in: Advice, Character, Podcast

• Last updated: September 30, 2021

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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Read the Transcript

Brett McKay: Welcome to another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. Admiral Jame Stockdale was a fighter pilot and a 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 and influential public figure. How did he do it? As my guest today explains, Stockdale had with him a philosophical emergency 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 the 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. After the show’s over, check out the show notes at

All right. Thomas Gibbons, welcome to the show.

Tom Gibbons: Thank you very much, Brett. Thanks for hosting me today and allowing me to talk about the Foundations elective and Admiral Stockdale. I’m an avid listener and a fan of your podcast.

Brett McKay: Well, thank you so much. You’ve got an interesting background. You are an Army colonel, but you teach a course, as you said, on … it’s called The Stockdale Course, and we’ll talk about who Stockdale was. It’s the Foundations of Moral Obligations at the U.S. Naval War College. So how did an Army colonel end up teaching a course on basically what is essentially Western philosophy at the U.S. Naval War College?

Tom Gibbons: Brett, that’s a great question, and I tell people I have the best job in the Navy. But before I talk about myself, I’d like to give your listeners some background on the Naval War College, which is located here in Newport, Rhode Island. Many people don’t know what a war college is, and they may be turned off right away by that name. We’re one of the Department of Defense’s professional military education schools, PME schools, and we provide education to military officers, government civilians, and international officers. The college was founded in 1884, and it’s one of the oldest war colleges … is the only war college in the U.S. We’re accredited to award a Master’s degree, and we have two undergraduate programs, and resident students are here for a year. We have approximately 550 resident students and almost 300,000 distance education students, which really makes us the size of a small college or university. Our faculty consists of civilian academics and active duty military.

Myself, I grew up in Cincinnati and graduated from West Point, and I spent almost 30 years on active in the Army flying attack helicopters. I came here to the college while on active duty to teach the joint military operations course, and I’ve been here for 15 years. I had been a student here, and I tell people that the best education that I received in the military was here at Naval War College, because they actually gave us time to think and reflect about what we were learning, and then to share those ideas with others.

While on active duty, I worked to complete my doctorate, and I was able to remain on the faculty when I finished my doctorate. My dissertation was on honor codes and ethical behavior, and because of that I got involved with the folks who teach leadership and ethics, and I actually started teaching the Foundations course about 10 years ago.

I’m also a personal trainer, and I teach a HIIT three times a week, and that’s why I tell people I have the best job in the Navy. I work out twice a day and I get to teach philosophy to graduate students.

At the beginning of the trimester, I tell our students, “If you don’t think differently at Lesson 10, we haven’t been successful.” And Brett, I’m gonna turn the tide here, and I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but what are your foundations of moral obligation? What’s important in your life? A lot of people don’t ask those questions until it’s almost too late, and they don’t take time to think about it. The beauty of the Foundations course is that we read the classics, we write about it, and then we talk about it and share ideas with others, and that’s what’s so important about the course. Many of our students have either been to Iraq and Afghanistan or they’re going to Iraq and Afghanistan, and they have life experiences, which really makes it useful for our classroom discussion.

Brett McKay: So before we get into why the course even exists, like why teach a course on Western ethics and philosophy, how it got started is even more interesting, because it involves a guy named Admiral James Stockdale. He was a prisoner of war in Vietnam, and it seems like that was sort of the origin of this. It started all when he was there, and then when he got back this course sort of developed, being based on his experience in Vietnam. Can you talk to us a little bit about the background of how the course even got developed?

Tom Gibbons: Sure, Brett. Stockdale was a true American hero. I talked to a former prisoner of war yesterday, had some correspondence, and he wrote to me that only Stockdale and a handful of others can speak about the torture in analytical terms, about repeated, sustained torture and adaptions one makes to it over considerable time. So he really suffered in his time in Vietnam.

But growing up in Illinois, typical American life. Went to Annapolis and graduated in 1946, and he was actually part of the Class of 1947. During World War II, they had early graduation, so he graduated a year early. In fact, the Stockdale Center for Leadership and Ethics at Annapolis is there now, and that’s chaired by a good friend of mine, Colonel Art Athens.

After he graduated, Stockdale served on ships for a couple years, and then he went to flight training to became a Naval aviator. In 1954, he was assigned to the Navy Test Pilot School, or NTPS, and he became a test pilot, and that’s really the best of the best. Those are … the test pilots. In 1959, the Navy sent Stockdale to Stanford, and he subsequently received a Master’s degree in international relations. While he was at Stanford, he became interested in philosophy. He wandered over into the philosophy department one day, just wandering the halls, and he met a guy by the name of Phil Rhinelander. Rhinelander was a Navy World War II veteran who took Stockdale under his wing and tutored him in philosophy. Stockdale took Rhinelander’s courses and learned all about the different philosophers.

And as he was leaving, Rhinelander gave him a copy of Epictetus’ book The Enchiridion. It’s just a small book, and at first Stockdale was dumbfounded. He said to himself, “I was a fighter pilot, an organizer, a martini drinker, a golf player, a technologist.” This ancient rag talked about not concerning oneself with matters over which he had no control. And he said to himself, “Poor old Rhinelander, he’s just gone too far.” But Stockdale didn’t realize at the time, but that small book would actually be his salvation in Vietnam and the Hanoi Hilton. He read it and absorbed it and really made the Stoic philosophy his own. He embraced it, and in prison he lived in the world Epictetus and applied those lessons in order to survive.

Stockdale was at the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, and he wrote later that he had the best seat in the house, looking at destroyers shooting over targets. He said there were no Vietnamese PT boats, nothing but American firepower and black water. And so he really knew the truth about the Vietnam war had started, and as a POW, he was concerned that he could be forced to reveal that to the North Vietnamese.

Subsequently, flying over Vietnam on a bombing in run in September 1965, he was shot down. He was severely beaten, got a broken leg, and he spent the next seven and a half years in that Hoa Lo Prison, the Hanoi Hilton, as a political prisoner. Four and a half years of it in were in solitary confinement. Stockdale was the senior officer at the Hanoi Hilton. And think about it, Brett: he had to establish a whole new culture. They were inside a prison with rules that they couldn’t communicate, so they used what’s called the tap code. They had read about this in Arthur Koestler’s book Darkness at Noon, and they used tin cups and hands to tap messages on the wall to their next door neighbor.

Stockdale also established rules for the POWs, kind of a cultural rules and what to take torture for. The rules were don’t bow in public, stay off the air, don’t help the Vietnamese by giving propaganda, admit to no crimes, don’t kiss the enemy or don’t give in to the enemy, and, finally, unity over self. The most important thing to Stockdale and the other POWs was the guy in the next cell. And he said … He often reflected that honesty was so important, because they were tortured. They had to take the ropes. It was a torture treatment that they were given. And he said you could only take torture up to a certain point, and then you had to tell them something. You spilled your guts, and coming back from that you felt guilt and remorse. He said, “We shared that with the POWs, and especially for the new guys, we’d try and tell them, ‘Don’t feel bad. You should’ve heard what I told them.'”

But you could only take it to the point where you just couldn’t take anymore torture. What they ended up is they gave as much disinformation as they could. One POW went on a propaganda movie and told them about Clark Kent, and the North Vietnamese eventually found out about that, and they tortured him severely. Stockdale himself disfigured his hair with a razor blade on his scalp, and the Vietnamese put a hat on him, so then he took a stool and beat his eyes in so it would look puffy and they wouldn’t be able to show him in a movie. Eventually, after several years, he was caught with a note from another prisoner, and he was put in solitary, and he took shards of glass and cut his wrists to protect fellow prisoners so … And he almost tried to commit suicide so that he wouldn’t have to think on his fellow prisoners, and because of that he eventually received the Medal of Honor.

Little did Stockdale know that at the same time he was doing this, his wife Sybil was in Paris at the Vietnamese peace talks. And, Brett, real quick, Sybil Stockdale was also an American hero. It’s said the behind every man there’s a great woman, and she truly was a great woman. She was involved with the League of American Families of POWs. She met with the President and the Secretary of State, and she actually went to Paris to talk to the North Vietnamese about the conditions that her husband was going through. Stockdale himself communicated with Sybil using code words in his correspondence, so he actually got messages out to his wife that way. And it was after Stockdale attempted suicide torture pretty much stopped in the Hanoi Hilton for all American POWs.

He came to the Naval War College in 1977 as our president, and then he went to The Citadel in 1979-80, and finally he went to the Hoover Institution at Stanford for 12 years. Many have heard about his a Ross Perot’s running mate in the 1992 Presidential election. He was in a debate with Dan Quail and Al Gore, and that’s when Stockdale said, “Who am I? Why am I here?” and he appeared confused and disoriented, and it really looked bad for Stockdale. They had a clip of Saturday Night Live about that that made fun of him.

Brett McKay: So he gets back. I mean, when you … I remember reading in the essay that you wrote and then also in the Foundations of Moral Wellbeing … It was really heartbreaking what those guys went through, but also at the same time inspiring the courage they showed. They talked about whenever a guy would … you’d get tortured and he would spill his guts, and he’d come back and they would tap back, “I love you. It’s okay,” or they would say … Or the other thing that Stockdale would always say is like, “It’s okay if they break you. You just have to make them break you again tomorrow because they don’t like that very much.”

Tom Gibbons: Right. You had to start all over again, and Stockdale was great at that. In fact, he tells a story of when he was growing up, his mother taught drama, and he took those lessons with him into the interrogation room. He would focus on an earlobe or something in the distance, trying not … to avoid making eye contact with the interrogator if at all possible. But, yeah, it was really amazing the things that they did and the torture that they underwent in North Vietnam. In fact, Stockdale talks about the difference between solitary confinement and torture and which is worse, and he says that it’s more difficult to spend time in solitary confinement than to go to torture. Because you go to torture, and it’s over and you recover from that, but in solitary confinement there’s no human contact, nobody to talk to. And eventually what the North Vietnamese did was because Stockdale and the Alcatraz Gang, or the group of 11 closest to Stockdale, they took those 11 and put them away from the prison population so they couldn’t communicate. They were in solitary confinement, and Stockdale says it was much more difficult to be in solitary confinement than it was to take torture.

Brett McKay: The first time I encountered Stockdale is I had learned about … I think I read something called the Stockdale Paradox.

Tom Gibbons: Right. Yeah, the Stockdale Paradox, for those of your listeners who have read Jim Collins’ book Good to Great, he talks about the Stockdale Paradox in there. In fact, Stockdale met Jim Collins at Stanford. He was walking along, and eventually Stockdale … He talked to Stockdale about what it was that kept him going, and he said, “You must never lose faith that you’ll prevail in the end. You can never afford to lose that with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they may be.” So the bottom line is never lose faith that you’re gonna get out, and Stockdale didn’t do that. And he talked about optimists, and they said, “We’ll be out by Christmas,” and then Christmas would come and Christmas would go. And then, “We’ll be out by Easter,” and Easter would come and Easter would go. And Stockdale said that it was just disappointing for the optimist. And if you look … Viktor Frankl says the same thing about the optimists in his book. Those are the people who have the hardest time, because they lose faith after a while when they set a deadline and it never happens.

Brett McKay: So the Stockdale Paradox is that sometimes being too optimistic can actually make you less resilient. You need a little depressive realism.

Tom Gibbons: Exactly.

Brett McKay: And so, I mean, the thing that … where Stockdale got these ideas, it all went back to that little rag of … from Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher.

Tom Gibbons: Exactly. Yeah, Epictetus Enchiridion. And I’ll tell you, Brett, I just highlighted a couple things here that I’ll point out in Epictetus, and what Epictetus says is, “There are things within our power, and there are things beyond our power. Within our power are opinion, aim, desire, aversion, and, in one word, whatever affairs are our own. Beyond our power are body, property, reputation, office, and, in one word, whatever are not properly our own.” And Stockdale took those words to heart. You can control what’s in your power, but what’s outside your power, you can’t control, so don’t be concerned about it.

Another quote I really like from Stockdale … or, from Epictetus, is that “Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the will unless itself pleases. Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will. And say this to yourself with regard to everything that happens, for you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not truly to yourself.” While he was in prison, Stockdale took this to heart. His leg was broken when he ejected, and then it was broken again when he was in torture, and he tried not to focus on the pain and tried … because he could control that.

Another passage from Stockdale: “Remember that you’re an actor in a drama of such sort as the author chooses. If short, then in a short one; if long, then in a long one. If it be his pleasure that you should enact a poor man or a cripple or a ruler or a private citizen, see that you act it well, for this is your business, to act well the given part, but to choose it belongs to another.” So basically Stockdale was saying act your part in prison and do your job.

And one of my favorite parts of The Enchiridion is back in Chapter 33, and it’s some rules of etiquette. Epictetus says, “If anyone tells you that a certain person speaks ill of you, do not make excuses about what is said of you but answer, ‘He was ignorant of my other faults, else he would have not have mentioned these alone.'” And my wife tells me that all the time.

Brett McKay: So Stockdale gets back. He ends up at the Naval War College. How did this idea of coming up with a course on Western ethics develop? Was he the guy that came up with it, or was there someone else who knew about his experience and said, “You know, that might be useful to teach what you kind of learned on your own. That might be useful to do in a systematic way and teach it to soldiers”?

Tom Gibbons: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think the course was entirely Stockdale’s idea. He first taught the course in the fall of 1978, ’79. However, the planning started immediately after he took over as president of the War College. He contacted his friend Phil Rhinelander about coming up to Newport, and Rhinelander turned him down. But then he contacted a guy by the name of Joe Brennan at Columbia. He wrote to Brennan, and he said, “What are the philosophic roots of the military profession? I want my students to have more than just a few slogans when their backs are up against the wall. I need a theme, a reading list, and a lot of time to think.” He eventually invited Brennan up to Newport, and they worked together to develop a reading list and a syllabus over the next few months, and they finalized the course in the spring on 1978 and prepared to teach it the next fall. In fact, Stockdale used some of the material for the course in a lecture that he’d given to the folks in Newport, Rhode Island, for the July 4th celebration that summer.

News of the course spread quickly. In fact, a retired Navy officer who was our provost told me that word on the street in D.C. was that this is a must-take course if you’re going to Newport. It was taught by a Medal of Honor winner and a distinguished academic. The media moved in with cameras and tape recorders to get the word out. And, Brett, Stockdale himself only taught the course twice, and that was during the academic year of ’78, ’79. The end of ’79, August ’79, he moved on to become the president of The Citadel, and he was there for a year, and his teaching partner, Joe Brennan, who had come from Columbia, taught the course for the next 12 years.

Brett McKay: So, I mean, I can understand … I guess the question is like why teach military officers Western philosophy? I mean, I can see, okay, the Stoic stuff could come in handy, but you … it’s not just Stoicism that gets covered in the course. You’re looking at Aristotelian virtue ethics. You’re looking at the Book of Job. You’re looking at utilitarianism. So what was the goal? What did Stockdale hope officers would get out of getting this sort of overview course of Western philosophy?

Tom Gibbons: Good question. Stockdale was passionate about implementing changes to the curriculum when he took over as president. He told the faculty that the existing curriculum didn’t really address the things that he found most useful in his time as a POW in Hanoi for seven and a half years. He said, “There’s no philosophical survivor kits issued when man goes to war.” And, Brett, even today there a lot of folks that come here that are STEM major, and we have STEM majors throughout the military, because most of the weapons systems and the platforms are so complicated that you need to have a STEM background in order to understand how things work. That’s one of the main reasons that the course is even so popular now, though, because it fills a gap in the education of many of our officers. There’s just not as many liberal arts majors around in the military, and reading, writing about, and discussing the classics helps to improve one’s critical thinking skills, and you just can’t appreciate the value of a liberal arts education until you read some of the classics.

Stockdale talked about the value of the classics, ’cause classics, when he was confined in the Hanoi Hilton and how he thought about that when he was tortured or kept in solitary confinement … He found that the philosophy courses he took at Stanford gave him more tools to resist his interrogators than all of his military training, and he drew that strength from Epictetus in particular.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I love that idea of a philosophical survival kit. That’s really cool. I think that’s really neat.

So how has … The course started over 40 years ago. Has the course changed much since it began, and is it still as well-received as it was when it first started?

Tom Gibbons: Good question. Brett, the course content is basically the same as what Stockdale taught 40 years ago. After Stockdale’s departure, as I said, Joe Brennan kept the course the same. He did limit it to 25 students. The first course that Stockdale and Brennan taught, they had 50 students, but for one person it’s … you know yourself it’s really hard to manage that, so he kept it to 25 students and he taught it twice a year. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, they took out the lesson on Lenin and Soviet philosophy.

Brennan left in ’92, and a guy by the name of Paul Regan, a Coast Guard captain, took over the course. Regan taught the course once a year, and he taught it for 15 years. He kept it going. Regan developed both a reading path and a writing path. You could take either one. Either you read everything and you took a final exam, or you read only the primary readings and wrote a 10- to 12-page paper. The key thing that Regan did was he renamed the course The Stockdale Course. It was called Foundations of Moral Obligation. When they changed the name to The Stockdale Course, he saw that the numbers of students increased dramatically because people had remembered Stockdale and the importance of what he had done.

After Regan, a guy by the name of Martin Cook, a good friend and one of my mentors, took over the course. Cook brought in the great books method. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that or not, Brett, but the great …

Brett McKay: I am familiar. It’s really cool.

Tom Gibbons: It is. And what the great books method does is you ask a leading question, and the focus is not so much a lecture-type class. It’s more of a discussion, and you watch the discussion. When I taught with Martin Cook, he would sit at one end of the room, and I would sit at the other end of the room, and we would let the discussion go. We were more facilitators than lecturers. I think that’s key.

One of the other things that Martin Cook did is he introduced Blackboard. I’m not sure you’re familiar with that either, Brett, but it’s a learning management system. Basically with Blackboard, instead of writing a 10- to 12-page paper at the end of the trimester, what we did is we told students that they had to make postings once a week about the readings: thoughts, feelings, impressions that they had, and then they had to comment on two other postings. So you would write a posting and then comment on two other postings. And the neat thing about that, Brett, is that if you read it and then you write about it and then you talk about it in seminar, you really own it. The other thing is that if you’re writing for your classmates … I call it the pucker factor, because when you’re writing for your classmates and you know they’re gonna read it, it’s a lot more important if just the instructor’s gonna read it. I thought that was interesting.

But then the other thing that Martin Cook did is he introduced non-Western religion, the Bhagavad Gita. He had lesson finding meaning in one’s life with reading from Tolstoy, Frankl, Elie Wiesel. He introduced Karl Marlantes’ book What It Is Like to Go to War. I’m not sure if you’ve ever read that or not, Brett, but it’s one of the best war novels that you’ll see. Karl does a great job with that.

So the course has changed. Why is the course successful? I tell people it’s a triad. It’s the faculty. Each of the men who taught the course was passionate and willing to listen to others, and passionate about what they did in the classroom. They were interested in it, and they were interested in hearing what students had to say, and students bring life experiences.

The students themselves, Brett, as I said, were different than the typical undergraduate institution. Most of the students that come here to the War College, they’re Type A. They want to be here. They’re motivated to learn. And I tell folks that if you take a philosophy course as a graduate student, it’s a lot different than taking it as an undergraduate, because you have life experiences that you can bring to discussion, and you can reflect on things and see what they mean.

And then the third element that makes it successful is the readings. Going back to what Stockdale originally started, we use primary — not secondary — sources, classical, modern readings. And, Brett, I mean, you’ve read Socrates. You’ve read Plato. These are difficult readings, especially in one sittings, and some of our students say, “Now, what did I just read?” But they’re timeless, and we just don’t have enough time to go through all of the different readings. So on Lesson 10 we give the students a supplementary reading list with other things that they can continue the readings so they become lifelong learners.

The current syllabus, we start off with the Greek and Roman Stoics. We talk about Epictetus. We read Stockdale’s book, Thoughts of a Philosophical Fighter Pilot. We talk about Marcus Aurelius and his book Meditations, The Emperor’s Handbook. We talk about … The second lesson we do is Greek tradition, Socrates, and I call it “easy Plato”: we read Euthyphro, Apology, and Crito. We talk about the Euthyphro dilemma. And if you’ve read Apology, what Socrates says, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” And then in Crito he talks to the laws of Athens. Week Three, we do Plato’s Republic, talk about definitions of justice, and we highlight the myth of the cave. In Week Four we talk about Nicomachean ethics and Aristotle and virtue ethics.

In Week Five, we talk about Western religious traditions. We read the Bible, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and it’s amazing how many folks have not read the Bible in a long time, since they were small. We read Thomas Aquinas’ Treatise on the Law and Soren Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. We talk about what a leap of faith is. In Week Six we talk about Immanuel Kant’s Metaphysics of Morals and the duty concept and what it means. In Week Seven, we talk life and society. We read Mill’s On Liberty. We read the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the U.N. charter. We talk about the tyranny of the majority and all the different things that Mill talks about in his work. In Week Eight, which is probably one of my favorite weeks, we read Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. And we read Night or Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. And Brett, so often in the military folks are focused on my next assignment or my next inspection, but this lesson really forces them to think about their life and where they’re at in their life and what’s important to them.

In Week Nine, we look at Western religious … or excuse me, non-Western perspective. We read the Bhagavad Gita and Marlantes’ book, What It Is Like to Go to War. And as I said earlier, that’s probably one of the best war novels. And then 10, we cover skeptical challenges. We read Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor” from The Brothers Karamazov. We read the Book of Job. We read Ecclesiastes, and we read Camus. So, it’s pretty much a really compact syllabus. We talk about a lot of different things in a short 10-week period.

Brett McKay: No, yeah. It’s really impressive. So I got my hands on a copy of the original textbook, the Foundations of Moral Obligation. There was a used one on Amazon. And I’ll say it: I’ve read a lot of philosophy books or sort of broad overviews of philosophy. This one is probably the most readable and enjoyable that I’ve read, the Foundations of Moral Obligation, because what I love about it is … They go through the history of philosophy. They do give you kind of a bio of the philosophers, so you kind of get where they’re coming from, but then they just show how everything kind of builds off of each other. And then they always bring it back to Stockdale’s experience somehow in Vietnam.

Tom Gibbons: Yeah. And Stockdale was adamant about not calling it an ethics course. If you remember in the late ’70s after Vietnam, ethic courses were a booming business, and there was ethics in business industries, ethics in other professions, and Stockdale saw that and he really didn’t want to water down the course. He didn’t like the word “ethics.” He didn’t want to teach a course “Ethics for Dentists.” That’s not what he wanted. He liked the term “moral philosophy” because it really tied to the humanities, and he often said that he learned more during the philosophy course at Stanford that helped him as a POW than anything else in his education, and that’s why they called the course Foundations of Moral Obligation. It really wasn’t an ethics course, but it’s a good primer into several different philosophers.

Brett McKay: Yeah, maybe we can dig into a little bit, give our listeners a taste of what sort of discussions you might have. So let’s talk about Aristotelian virtue ethics. What is it about that sort of type of philosophy that can help leaders or soldiers or warriors become better at what they do?

Tom Gibbons: Good question, Brett. As many of you know, or many of the readers know, Aristotle was a student of Plato, and he did more than just philosophy. He conducted research in biology, zoology, botany, physiology. He was interested in all sciences. But his ethics are teleological, and what does that mean? It’s based on the Greek word “telos,” which means “purpose and/or goal.” What’s the aim of all human behavior? It’s a happiness, or a character of virtus. And like I said, he developed virtue-based ethics. A person who lives a virtuous life will have a better chance of achieving happiness than one without virtues. According to Aristotle, virtue is a disposition which is developed over time, and he talked about two different types virtue: intellectual virtues and moral virtues. Moral virtues are traits of character. Intellectual virtues are gained by education, and moral virtues by habit.

And Aristotelian ethics is important to the military because it really gives you a different perspective and a concept or tool to help develop your moral compass. Aristotle said … He talks about the golden mean, and moral behavior is the mean between two extremes. At one end is excess. At the other end is deficiency, and the virtue is a moderate position between those two extremes.

Brett McKay: The thing about Aristotelian virtue ethics, there aren’t really any rules, right? You have to use your judgment, or phronesis is what he called it, to figure out the right thing to do is in that certain circumstance. It’s not relativism. A lot of people think it is, but it’s not. It’s like you know depending on the situation what the right thing to do … ‘Cause the mean’s gonna change depending on the situation, what the middle is is gonna be different in different circumstances.

Tom Gibbons: Exactly. And after we talk about Aristotle, we talk about Kant. And I’m sure you know this, and some of your readers may not, that Kant was really into duty and rules. Duty is the objective, what I should do. Inclination is what I want to do. He talked about the hypothetical imperative and he talked about the categorical imperative, and there’s only one categorical imperative: act only on that maxim by which at the same time will that it should become a universal law. It’s like Nike says: just do it. And Kant does not allow any exceptions. You wanna act in a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end. And you don’t use people to get what you want, and that’s one of the things that I liked about Kant. Aristotle and Kant are completely different, and it’s difficult to be both a Kantian and an Aristotelian. Because, again, Aristotle was focused on virtues and Kant was on duty or just following the rules.

Brett McKay: Yeah, Kant, I remember … I took a philosophy course, and some of this sort of weird paradoxes you might find yourself in in Kant’s categorical imperatives … they don’t make sense. There’s the idea like, “Oh, you’re on a road, and you see someone running for their life from a guy with a knife, and he says, ‘Don’t tell him where I’m going.’ And then the knife-wielder comes like, ‘Where did that guy go?'” Kant would say you’re supposed to tell … you can’t lie, because …

Tom Gibbons: No.

Brett McKay: You always have to tell the truth, because that’s what you want everyone to do in every situation. But you’re like, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Or they give the example of the Holocaust. If you were hiding Jewish people and Nazis came, do you tell? Kant would say, “Well, yeah, you should tell. Maybe you tell the people you’re hiding, ‘You maybe need to get out, get a head start,'” but you still have to … You can’t lie.

Tom Gibbons: No. And, see, Brett, that’s one of the things about Kant … That’s one of the anomalies about Kant. There’s no exceptions, and it really makes it hard to except Kant to apply in our daily lives, because there’s exceptions to almost everything we do.

Brett McKay: Right. But I agree with you. I do like his idea of don’t treat people as a means. You treat them as ends.

Tom Gibbons: Right. And, see, Brett, we’re talking about when Kant was alive, this was several hundred years ago, so he was really ahead of his time to talk about stuff like that. It’s so applicable today.

Brett McKay: And I can see why this would be a useful course for officers. Even if you don’t go with the Kantian view of do your duty no matter what, it raises … You might encounter that in the military. I don’t know, this is probably really super cliché. It makes me think of A Few Good Men. “Did you order the Code Red?” Well, the dude who said, “Yes, I did, and you have to do it because I said so,” Aristotle would be like, “Well, no. Maybe that’s not the virtuous thing to do.”

Tom Gibbons: And that’s a good example, Brett. We don’t just follow rules. We have to think about the consequences of those rules, and is it a moral order that you’re taking. What’s the reason for it? So that’s so important.

Brett McKay: I was interested, too, you said you talk about the Book of Job and how that’s a way to sort of explore the problem of evil in life.

Tom Gibbons: Yeah. Stockdale used the Book of Job extensively. In fact, whenever he talked to students he always started his presentations with “Life is not fair, get over it,” and the Book of Job really brings that message home. Job was a great Christian and followed everything that God had told him, and he loses everything, and he questions God. And in the end, Job ends up getting everything back. But the lesson that Stockdale got from that is that life is not fair, and people question, “Why me? Why is this happening to me? What did I do?” And the bottom line is that life is not fair and that things happen and you have to be prepared to accept that in your life and then to move on to make the best of a given situation, which is exactly what Stockdale did when he was locked up as a prisoner for almost seven and a half years.

Brett McKay: Yeah, I know the Book of Job was a favorite of Abraham Lincoln’s as well that he would go to over and over again during the Civil War. Yeah, and that whole question like, “Why me? Why me?” It’s like, “Well, why not you?”

Tom Gibbons: Exactly.

Brett McKay: I mean, is there … This is a course for military officers. Are there places where civilians can go where they can learn more about the content?

Tom Gibbons: That’s a good question, Brett. We have active duty military, we have international officers, and we have a lot of civilians that come here. They’re government civilians. In fact, one of my best students from the last trimester worked for the Defense Nuclear Agency. He’s a nuclear engineer and took The Stockdale Course. So government civilians actually come here to our course. We have people from the State Department. We have people from the FBI and the National Park Service who actually come here and take this course. Other civilians can learn more about the course from the Naval War College website. You can contact me and I’d be glad to them any information about the course, our syllabus and what we do.

Like I said, it’s a good course to force you to think about primary questions. What are my moral obligations? What’s important to me in life? And it goes back to the classics. The value of taking the course here is that we read it, write about it, and then talk about it. And you can tell students, when that light goes on in the classroom and they actually get it. One of the neat things, I think, is they bring up concepts we’ve talked about earlier later in the course. For instance, we talked about Socrates earlier. They bring that up later in the course and compare it to Aristotle, or they’ll compare Aristotle to Kant, so they really get it, and they can talk about it really for a long time after we actually do that lesson.

Brett McKay: Right. It’s a great conversation because … spans thousands of years.

Tom Gibbons: Exactly.

Brett McKay: Well, Tom, it’s been an interesting discussion. Thank you so much for your time. It’s been a pleasure.

Tom Gibbons: Brett, thank you very much. Again, I’m a fan, a fan of your podcast, and thanks for all you do. Have a great day.

Brett McKay: My guest today is Thomas Gibbons. He is the professor of the Foundations of Moral Obligation at the U.S. Naval War College. You can find out more information about his work at our show notes at

Well, that wraps up another edition of the Art of Manliness podcast. For more manly tips and advice, make sure to check out the Art of Manliness website at, and if you enjoy the podcast and you got something out of it, I’d appreciate if you take one minute to give us a review on iTunes or Stitcher. It helps out a lot. As always, thank you for your continued support, and until next time, this is Brett McKay telling you to stay manly.

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