BMCR 2006.07.68

Stoic Warriors. The Ancient Philosophy behind the Military Mind

, Stoic warriors : the ancient philosophy behind the military mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005. xii, 242 pages : illustrations ; 24 cm. ISBN 0195152166 $26.00.

The philosophy of the Stoics has produced much interesting scholarship recently, especially from authors who are beginning to consider the role of Stoicism in the Roman world; two such works that immediately spring to mind are Inwood 2005 and Gretchen Reydams-Schils 2005.1 Sherman has chosen a different way to study the material, but an extremely interesting one. From her experience of teaching ethics at the United States Naval Academy, she analyses Stoic philosophy to see what principles one might usefully apply to modern military conduct. By means of many anecdotal examples of situations in which she has found Stoic-like attitudes, she makes a compelling case for instituting a Stoic ethical education for all members of the military, regardless of their position.

Sherman’s aim is to guide the reader through an outline of Stoic ethics, highlighting areas from which the military might learn through practical application. Her aim is not so much to turn the armed forces into accomplished ‘sages’, but rather to encourage an acceptance and application of the Stoic ideas she advocates. The chapters of the book cover thoughts on mental and physical well-being (Chapter 2: “Sound Bodies and Sound Minds”); behavior in a military setting (Chapter 3: “Manners and Morals”); how a soldier should cope with anger (Chapter 4: “A Warrior’s Anger”); what the Stoics say about fear and our resilience toward it (Chapter 5: “Fear and Resilience”); how Stoicism provides an appropriate place for grief (Chapter 6: “Permission to Grieve”); and finally, how to view oneself as an autonomous individual within a larger moral framework (Chapter 7: “The Downsized Self”). Although she does not attempt to make any pronouncements on the great current debates within the field of ancient philosophical studies (for example the application of determinism, the nature of indifferents or what is kathekon), her choice to investigate the practicality of applying Stoicism to modern life provides food for thought for scholars and laymen alike.

The immediate apprehension about a book like this is that the difficult and often controversial theories of Stoicism will be smoothed over and simplified in order for them to become more palatable to a modern non-specialist readership. It is therefore deeply satisfying to read Sherman’s delicate handling of complicated issues such as indifference, the control of emotions, and decorum of behavior. She also makes clear the distinction between the Old Stoa and the New Stoa, using that demarcation as a way to signpost the so-called ‘mild’ Stoicism which one might consider more attainable in the modern world. She has no reservations about engaging with the ancient evidence, and the text is pleasingly full of quotations from ancient sources. Naturally, she focuses on the ethical side of things, as opposed to discussing (for instance) the Stoic theory of physics, but in such a practical book as this that does not come as a surprise.

She draws some unexpected parallels between modern behavior and Stoic texts, including one reading of a passage from Cicero citing Chrysippus which appears to describe ‘traumatic stress’ and thus leads into a discussion of how we might apply Stoicism to people suffering Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (125-129). She also debunks the modern conception of what it is to be ‘stoic’ as opposed to what the ancient Stoics would have thought. This is most interestingly illustrated in the discussion of physical perfection and achievement, where the modern cultural obsession with body-building and obtaining physical perfection as a way of ‘keeping the enemy at bay’ and achieving an ultimate goal is contrasted with the ancient Stoic idea of accepting that the body is an indifferent (chapter 2). The ancient Stoics considered that the body was not an end in itself, although it was kata phusin to keep it in a healthy condition. This parallel between modern and ancient opinion leads to the juxtaposition of some unexpected modern works with the ancient texts, notably discussions of modern psychology and psychotherapy (for instance, work on body dysmorphic disorder, 23-24, research on facial expressions, 49, and studies of post-traumatic stress disorder, 122-5), which Sherman uses to inform and support her application of Stoicism to modern individuals.

On the whole, Sherman has a good grasp of the ancient philosophical scholarship in the field, although this is clear from her extensive bibliography rather than references in the text and endnotes. Her attempt to impose a modern warrior’s psychology onto the characters of the Iliad is occasionally less than successful, as she relies mainly on her own textual interpretation instead of engaging with current scholarship (for instance, 68-70).2 However, in general she is fairly comfortable when dealing with details of life in the classical world. She finds the so-called detachment of the sage from humanity a great problem and compares it to the detachment which soldiers feel upon returning to normal society after a long period on the battlefield. However, she missed the work by Gretchen Reydams-Schils (2002) on human relationships, which would perhaps have helped provided a more satisfying answer to the perplexing problem of the Stoic sage’s interaction with the world around him.

Although Sherman displays an understanding of the complexity of the issues at stake and the differing accounts from our various sources, she can resolve problems rather too quickly instead of demonstrating the plausibility of more than one solution. Again, this is not unexpected, and the acknowledgement of the problems is still impressive for a book of this kind, but it can become slightly frustrating to the reader who is accustomed to more in-depth analysis. Equally, there is a tendency to imply that the theories under discussion are attested by a bevy of sources rather than acknowledging that our understanding of some theories, particularly the eupatheiai, is based on fragmentary and often contradictory material. This results in a rather more coherent picture of the evolution and variations of Stoicism than is found in modern scholarship.

The implicit purpose of writing this book may explain this. Sherman refers to using her own books when teaching courses to members of the military, including one story about using her book Making a Necessity of Virtue, whose dust cover featured a photo of a nude classical statue, and the joke made by an officer that the book should therefore be carried around in brown paper covers (51). It does not require a great leap of deduction to realize that she has written her own new textbook. Obviously, for a class on military ethics, the nuances of theoretical controversy are not absolutely indispensable; the purpose of the real-life examples that pepper the book and sometimes appear a little disconnected to the pure academic thus becomes decipherable. These are unquestionably complex concepts to grasp; any illustrations provided by experiences familiar to the students is going to be beneficial for enabling learning.

There are some aspects of Stoic theory that Sherman does gloss over, probably out of concern for this audience, a decision that reflects an intent not to undermine the raison d’tre of an army that must kill people. This is a problem that Sherman particularly faces when she has to discuss the issue of cosmopolitanism. The requirement that we should all consider each other’s interests as our own and that a fundamental part of our nature is being a member of a universal human race provides some dilemmas in the context of a profession of arms where killing other human beings is an integral duty. Sherman never asks whether our fundamental identity as humans is incompatible with the function of the modern military, which is the only truly disappointing omission in the book. She discusses the issue of cosmopolitanism by using Cicero’s discussion of personae to illustrate our basic quality as being human (121-2) but at the same time tends to think of each persona as a role one adopts at the appropriate time, as opposed to the personae representing a graduated and integral profile of one’s character. This reinterpretation of the theory allows her to discuss humanity in warfare (for instance, not killing an enemy who has been caught unawares) and how soldiers may hold on to their humanity in exceptionally stressful situations, which are all valid and important uses of cosmopolitanism. Nevertheless, she never addresses the fundamental dilemma of killing other people with whom you share the most elementary common bond.

Sherman chooses not to engage with some contemporary debates suggested by her choice of material and the use to which she puts it. For instance, she does not reference the debate about the use of classics in politics, or how that might influence our perception of her agenda. While she mentions the gender issues experienced by women in the modern army in passing (50 and 58), her focus on ideas of gender revolve around the masculine ideals in body-building. However, she does comment on how Seneca’s ideas about the womanliness of weeping are ‘entrenched within our own culture’ (136), and concepts of masculinity within the military are explored in this light.

There is a somewhat simplistic approach to the nature of battle, which perhaps comes from working with the Stoic sources, themselves never particularly interested in military affairs. Sherman sometimes assumes that the soldiers on both sides of the conflict will agree to the same rules of engagement. Although some of her case studies do stem from the Vietnam war and the guerrilla-style warfare the American forces were faced with there, the book lacks a detailed discussion of how a soldier might use Stoic precepts to maintain equanimity in a combat situation involving so-called ‘insurgent’ tactics and the resulting loose rules of engagement, circumstances which are very different to those Sherman generally envisages. Although Stoicism may not say anything directly to people under such conditions, it is arguable that it doesn’t speak directly to the United States Army in general either. In Sherman’s attempt to make Stoicism relevant, this is one aspect she does not give a thorough examination — one which would have been particularly welcome in a book which aims its message at the modern military, especially given present shifts in the nature of ‘warfare’.

Putting aside these points, the message which Sherman wishes to communicate is exceptionally timely. When she was preparing this work for publication, the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, and in the final chapter she puts forward an incisive and challenging analysis of how that situation might have differed if the guards had been trained to react to challenging circumstances through Stoicism. The fundamental elements she feels were lacking are empathy and respect for other human beings caused by an understanding of common humanity, and the ability to control one’s rage and behave appropriately under any circumstance. The need for these qualities challenges the attitude of the military leadership, both in terms of the behavior of higher officials and regarding the basic training of recruits. Her reference to Zimbardo’s infamous ‘prison guard’ experiment at Stanford, which had to be stopped after six days because of the increasing levels of cruelty displayed by the individuals randomly placed in authority as ‘guards’ over those selected as ‘prisoners’, uncomfortably mirrors her discussion of Abu Ghraib. Indeed, one wonders why such observations had not been made and acted upon by the armed forces previously.

Surprisingly, the media attention that the book has received outside the discipline at the time of writing is remarkably thin, especially given its relevance to the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. A telephone interview with the author in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution condemns the ‘cultural pressure’ imposed on young soldiers to live up to a Rambo-style stereotype, which arises not only from contemporary film but even from Presidential rhetoric.3 The recent death of one of Sherman’s key interviewees, Vice Admiral James Stockdale, who had survived over seven years in a Vietnamese POW camp because of his psychological reliance on Epictetus, has made Sherman’s interviews with him a focus of special media interest. However, the only thorough review that really grasps the project that Sherman has conceived appeared in Commonweal, written by Professor Gregory Foster, a professor at the Industrial College of the Armed Forces, National Defense University, and a Vietnam veteran.4 His main questions about Sherman’s thesis are based on the potential conflict between Stoicism’s link to natural law and a soldier’s allegiance to the Constitution, and the divergence between the intellectual approach Sherman adopts and the physicality of the military. He does lament that her discussion of prisoner abuse, particularly the light she sheds on the surrounding military culture, did not go into further detail. The emphasis placed on this by a fellow educator of the armed forces surely signals the importance of Sherman’s work for her target audience.

Although this book does not have an obvious place in a course taught on Classics, or make any contribution to academic debate in its own right, it remains an intelligent and unusual practical application of Stoicism. It is a welcome reminder that philosophy can and should still be applied to concrete situations and thus is strongly recommended reading for the student who wishes to know why the Stoics are still relevant today.


1. Brad Inwood, Reading Seneca: Stoic philosophy at Rome (Oxford: Clarendon Press; New York: Oxford University Press), 2005; Gretchen Reydams-Schils The Roman Stoics: self, responsibility, and affection (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 2005.

2. The sole exception to this is a single endnote referencing William Harris, Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press), 2001.

3. Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 17, 2005, page E1. For a small fee, the article can be read in the archives of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution website.

4. Commonweal, December 16 2005, vol. 132, issue 22.