Excerpt about James Stockdale from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy

Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

“Donald Robertson has uncovered a wealth of connections between modern cognitive behavoural therapies and ancient Stoic philosophy. This book should be read by anyone interested in understanding the historical roots of CBT or in learning about how ancient psychotherapeutic methods can add to the modern therapist’s toolkit.”
– Tim LeBon, UKCP registed psychotherapist and author of Wise Therapy

(This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)

James Bond Stockdale

Donald Robertson

According to James Stockdale, the English philosopher Alfred North Whitehead once said that if Plato were to return to life today, he would first ask to be introduced not to an academic, but to a boxing champion (Stockdale, 1995, p. 17). If the Stoic philosopher Epictetus were alive in modern times, the first person he would want to be introduced to would probably be Stockdale himself.

On September 9, 1965, I flew at 500 knots right into a flak trap, at tree-top level, in a little A-4 airplane – the cockpit walls not even three feet apart – which I couldn’t steer after it was on fire, its control system shot out. After ejection I had about thirty seconds to make my last statement in freedom before I landed in the main street of a little [North Vietnamese] village right ahead. And so help me, I whispered to myself: “Five years down there [in captivity], at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.” (Stockdale, 1995, p. 189)

At the outbreak of US involvement in the Vietnam War, James Stockdale (1923-2005) was captured by a mob of fifteen villagers who beat him to within an inch of his life, snapping his leg, and leaving him permanently crippled. The irony, not lost on Stockdale, was that he had lost the use of his left leg, just like the crippled slave, Epictetus, whose ancient Handbook (Enchiridion) of Stoic philosophy he had previously devoured after studying philosophy as a masters student at Stanford University.

Stockdale was taken prisoner by the North Vietnamese and incarcerated in Hanoi where, as the highest-ranking US naval officer, the only wing commander to survive an ejection over enemy territory, he assumed charge of a community of captured soldiers which, at its largest, numbered in excess of 400 men. Stockdale said he never actually saw a Vietnamese POW camp as portrayed in the movies. He was imprisoned in an old French colonial “dungeon” which formed part of a large communist prison called Hao Lo, or the “Hanoi Hilton”, described as part psychiatric clinic, part reform school. The Americans, kept alongside Vietnamese criminals, were subjected to a constant programme of attempted psychological reprogramming by professional torturers and prison officers. During that time, as a prisoner of war, for seven and a half years, Stockdale spent four years in isolation, two years in leg irons, and was tortured fifteen times, in a manner (“taking the ropes”) not unlike crucifixion.

And if I were asked, “What are the benefits of a Stoic life?” I would probably say, “It is an ancient and honorable package of advice on how to stay out of the clutches of those who are trying to get you on the hook, trying to give you a feeling of obligation, trying to get moral leverage on you, to force you to bend to their will.” Because I first reaped its benefits in an extortionist prison of torture, I could go on and say, “It’s a formula for maintaining self-respect and dignity in defiance of those who would break your spirit for their own end.” (Stockdale, 1995, p. 177)

Stockdale’s experience obviously bears comparison with the better-known story of Victor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who was incarcerated in Auschwitz concentration camp during the Second World War, and published his bestselling self-help book Man’s Search for Meaning, after his release (Frankl, 1959). However, although both men arrived at similar conclusions regarding their plight, Stockdale was already aware of Stoic philosophy before being captured and therefore made explicit use of it in coping with his extreme circumstances.

Throughout his time in captivity, Stockdale drew upon the Stoic philosophy he had learned, which suddenly appeared to him to be of more value than anything else he could imagine. He called the many portions of Epictetus’ Handbook which he had learned by heart and memorised his “consolation” and “secret weapon” during captivity.

I’m not the only prisoner who discovered that so-called practical academic exercises on “how to do things” were useless in that fix. The classics have a way of saving you the trouble of prolonged experiences. You don’t have to go out and buy pop psychology self-help books. When you read the classics in the humanities, you become aware that the big ideas have been around a long time, despite the fact that they are often served up today in modern psychological “explanations” of human action as novel and “scientific.” (Stockdale, 1995, p. 24)

On his release, Stockdale became a well-known military hero, even campaigning as a vice-presidential candidate, supporting the independent Ross Perot, in a US election. He was one of the most highly-decorated officers in US Naval history and spent his later years lecturing on the relevance of Stoic philosophy to modern military life. A collection of his talks and essays was published in his book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot (1995). It’s surprising that more frequent reference is not made to Stockdale’s story by cognitive-behavioural therapists, who claim to derive their inspiration from the same philosophical source, ancient Stoicism. I hope this short digression helps to illustrate how Stoic philosophy, like Frankl’s existential psychotherapy, has been applied even to the most extraordinary psychological challenges imaginable in the modern world.

(This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now.)

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