I have a distinct memory of watching the 1992 Vice Presidential debate between then-Vice President Dan Quayle, Senator Al Gore and a person I had never heard of until that year; Admiral James Stockdale. Both Quayle and Gore gave polished opening statements. In contrast, Admiral Stockdale opened by saying "Who am I? Why am I here?"
When asked how he was able to resist his captors for the seven years he was held in the Hanoi Hilton, Admiral Stockdale cited as inspiration the works of the Stoic philosophers Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. So well-versed was Stockdale in the works of the Stoics that he went on to teach Stoic philosophy as a fellow of The Hoover Institution. It was his philosophical bent that helped him survive the depredations of captivity, as writer Jeff Bliss points out. It was that philosophical bent that caused him to ask "Who am I? Why am I here?" at the Vice Presidential debates -- debates he found out only a week before their occurrence that he would be participating in (Ross Perot's campaign hadn't bothered to tell him that they had received and accepted an invitation to participate in the debate on his behalf weeks earlier). Stockdale's question was mistaken as the puzzled musings of a lost and confused man. In reality, it was an admirable application of Marcus Aurelius's lesson about "first principles." While Dan Quayle and Al Gore were busy explaining what made them good political leaders, Stockdale tried to explain what kind of man he was. It is an indictment of us as a society that we were unprepared to listen when he tried to speak to us. It certainly was an indictment of me that I so readily dismissed him.
We certainly need more men like Phil Hartman to keep us laughing. But over and above anything, we need men like James Stockdale to keep us free.