Adam Ash

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Monday, December 26, 2005

Stoicism and the body you're in

Stoic Warriors -- by Nancy Sherman

On a sticky Sunday, June morning in the Washington DC area, I drove my daughter to a triathlon at a Navy base some 2 hours south of our home. The event (3/4 mile swim, 6 mile bike ride, and 3 mile run) drew a lot of military athletes, but also civilians interested in the same exhilaration of hard, physical activity. As I helped my then 21-year-old daughter unload her bike, I found myself gawking at the sculpted bodies that surrounded me, especially those of the men: v-shaped torsos and 6-pack fronts, well-developed biceps, broad, muscular shoulders, necks thickened and well-defined pectorals, thighs pumped and strong like stallions' legs. For the most part, I found the bodies beautiful. I had become used to taut and well-muscled bodies from my stint as ethics chair at the Naval Academy, but as one sitting squarely in middle-age and amongst many who have already arrived, the well-kneaded, non-saggy body seemed even more attractive. Still, I knew most of these fit bodies were the product not just of youth or nature, but of vigilant labor.

In all this, there was a subtle, but unmistakable, combat element. It came not just from the military types who flocked to this navy base, and whose bodies have long been thought of as “war machines” – equipment that is part of the armour and weaponry of the military mission, indeed bodies that are a public investment. It also emerged in the logos on equipment that civilians brought with them: racing bike tires emblazoned with the words “speed weaponry”, a t-shirt that showed a musclebuilder in combat fatigues and the caption “take no prisoners”, another t-shirt with a more light-hearted, revised army slogan: “be all you never were”. The scene confirmed something quite noticeable these days – that the fitness of the classic warrior has become something of a model for many Americans who themselves, for the most part, have had no military experience and have little appetite for it.

The phenomenon has become conspicuous in the many gyms and fitness programs that have mushroomed throughout the American landscape. In my neighborhood alone, there is “The Fitness Corps”, “The Sergeant's Program”, “Basic Training”, and “The Fitness Force”. They are our local boot camps. In these programs, well-heeled men and women pay good money to subject themselves to self-fashioned drill sergeants who adopt just the sort of abuse that real military drill sergeants are now under pressure to abandon. Indeed, at 5 a.m. in my neighborhood, fitness sergeants are kicking the butts of saggy middle-agers who themselves willingly accept the abuse. One winter, my husband became a self-appointed victim. He would wake up before sunrise to endure the boot camp he managed to escape during the Vietnam years. One morning, he apparently lagged in his warm-up run around the park. The drill sergeant didn't fail to notice and instantly ordered him to pay for his sloth by doing 20 push-ups on the frosty ground. As if this wasn't enough of an indignity, the sergeant then barked out: “Presser, you little piece of shit, do them like you mean them, or else you'll do 20 more.” It is not just men who subscribe to civilian boot camp. Women too flock to fitness corps, to be all you can be and everything you weren't. One women's workout group in our neighborhood has a four “d” slogan: “drill, discipline, dedication, dignity.” If Jane Fonda's best-selling 1983 workout video first launched the fitness craze, military-minded trainers are keeping it alive and well.

Stoic training

This renewed interest in hard control of the body may sound Stoic in spirit, especially in terms of its emphasis on self-toughening through severe training and drill. Epictetus, a first century Stoic who inspired Marcus Aurelius's meditations, routinely employs athletic metaphors to capture the dedication and discipline needed for Stoic training: We are to be like the “invincible athlete” who continues to prove himself even after “he has been victorious in the first round”, even if it is “burning hot”, even if there are naysayers who try to bring him down. No one can be “an Olympic victor ... without sweat.” “Remember that god, like a wrestling master, has matched you with a rough young man.” But discipline, whether physical or mental, is one thing. Attachment to the body, is another. And Epictetus argues that while we have duties to care for the body, ultimately, our bodies should be regarded as indifferents, not intrinsic to happiness.

This can be difficult advice to swallow. For we non-Stoics tend to view ourselves as embodied, and our identities as a function of our bodily existences. We may exaggerate that identity and become obsessive in our care and cultivation of the body, but a healthy sense of self does not leave the body behind. Soldiers who return from war with bodies maimed and disfigured lose more than just a physical part of themselves. They sacrifice a fundamental part of what shapes their sense of self and good living – easy mobility, full and independent use of arms and hands, sightedness and hearing, and in many cases, a fitness for competitive physical adventure and risk that made the military attractive to them in the first place. And they return home having to live with the fact that they may have inflicted comparable losses on others. The bitter irony of war is that the fittest risk becoming the most disabled. True, cutting edge technology has transformed the lot of veterans, with many more surviving the sort of severe injuries that would have killed them in past wars. Even so, they still must adjust to a new kind of life, lived with a new kind of vulnerability and set of compensatory skills.

Stoics on happiness

The Stoics argue that human flourishing – i.e., our happiness or well-being (what the Greeks call, eudaimonia) – is not a matter of the state of one's body, even its global condition of being healthy or diseased. Rather, the body and its states constitute “indifferents”, i.e., goods outside our full control. Genuine happiness is a matter of virtue alone.

The Stoic view, with its retreat inward to virtue, is rooted in Plato's reaction to Homer. In the world of the Iliad and the Odyssey , the good and happiness are, in no small degree, a matter of fortune and status, of tangible honour, measured in war booty, strength, and wealth. These are largely external goods, tied up with the gods' will and with the caprice of war's victories and losses. Socrates's radical move, transmitted to us through Plato, is to shift virtue and happiness inward to the soul or psyche ( psyche ) – to make honour a matter of virtue, and virtue largely achievable by a training of the soul. Virtue alone becomes sufficient for happiness, without dependence on external goods or luck. It is this position, in essence, that the Stoics return to and embrace. It is against this backdrop that we should read Epictetus, a fairly orthodox Stoic, when he claims: “In our power are moral character and all its functions; not in our power are the body, the parts of the body, possessions, parents, brothers, children, country and associates in general.”

The “paltry body”, Epictetus continues, is like a petty estate or reputation. It is something you may think you possess, but it can be easily taken from you by disease or death. We, as bodies, are little donkeys, weighted down by our worldly loads. We hold tight to those material loads, though they enslave as much as they nurture. This general view of the body seems unduly harsh. Cicero registers a blunt complaint in his interpretation of the view: The Stoics “show concern for nothing but the mind, as if human beings had no body.” We might further object that even if it is plausible to think of goods like physical strength and fitness as only conditionally good, they are nonetheless not typically fully outside our control. Our habits of diet, hygiene, and fitness all are factors that contribute to physical well being, even if they are not sufficient for it.

We are now in a position to take a hard look at some concrete cases and Stoic implications. What of the men and women returning now, as I write, from war in Afghanistan and Iraq, who are amputees at the elbow or knees, or blinded, or who have hollow sockets in place of eyes and nose? What is the contest for happiness like for those who are no longer able to touch their children with hands and fingers, or see a loved one's face, or walk when they used to be the most physically elite among soldiers? Can modified versions of Stoicism provide consolation for those who face severe physical loss?

“The biceps I left in Iraq”

In the current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, soldiers survive their wounds in a way that was simply impossible in previous wars. But that survival, due to high tech body armor and helmets, can still be survival with a new body identity – as an amputee, as a person without vision or hearing, as a burn victim. And while there may be prosthetics for amputees and plastic surgery for burn victims, there are no prosthetic eyes for the blinded (just as there are no prosthetic repairs of sexual identity for the millions of noncombatant women who become victims of wars' genocidal rape). These losses are brute reminders that technology goes only so far, and that leaving a war zone with missing limbs or disabled and violated body parts is still a catastrophic loss. A soldier may joke that he has left his biceps behind in Iraq, but if it means not just that his hope of being Mr America is dashed, but his hope of still being able to hug, or drive, or open the refrigerator door in the usual way, then more than just biceps have been lost.

Much can be said intuitively about the injury to bodily identity caused by different kinds of physical losses. In an obvious way, there are aesthetic injuries that come with disfigurement and deformity. But just as fundamental are identity shifts having to do with restrictions of capabilities and functions that define a good life, in general, and a given individual's good life, in particular.

“Baptized in Fire and Blood”

Army captain David Rozelle went into battle in Iraq wearing a belt buckle with the inscription: “Brave rifles! Veterans! You have been baptised in fire and blood and have come out steel.” The words are from General Winfield Scott's 1847 address to cavalrymen during the Mexican-American War. Two months after deployment in Iraq, a mine blew off Rozelle's right foot, and he became duly baptised in blood and steel. With the help of technology and a relentless will, Rozelle returned to combat service as commander of an armoured cavalry unit, just days from the anniversary of losing his foot. His artificial leg and foot fit into a standard-issue combat boot. Rozelle was and still is an athlete/warrior. His recovery was a matter of gruelling workouts – four hours a day of physical therapy, swimming, weight lifting, mountain biking, skiing. Some six months after his injury, he went skiing in the Rockies, using a prosthetic ski boot. Even without a foot, he passes other swimmers in a pool. Rozelle is tough, but he is also honest about his loss. “There are times I definitely feel disabled.” “At least once a day,” he says, “I miss my foot.” He is in regular email contact with other amputees and has visited hospital units to encourage amputees to pull through: “I sat in rooms with guys and cried with them,” he says. “I think I've made a difference with a few.” He is committed to “plain talk” about life as an amputee, something he never got when he first lost his limb.

Now, in some sense, we can view Rozelle as coming to regard his body as an indifferent. For if that means that he is not overly invested in having his foot, and that he can carry on in its absence, then, in a sense, he exhibits Stoic sensibilities. And yet, we should not idealise this dispassionate stance. He is no detached sage – he acknowledges his loss, he “misses” his foot, and he spends a fair portion of his time helping others to acknowledge their loss. In this sense, he may believe that having a functioning, flesh and blood foot is not at the core of his happiness, but it still affects his happiness, and had he no prosthetic, his adjustment might have been far different. What is also striking about Rozelle as a kind of Stoic warrior is his combination of steely will and empathetic compassion. He is all about brawn and will, but also about humanity and the anguish of suffering war's indignities: “These guys with no arms who have to go home and learn to live again? Shoot, I've got it easy.” In Rozelle, there is an optimism and “can do” spirit we associate with Stoicism in its various stripes, but there is also a willingness to accept vulnerability, all too often obscured by the austere lines of orthodox Stoicism.


Major Phil Ashby offers another subtle mix of tough and gentle Stoicism. His story is the subject of his gripping memoir, Unscathed. Ashby served as a rugged commando of the British Royal Marines, and later as a marines mountain leader, arguably the longest and toughest special force training in the British military. Though trained in the Arctic and Scotland and Norway to lead warfare efforts in extreme cold weather conditions (and out of uniform, a rugged, Scottish, mountaineering/Outward Bound type), he experienced his most perilous trial in tropical terrain, in Sierra Leone. There, on 6 May, 2000, while serving as an unarmed UN observer helping to implement disarmament, he and three others were taken hostage as civil war erupted. Three days into the siege with increasing worries that they would be beheaded, Ashby, in command, made the decision for the four to attempt an escape. (He estimated his survival chances at 20%).

Ashby, like the Stoics, finds room to exercise strength and a robust will in the most constricted and adverse circumstances. His escape is, as he puts it, a way of trying to survive rather than “simply do[ing] nothing and waiting for the worst to happen.” But there is a further point. Ashby, the invincible mountaineer and “extreme” military athlete, does not, in the end, escape from Sierra Leone physically unscathed. He returns to the UK with “a tiny part of Sierra Leone” having broken through his “defences”. More precisely, a tropical virus attacks his spine, leaving him with significant neurological damage and physical and mental impairment. Ashby is under no under illusions about how this is likely to affect his future: “It sounds big-headed, but I was used to being one of the best at whatever I set out to do and the thought of not being able to work hard and play hard is a pretty desperate prospect.”

Ashby's worry is that the “contest” of life that he knows best and that has defined good living for him – namely a life of extreme physical challenge and risk – is no longer one in which he can ably compete. No doubt there will be other challenges, other competitions in life, Epictetus will say, against which to test one's excellences and agency. And some of these will themselves be physical challenges.

Still, Ashby's voice ought not to be silenced. For him, like so many military men and women, “being able to work hard and play hard” is precisely a matter of having an exemplary body that can be routinely tested in grueling ways. To be deprived of that contest is no small change in the terms of one's happiness and conception of self.

Suggested reading:
Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind, Nancy Sherman (Oxford University Press).
Epictetus, A Stoic and Socratic Guide to Life, A.A. Long (Oxford University Press).
The Discourses: The Handbook, Fragments. Ed. Christopher Gill (Everyman).

(Nancy Sherman is University Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and the author of Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind.)


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