The world loves superheroes, and so do I.
If you take a look at the top 20 highest grossing movies of all time, you will see than in nearly every one of them there is a story of an ordinary person who embarks on an extraordinary journey.
On this journey, the hero leaves their ordinary world and sets forth on a path filled with enemies, mentors, trials, and setbacks as they eventually transform into the hero locked within their potential.
Heroes, of course, exist everywhere. We see heroes in our schools, in our police departments, in our fire services, in our communities, and in ourselves.
Superheroes, however, are a rarer breed.
A superhero is a hero among heroes—a hero who has gone the extra mile and is able to perform feats of character or determination way beyond any typical exemplary human.
History is scattered with superheroes. The most well-known ones that come to mind for me are the religious or cultural icons such as Jesus Christ, Buddha, and Socrates. More recent superheroes of industry and thought include Elon Musk, Leonardo da Vinci, and Isaac Newton.
But there is a small team of historical superheroes with whom I am particularly impressed. I see these individuals as the philosophical version of The Avengers. And what is especially fascinating about these superheroes is that they were self-made. They followed a system for courageous living that is still accessible to us today.
The individuals I am referring to are The Stoics.
I like to think of Stoicism as a type of Buddhism filtered for Western tastes. The Stoics practiced their philosophy hard, and seemed to encounter states of awakening similar to those described by experienced Buddhist meditators.
The Stoics believed that in order to live a good life, one must live in accordance with their nature. That means, if you have social or creative gifts, you would be wise to use them. For this reason, the Stoics tended to be successful and active players in society such as emperors, soldiers, playwrights, psychiatrists, politicians, and teachers.
There are many tales of ancient and modern stoics displaying superhuman courage, but below I’ve narrowed down my favorites into a list of top 5.
1. James Stockdale
On 9 September 1965, while flying on a mission over North Vietnam, Commander James Stockdale was shot down, beaten, and taken as a prisoner of war in Hoa Lo prison, also known as the “Hanoi Hilton.” Stockdale remained here for the next seven and a half years and was subjected to horrendous torture—including the repeated breaking of his leg when it healed.
One of the primary aims of Stoicism is to reduce unnecessary suffering and achieve emotional tranquility. Stoicism is often touted as a form of psychological resilience training—a tool for remaining calm and composed in the most challenging situations.
But can philosophy alone help us cope when things get truly f**ked up?
To find out, we could look at the ancient Stoics and see how they lived. There is great value in reading and learning about the ancients, and we will do this shortly, but us modern readers could always argue that “things were different then,” because they were.
So to fully appreciate the power of Stoicism we need a modern practitioner of this philosophy to be thrust into a truly abhorrent situation, say one where they have to endure torture and solitary confinement over a period of years, apply Stoic techniques, then report back to us how things went. Of course, no sane person would volunteer themselves up for such an experiment.
That’s why James Stockdale’s story is so profound: he was a student of Stoic philosophy.
Stockdale said, “I had not only the Enchiridion, but the Discourses on my bedside table on each of the three aircraft carriers I flew from. And I read them.” Even as Stockdale was parachuting down after his plane was shot, he whispered to himself, “Five years down there at least. I’m leaving the world of technology and entering the world of Epictetus.”
Of course, Stockdale’s real Stoic resilience training began when he was captured:
“Everything I know about Epictetus I’ve developed myself over the years. It’s been a one-on-one relationship. He’s been in combat with me, leg irons with me, spent month-long stretches in blindfolds with me, has been in the ropes with me, has taught me that my true business is maintaining control over my moral purpose, in fact, that my moral purpose is who I am. He taught me that I am totally responsible for everything I do and say; and that it is I who decides on and controls my own destruction and own deliverance. Not even God will intercede if he sees me throwing my life away. He wants me to be autonomous. He put me in charge of me. ‘It matters not how straight the gate, how charged with punishment the scroll. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.’”
Stockdale got through his time in the Hanoi Hilton by embracing two paradoxical viewpoints: faith and realism. Stockdale never lost faith that things would work out well, but he was also always willing to look at the most brutal facts of his situation rationally. This type of realistic optimism has come to be known as The Stockdale Paradox.
Learn more about James Stockdale: Courage Under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior
And when asked what he had learned from philosophy, Diogenes replied, “To be prepared for every fortune.“
— William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy
Diogenes is the most famous of the Cynics, a branch of philosophy that served a the precursor for traditional Stoicism. Diogenes was a very strange fellow for a number of reasons. He lived inside a barrel and shunned any form of luxurious living. Diogenes only ate when he was starving hungry and drank when he was gaspingly thirsty. This allowed him to enjoy a simple cup of water as if it was the world’s most expensive wine.
The core of Diogenes thought was based on his observation that “bad men obey their lusts as servants obey their masters,” and because we are so bad at controlling our desires, we can never find contentment. This is why Diogenes was so intent on being the master of his own lust and attachments.
Perhaps Diogenes greatest and most memorable display of Stoic superhero strength was in his meeting with Alexander the Great. Alexander was taught by Aristotle and had brilliant admiration for great thinkers. One day when riding through Greece Alexander encountered Diogenes, a philosopher he had heard many great things about. The legend states that upon meeting Diogenes, Alexander asked the philosopher if there was anything he could give him.
Alexander at this point in time was the most powerful man in the world, and he was extremely hot-tempered. There were stories of Alexander having his best friends executed for disrespecting him. So when he offered Diogenes a gift, nobody would have expected the words that would have come out of the strange philosopher’s mouth:
“Yes,” said Diogenes, “stand a little out of my sun.”
Diogenes was so steadfast in his Stoic way of living he even risked the wrath of Alexander the Great to demonstrate it. Diogenes was not someone who just lived his philosophy, he was continuously on the lookout for opportunities to teach it and his meeting with Alexander presented one.
It worked. So taken aback by this reply, and admired the courage and wit of Diogenes so much, he has said to his followers laughing, “But truly if I were not Alexander, I would be Diogenes.”
Learn more about Diogenes: Diogenes the Cynic: Sayings and Anecdotes, With Other Popular Moralists
“The man who has anticipated the coming of troubles takes away their power when they arrive.”
Emperor Nero rose to power when he was young and his leadership was anything but admirable. Instead, his reign became the portrait of the quintessential psychopath.
The only hope for redemption of this archetypal mad king came in the form of his tutor, Seneca.
Seneca was already a seasoned Stoic. He had already witnessed great tragedies as Earthquakes wreaked havoc on Pompeii and great fires ravaged Rome. He had endured a bout of tuberculosis in his early twenties which lasted six years and led to suicidal depression. Later in life, Seneca was also exiled for 8 years to Corsica for a wrongdoing he did not even commit.
But the vastness of his courage was yet to be revealed. He found himself in his prime years serving Nero. For many years, Seneca acted as a loyal advisor for Nero. That would not exonerate him from Nero’s madness.
Upon discovering an assassination plot that would see his reign of power ended, he decided it was time for Seneca to pay even though there was no evidence linking him to the conspiracy.
Seneca was instructed to take his own life by slicing his own veins on his ankles and behind his knees. Even though the blade went deep, the blood did not flow fast enough to kill Seneca, so he asked for a cup of poison hemlock. Seneca drank this cup, but this too did not work. Finally, Seneca asked to be put in a vapor-bath, where he slowly suffocated to death—a truly appalling and disastrous ending for this legendary Stoic philosopher.
What’s truly superhuman about this story, is how much calmness and equanimity Seneca projected throughout the whole hellish ordeal. Around him, Seneca’s companions wept. But in an account provided by Tacitus, Seneca’s last words revealed just how advanced in his Stoicism Seneca was:
Where had their philosophy gone, he asked, and that resolution against impending misfortunes which they had encouraged in each other over so many years? ‘Surely nobody was unaware that Nero was cruel!’ he added. ‘After murdering his mother and brother, it only remained for him to kill his teacher and tutor.’
Seneca used his own death to show his friends and family how Stoic philosophy can protect us against any crisis.
How did he get through this with tranquility? Seneca once wrote:
“I owe my life to [Stoic philosophy], and that is the least of my obligations to it.”
Seneca’s life, not just his writing, points toward the profound power of Stoicism as a philosophy of life.
Learn More About Seneca: Dialogues and Essays (Oxford World’s Classics)
4. Viktor Frankl
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
— Viktor Frankl
Man’s Search for Meaning is one of the most incredible books ever written. The author of this masterpiece, Viktor Frankl, was a psychiatrist who ended up as concentration camp prisoner in Auschwitz during World War II. But what makes Frankl’s story unique is that he used his time in a Nazi death camp to develop an entire theory of human flourishing. This theory he called logotherapy. Frankl argues that the good life resides not in the pursuit of pleasure but in the meaning one gives to their suffering.
Frankl believed that suffering is a part of life, and that man’s ultimate freedom is his ability to choose how to respond to any set of given circumstances, even the most painful ones.
When one read’s Man’s Search for Meaning, one can imagine Epictetus having similar thoughts and ideas during his enslavement. Frankl, in my estimation, is a modern Stoic and has openly said he was influenced by Stoic philosophy in his formation of logotherapy. The following passage from Man’s Search for Meaning is a great example of Stoic philosophy:
“In spite of all the enforced physical and mental primitiveness of the life in a concentration camp, it was possible for spiritual life to deepen. Sensitive people who were used to a rich intellectual life may have suffered much pain (they were often of a delicate constitution), but the damage to their inner selves was less. They were able to retreat from their terrible surroundings to a life of inner riches and spiritual freedom. Only in this way can one explain the apparent paradox that some prisoners of a less hardy makeup often seemed to survive camp life better than did those of a robust nature.”
Viktor Frankl was a psychiatrist who was put inside one of the most dire places in world history. But there was no better container for understanding the nature of pain, trauma, fear, and hopelessness than Auschwitz, and Frankl used this opportunity to figure out how we might transcend such cruel, brutal, unnecessary suffering and find meaning. Viktor Frankl is a superhero who has consequently helped millions of readers to live more fulfilling lives.
Learn more about Viktor Frankl: Man’s Search for Meaning
5. Marcus Aurelius
“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
— Marcus Aurelius
The politician and judge Lord Atkinson said, “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.” This, generally speaking, is true. What human have you ever witnessed who has had incredible power across multiple dimensions and has not engaged in some form of corrupt behavior?
There is, however, one exception to this rule:
The Roman Emperor / Stoic “Philosopher King,” Marcus Aurelius.
I consider Aurelius to be the most impressive human being who ever lived. Why? Because Aurelius did have absolute power. He was the ruler of the known world, he was above the law, he could have anyone he wanted killed, and he had access to thousands of sexual mates. But there is no evidence that he ever abused his power.
Furthermore, in his reign of nineteen years, Aurelius would experience constant war, devastating plagues, threats to the throne, the death of 8 children, and multiple political infidelities. And from what we know about him, he used each of these obstacles as a way to practice his Stoicism.
A story that illustrates the superhero virtue of Marcus Aurelius was when his old friend and most trusted general, Avidius Cassius, rebelled in Syria after hearing Marcus was close to death. Avidius wanted to seize the throne by killing Marcus and his family. What would you do in this situation? Would you have been angry at least?
Marcus did nothing, and he even kept the betrayal a secret from his troops. He waited a while to see if Cassius would calm down and come to his senses. When this didn’t happen, Marcus set out to “settle this affair well and show to all mankind that there is a right way to deal even with civil wars.” He marched on Rome to seize Cassius and forgive him.
When Marcus got to Egypt, he found that Cassius had already been killed by a lone assassin. But what was he to do with Cassius’ conspirators? Let them free too. He said: “I implore you, the senate, to keep my reign unstained by the blood of any senator. May it never happen.”
For a man to have as much power as Marcus Aurelius and to consistently try and exercise self-control, courage, virtue, justice, and integrity is almost superhuman. What’s particularly amazing about Marcus is that he wrote a book to himself, Meditations. This is sort of like a personal development book he wrote to himself. He never intended this book to be published, but it was. And inside we can see how he thinks, and the advice he gives himself to follow.
Learn more about Marcus Aurelius: Meditations
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