Remarks for the Opening of the James Bond Stockdale commemoration and Ethics Symposium “Entering the World of Epictetus”, September 23, 2015

Ambassador David D. Pearce delivers opening remarks (Photo by Hellenic Military)
Ambassador David D. Pearce delivers opening remarks (Photo by Hellenic Military)

September 23, 2015
Naval Museum, Zea Harbor
Piraeus, Greece

Good morning and thank you for that kind introduction.

I am delighted that today we have with us, Director of the Hellenic Defense War College Major General Thomaides, Generals and Admirals of the Hellenic Military, and several of my ambassadorial colleagues.  It is an honor for me to address you today, on the occasion of the one day program on ethics here at the beautiful Naval Museum.

I am particularly delighted, as a lifelong Classics student, to speak briefly to you about today’s symposium – a Greek word, of course – which is being held in honor of a man and an idea.  The man is US Navy Vice Admiral James Bond Stockdale, who was a prisoner of war in Vietnam from 1965-1973.  He was a scholar, an officer, and a true leader.  The idea is Stoicism, which Stockdale credited as getting him through eight harrowing years in captivity at the notorious “Hanoi Hilton.”

Stoicism is frequently misunderstood as being a grim, emotionally shut down approach to life.  It’s not.  It’s an approach defined by reflection, equanimity, and considered action.  The first Stoic was Zeno of Citium, who taught in the famous “poikili stoa”, the “painted partico” on the north side of the Athenian Agora.  This was around 301 years before the birth of Christ, on a site that’s been excavated over the last few decades by the American School of Classical Studies.  Surrounded by paintings from Greek history and legend, Zeno taught his students how essential it is to remain centered, to register emotions and acknowledge them, but not to allow emotions to sweep us into a state where we despair or make terrible decisions, or just make ourselves miserable.

Zeno’s ideas caught on, and a later philosopher, Epictetus, developed them further. For Epictetus taught that, we must always remember that while a given situation may be beyond our control – a natural disaster, a sudden illness – we can control our response to it.  The key is, through self-discipline and reflection, to develop a kind of mental resilience.  Epictetus taught first in Rome and then for the last far decades of his life – from about 93 to 135 AD – at Nikopolis, near today’s Preveza.  And his ideasreally took off, becoming the basis for the ethical and survival training for Roman soldiers.

These are the ideas that appealed to Admiral Stockdale, a scholar of ancient Greek thought and an American hero.  Admiral Stockdale claimed that Stoicism, especially as taught by Epictetus, allowed him to survive his long ordeal in Vietnam, which included torture and four years in solitary confinement. In his book he wrote:

“The emotions of grief, pity, and even affection are well-known disturbers of the soul. Grief is the most offensive; Epictetus considered the suffering of grief an act of evil. It is a willful act, going against the will of God to have all men share happiness.”

At the United States military academies, we take the ethical training of our officer corps seriously.  Today we have two professors with us from the Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island.   We have sent scores of Greek military officers for training at the Naval War College, as well as to the other military academies, and it’s great to know some of them are with us here today.  They went through our International Military Education and Training program, which I’m proud to say has doubled in size over the last two years.  We’re still not satisfied it’s enough, however, so Admiral Apostolakis and I will be working for more!

We wanted to do a one-day program in Athens on military ethics, in the very place where Stoicism was born.  With this in mind, the U.S. Embassy in Athens was fortunate to collaborate with the Hellenic National Defense Staff, and more specifically the leadership and faculty of the ΣΕΘΑ (SETHA) [The Hellenic National Defense College] to make this event possible. Also critical to bringing this event together was the willingness of the U.S. Naval War College to send its distinguished staff members to offer you this program today in honor of Vice Admiral Stockdale.

So, I want to thank the Hellenic National Defense Staff SETHA and the U.S. Naval War College for their collaboration, hard work and contributions to today’s event, along with our Embassy team.  I wish all of you a fruitful day as we recall Admiral Stockdale, his legacy and the lessons of the classics.
Thank You.