The U.S. Navy pilot was sick and weak in a North Vietnamese prison in the fall of 1965. His untreated, smashed left knee would fuse so straight it could never be fixed, and the torture sessions were about to begin.

Yet his mind focused on this sunny university campus and something he read here once by the Roman philosopher Epictetus.

"Lameness is an impediment to the leg, but not to the will," Epictetus had said 1,900 years earlier. The words stayed with the pilot through years of pain and despair, until James Bond Stockdale had survived, won the Medal of Honor and finally made it back here to return some of what he had received.

In a new experiment for an American college campus, a prisoner of war is being allowed to apply the stark lessons of fear, guilt and pain to a course on philosophy for everyday life.

The result is an academic sensation here, with five times the class limit of 15 applying for admission and many of the rejects trying to sneak in anyway.

It is called Stanford sophomore seminar No. 56, "Combatting Coercion and Manipulation," a three-unit course at 3:15 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays, meeting to consider the works of Epictetus, Solzhenitsyn, Koestler, Dostoevsky, Plato, Aristotle and the instructor--Stockdale, who for once has a chance to allow the frustrated philosopher within him run wild.

A small, husky, white-haired man with the look of a small-town banker, Stockdale, 59, spent two years in graduate school here shortly before his Vietnam ordeal, but his academic style is a bit different. He sharply raps his lectern, not to get their attention, but to demonstrate the makeshift code he used to communicate with other prisoners of war.

At the class' first meeting, in a quiet, carpeted seminar room next to Stanford's Hoover Tower, Stockdale quickly yanked his audience of well-nourished, 19-year-olds in sweaters and bluejeans back to his barren, solitary cell at North Vietnam's Hoa Lo (Fiery Furnace) prison.

"I believe that human nature, its properties, the best and the worst of it, is laid bare for all to see most quickly and clearly in the laboratory, the hermetically sealed laboratory, of an extortionist prison," he said.

Somehow, Stockdale told the students, you may learn something here about the subtler pressures of American society, particularly the manipulations of the corporate boardroom or the government office.

"You don't have to be a prisoner to use some of the ideas I'm going to get out of this," Garin Veirs said later, coming to the seminar as an economics major and this year's varsity football team leader in quarterback sacks.

"It was a once-in-a-lifetime chance," said Susan Compton, a public policy major from San Diego. "I had never heard that point of view before."

As the highest ranking American prisoner in the Vietnam war and a constant irritant to his captors, Stockdale suffered months without treatment of his injured shoulder, back and smashed left leg. He still cannot bend his leg at the knee.

He encountered several times the torturer dubbed "Pig Eye," an expert in applying excruciating pain with rope bindings and rods. He cut and bruised himself intentionally so he would be unsuitable for propaganda display.

Once, he told the students, "when I was just about out of gas," he broke a window and used the sharp glass to slash his wrists so that a particularly intense interrogation would stop. To this day, he said, he doesn't know if he also was trying to end his life.

"History abounds with examples of extortion, of people manipulating other people through the imposition of feelings of fear and guilt," Stockdale said in his course description for Stanford, where he serves as a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution.

"Though sometimes done in an easily recognized, explicit, and illegal way, the process is usually more subtle, more insidious, and within the law.

"Those who are in hierarchies--be they academic, business, governmental, military, or other--are frequently in positions in which people are trying to manipulate them, to get moral leverage on them by methods which are not easily recognized by the victims."

As an example, he cites his wife Sybil's struggle to organize the League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia in 1967 and 1968 despite subtle pressure and opposition from the U.S. government.

He recalled his own decision to resign in 1980 as president of the South Carolina military academy, the Citadel, after only one year in the job that had persuaded him to leave the Navy before he needed to.

The school's board would not let him upgrade the academic program and curb traditional hazing. Compromise, he had learned already, would not get him what he wanted.

Stockdale quotes with feeling the words of Soviet dissident and novelist Alexander Solzhenitsyn: "Bless you, prison, for having shaped my life." He has compiled a list of writers who spent time in jail, including Dostoevsky, Cervantes, St. Paul.

But it is the Roman philosopher Epictetus, a former slave rendered lame by a cruel master, who seems most important to Stockdale.

When Stockdale was offered medical treatment and better living conditions if he cooperated with his captors, he remembered Epictetus: "Whoever would be free, let him wish nothing which depends on others, else he must necessarily be a slave."

"Most people have to knuckle under to the organization, to 'big daddy'--as someone put it, 'cooperate to graduate,' " Stockdale said. "This process can become a quagmire if you let it become one. You can become compromised by so many little steps that seem insignificant, and before you know it you have passed the point of no return. The extortionist knows, when you reach that point, that he has you."

Stockdale had been introduced to Epictetus on this same California campus by a professor, Philip Rhinelander, about two years before Stockdale was shot down Sept. 9, 1965, while bombing railroad boxcars between Vinh and Thanh Hoa.

The Navy had sent the promising young lieutenant commander to Stanford to get a master's degree in political science, useful for future Pentagon duty in planning strategies and policies.

To Stockdale, this was a "license to steal," because it left him time to explore subjects the Navy was not the least bit interested in.

Wandering through the philosophy department one day in civilian clothes, he stumbled across Rhinelander.

Stockdale confessed that he was a graduate student who had never taken a philosophy course and had to explain to the disbelieving professor that he was a naval officer and an Annapolis graduate.

Rhinelander invited Stockdale into his course "on the problems of good and evil." He promised an hour each week of private tutoring so Stockdale could gain the necessary background in philosophy.

Stockdale also studied Marx and Lenin at Stanford with political science professor Robert North. During captivity he was able to point out to his interrogator: "That's not what Lenin said; you're a deviationist."

Rhinelander gave Stockdale a copy of Epictetus' "Enchiridion" as a going-away gift.

The book puzzled and somewhat annoyed the star Navy flyer. He was a pilot and a technical expert, a man of the 20th Century who played golf and drank martinis. Of what use was it to read, "Is it better to die in hunger, exempt from guilt and fear, than to live in affluence and with perturbation?"

But in prison, he told his seminar students, the phrase echoed through his mind again and again. "What really gives you prison nightmares, it's not broken bones, it's not pain," he said. "The way to destruction of a person is guilt and fear"--guilt over what torture forces one to say or do and fear of the shame and loss of self-respect that might result.

The years in prison became a struggle between Stockdale and a high-level North Vietnamese interrogator dubbed "the Cat." The naval officer was the key target for interrogation because he was the POW leader, tapping out messages to other prisoners in violation of prison rules, issuing orders to refuse propaganda broadcasts and resist special privileges and sometimes even staging riots.

In 1970, the Cat, looking haggard and nervous, paid a last visit to Stockdale to confess that he was being demoted, apparently in part because of his failure to break down his prize American prisoner.

But until then, Stockdale had to endure a great deal of pain and doubt.

At one critical point, he told the students, he learned "there are times when you can't be reasonable, when you can't be rational."

In 1966, after a night of torture designed to persuade him to tell an American visitor that U.S. bombing violated international law, Stockdale lost control of himself. He kicked over a table and screamed, "No, I won't say that, I don't care what you do to me."

It was potentially a suicidal act. The torturer held ropes that could slowly and painfully kill the prisoner.

But instead, the Cat decided to give up the effort. He went away muttering that he had to find someone to talk to the American visitor by 10 the next morning. Stockdale realized that the Cat was just another bureaucrat, unable to deal with anyone so unpredictable.

By the seminar's second session, students were cross-examining Stockdale about his captivity and pointing out some contradictions perceived in their own reading of Epictetus. That Stoic philosopher, one student said, would never have tolerated taking orders from someone like Stockdale, as almost all of his fellow U.S. prisoners of war did. Stockdale smiled and quickly agreed.

The Stockdales have four sons, ages 20 to 32. He said this latest student generation appears to fully appreciate the values of courage, fidelity, friendship, honor, love and justice he wants them to know how to protect.

He keeps in mind that his students are the same age as his youngest son, Taylor, now a sophomore at Colorado College, the little boy who was only 3 when Stockdale left for the Vietnam tour that would lead to his imprisonment.

Stockdale, the instructor, said he will ask for two term papers, each about 12 pages double-spaced, and maybe a final exam. But, he added, "I'm not a hard grader. I'm a soft touch."