Courage Under Fire is American fighter pilot James Stockdale’s account of how he survived years of torture and isolation as a prisoner of war in Vietnam by applying ideas from stoic philosophy.
One book that changed everything.
James Stockdale was a war pilot who found the philosophical life at 38–and through it he found his inspiration, his passion.
The last day of his philosophy studies his mentor gave him a book:
“..he reached high in his wall of books and brought down a copy of The Enchiridion. He said, ‘I think you’ll be interested in this.’”
The Enchiridion was a handbook for how to live the good life written by ancient stoic philosopher Epictetus.
He devoured it. He made it his manual for life.
A few years later, during the Vietnam war, his plane was shot down and for 8 years he suffered torture and isolation interchangeably as a POW.
It was what he learned from this book by Epictetus that would eventually helped him survive years of torture and earn him a Medal of Honor.
It’s powerful to hear how a single book can change someone’s life l in such a profound way.
“…I whispered to myself: ‘five years down there, at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.’”
Stockdale took charge in prison. He and the other POWs created their own moral code and attitude towards their situation based on the ancient stoic teachings prescribed by Epictetus.
In this book we learn what really breaks a man, and the power philosophy can truly have once it’s fully embodied and applied.
Notes and Highlights
📝 “…The thing that brings down a man is not pain but shame!”
📝 “…a Stoic always kept separate files in his mind for those things that are ‘‘up to him’ and those things that are ‘not up to him’.” Focus only on the former!
📝 What’s in your control include your opinions, aims, aversions, your own grief, joy, judgments, and attitude about what is going on, your own good, and evil.”
“Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I’ll show you a Stoic.” – Epictetus
It’s obvious how far I am from the stoic ideal most of the time. 🧐 😔
To embody one’s philosophy—to walk one’s talk—is a rare & precious thing. This is what makes Stockdales experiment with stoicism under torture so special. It’s at the extremes that human nature shows it’s true face most clearly and where we can learn the most about ourselves.
The book’s major flaw is that it’s too short!—and the writing style takes a while to get into.
⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ out of 5
If you enjoy Courage Under Fire by James Stockdale then you might like these books:
Stoicism and the Art of Happiness – Donald Robertson (review coming soon!)