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Ultimate Questions of Epictetus

Taylor Stockdale
This past summer, my brother Sid and I spent several weeks at our childhood home in Coronado, California cleaning out its contents from our mother’s passing last October. Our dad passed away in 2005, and it was time to confront the massive task of sifting through every item in a home where our family had lived for over 60 years.

We went through piles and piles of letters, photos, historical items, and then in the evenings we reflected on it all, sometimes with tears and more often with a good deal of laughter.

Along with the usual items of lives fully lived, the piles also contained tremendous historical artifacts. Our dad was a Navy fighter pilot, shot down in Vietnam and held as a P.O.W. for nearly eight years. Our mom was equally heroic, raising four boys and founding a national league for the wives and families of POWs and MIAs. We came across incredible items, most of which we are donating to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and the Coronado Historical Society. We also saw and reflected on so many of our dad’s notes, essays and manuscripts. Able to access him and his remarkable bravery as never before, we again asked ourselves the question: “How did he survive such horrific circumstances of starvation, torture, brutal conditions, and come home as such a sane, loving man?” That he survived at all was a total miracle, but to have emerged with such an amazing mind and spirit is beyond belief.

This summer, Sid and I had a bit of a eureka moment in answering this question. Our father survived and thrived not just through his physical toughness but because of his deep knowledge of the classics, most notably Epictetus, who began life as the son of a Greek-speaking slave woman from a little town in Asia Minor in what is modern-day Turkey. As the son of a slave, abject servitude was his condition also. In childhood, he was crippled by a cruel master and for the rest of his life suffered from a left leg that barely functioned. The turning point in the boy’s life came when he was rescued by Musonius Rufus, a leading Stoic philosopher of his time. This relationship proved to be his entrée into the world of tutoring wealthy children and adults in Stoic teachings, a very practical course of study on how to be liberated from all forms of slavery, even those forms existing in the families of the rich and well-born. At the core of this wisdom was a set of rules on how to escape the clutches of those trying to establish a moral leverage over you and thus force you to bend to their will. This teaching later became my father’s mainstay in resisting the manipulations of his torturers who continuously worked both physically and psychologically to break his resistance.

My father lived alone in a filthy prison cell, in constant pain and without any hope of deliverance from the outside, communicating with fellow POWs only by means of tapping out messages in code. In these degraded surroundings, he discovered his own personal strength and provided leadership to his band of brothers founded upon our civilization’s most enduring truths.

Before going to Vietnam, at the age of 37, my fighter-pilot father chose to get a master’s degree in international relations with a specific focus on moral philosophy from Stanford University. This sounds abstract and divorced from his chosen career path, but it was not. He studied the ancients as well as some modern thinkers who wrestled with ultimate questions such as: Do we live in a world “full of sound and fury, signifying nothing,” as Shakespeare asked? Or if there is a purpose to our existence, can individuals define themselves in their time and place or are they playthings of fate or other determinant factors? Should survival, momentary pleasures and opportunities be our only guide? And above all, what is the difference between good and evil? His own wrestling with these questions ultimately proved to be his salvation.

In our new century, a skills-based education for job and economic related functions seems to be most valued, and our revised curriculum at Webb is somewhat shaped by this trend. But it is also rooted in the liberal arts. This summer’s recollections in my family home reinforced for me that while having the knowledge needed for specific career paths is very important, the undergirding of civilizations’ moral grounding is more than preferable; it is essential! That is what Thompson and Vivian Webb deeply believed. The study of history, great literature, the arts and philosophy offers a life grounded on universal truths. An educational foundation of ponderings life’s ultimate questions is often over-looked, and yet it provides the inner strength necessary to persevere in the most challenging of circumstances. As the son of a man whose sense of self-worth rested on such knowledge, I am once again reminded of the importance of Webb’s mission.

Taylor B. Stockdale
Head of Schools
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