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Stoicism Used by US Military to Help Treatment of PTSD

Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism
Zeno of Citium, founder of Stoicism

The US military is engaging with the Greek philosophy of stoicism to explore the ways in which its tenets resonate across life in the military. “Stoicon” is a conference on stoicism held by the Modern Stoicism Organization in conjunction with their week-long event, ‘Stoic Week,’ where participants “live like a stoic for a week.”

Stoicon X Military explores how the teachings of stoicism relate to military life

The event streamed live on Youtube and was billed as being open to everyone, especially “those interested in military history and current practices within a framework of applied Stoicism.”

The event was hosted by Donald Robertson, the author of ‘How to Think Like a Roman Emperor,’ and featured a variety of speakers working in and with the military on applying the philosophy of stoicism to stressful situations as well as using it to manage the memory of traumatic events, which in severe cases can lead to a condition called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Frank Kearney, a retired US Army Lieutenant General who serves as Chairman of the Advisory Board for Team Red White and Blue, a nonprofit that works to help readjust US Military personnel with brain injuries back into civilian life, gave a presentation called ‘Life’s Not Fair.’

The starkly titled talk powerfully drew from Marcus Aurelius and stoic philosophy to preach the benefit of adapting to the circumstances of a given situation and drawing strength from others who are subjected to similarly difficult conditions, learning to persevere together despite the psychological stress that comes with being in the military.

What is Stoicon?

We interviewed one of the organizers of Stoicon, Dr. Alkistis Agio, in anticipation of the 2019 Stoicon two years ago. She was able to provide some insight on the philosophy of stoicism, its ancient roots and its more modern application at Stoicon panels and events.

Modern Stoicism is an intellectual and popular movement that began at the end of the twentieth century, aimed at reviving Stoicism.

Stoicism is a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium in Athens in the early third century BC, who was greatly inspired by the teachings of Socrates. Stoicism is a philosophy of ethics, with or without a belief in God.

According to its teachings, as social beings, Dr. Agio stated, the path to Eudaimonia (i.e. happiness, fulfillment, flourishing) for humans is found in fully accepting the moment as it presents itself; by not allowing oneself to be controlled by the desire for pleasure or fear of pain, by using Reason to understand the world, and by treating others fairly.

The Stoics are especially known for teaching that “Virtue is the only Good” (i.e. being honest and acting honorably and justly).

External things — such as wealth and pleasure —are welcome, but should not be pursued as ends in themselves, as they cannot guarantee happiness. Alongside Aristotelian ethics, the Stoic tradition forms one of the major founding approaches to Western virtue ethics, as “The right way to live.”

Dr. Agio noted that many Stoics — such as Seneca and Epictetus — emphasized that because “Virtue is sufficient for happiness,” practitioners of Stoic philosophy could be emotionally resilient to anxiety and misfortune.

The phrase “stoic calm” has derived from this philosophy and has greatly affected Christianity, as in the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, And wisdom to know the difference.”

Agio concluded, “Stoicism has also been called the West’s answer to Buddhism, and it has gained unprecedented popularity in places like Silicon Valley. It’s not by chance that Steve Jobs once said, “I would trade all my technology for an afternoon with Socrates.”

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