30 December, 2005
Kevin Drum has a post about James Stockdale, whom most of us know as “Ross Perot’s VP in 1992” and who passed away this year. From a profile of him in the NYT magazine:
For his part, Stockdale intended to return home [from being a POW in Vietnam] with his honor intact. One afternoon, he was given a razor and led to the bathroom – a sure sign that he was being readied for a propaganda film. Instead of shaving, Stockdale gave himself a reverse Mohawk, tearing up his scalp in the process. More determined than ever now, his captors locked him in the interrogation room for a few minutes while they fetched a hat for him. Stockdale glanced around, looking for an appropriate weapon. He considered a rusty bucket and a windowpane before settling on a 50-pound stool, and proceeded to beat himself about the face. Then, realizing that his eyes were not yet swollen shut, he beat himself some more. By the time the guards had returned, blood was running down the front of his shirt. For the next several weeks, Stockdale kept himself unpresentable by surreptitiously bashing his face with his fists. The North Vietnamese never did manage to film him.
Even as a tortured detainee — Stockdale lived in his cell with an untreated broken leg — he organized fellow prisoners into a resistance movement. Stockdale helped keep a sense of sanity by relying on lessons of Aristotle, whose lessons taught him that even the imprisoned have free will, and Epictetus, whose lessons on perception shaping experiences helped Stockdale endure years of brutal abuse.
What can one really add to that?
(Except to give Epictetus a shout-out. I am a big fan of Stoic philosophy.)