Phronesis: Embracing the Challenges that Forge Us

Chris Davis
By: Captain Christopher Davis, USMC*

It is daunting as a Plebe at the U.S. Naval Academy to learn of the immeasurable acts of bravery exhibited by countless graduates who have gone before. Inside the Academy’s Center for Ethical Leadership, where we received all professional development and leadership classes, I was first exposed to the quote by former Assistant Secretary of the U.S. Navy and 32nd President of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt: “A smooth sea never made for a skilled sailor.” For me, the recognition of the sacrifices made by leaders, across all types of battlefields and conflicts, left an impression.

The Center of Ethical Leadership bears the name of Vice Admiral James B. Stockdale, USN (Ret.). For over seven grueling years, Stockdale was the senior naval officer held captive in the – the notorious Hoa Lo prisoner of war camp (more commonly known as the “Hanoi Hilton”) that housed many American heroes, including the late-Senator John McCain. Stockdale was left in isolation and locked in leg irons for days at a time. He was strung up to the ceiling of his cell by ropes bound so tightly around his shoulders that his shoulders were left dislocated.

As the senior service man present, the Vietnamese sought to exploit his knowledge and influence. In one of his most heroic acts of bravery, Stockdale purposely mutilated his own scalp and broke bones in his skull with a stool in his cell, so that he might not be used as anti-American propaganda. He was routinely tortured and beaten beyond recognition to his closest friends. For his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty,” Stockdale was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor – the highest honor bestowed upon a servicemember – by President Gerald Ford in 1976.

Before his fateful tour of duty in Vietnam, Stockdale studied classical works at Stanford University. Stockdale often attributed the lessons of the Roman slave-turned-philosopher Epictetus in providing him with strength during his ordeals as a prisoner in the Hanoi Hilton. As a believer in stoicism, Stockdale firmly believed that there can be no such thing as being the “victim” of another person:
“He who has authority over any of the things on which you have set your heart. . . What is the result at which all virtue aims? Serenity. . . Show me a man who though sick is happy, who though in danger is happy, who though in prison is happy, and I’II show you a Stoic.”
One can only be a “victim” of ourselves, Stockdale explained.

Suffering and sacrifice is a theme in Greek literature and philosophy which we as future leaders can all derive benefit. Like Stockdale, I have found refuge in the lessons of the Greeks because their lessons, even when presented in dramatized prose, are grounded in reality. In The Iliad – the western world’s first action war story – Homer depicts the injuries that war places upon the innocent. After Andromache, the wife of Hector the Prince of Troy, loses her entire family in the carnage, she pleads to Hector to withdraw from the battlefield: “You, Hector – you are my father now, my noble mother, a brother too, and you are my husband, young and warm and strong!” At this moment, Hector is the Prince of Troy, a warrior, and the defender of his country. He accepts the challenge presented by the enemy at his doorstep and returns to battle where, as he wished, his “doom. . . [is realized] in a glorious struggle. . . a great thing that shall be told among men hereafter.” When Troy falls, Andromache is enslaved and her infant son thrown from the great walls of the city.

From these stories the concept of phronesis or practical wisdom is developed. This concept has no direct equivalent in English. While we often talk about knowledge in terms of wisdom or common sense, phronesis, in context, proposes something more. Phronesis is the ability to figure out what one is to do, while simultaneously acknowledging what is worth doing. Phronesis is what permits soldiers to fight effectively, prisoners to mentally escape their circumstance, and for leaders to lead selflessly. Aristotle argued phronesis might only be obtained through personal experience and facing challenges.

On the night Stockdale was shot down over Vietnam, he was the commander of his squadron. There was no requirement for him to fly that evening or place himself into further harm’s way. Not unlike Hector, Stockdale recognized the value and worth of the mission. Further, both Hector and Stockdale recognized that their leadership was critical to the mission’s success, neither was willing to sit back and watch their soldiers struggle alone. They each recognized that personal sacrifice was important for the success of their team. In my own experiences, on patrols down dangerous streets in Afghanistan, the knowledge I gained developing my understanding of the battlefield’s atmospherics was vital. And for my Marines, my presence was equally as important despite the danger.

When I departed Afghanistan, I knew the world was not magically changed and that my life would continue to require me to make hard decisions about when to draw the sword and not. The challenges of Stockdale were, of course, far greater than one which might be expected in any standard legal practice. Although, it would ignore reality to regard the legal profession as anything but one of the most challenging and demanding professions. The mental acuity to decipher tough legal circumstances while consciously balancing the livelihood or well-being of one’s client, places a tremendous emotional weight in our hands. The evidence of this is in the profession’s statistics of drug and alcohol abuse, suicide rates, and unhappiness which have become inextricably linked with the profession.

Our challenge – our present battlefield – we have chosen to fight upon as lawyers is the pursuit of equal justice under the law. This is a most worthy cause. While there are times we are going to suffer bumps and bruises, we should never steer our boat toward smooth seas. To achieve great things, we as leaders, must be prepared to make sacrifices. So instead we must focus our efforts and train our sights on our craft, then embrace the pressures that society places on lawyers. For the impact a skilled attorney might have in helping one’s community, state, or the United States, is incomparable to many other professions.

As attorneys, we must embrace these challenges along the way. The world is not constructed so that it presents us with clean easy paths, nor should we want such path. Stockdale, himself, trained his entire life to recognize the importance of his role as a leader and the sacrifices which might be required, to face such challenges. He was thankful for the rest of his life for the experiences gained in Hanoi.

The greatest challenges shape our lives and increase our legal phronesis. There is no school of thought that can save one from the simple fact that hard decisions are best made by people of strong moral character, and that those people are only shaped by difficult experiences. Thus, welcome the challenges of the un-smooth sea and appreciate its sharpening effect on your skills. Spend your time in this worthy cause, taking care of your fellow attorneys (especially those who work for you!) along the journey, welcoming the challenges when they come beckoning to at the gates of your own Troy.

*The viewpoints contained in the article are that of the Author’s. They are not representative of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Marine Corp.

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