Getty Images

A Surprising Lesson from the Stoics

You need more than grit to survive and thrive.

The military has long found inspiration in ancient Stoicism. George Washington, encamped at Valley Forge, allegedly staged a play about the Stoic quasi-sage Cato. Defense Secretary James Mattis told cadets at VMI that he always “kept a tattered copy” of Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in his rucksack in combat. What appeals to many in the military is the Stoic idea that you can build grit and discipline by pushing hard against the limits of self-mastery and self-control: “The pain isn’t due to the thing itself,” says Marcus, “but to your estimate of it.” 

But the idea that with just the right training and athletic grit you can wage effective war against the anguish of the battlefield just doesn’t square with what we now know to be a pervasive fact of war and after war. And that is military moral injury. 

Does ancient Stoicism leave room for what we today would call moral distress and injury, a type of emotional trauma that occurs in response to a situation that poses a severe moral conflict or challenge? In Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience, I argue that it does and that a healthy modern Stoicism must start building on that foundation. I examine what the Stoics teach us about moral anguish and how we can heal through self-mercy and the compassion of others. 

The lesson is most profound, even if disturbing, in Seneca’s play Hercules Rages. Hercules, blinded and crazed by a spell cast by a jealous and vengeful stepmother, Juno, has just unwittingly murdered his family. His self-blame is unremitting and suicidal. He did the deed. He could’ve and should’ve done otherwise. 

Listen carefully and you can hear a soldier struggling with the accidents of war, bad intelligence, the forced choices and blinding that lead to horrific tragedies. The struggle may have to do with conduct in war, but also cause, that at first seemed just but not so any more. 

In this Stoic play, it is a father and a buddy who intervene to help Hercules find self-compassion: “The grief is yours. The guilt your stepmother’s. Bad luck is not your fault,” says his father. Hercules’s closest friend is more direct: “Use your heroic courage” to show yourself mercy. 

You might say this is a surprising Stoic lesson. It’s not about go-it-alone grit. It’s about a different kind of Herculean labor of learning to accept the trust and love of others in order to rebuild inner strength. It is a critical Stoic lesson for soldiers unraveled by the horrors of war, trying to make moral sense of their role in what they’ve done, seen, and suffered. The emotions that travel with moral injury—shame, guilt, and moral despair, may be all too apt—the sign of a soldier’s enduring humanity. But the self-punishment may nonetheless be profoundly unfair—not just because it doesn’t always track real or precise culpability, but because the moral burdens are shouldered disproportionately by the too few who serve in the military in this country.

Heroic courage, in Seneca’s play, requires letting others in to help vanquish the self-rage—in Hercules’s case, a caring father and a wise and benevolent friend. The role of a benevolent buddy in self-forgiveness is, in fact, part of a protocol used by leading VA clinical and research psychologists Brett Litz and Shira Maguen in treating veterans for moral injury. At a critical juncture in the therapy, patients are asked to imagine an “empty chair” in the room, a place and space for a trusted and benevolent friend, someone with moral authority, who might help you reclaim a sense of lost goodness. The hope is that you might begin to see a glimmer of yourself through their eyes. Or you might be asked to reverse the stance: imagine yourself as the compassionate friend to whom a buddy can turn when he’s “stuck” in the way you are, wracked with guilt and the self-harm that often follows. Would you be merciless in your blame? Would he be merciless in his toward you? 

The Scottish Enlightenment philosopher, Adam Smith, himself influenced by the Stoics, dubbed this kind of exercise “changing places in fancy.” Smith saw it as a way of building empathy, the connective tissue that allows us to share our humanity. 

Service members are good at sharing humanity—up close and personal. A fighting force depends on it. But warriors often view the inner war as not needing the same social capital. That is a mistake. 

Marcus Aurelius is prescient on just this point. He jots his meditations as notes to himself at nightfall during the Germanic campaigns along the Danube. The intimate killing of the battlefield is likely on his mind: Picture a dismembered hand and head lying apart from the rest of the human trunk, he writes. That’s what “man makes of himself…when he cuts himself off” from others with whom he is connected. The image is graphic. It’s one modern warriors know all too well. 

Marcus draws a moral and psychological lesson from it, embedded deep in the foundations of Greco-Roman Stoicism. We are “at home in the world,” a stock Stoic phrase, when we recognize our mutual dependence. This is a critical teaching to pull out of a tattered Meditations and share with troops. It’s a counterpoint to an image many service members conjure up of Marcus, a gilded and grand solo horseman, astride his glorious steed. The equestrian sculpture, still in Rome, befits the honor due an emperor. But the emperor himself, writing his own breviary after a long day’s campaign, knows he is no lone horseman. “We have come into the world to work together.” 

With these words in mind, now picture Marcus’s outstretched right hand in that very monumental statue. He is reaching out toward us, holding out a hand. This is Stoic wisdom for modern resilience. Military leaders must acknowledge the real moral anguish suffered by many who go to war and how, as good Stoics, they can lead by holding out a hand that helps show the way toward self-forgiveness and compassion.

Nancy Sherman, University Professor at Georgetown University, holds a Ph.D. from Harvard in ancient philosophy. She served as the inaugural Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the United States Naval Academy. She is the author of "Stoic Wisdom: Ancient Lessons for Modern Resilience" (Oxford University Press, 2021).