Nancy Sherman, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind

Citation metadata

Author: Gordon Jill
Date: Apr. 2008
From: Social Theory and Practice(Vol. 34, Issue 2)
Publisher: Social Theory and Practice-Florida State University
Document Type: Article
Length: 2,818 words

Main content

Article Preview :

Nancy Sherman, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005; paperback, 2007), xii + 242 pp.

Stoic Warriors makes true what academics like to tell themselves: that what we study and teach is practical and as real as anything in the "real world." Nancy Sherman's book is philosophically learned and politically relevant; it rests on scholarly detail and compelling narratives; it is historical as well as poignantly contemporary.

In colloquial terms, most of us would agree that the military ideal is "stoic" in many ways. Sherman takes this commonplace description seriously, tracing it back to its Greek and Roman roots in the Stoic philosophical school and then analyzing to what extent the military does--and should--embody Stoic ideals. Sherman deftly synthesizes a variety of sources. She draws from Greek and Roman philosophers: Zeno, Cleanthes, and Chrysippus, whose thought survives only in later accounts, and Epictetus, Cicero, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius, to name the most prominent, as well as Aristotle and Plato. In addition, she engages contemporary philosophers doing work in Greek philosophy, ethics, and moral psychology. She then illuminates and complicates the philosophical work with insights from military historians, psychologists and psychiatrists, the Bible, the Talmud, memoirists, novelists, poets, and most pointedly, stories from and interviews with military service men and women. Sherman describes her project as dialectic, "a back-and-forth movement from military character to Stoicism in an effort to shed light on both" (2). She moves gracefully between expository work on Stoicism and analytic work on war, militarism, grief, loss, anger, fear, and individualism.

Ultimately, the book accomplishes several things: it provides a historical account of Stoic morality and moral psychology, including differences among the Stoic figures Sherman considers; it engages Stoicism critically; it analyzes military attitudes and practices in the context of Stoicism; and it critically explores "the military mind." She argues that while there are many shared values and attitudes between Stoicism and the military mind, there are also points of departure, and we are best off if we examine military values and attitudes critically, especially at those points where there is tension between a more severe Stoicism and a deep sense of empathy and respect for others that marks our shared humanity.

Sherman begins the book with a biographical account of James Stockdale, highly decorated military officer and one-time Vice-Presidential running mate of Ross Perot. Epictetus' work Enchiridion held for Stockdale "the key to his survival for seven and a half years of life as a prisoner of war" in Vietnam (1). Stockdale's resilience as a POW was truly extraordinary, and Sherman uses his story to introduce the austerity of Stoicism and some of its most fundamental aims: "On a strict reading, Stoicism minimizes vulnerability by denying the intrinsic goodness of things that lie outside of one's control. For some, such as Stockdale, POW camp can offer an extreme experiment in Stoicism" (1). From here she introduces ideas such as indifferents--preferred and dispreferred--the cognitive nature of the emotions, virtue, happiness, and...

Source Citation

Source Citation
Jill, Gordon. "Nancy Sherman, Stoic Warriors: The Ancient Philosophy Behind the Military Mind." Social Theory and Practice, vol. 34, no. 2, 2008, p. 306+. Accessed 14 May 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A180946944