I’ve noticed, during the research for my upcoming book on how people use ancient philosophy in modern life, how many of the Stoics I interviewed were or are soldiers (or cops, or firemen). Why is that? I asked Nancy Sherman, professor of ethics at Georgetown University and the author of Stoic Warriors, which looks at Stoicism in the armed forces. She replied:
There’s a popularization of stoicism with a small s in our culture – the idea of being self-sufficient and self-reliant. In that sense, the word ‘stoic’ has survived in the popular vernacular. It has little to do with Stoicism. But Stoicism is also a natural fit for the military, in the sense of sucking it up, the stiff upper lip, and so on. Being a soldier is about deprivation, survival, the minimization of need and attachment. So Stoicism suits them.In the US Navy and the military at the academy level, Admiral James Stockdale was also a popularizer of Stoicism. Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius are particularly popular, because they’re accessible. And Aurelius was a soldier and emperor, which impresses military people.
I think the little s stoic ethos of ‘suck it up and chuck on’ can be harmful. It’s a form of abstinence and denial. Your body goes into it naturally when you go into stressors. But it’s also inculcated by the command. You’re seen as a sissy if you cry, and a wimp if you go for therapy. If it’s linked with a certain macho denial of emotions, then it can be extremely harmful. It minimises all the emotions that are desirable in peace time.