12 Extraordinary Stoic Moments
Unlike the “pen-and-ink philosophers,” as the type was derisively known even 2,000 years ago, to the Stoics, Stoicism is something you DO. They were most concerned with how one lived. The choices you made, the causes you served, the principles you adhered to in the face of adversity. They cared about what you did, not what you said.
Throw away your books, Marcus Aurelius said. “Don’t talk about what a good man is like. Be one.”
So in this article, I want to show you some DOERS. I want to share with you some of the most extraordinary, most inspiring moments of Stoicism in the real world, in history, practiced by real philosophers—whether they knew that’s what they were doing or not.
At the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, California, a flashy Japanese equestrian named Shunzo Kido gave one of the most remarkable performances in the history of sports.
He was competing in the 22 ½ mile, 50 obstacle jump endurance horse race. It wasn’t his usual event. His horse wasn’t trained for it. But a teammate was injured and without hesitation Kido replaced him. Off to a solid lead, he surprised the crowd and was in a position for gold. But just as he pulled away from the pack going into the finish and cleared the second-to-last jump, he stunned the crowd by pulling the reins and dropping out of the race.
He could feel the horse struggling and sensed that even just a few more seconds at full speed would kill the horse as it crossed the finish line.
As the plaque on the Friendship Bridge along the Mount Rubidoux Trail commemorating his unprecedented displayed of sportsmanship reads,
“Lt. Col. Shunzo Kido turned aside from the prize to save his horse. He heard the low voice of mercy, not the loud acclaim of glory.”
As the Stoics would say—it’s not winning that counts. It’s character.
Plutarch tells us about a general and statesman in Greece named Epaminondas who, despite his brilliance on and off the battlefield, was appointed to an insultingly minor office in Thebes responsible for the city’s sewers.
In fact, it was because of his brilliance that he was put in this role, as a number of jealous and fearful rivals thought it would effectively end his career.
But instead of being provoked or despairing at his irrelevance, Epaminondas took fully to his new job, declaring that the distinction of the office isn’t brought to the man, the man brings the distinction to the office.
With discipline and earnestness, Plutarch wrote, “he proceeded to transform that insignificant office into a great and respected honor, even though previously it had involved nothing more than overseeing the clearing of dung and the diverting of water from the streets.”
By the way, this story is adapted from my latest book, Discipline is Destiny: The Power of Self-Control. The aim of the book is to teach you how to harness the powers of self-discipline and self-control so that like the many great men and women throughout the book, you too can fulfill a great destiny. It officially releases on 9/27, but you can pre-order it right now!
We’ve put together some exciting bonuses, including a signed and numbered page from the original manuscript. You can learn more about those and how to receive them over at Dailystoic.com/preorder.
In 1945, a couple years before Jackie Robinson broke into Major League Baseball, he had a meeting with Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey. “l’m looking for a ball player,” Rickey said, “with the guts not to fight back.”
There would be hotel clerks refusing him a room, rude waiters, and opponents shouting slurs. Any bit of retaliation, Rickey knew, would not only end Robinson’s career, but would set back his grand experiment of breaking MLB’s color barrier for at least a generation.
The manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman, was particularly brutal. “[He was] the most vicious of any of the people in terms of name calling,” Robinson said.
Despite, as he later wrote, wanting to, “grab one of those white sons of bitches and smash his teeth in with my despised black fist,” Robinson never retaliated. Not only that, but a month after playing the Phillies in 1947, he agreed to take a friendly photo with Chapman to help save the man’s job.
The thought of touching, posing with such an asshole, even sixty years removed, almost turns the stomach. Robinson would write in I Never Had It Made, “I have to admit that having my picture taken with this man was one of the most difficult things I had to make myself do.” He was willing to do it, he said, because it was part of a larger plan.
Knowing what he wanted and needed to do in baseball, it was clear what he would have to tolerate in order to do it.
Marcus Aurelius, who also brushed up against a fair share of terrible people, said that asking to never encounter a shameless person is to ask for the impossible, but, “the best revenge is not to be like that.”
George Marshall never wanted anything more. It was the promotion he worked for his entire career, the opportunity he dreamed of his entire life. To lead a historic military invasion—it’s what a soldier’s reputation depends on. It was Marshall’s for the taking. But he turned it down.
The U.S. was preparing to launch the invasion at Normandy. Marshall wrote the document outlining the strategy. It was assumed he would command the invasion.
But President Franklin Roosevelt wanted to keep Marshall in Washington. Marshall was his chief of staff. In the waging of a global war, Roosevelt said he didn’t think he’d be able to sleep without his chief of staff in Washington. But Roosevelt also knew what Marshall wanted. He wanted to storm the beaches of Normandy. He wanted to be an American hero.
So Roosevelt left it up to Marshall. If he wanted the command, it was his.
No, Marshall said, this isn’t about what I want. He told Roosevelt to, “act in whatever way he felt was to the best interests of the country…and not in any way to consider my feelings.”
Roosevelt gave the job to Marshall’s protégé, Dwight Eisenhower. The next day, Marshall had to draft the letter to President Stalin, informing him that, “The appointment of General Eisenhower to command of OVERLORD has been decided upon.” Roosevelt added the word “immediate” before “appointment” then signed it. Marshall sent the original copy of the letter to Eisenhower with the note: “Dear Eisenhower: I thought you might like to have this as a memento. It was written very hurriedly by me as the final meeting broke up yesterday, the president signing it immediately. G.C.M.”
Eisenhower became the famous leader of the Normandy invasion. Eisenhower became president. Eisenhower became the American hero. Not Marshall.
Eisenhower later called that copy of the letter, “one of my most cherished mementos of World War II.”
Martin Luther King Jr.
At the SCLC conference in 1962 in Birmingham, Ala., Martin Luther King, Jr. stood before a large, integrated audience and gave the closing address. As King spoke, thanking the audience and reminding them of plans for the next year, a white man named Roy James walked onto the stage and began to savagely beat him.
The first punch struck King with such force in the face that he spun around. King turned to face his assailant and dropped his hands, “like a newborn baby,” as one observer recalled, to receive more blows.
The next blows came in rapid succession, hitting him in the head and the back, filling the now silent auditorium with the sickening sound of bone connecting with flesh.
He was opening himself to an attacker, instinctually, under fire, proving his commitment to nonviolence.
As an angry crowd of people tried to come to King’s defense, he shouted, “Don’t touch him! We have to pray for him.” As the crowd began to pray and sing, King spoke kindly to the man who had just beaten him, reassuring him that he would not be hurt. After he went to a private office where he was given two aspirin by Rosa Parks, King concluded the conference as he held an ice pack to his face.
I tell this story in more detail in Discipline is Destiny—King appears throughout the book and is one of the great examples of what one can achieve with self-discipline and self-control. As I said above, Discipline is Destiny officially releases on 9/27, but you can pre-order it right now!
Zeno lost everything. He was forced to start over. He could have resented this. He could have been bitter. It could have broken him. Instead, he used his disaster to change the world.
He was a merchant from a family who made their fortune trading Tyrian, the purple dye used to dye the robes of kings.
On a voyage across the Mediterranean, Zeno’s ship and all its cargo sank.
No one knows how it happened. All we know is that Zeno was stranded somewhere in Athens, while his ship sat at the bottom of the sea.
He made his way to the nearest city and walked into a bookstore where the bookseller happened to be reading works about Socrates. Spellbound, Zeno asked the bookseller where he could meet someone like Socrates. He introduced Zeno the famous Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes.
Zeno trained with Crates and other Socratic philosophers for the next twenty years. Eventually he founded his own school on a public porch in Athens called the Stoa Poikile
“Well done,” Zeno would later say to Fortune, “to drive me thus to philosophy!” “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered a shipwreck,” he said.
It was over a century ago now that Theodore Roosevelt walked out of the Gilpatrick Hotel on his way to the Milwaukee Auditorium to give a speech to a packed crowd as part of his independent campaign for president.
As he approached the venue, a man rushed from the crowd and shot him at close range.
The bullet—a .38 caliber—hit Roosevelt in the chest but was miraculously slowed by the eyeglasses case and the thick folded speech he had in his overcoat pocket.
His staff tried to rush him to the hospital, but Roosevelt insisted he still had to give the speech.
He walked on stage, quieted the crowd, and said, “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot—but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
When something goes wrong, a Stoic isn’t cowed by it. They don’t quit. They say to themselves, It’s going to take a lot more than that to stop me. They don’t just accept that it happened, they love that it happened.
Marcus Aurelius said when things happen that we would have preferred didn’t happen, there’s basically two kinds of people: people who see an obstacle and people who see an opportunity. He loved the metaphor of fire—he wanted to be like the “blazing fire [that] takes whatever you throw on it and consumes it, and rises higher” because of it.
Like a Bull Moose, a blazing fire, a Stoic, next time something goes wrong, say to yourself: it’s going to take more than that to stop me.
In 1996, Tiger Woods headed into the U.S. Amateur Championship having won thirty straight matches. With a win at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club, Tiger would become the first golfer to ever win three straight U.S. Amateur Titles.
The first five rounds of match play were uneventful. Woods advanced to the finals where his opponent was the relatively unknown 19-year-old Steve Scott.
After the first 18 of the 36-hole final, no one could believe it: Scott led by 5 holes.
The final 18 holes were a battle. Tiger cut Scott’s lead to 1 by the back 9. On the par-3 10th, Scott drained a flop shot from the deep rough to stretch his lead back to 2. Then Tiger sank a legendary thirty-five-foot putt for eagle to move within 1.
On the 16th hole, down two with three holes to play, Tiger hit his wedge shot within six feet of the pin. He placed a quarter to mark his ball before picking it up. The marker was in Scott’s putting line, so he asked Tiger to slide it over, and so he did. Scott made his par putt.
Forgetting he’d moved his marker, Tiger put his ball down and was about to putt from the wrong spot. If he did, he’d automatically lose the hole and the tournament.
But before Tiger could make this historic mistake, Scott intervened, “Hey, Tiger, did you move that back?”
Tiger paused, returned his marker then his ball to the correct spot, and made the putt. He birdied 17 to force a sudden death playoff. On the second playoff hole, Scott’s putt lipped out, and Tiger tapped his in for the victory and his place in history.
It would be Scott’s one and only moment in the spotlight. He hoped to have a career on the PGA Tour but it didn’t quite pan out. But in an interview for a piece commemorating the twenty-year anniversary of that 1996 match, Scott said “[I’ve] gone on to have a great life. I think I’m walking proof that you can win in life without winning.”
“Runners in a race ought to compete and strive to win as hard as they can,” the Stoic Chrysippus said, “but by no means should they trip their competitors or give them a shove. So too in life; it is wrong to seek after the things useful in life; but to do so while depriving someone else is not just.”
It was the 1840s. Only a couple years after Frederick Douglass had escaped the slave state he was born in and “bade farewell…to that slavery which had been my abhorrence from childhood.”
The young man, still in his early twenties, was on a mission. A member of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, Douglass toured all across the Northeastern United States. He attended abolitionist meetings. He told the story of his escape from bondage. He lectured at churches and chapels and universities and small town centers and anywhere there was a chance people might congregate.
Traveling somewhere in Pennsylvania, Douglass was forced to move and ride in the baggage car because of his race.
A white supporter rushed up to apologize for this horrible offense. “I am sorry, Mr. Douglass, that you have been degraded in this manner,” the person said.
Douglass wouldn’t accept any of the gentleman’s consoling.
No, he wasn’t angry. He wasn’t hurt. He replied with great fervor: “They cannot degrade Frederick Douglass. The soul that is within me no man can degrade. I am not the one that is being degraded on account of this treatment, but those who are inflicting it upon me.”
The ancient Stoics—because of their independent thinking, their positions of leadership, and their willingness to stand on principle—were often the subjects of verbal and physical mistreatment.
But it was Epictetus, the slave turned Stoic teacher, who said that a person can only degrade you with your consent. “It is not enough to be insulted or to be harmed. You must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”
On September 9, 1965, Admiral James Stockdale’s A-4 Skyhawk jet was shot down in Vietnam.
“Five years down there, at least,” Stockdale said after ejecting from his plane. “I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
The North Vietnamese used thirteen prisons and prison camps. The Hỏa Lò Prison was famously the worst. Hỏa Lò means “fiery furnace” or “Hell’s hole,” which is what it was—a dark dungeon where captives were physically and mentally tortured to the unimaginable extreme.
It was the center of North Vietnam’s propaganda exploitation and psychological warfare where no limits were placed on getting the enemy to break down and confess war crimes. So if you were a high ranking American troop that got captured, you went to Hỏa Lò.
Stockdale was not only high ranking, of the 800 prisoners estimated to enter Hỏa Lò, Stockdale had no superior. Victory then for the captors in the “Hanoi Hilton,” as Stockdale and his fellow inmates would come to call it, was getting Stockdale to break.
His captors kept him in the main torture room in the most isolated part of the prison. After a month straight of torture, they thought they had him. They thought he was broken and ready to be marched down town to commit treason in front of television cameras.
Before they could, they needed him to look presentable, so they took him out of the torture room to a bathroom where he’s told to shower and shave.
Left alone in the bathroom, Stockdale grabbed the razor he was given to shave, and sliced open his scalp. He’s bandaged and thrown in a cell while his captors look for something to cover the wounds, now even more determined to parade him in front of cameras.
Stockdale, realizing he needed to further disfigure himself, took a wooden stool and bashed his face until he could barely see.
Guards rushed in and debated with one another about what to tell their commander. “You tell him,” Stockdale interrupted, “that the captain will not be going downtown.”
The sheer bravery and strength. It’s just unreal—a living embodiment of what Epictetus said, “you may bind up my leg, but not even Zeus has the power to break my freedom of choice.” His captors deprived him. They tortured him. They beat him. They stripped him of his possessions. But they could not break him.
She was called “selfish,” a “quitter,” a “shame to the country,” and the proof that, “we are raising a generation of weak people.”
But actually, what she did was incredibly disciplined and unselfish.
At the Tokyo Olympics, four-time gold medalist Simone Biles withdrew from the all-around competition, an event she won gold in at the Rio de Janeiro games. Had she competed, Biles would have been vying to become the first woman to win back-to-back gold medals in the all-around in over fifty years.
The day before she made the decision to withdraw, Biles felt off. Her take-offs felt off. Her aerials felt off. Her landings felt off. And she knew, if she were to perform the way she was performing, she would have cost her teammates a medal.
So Biles put the team first. “I can’t risk a medal for the team,” she explained, “so I need to call it.” She admitted, “you usually don’t hear me say things like that because I’ll usually persevere and push through things, but not to cost the team a medal.”
Stoicism, being disciplined, is not about punishing yourself. It’s a firm school, for sure, but as Seneca, after a lifetime of study of philosophy, came to judge his own growth: “What progress have I made?” he wrote. “I have begun to be a friend to myself.”
It is an act of self discipline to be kind to yourself, to rest when you’re not feeling your best, to put the team first—that’s what friends do.
Late in his reign, sick and possibly near death, Stoic Emperor Marcus Aurelius received surprising news. His old friend and most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, had rebelled in Syria. Having heard the emperor was vulnerable or possibly dead, the ambitious general declared himself Caesar and assumed the throne.
Marcus should have been angry. After all, this man was trying to take his job and possibly his life. If we think about what other emperors did to their rivals and enemies–for instance Nero killed his own mother and Otho had Galba murdered in 69 A.D. and paraded his head around Rome–it makes Marcus’s response all the more unusual. Because he didn’t immediately set out to crush this man who had betrayed him, who threatened his life, his family, and his legacy. Instead, Marcus did nothing. He even kept the news secret from his troops, who might have been enraged or provoked on his behalf—and simply waited: Would Cassius come to his senses?
The man did not. And so Marcus Aurelius called a council of his soldiers and made a rather extraordinary announcement. They would march against Cassius and obtain the “great prize of war and of victory.” But of course, because it was Marcus, this war prize was something wholly different.
Marcus informed them of his plan to capture Cassius, but not kill him. Instead, he would “forgive a man who has wronged one, to remain a friend to one who has transgressed friendship, to continue faithful to one who has broken faith.”
In a true Stoic fashion, Marcus had controlled his perceptions. He wasn’t angry, he didn’t despise his enemy. He would not say an ill word against him. He would not take it personally. Then he acted—rightly and firmly—ordering troops to Rome to calm the panicking crowds and then set out to do what must be done: protect the empire, put down a threat.
As he told his men, if there was one profit they could derive from this awful situation that they had not wanted, it would be to “settle this affair well and show to all mankind that there is a right way to deal even with civil wars.”
It brings to mind a line from another Stoic, Seneca: “Bestow pardon for many things; seek pardon for none.” This is a common theme in Stoicism—one we hear often in the writings of Marcus Aurelius: Hold yourself to a very high standard, and don’t make excuses when you fail to meet it. Meanwhile, leave other people to their standards and make every excuse you can when they fail. Be tough on yourself; be understanding to your fellow citizens.
Stoicism is not a philosophy for school. It never has been. It’s been a philosophy for life.
“Show me a Stoic, if you know of one,” Epictetus said. “Show me someone untroubled with disturbing thoughts about illness, danger, death, exile or loss of reputation. By all the gods, I want to see a Stoic!”
So go and do as the Stoics have done all throughout history. Do the right thing. Be strong in the face of adversity. Show us a Stoic. Show us the actions of a philosopher.
Today. Tomorrow. Always.