Podcast #421: Why You Need a Philosophical Survival Kit

Admiral James Stockdale was a fighter pilot and POW in Vietnam for seven years. During his imprisonment, he was regularly tortured and beaten, and often held in solitary confinement. 

Despite the emotional, mental, and physical trauma he faced day in and day out, Stockdale survived and came home to become an influential public figure. 

How did he do it?

As my guest today explains, Stockdale had with him a philosophical survival kit. 

His name is Thomas Gibbons, he’s a retired Army colonel and a current professor at the U.S. Naval War College where he teaches a course founded by James Stockdale called Foundations of Moral Obligation. Today on the show, Tom shares how a little book of Stoic philosophy helped Stockdale endure through seven grueling years of confinement and how his experience as a POW inspired the creation of a course on Western philosophy. Tom then shares why it’s important for military officers and leaders of all kinds to have an understanding of philosophy and walks us through some of the topics they cover in the “Stockdale Course,” including Aristotelian virtue ethics and Kant’s duty ethics. 

Show Highlights

  • The background and history of the Naval War College
  • How Admiral James Stockdale became a Stoic 
  • Stockdale’s experience as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton 
  • Tactics Stockdale used to survive torture and solitary confinement 
  • The negative effects of being too optimistic
  • How Stockdale turned his experience into a popular course on ethics that’s lasted for 40 years
  • Why teach military officers philosophy and the classics? 
  • The value of the Great Books 
  • Why has this class been so successful for over four decades?
  • The curriculum that students of the course go through 
  • What is it about Aristotelian virtue ethics that can help soldiers become better at what they do?
  • Kant on duty 
  • Why Stockdale loved the Bible’s Book of Job 
  • Why every man should ask life’s “Primary Questions” 

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