurelius, whom he called “my exemplar and my hero.” The Founding Fathers of the United States were also influenced by the Stoics. George Washington had read the Roman philosopher Seneca in his youth and fell in love with Joseph Addison’s play about Cato the Younger, which Washington liked to quote and reputedly had performed for the Continental Army at Valley Forge.

In the 20th century, James Stockdale relied upon Stoicism as a way of coping with torture and prolonged incarceration in the Hanoi Hilton after his capture at the beginning of the Vietnam War. He had read Arrian’s Discourses of Epictetus. Stockdale’s essays on Stoicism were later published in Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (1995).

More recently, former U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis told an audience of military cadets that the one book every American should read is The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. The former Marine Corps general kept a “tattered copy” in his rucksack during combat.

Stoicism and Anger

In 175 AD, Marcus Aurelius faced a civil war. His most senior general in the east, Avidius Cassius, declared himself emperor and seized control of the whole region as well as all of the legions, between Egypt and Cilicia (which is part of modern-day Turkey). Fearing that Rome would be sacked, the Senate panicked, and issued a knee-jerk response aggressively declaring Cassius a public enemy and seizing his assets. When the news reached Marcus about five days later at the northern edge of the empire, he responded differently — without a trace of anger.

The Stoics believed that anger is fundamentally the desire for revenge. It’s often associated with the perception that the other person has deliberately done something wrong or unjust, thus “deserving” to be punished in return. For Stoics, one of the main problems with anger comes when causing harm to others is seen as an end-in-itself rather than as a means to an end. Marcus had no desire to harm Cassius out of hatred or revenge, but he did mobilize an army against him — to protect Rome.

Where possible, Marcus preferred diplomatic negotiation to military conflict. He gave a speech before his own legions pardoning everyone involved in the uprising. He even offered to appear voluntarily before a Senate hearing where the usurper could raise his grievances and seek justice rationally.

Every adversary believes, in his own mind, that his actions are justified. Rather than simply viewing Cassius as “evil” or an “enemy,” Marcus preferred to interpret his actions as misguided, believing that he must have reasons for organizing a rebellion.

The Stoics viewed anger as a form of “temporary madness.” They were right. When people are angry, their thinking is biased. They tend to underestimate risk, make extreme generalizations, jump prematurely to conclusions, and generally become poorer at problem-solving.

Someone who is mending a leaking tap hits their thumb and becomes angry. In that mood, it’s much harder for them to do even a simple repair job. However, repairing a broken tap is infinitely easier than repairing a broken relationship or a broken society. Trying to solve complex social problems in a state of anger seldom works out well.

According to the Stoics, when anger dominates and the desire for payback clouds our judgment, we often simply make matters worse for ourselves and everyone else. We see this every day on the Internet where people become angry and try to hurt one another’s feelings.

Insults supersede rational discourse, and arguments quickly spiral out of control. Strong feelings of anger make individuals more prone to accepting political, racial, and religious prejudices, paving the way to extremist attitudes and violent behavior.   

The Stoics thought that anger was the most serious emotional problem that we face because of the potential threats it poses to society.  Seneca wrote an entire book on the subject, called On Anger. Marcus Aurelius also wrote extensively about Stoic remedies for anger.  

Perhaps most importantly, he wrote, “It’s not other people’s actions that make us angry but rather our own opinions about them.” Realizing that our beliefs are the source of our emotions and distinguishing them from external events in this way is the basis both of Stoic therapy and modern cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy.

The Stoics, though, reminded themselves that anger does us more harm than the things about which were angry. Other people’s actions may harm us externally, but anger damages our judgment and poisons our character, striking at the very core of our own being. It makes us into lesser versions of ourselves.

Marcus Aurelius said that repaying anger with anger, simply leads to the escalation of conflict. Instead, we should remember that the best form of revenge is to be unlike our adversaries, by exhibiting wisdom and temperance rather than hatred and anger.

A third technique, famous in antiquity, consists in postponing our response until our anger has naturally abated, effectively taking a time-out. Knowing that anger, like a red mist, tends to cloud our judgment, we should exercise caution. We see how easily people do reckless things when they become part of an angry mob.

Wherever possible, we should avoid being driven by violent passions, and take time instead to consider things, especially complex problems, more calmly and rationally. This will allow us to respond strategically. As the saying goes: act in haste, repent at leisure.  

Why Stoicism should be incorporated into the military

All militaries, including the U.S. military, give great deference to their history. As detailed above, Stoicism goes back to the philosophical origins of Western civilization. It is not a newly developed and untested construct that could fade away. Aspects of it are embedded in our culture and in our military service.

The four cardinal virtues of Stoicism are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. All of these principles could have a direct positive impact on the military if they are embedded in the ethos of service, starting with basic training. The U.S. military is shifting its focus from an almost exclusive effort against terrorism to one that prioritizes great power competition, meaning efforts to counter China and Russia.

Through its “Assassin’s Mace” concept, China has focused on building weapons systems that can defeat our most sophisticated national assets at a fraction of the cost. For its part, Russia’s so-called “Gerasimov Doctrine” likewise seeks to implement irregular warfare to defeat the U.S. military’s conventional advantage.

Wisdom above all means continuous learning and adjusting as well as creativity and innovation. Warfare is not stagnant.  You cannot rest on your laurels. Much of early military training is focused on dogma. The U.S. military must inject this concept of wisdom, and flexible thinking, at the earliest possible stage.

Justice is also a critical concept in the military. The U.S. Defense Department’s Uniform Code of Military Justice provides the framework, with equal protection and due process enshrined in the Constitution. This code also incorporates the principles of  justice being blind and equal treatment for all.

Regardless of rank or any other distinguishing characteristic, justice applies to all and we must all accept it as the means to resolve conflict. Everyone joining the armed forces as an officer or an enlisted service member must be ingrained with this concept of justice.

Courage is needed in many sectors of society but plays a special role in military service. We hold those that have been the bravest in the highest regard, recognizing them with awards of valor like the Medal of Honor. We are actually recognizing fear. After all, both courage in the face of the enemy, and moral courage, consist in the overcoming of fear itself.

Those who will serve in combat must also be taught how to successfully deal with the debilitating effects of extreme fear. Many skirmishes involving infantry or special operations troops turned on the courage of one individual. Our soldiers never truly know how they will perform until they are tested on the battlefield.

One of the major factors in war crimes is uncontrolled anger.  The U.S. military is supposed to be a non-partisan organization, because, in many countries, control of the military is synonymous with political power. In democratic societies, this is not the case. However, extremist views and political prejudices can fuel violent rage and even threaten democratic institutions.  Temperance is also a concept that looks to moderate one behavior and avoids the toxic impact of extremism.

Extremism in the military

Extremism is growing globally as well as within the United States. This growth is not just from the terrorist organizations like Al-Qaeda and their affiliates like ISIS that the United States has been fighting for two decades. It includes certain forms of Marxism, anarchism, nationalism, and white supremacism.

Many, if not all of these groups want dramatic political reform and conduct unlawful protest, direct intimidation of elected representatives, or direct violence. They are on the fringes of political parties.

Specifically, within the United States, extremism is growing on both the far left and the far right. On the far left, we saw loosely-affiliated groups like Antifa destroying private property and attacking police officers in multiple cities across the United States.

On the far-right, we saw groups like the Proud Boys uniting with other extremist groups in their siege on the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the certification of the 2020 presidential election, resulting in the death of a police officer and four others.

A growing movement of groups on the far-left is arming themselves for what they believe is an inevitable civil war. Meanwhile, the FBI considers far-right extremist groups to be the most dangerous and lethal terrorist threat currently facing the U.S., more than the threat of Al-Qaeda.

The threat increases considerably when it involves an individual trained in the military, especially if they have experience fighting in the wars of the last two decades. One of the best training someone can get who wants to be an insurgent comes from having been a counter-insurgent.

The former Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James L. Jones, wrote that the Pentagon “must respond forcefully to alarming evidence that white-supremacist groups and other extremist organizations might be seeping into the armed forces and targeting uniformed service members and veterans for recruitment, coveting their training in weapons and tactical knowledge.”

The U.S. military has to deal with this problem directly. Extremism and hate are anathemas to the ethos of every soldier, sailor, airman, and marine. The principles of Stoicism should be taught in basic training. They are as important as any tactic, technique, procedure, or history currently taught. The U.S. military must also remove any member that participates in groups that have been identified as domestic terrorist groups. Further, those service members who cannot uphold the basic ethics should be separated from service. Although only seven percent of the U.S. population are U.S. military veterans, twenty percent of those that were arrested for the January 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. capitol were U.S. military veterans.


Military training, throughout history, has required discipline.  Socrates believed that self-control could become the very foundation of moral wisdom if only we could learn how to apply it to overcoming violent passions, such as anger and hatred.  

Stoicism appeals to military men and women precisely because it was inspired by ancient military values.  It’s especially relevant today because of its potential to reach many individuals who do not otherwise seek therapy or read self-help literature.  It also holds out the promise of a more lasting, perhaps even lifelong, personal transformation.  

Stoicism is “sticky”, as psychologists today sometimes put it.  Whereas cognitive therapy, and self-help, provide strategies and techniques, Stoicism provides more – a whole philosophy of life.

Donald Robertson is a cognitive-behavioral psychotherapist, one of the founders of Modern Stoicism nonprofit organization, and the author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

Michael “Mick” Patrick Mulroy is a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, a retired CIA officer, a Senior Fellow at the Middle East Institute, an Analyst for ABC News, on the board of directors for Grassroots Reconciliation Group, a co-founder of End Child Soldiering, and the co-founder of the Lobo Institute.

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