Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
These days, I would describe myself as a Christian humanist. I mean ‘humanist’ in the Renaissance sense – someone who loves and wants to revive ancient philosophy and culture. And I mean ‘Christian humanist’ in the sense of believing that Christianity complements and even completes Greek philosophy.
For many Medieval and Renaissance Christians, as well as for some Jewish and Islamic philosophers, the great Greek and Roman philosophers were prophets or saints. Their profound insights into human nature and the universe helped to lead people out of suffering, like Virgil leading Dante out of Hell in the Divine Comedy.
The revelation of Greek philosophy is this: much of our suffering comes from our thoughts, beliefs and values. We construct our own prisons. We can liberate ourselves from these prisons by learning to examine our souls and to be wiser in our thinking. We can use our reason to shine a light onto our unconscious habits, and to create new, wiser habits. We can learn to take care of our souls, to be the doctors to ourselves.
We cause ourselves suffering by caring for the wrong things, by putting our trust in the wrong things, by worshipping false gods (as Plato puts it), and building our houses on sand (as Jesus put it). We can find a deeper fulfillment by looking within, by cultivating an inner garden of consciousness and reason, and also by cultivating caring and ethical relationships with other people.
Both atheist / agnostic and theist Greek philosophers would agree with what I’ve written above. But they disagreed in their definition of ‘flourishing’, and on the question of where reason comes from. Plato, Aristotle, Heraclitus, Pythagoras and the Stoics thought consciousness comes from God, while Epicurus thought it was a cosmic fluke. I was always more on the theistic side of Greek philosophy. I thought it more likely that our consciousness is God-given, that it’s a fragment of God (or the Logos). I also believed, rather more speculatively, that this Logos is providential, guiding us towards an end or telos.
Why ‘Christian’ humanism?
I’ve become a Christian humanist this year for two reasons. Firstly, I believe in grace. I’ve moved from believing in the Stoic Logos, which is a rather abstract and chilly cosmic intelligence which doesn’t particularly care about individual cases, to believing in a God who loves us as individuals and who occasionally intervenes in our life, lifts us up and heals us through grace.
It was one such experience of grace, back in 2001, which helped me recover from post-traumatic stress disorder and which led me to Greek philosophy. I’ve had some more experiences like that this year. I don’t think this makes me in any way special – such experiences are in fact fairly common among humans, we’re just embarrassed to speak about them in our materialist culture.
Why would I interpret these experiences in a Christian framework? Partly because this year I experienced them in a Christian context, and partly because the New Testament gives a better account of such experiences when talking about the healing power of the Holy Spirit and Christ’s love. Greek philosophers don’t really talk about God’s love healing us (although the playwright Sophocles does). In Greek philosophy, God is an abstract concept you reach through rational dialectic. In Judeo-Christianity, God is a Being with whom you can have a loving relationship. I believe the latter is true.
Feeding our need for community
The second reason I became a Christian is that I was hungry for spiritual community. I’ve been a total individualist all my adult life – a freelance journalist, usually single, socially anxious, bit of a hermit. I am the archetypal modern liberal, suspicious of all communities and organisations, yet longing to find one I can call home. I agree with Jean Vanier that loneliness is one of the great sicknesses of our liberal culture.
I am all for trying to develop ethical communities for non-believers where, in the words of Daniel Dennett, ‘people who are not otherwise loved can be taken in and their lives can be made important’. I would love philosophy clubs to be such places, as well as organisations like the School of Life, the Sunday Assembly, Action for Happiness clubs. I’ve worked with all these organisations and think they’re on to something important. But there’s a way to go yet, in terms of creating spaces where people can bring all of themselves – their baggage, their wounds, their vulnerability – and feel ministered to.
This year, I’ve been exploring Christian community. I guess I started my explorations at the end of last year, when I was dating a lovely girl, and we went to stay at a cottage in Wales with some other friends of hers. They all turned out to be Christians, in fact one of them was a vicar. This initially freaked me out (trapped in a cottage with Christians! aaargh!) but actually I was really impressed by their commitment to one another, by their sincerity and their humour. They were human beings, not Bible-bashing zombies. They listened to each other, cared for one another, allowed each other to be fallible human beings.
The vicar at that cottage invited me on the Alpha course, which I did at the beginning of this year. I really enjoyed it, partly because of the power of small groups – it’s a wonderful experience to turn up, once a week, with the same group of people, to talk, listen and support each other. We still meet, every other Tuesday evening. Roughly half of us are non-Christian. Humanist groups and philosophy groups have also drawn on this power of small groups in the past and are doing so again. For example, Richard Layard, the founder of Action for Happiness, was inspired by attending a Quaker small group for a year or so, and is now launching an Alpha-style course for humanists (more on that when I get the details).
Of course, the Alpha course has some slightly more, er, supernatural aspects, like asking the Holy Spirit to come in to you. There’s also an emphasis on praying for each other. I personally think this is a beautiful practice. Think of prayer as wishing each other well, deeply. Christians pray, sometimes, by putting a hand on each other’s shoulders. I think touch is important. These days, we hear ‘touch’ and because we’re liberals we think ‘Ugh! Violation of privacy!‘ But we need touch. We’re primates. We have a touch-deficit in our lives. Touch can be as simple as shaking each other’s hands and giving each other the ‘sign of peace’. Touch is healing.
Christian community also puts music at the centre. Initially, I found the contemporary worship very off-putting. I felt it was a desecration of the religion of rock & roll. How dare they play rock music – they’re Christians, the epitome of Uncool. Even worse, some of the Christians there would put their hands in the air and dance. I would look at them, as Michal looked down at David, and think, you poor, poor people.
It is absolutely fine to put your hands in the air and dance at a club or music festival. It’s fine to raise your hands in a diamond-gesture to worship Jay-Z; fine to raise your hands in worship of Manchester City or Blackpool FC; fine to raise your hands to worship your country at a football match (less cool at a a nationalist rally). But if you raise your hands to worship God then, my friend, you are a nutter.
Well…I still think most Christian rock is pretty cheesy. But some of it is OK, and a handful of songs I actually like, and I’m OK with people raising their hands to worship God. I like worshipping God with other people, through music. No, actually, I love it. It’s a really powerful, wonderful experience, hearing a hundred or a thousand people lifting up their voices around you, affirming your deepest beliefs. Again, humanist groups do this too – I occasionally play the drums at the Sunday Assembly, and sometimes people even raise their hands to the music. Charismatic atheists!
Humanism is also civic, outward-looking, engaged with society. I admire the social work which some of my Christian friends do, in an effort to follow the example of Christ. Some of them have gone off to live in deprived estates, some of them left lucrative careers to set up charities, some of them went to live with mentally disabled people, some of them turned their homes into refuges for addicts.
And I admire the leadership of the Christian community I’ve been engaged with – Nicky and Pippa Gumbel. I admire their humility, the fact they run a huge global movement but haven’t been seduced by money, power or fame. They still ride around on their bicycles and live in the vicarage. Thousands of people come to their church, yet they know the name of all the people in my Alpha group, and care about us. Their community is not perfect by any means, but it’s more nurturing and less corrupted by money or power than most philosophical / self-help communities I’ve encountered. The good thing about belonging to a very old and established church like the C of E is it’s bigger than you and your ego. Newer churches or self-help movements can easily become vehicles for their leaders’ egos.
It is not at all easy to create a community where people feel loved. It’s hard to care about other people, because people are annoying and needy. So we keep other people at arms’ length. I remember a famous philosopher saying of someone ‘oh, they’re very needy’. In Greek philosophy and liberal humanism, neediness is weakness and autonomy is strength. Christian communities, by contrast, are OK with people’s neediness. Christian priests are trained to minister to that need. Does humanism have servants, people who are willing to give their lives to minister to other people and to put them before their own egos? I think James Randi is close – he ministers to the Skeptic community, writing postcards to Skeptics around the world, keeping in touch, giving out hugs at The Amazing Meeting.
I have friends trying to cultivate caring communities for atheists and I’m all for that, because humans need community, and as humanists, we share a common tradition in Greek philosophy. Personally, I would also like to see the revival of the Church of England, and the revival of the Christian humanist tradition within the Church. I would like to see the revival of all humanisms, and of friendship between them.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
It can still feel weird discussing having had depression and anxiety to strangers in public talks. Although I’m fairly used to exposing myself these days (as it were), there are still occasions when I think ‘is this really a good idea?’ I had that feeling this week, standing in front of a gym full of colossal rugby players at Saracens rugby club, staring at me stony-faced as I discussed how ancient philosophy helped me through panic attacks. What the hell am I doing here?
I was invited to Saracens’ training ground in St Albans to give a talk about ancient philosophy, virtue ethics, and the Greeks’ ideas on the good life. I believe, and Saracens also believe, that ethics are right at the heart of sport. Sportspeople, on a daily basis, are faced with the questions that Socrates first raised: is it worth being an ethical person? What is the appropriate trade-off between external and internal goods? What does it mean to succeed at life? How do we cope with external pressures and still maintain a good character?
We, the spectator-public, like to think that professional sportspeople are shining knights, that sports coaches are founts of moral wisdom like Coach Taylor in Friday Night Lights. We look to professional sportspeople as moral guides – recently I was at a conference on well-being at work, where the keynote speaker was Sally Gunnell, who was greeted like a demi-goddess by the assembled businesspeople. But professional sports looks much better from the outside than the inside, and what’s good for external success (prizes, profits) is not necessarily good for a person’s character or well-being. You can be a highly-successful athlete and still a very messed-up human being.
Professional sports is not necessarily the character-forming crucible we amateurs think it is. It’s big business and razzle-dazzle spectacle, with huge amounts of money involved and an intense focus on winning at any cost. David Priestly, who is head of the Personal Development Programme at Saracens, says: ‘People have an incredibly romantic view of professional sports. But it can be a very brutal world, a machine that squeezes everything out of a person and then tosses them aside. Most of the people in that world are very far from being role-models. Most people in professional sports shy away from anything explicitly about ethics. It’s just about winning. Younger players can see people at the top of their sport who are doing very well while still behaving in a questionable manner.’
The Saracens revolution
Which brings us to Saracens. The club was 50% bought by a South African consortium in 2009, who appointed Edward Griffiths as the CEO – the man who’d managed South African rugby in the run-up to their nation-building 1995 World Cup victory. Griffiths promised a ‘Saracens Revolution’ which would turn rugby into a glitzy, entertaining and crowd-pleasing spectacle. Saracens matches would alternate between Wembley and a new astroturf stadium in north London, match attendance would rise from 14,000 to 80,000, spectators would be able to watch replays on their smartphones, even order pizzas from their seats. The club was now in the business of ‘making memories’.
But the other side of the Saracens Revolution was a focus on character and virtues, as proclaimed by the South African director of rugby, Brendan Venter. He’s a doctor, a Christian, and something of a rebel, who’s surprised journalists with comments like: ‘You can’t think about winning all the time. I’m far more interested in my players, along with me, improving as people. That’s basically the only thing that really matters.’ He’s also said: ‘If we win everything there is to win but we’ve broken relationships, we’ve lost the plot. We’ve missed our point of being on earth, it’s as simple as that.’
Venter, who studied to be a doctor while playing rugby, insisted the players need to be well-rounded and prepared for life after rugby. They need to be cared for as individuals with souls rather than commodities shoveled into the money-furnace. Their academic pursuits should be just as important as their physical fitness. Players were asked to write essays on ‘the ideal 20-year-old’ and to think about questions like: ‘How does the ideal 20-year-old treat women? How does the ideal 20-year-old treat alcohol? How does he handle his finances? How does he deal with life in general?’
Alex Goode, the 25-year-old Saracens and England full-back, saw the revolution first-hand, having come through the Saracens Academy as a teenager. He says: ‘The old Saracens was not a particularly friendly place. There’d be quite brutal banter. Players lived spread out across Hertfordshire and hung out separately A lot of the players were in it for their own benefit and not the team, they didn’t make sacrifices for the team. Now, there’s much more of a feeling of togetherness. The players and families are really taken care of, and the flip-side of that is we have to work incredibly hard.’
The Revolution seems to be succeeding. Having never won the English rugby premiership, Saracens were runners-up in Venter’s first season (2009-2010), then won it in 2010-2011. This season, however, has been tough – they led the Premiership by wins and points, but then lost in the play-off semi-final, and also lost in the Heineken Cup semi-final to Toulon. The defeats raise the age-old question again: is it worth putting character before external success?
The Jerry Maguire of sports coaching
Venter stepped down as director of rugby and went back to South Africa in 2011, following a series of family bereavements back home, but he’s still technical director. The ethical revolution, meanwhile, continues through the Saracens Personal Development Programme, which is run by David Priestly and David Jones. The latter David is a philosophy grad, who read my book and got in touch. He has the unique vision that philosophy has a place in professional sports – and he’s stuck his neck out by inviting me to speak to the lads.
His boss, 34-year-old David Priestly, has a remarkable, zen-like calm about him. He is something of a Jerry Maguire-figure in that he genuinely believes winning isn’t everything. He says the ‘performance-based myopia’ of professional sports can be morally corrupting for players and staff. This is somewhat heretical in professional sports, even in the world of ‘performance lifestyle coaching’, which is meant to be provide care and guidance for sportspeople but is often just as obsessed with winning at any cost.
Priestly is different. He’s nick-named ‘The Priest’ at the club because he is something like a moral compass for the team, keeping them honest, challenging them to live by their mission-statement, rather than just hanging it prominently on the wall. For example, if a match-winning player fails to meet the ethical standards of the club, will that player be dropped before a big game? Is the club’s commitment to virtues just window-dressing, or does it translate into actions? The players will watch to see how the management acts, and will adapt their behaviour accordingly.
Priestly tells me: ‘Players can smell it a mile away when you say one thing but behave differently. But if you genuinely live by what you teach they will respond to that.’ He has the backbone to stand by his beliefs even in a high-pressure workplace, and the wisdom to recognise that even hard-as-nails rugby men need the occasional opportunity to be vulnerable.
He has written:
In my opinion it is neither ‘soft’ nor ‘fluffy’ nor easy to listen to someone sharing their innermost difficulties. In fact, when someone feels able to bare their soul and be completely vulnerable in my company, I actually believe it to be an incredibly privileged experience. [Sports psychologists] obsessed with performance will never even get close to touching this kind of information…When you are told that you need to be tough, why show that you are vulnerable?
He gives me some advice as I go in to talk to the players: ‘They will be interested. They might put forward a tough-guy front, but they’ll be listening intently.‘
Virtue ethics and sports psychology
There’s a good turn-out for my first workshop, 20 or so players and coaches, including various internationals like Chris Ashton and Steve Borthwick. And so, with these assembled tough guys in front of me, I launch into my talk. It feels slightly surreal at first, but I tell myself to keep going.
After the initial weirdness of exposing my soul to a room full of rugby players, I settle into it, confident that virtue ethics has important things to say to sports psychology (and vice versa). Sports is a lot about emotional control, and no one understood emotional control better than the Stoics. They insisted our emotions come from our judgements and perceptions. We can change our emotions by becoming more aware of our beliefs and attitudes, and more skillful in what we say to ourselves.
This is a familiar idea to sportsplayers, who have already been drilled in the importance of ‘attitude’ to winning, although one of the players asks me if the Stoic idea of controlling your perceptions and emotions means ‘always being positive’. I reply that no, being ‘philosophical’ is not necessarily the same as never feeling negative emotions. Aristotle thought sometimes anger and grief were appropriate responses to life’s tragedies. I say this not realizing that one of the team’s core values is ‘be relentlessly positive and energized at all times’…which sounds a bit exhausting. Surely it’s OK to be frightened, angry, upset or lost sometimes?
The Greeks’ techniques for creating ethical habits are also obviously useful to sportspeople, particularly the idea of repeating maxims to yourself over and over. Sportspeople already use ‘mantras’ and mottos to ingrain attitudes, and Saracens has its mission statement posted on the walls around the gym. I talk about the Greeks’ idea that excellence isn’t just about how you perform in the classroom (or the rugby pitch) – that it extends out into all your interactions, how you treat your wife, your children, the younger players, the referee, how you cope with setbacks in your life. Everything is training.
The players are particularly interested in Epictetus’ idea of focusing on the things you can control in life without freaking out over the things you can’t completely control (your reputation, your body, other people, the weather etc). Again, this is not a new idea in sports psychology (or management – it’s one of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits), but it still resonates.
One player tells me, privately, they’ve not been picked for a big game this coming weekend, but they’ve decided that the coach’s choices are beyond their control. Rather than sink into a week-long funk of resentment and depression, the player has decided to focus on what’s in their control – their own beliefs, their own attitude.
We talk about not using externals as an alibi for your own bad behaviour – the referee, for example, your team-mates, your wife, your childhood. Letting go of the past is such a key skill for sportspeople – whether that past is your childhood, the last match or the last point. Andy Murray said in a recent BBC documentary that one of the main things he’s worked on in the last year is not wasting energy thinking about past points during games. Priestly says to me, ‘So much of what I’m trying to get across comes down to the three words: ‘Let it go’.
We also talk about the idea of not caring too much about your status and reputation, not building your house on sand as Jesus put it. Professional sports people have to deal with an incredibly volatile status throughout their life, as Alex Goode tells me. ‘It’s a big shift from schoolboy rugby to professional sports. Suddenly, you go from the blue-eyed boy of your school team to a situation where no one cares if you’ve played England Under 18s, and you’re on the bench and not playing all the games. That’s hard to deal with.’
Then, like Goode, you might get to play for England, another huge step-up in terms of pressure and publicity. He says: ‘Suddenly, everyone wants to talk to you about rugby. By the end of last season, for the first time, I didn’t want to talk about rugby any more, I needed something separate from it.’ Goode was then injured and side-lined, thereby perhaps missing the Lions tour. Injuries can be existential crises for sportspeople, depriving them of the activity by which they define and validate themselves. Alex got through the disappointment of his injury partly by having ‘something separate’ – he tells me he’s found pleasure in reading novels, and is interested in becoming a journalist after rugby.
A lot of the volatility of elite sportspeople’s status comes from the media, which can be a circus mirror, distorting reality into simplistic narratives. In 2006, the 19-year-old Andy Murray was being interviewed with his friend Tim Henman. They were teasing each other about the World Cup and Murray joked he’d support ‘anyone but England’. The joke was seized on by a journalist and hung round his neck like an albatross for years. It prompted Tony Parsons to fulminate that the comment was ‘the tip of a toxic iceberg of anti-Englishness’. Journalists divide humanity into heroes and villains, and sports stars can be canonized one day, demonized the next. They have to live with that volatility of image, accept that its out of their control, and let it go. Not easy.
Not just means, but ends
So there are many meeting points between sports psychology and virtue ethics. What philosophy brings to the table – why Saracens asked me there – is that philosophy isn’t just about techniques for on-the-field success. It’s also a way to question what success actually looks like, what end or goal we’re using all these techniques for. Is winning your ultimate goal – your God – or is there something higher? It’s possible to win a lot of medals and lose at life.
I put it to the players that there is something more important than external success, that you can live a good life even if you fail to win the World Cup, say, or to win the league.
This does not go down that well with the players. ‘I don’t even consider failing’, says one player. ‘It’s not an option. If you think you won’t get a goal, why bother trying to get there’. It’s a fair point, and I am reminded again of the difference between philosophy and professional sports – sometimes there is a tension between internal and external goods. A complete obsession with winning might be very good for professional sports, while in some sense…bad for the person?
After the talk, several players came up and shook my hand, which was heart-warming, because I’d wondered how my talk would go down, as a small philosopher in a world of big athletes. I subsequently went back for a second workshop, and this time I talked less and let the discussion flow – what was really interesting was how the players started listening to each other, swapping stories, letting themselves be vulnerable. The best way to learn is not to teach from the front, perhaps, but to let the group help each other along. Anyway, I’ve applied for funding from the AHRC to prepare and teach a course in 2014 at Saracens, as well as in Low Moss prison in Scotland and a mental health charity in London. Fingers crossed we get it and we can continue exploring the role of ethics in professional sports.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The active philosophy of well-being tells us that happiness and flourishing come from striving and achievement. It’s best embodied by Aristotle, who defines happiness as “an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue”. The key word there is activity – Aristotle thinks we are happiest when we are actively striving towards the common good, engaging with our society, exploring the natural world, adding to our knowledge. We also see this active philosophy of well-being in, for example, Positive Psychology’s concept of ‘flow’ – those moments when we are utterly, blissfully absorbed in what we’re doing.
Aristotle’s philosophy is attractive partly because it’s a philosophy of desire. It doesn’t tell us we have to abandon all desires, as Stoicism or Buddhism do. Rather it suggests we need to direct our natural desire for happiness to its proper goal. It also takes account of the external things that make up the good life – a family, a fulfilling career, a free society – and tells us we should take these things seriously and strive to build them and protect them.
The downside of this philosophy, however, is that we can feel we’re never at rest, that we’re constantly setting ourselves new challenges, new mountains to climb, and we can end up feeling a bit worn out and not, in fact, at peace.
The passive philosophy of well-being tells us that happiness is the absence of desire, the absence of striving. It’s best embodied by the Epicureans, for whom happiness is being at rest and at peace, without feeling any pain; or by the Stoics, for whom happiness is a virtuous self that is perfectly at rest and free from all attachment and aversion; or by the Buddhists, who likewise have an ideal of the sage resting in their mind without grasping at or pushing away the things of the world.
The downside of this philosophy is that we can become too detached from the world, too monastically withdrawn, and unengaged in our society in a meaningful way. You could accuse it of lacking civic virtue – what does the Epicurean, blissfully at rest in his philosophical commune, do for his society, and for those less fortunate than him. Is apathy really a worthwhile end state?
I am conscious of these two philosophies of well-being at the moment, having spent the last month promoting my book. I feel, at the end of the month, rather tired, and in need of a holiday. I also feel that there’s a paradox in writing a book about the good life which one then feels one has to relentlessly publicise, grasping at every possible opportunity in order to get yourself heard in a very noisy marketplace.
I hung out this weekend with a friend who I met on the Camino de Santiago, a mystical young Irishman called Ciaran. He told me that if one gets obsessed with the ‘numbers game’ – how many books one has sold, how many people come to your speaking events, how many people join your philosophy club and so on, then you’re basically like a Wall Street banker counting their coins. He suggested a radically different path, of just letting go of all that, trusting in God, basically, rather than desperately striving to get your message out there.
His idea sort of reminds me of the concept in Taoism of Wu Wei – non-doing, or doing without doing. The Taoist sage sees the foolishness of desperately striving to change the cosmos, rather they act in accordance with the natural movement of the cosmos, letting it carry their ideas like the wind spreading the florets of a dandelion, rather than trying to impose their will upon it. That sounds a great idea right now. So does a holiday.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Who would have thought David Cameron would push forward ‘national well-being measurements’, create a National Citizens Service, inaugurate parenting classes, and double the funding for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?
As I’ve discussed over the last couple of days, there is a Neo-Aristotelian consensus now, of politicians, policy wonks and even civil servants who believe that humans can achieve flourishing, and governments and civil society can help them in that journey. This includes Neo-Aristotelian Tories such as David Willetts, Ferdinand Mount, and Oliver Letwin – who wrote his thesis on Aristotelian ethics and the emotions (I reviewed it here).
This week, I met one of the Neo-Aristotelians on the Right: James O’Shaughnessy, formerly head of Cameron’s Number 10 policy unit, which Cameron sadly scrapped last year and replaced with a civil service-run unit (a mistake, I fear). James left government to become a ‘social entrepreneur’ with a particular focus on integrating Positive Psychology into education – Positive Psychology is very influenced by Aristotelian philosophy and was described by one of its founders as ‘the social science equivalent of virtue ethics’.
We met in the RSA, and James told me how the Conservatives got into the ‘well-being agenda’, how he became a convert to Positive Psychology, and why he thinks the future of well-being education is not nation-wide programmes designed in Whitehall like Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning (SEAL), but rather smaller independently-designed experiments. The interview will hopefully be used in an article but I thought blog-readers would enjoy the full transcript.
The politics of well-being arguably began as a New Labour phenomenon, through people like Geoff Mulgan and Richard Layard. So how did it get taken up by the Conservative Party?
It was particularly taken up by Steve Hilton, who came to government from his Good Business consultancy; and by Oliver Letwin, who wrote his PhD thesis on Aristotle and the idea of eudaimonia. It’s also something David Cameron believes in, and for him it’s a way of demonstrating that Tories are not people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, which is one of the stereotypes he is trying to dispel. There’s also the sense that you can’t talk about things like family values or a broken society entirely from an economic point of view, as the Fabians do.
Some dry Tories were dismissive of it, and there was a lot of scepticism – but that’s part of the point, for Cameron to show he’s different. Personally, I think the politics of well-being is deeply conservative – the idea that life is about more than money. Some on the right are sceptical about the idea of using well-being measurements to guide policy, partly because they say the data is so aggregated its meaningless, and partly because the idea that government should promote a particular philosophy of happiness is seen as dangerous socialism.
What do you think of those criticisms?
Well, it’s true that if you aggregate well-being measurements up to the national level, it becomes so aggregated its basically flat over time, and never seems to go up or down. But the data can still tell you interesting things at the regional or local level. And it’s a start. In politics you can’t go straight from A to Z. Policy changes take time.
Tell me why you decided to leave government and become a social entrepreneur in education.
I have a sceptical nature, so don’t believe politicians are always the best at running things. It’s about giving people the choice over how to do things. So the idea in many areas of social policy is to let social entrepreneurs provide a range of services and then people can choose for themselves. ‘Progressive ends, conservative means’ is the mantra. In education, that means things like free schools and academies. When you pursue policies like that, the more interesting stuff is actually happening outside of policy, at the grassroots level of services delivery. So I decided to leave government and become an education entrepreneur. There’s now a flowering of opportunity in that field which I wanted to be part of.
Some people think there’s a paradox in Conservative well-being policy. On the one hand, the government has pushed forward things like national well-being measurements. But in education policy, Michael Gove has scrapped Ofsted well-being measurements, and seems to be about to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.
I’ll explain why that’s not a paradox. It’s an epistemic point, about who can claim to possess knowledge. The disposition of Tories is that government is a really bad place to claim epistemic hegemony superiority because of things like the lessons of public choice theory, and the power of vested interests and of Whitehall. If you are too top-down, the programmes you put forward are quickly out of date, and create worse results than if you give institutions the opportunity to experiment and choose programmes that work. As long as they properly track the outcomes of those programmes and share the information, then the market improves.
I’m a big believer in evidence-based education policy, and in the work of people like the Sutton Trust and the Education Endowment Foundation, who announced a £200 million project last year to explore evidence-based interventions for disadvantaged children. If you empower independent institutions to choose their programmes, and parents to choose their schools, then you get a much richer ecosystem than if the Department of Education creates one well-being programme for the entire country.
But in this new evidence-based ecosystem, how would schools discover which programmes worked? Would there be like a gocompare.com site?
Good question. At the moment we’re lacking a free market in information. There are a few university departments, it’s quite a small community, everyone seems to know each other. We need a repository of evidence for well-being education.
So it sounds like the government is going to scrap Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning, which was an example of that sort of centralised top-down policy.
[SEAL, as many blog-readers will know, was inspired by Daniel Goleman's pop psychology book Emotional Intelligence, and was enthusiastically taken up by New Labour and introduced it into the national curriculum in 2002. The government only got round to testing if it actually worked a decade later...and found it didn't.]
The evidence for it was fairly patchy. The position of the government is that they’re all for schools trying well-being interventions out, but the government’s responsibility is to make sure kids learn and can get jobs at the end of school. They’re open-minded about how schools get there.
Some people, including me, expected SEAL to be replaced by the Penn Resiliency Project (PRP) – a three-year pilot scheme designed by Martin Seligman, the inventor of Positive Psychology [that's him on the right]. It was supposed to be a careful, rigorous, evidence-based intervention to improve young people’s well-being and academic performance. But the evidence after the three-year pilot was not a home run, was it?
The results were pretty good but you need to keep repeating the intervention for it to work. I’m now working with Richard Layard to try and get funding for a four-year pilot of an intervention that combines the Penn Resiliency Project with other evidence-based interventions.
How does Positive Psychology fit into your model of education?
I didn’t want to be providing any old education, but rather a particular vision of it, that’s deeply informed by Positive Psychology. I’d spent a reasonable amount of time talking to Martin Seligman. What’s so appealing is the growth model rather than the disease model, and the idea there’s a continuum from ill to well to flourishing. I buy into that philosophically, but it also has a strong evidence base. And what’s fascinating is the interplay with ancient philosophy and virtue ethics. The cutting edge science ties into the best that’s been thought in the ancient world, by philosophers like Aristotle. So Positive Psychology is as much about character development as well-being. It’s part of a developing view that education should be about developing character, rather than merely passing exams.
So my idea was to build a ‘whole school’ approach to building character, that stretches across the whole curriculum and extra-curricular activities, even down to the dining room and how meals are conducted and what pupils eat. Martin Seligman, for example, has talked of extending Positive Psychology into English classes.
I was organising a round-table with Marty Seligman and some others to try and create a framework for a whole curriculum that people could apply in different schools. My career plan was to build on that framework, which would be freely available to anyone to use, to create services to sell into schools. Then Anthony Seldon [headmaster of Wellington] called and asked if I wanted to come on board with the Wellington academies trust. I agreed, and started a fortnight ago. The idea is to take the DNA of Wellington, and export it into different contexts – academies, prep schools and international schools.
Wellington is clearly a pioneer when it comes to ‘character education’ – the first British school to integrate Positive Psychology into its curriculum. But how easy will it be to export that DNA? To what extent does Wellington’s ‘character factory’ depend on its financial resources, and physical assets like the grounds, the facilities, the beauty of the place? Can you export that into an inner-city academy?
Well, we’re trying to find out. Look at KIPP charter schools in the US, which are explicitly about creating character, and which work in some pretty rough neighbourhoods. Or look at the success of the Ark academies. As a social entrepreneur you want to create the most impact, and you could argue that Wellington has less impact on its pupils because they already have a lot going for them. The Penn Resiliency Project had the most impact on the more challenged kids. But of course, a private school costs £30,000 a year for a pupil, and a state school around £5,000. So we need to find what that buys you. I would also like to try to build find elite partners for the schools, like the Royal Shakespeare Companies or Wasps rugby clubs of this world, for example, so we can try to replicate some of the College’s breadth and excellence across the group.
But the aim is not to create a new programme and introduce it into the national curriculum as a nation-wide subject?
No. The reason SEAL didn’t succeed, why it didn’t have any longevity, was it was too centralised, it was just telling people what to do. [James' boss at the Policy Exchange, Neil O'Brien, wrote an interesting blog this month about how the Tories hope best-practice will naturally spread through the education 'eco-system' through things like chains of academies - you can read it here.]
There’s a lot I like about the idea of teaching Positive Psychology in schools, but my concern is that it becomes a form of rigid indoctrination, where if you disagree with the prescribed route, you are deemed unwell, sick even. If done badly, it could easily suppress creative or critical thinking, and attempt to create happiness by rote-learning or drill-training. That’s not going to work, is it?
Well, I think you can encourage different routes to excellence. Wellington, for example, encourages people to ‘be the best you can be’. It’s the Aristotelian idea of virtue in excellence. And you can try lots of things to try and find out what you’re best at. That’s what really encourages self-esteem: walking into a room and knowing that, of everyone there, you’re the best at some particular activity. In general, though, I don’t have a problem with indoctrination! If you’ve grown up without structures and boundaries, it’s actually a relief to have them. I think we’ve learnt what’s wrong with progressive education, with the child-centred model where educationalists felt ‘who are adults to pressure children to learn?’ The result of that was a generation with high levels of illiteracy and a massive increase in educational inequality. Free creative thinking is fine for a small group who are already quite naturally talented. But it’s really bad for those students unable to cope with it.
I’m also wary of extending the Positive Psychology dogma into every subject, so that you have positive economics, positive physics, positive history. Shouldn’t English Literature at its best explore the dark side as well as the positive? I remember my first term in English A-Level I read Hamlet, King Lear, Heart of Darkness and Freud’s Five Lectures on Hysteria. And I loved it!
Yes, you have to be careful about the ‘positive’ label, it can be too narrow. It’s important not to be too blinkered, you can’t simply think positive and ignore objective facts.
Finally, is there a risk you could be criticised as creating a new free market in education when you were in office, and then profiting from it once you’re out of office?
It’s not a privatised market, that’s important. It’s not for profit. The academies are run as charities, and any profits they make have to go back into the charitable purposes of the group. The board of the charity can set my salary, but that’s the only remuneration I get from my work with Wellington.
Thanks very much, James, and good luck.
Thank you too.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>
The Neo-Aristotelians who I described yesterday take this optimistic philosophy off into many different directions, particularly in different economic directions. But the heart of their optimism is a common Socratic belief in the power of human reason to improve the self, and a belief in the malleability, the plasticity, of the self. Because the psyche is plastic, because habits are changeable, they are improvable over time, through intelligence and will. We can become mature, self-actualised, whole beings, and we can achieve this while actively engaged in society, without withdrawing into the monastic seclusion recommended by Plato or Pythagoras.
Through political activity, we can become joined together with our fellow citizens in friendship and a sense of the common good – this is Aristotle at his most idealistic, although he also warns that it will be impossible for a society to agree on ‘the common good’ if it is too economically unequal.
As I said yesterday, one of the leading figures in this Neo-Aristotelian trend in public policy is Oliver Letwin, minister for the Cabinet Office, who wrote a PhD on Aristotelian ethics at Cambridge, which was finished in (I think) 1982. It was re-published by Routledge in 2010 under the title Ethics, Emotion and the Unity of the Self. I want briefly to outline its main ideas and then consider how they could feed into public policy – though of course, this PhD was written 30 years ago so we should be wary of interpreting contemporary British politics through its prism! Nonetheless, I think it’s revealing.
Letwin begins by drawing a dichotomy between two broad traditions in western thought, which he calls philosophical romanticism and philosophical classicism. He defines the former as sharing a belief in the human condition as
permanently and irremediably unsatisfactory…we can never be completely at home in the world because our ‘true selves’ are, in one way or another, compromised by the circumstances of our existence.
Our selves are tragically divided – between our ‘higher’ or ‘true’ selves and our lower selves; between moral and non-moral behaviour; and between our reason and our brute passion. Letwin ascribes his pessimistic view of the human condition to such philosophers as Plato, Kant, Hobbes and Freud (I’d probably add Sir Isaiah Berlin and John Gray to that canon, and I’m not sure Plato is as pessimistic as all that, but we can let that pass).
Philosophical classicism, by contrast, is “calmly optimistic”. The classicists, among whom Letwin includes Aristotle, Hegel and Thomas Aquinas,
deny that there is an inevitable struggle between the self and itself, and do not despair of achieving a fundamental reconciliation between various demands of human existence.
A fairly clear division then – the philosophical romantics are pessimists who believe the self is tragically divided and can never be unified or happy here on Earth. The philosophical classicists, by contrast, are optimists who think it can.
Letwin then explores three ways that the romantics think humans are fatally divided, to show that they’re false divisions. Firstly, he looks at the false division between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ human activities, then he examines the false division between ‘moral’ and ‘non-moral’ activities, and finally he explores the false division between reason and emotion.
Firstly, he attacks the idea that some human activities are inherently higher and better than others – for example the idea that philosophy and poetry are higher than football, that a hierarchy of human activities exist, with intellectuals at the top. This is a very Platonic idea, of course, though I wonder if it’s also Aristotelian – didn’t Aristotle think the highest good was intellectual contemplation?
Anyway, Letwin makes good arguments against this theory. Philosophy and poetry aren’t inherently more worthwhile than football, he says. One could easily be a morally bad poet, or simply a bad poet, while being a wonderful footballer. Philosophy doesn’t necessarily make us immune to fortune, as the Stoics claim. It depends on our higher faculties, which are themselves subject to fortune. And the virtues of courage and fortitude are not dependent on intellectual activity – you could be a very Stoic fireman or soldier, for example (and indeed you’ll find many such people in my book).
Letwin insists that the division between ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ activities has fatal human consequences. It makes the intellectual pretentious and precious, because they think most of the activities of ordinary life are beneath them. And it makes the non-intellectual ashamed of themselves, quite wrongly. Instead, Letwin takes the Aristotelian position that any human activity can be done well or badly, and can be performed with pride in excellence.
Football is a good example. Take the Champions League final. Some criticised the champions, Chelsea, for playing ‘ugly football’ – there was a recognition there that football is not simply about winning. It’s a practice, which can be done well or badly, with grace or without (Barcelona epitomised the beautiful game). On the other hand, others (including me) couldn’t help but praise Chelsea for their resilience, their ‘never-say-die’ attitude, shown in their ability to come back against the odds against Napoli, Barcelona and then Bayern Munich, after a very shaky start to their season. So you have two competing value judgements about Chelsea, their season, and the virtues and vices of their style of play.
Letwin’s point is well made – any activity can be done well or badly, with grace or without, according to the internal standards of the community. With that sort of attitude, we need no longer divide life into ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ activities: “the whole range of life is something to be lived, rather than merely borne”. Even the ‘lower’ activities of eating, sleeping and sex can be done well, can be raised to a civilised art, as in the Kama Sutra. We can become a ‘virtuoso in living well’, as one philosopher described the Aristotelian ideal.
Then Letwin takes aim at the division of human life into ‘moral’ and ‘non-moral’ activities. He takes particular aim at Kantian ethics, which makes just this distinction: either acts are virtuous and in accordance with a universal moral law, or they are non-moral and beside the point. The same is true of Stoic ethics. This sort of rule-based ethics is too abstract and universalist, Letwin argues. It fails to take account of the particularity of human circumstances. For example, a great writer might consider themselves justified in foregoing some traditionally moral activities – such as spending time with their aging parents – in order to pursue the creative goal of finishing a great book. That is not a moral goal, in a Kantian sense. But it might nonetheless be considered a legitimate way to spend their time – if they genuinely are a great writer. Letwin calls this a ‘subjunctive’ claim, and compares it to the Kantian imperative. It is less universalist, less inflexible, and more alive to the particular circumstances of our life and the claims that other areas of our life legitimately make on us. It does not rule out a lot of the good things in life – the arts, friendship – as non-moral and therefore indifferent.
He likewise finds utilitarianism too inflexible and rule-based. It only asks that we discover what a person wants and then satisfy their wants, without considering that a person might want the wrong thing. He writes, sounding very Tory, that ‘a hippy may give his girlfriend heroin’, because that is what she says she wants. But it might not be what she genuinely needs. A schoolteacher who punishes a pupil, by contrast, is not giving the child what they want (their iPhone to play with, for example) but what they need (a proper education).
Fine – but doesn’t that re-introduce the idea of the ‘higher’ self or the ‘real’ self which Letwin condemns as romantic? If the state should give us not what we want but what we genuinely need, that seems to be suggesting that some desires are higher or better than others, doesn’t it?
Against Kantian and utilitarian rule-based morality, Letwin puts forward an Aristotelian ethics of good character. Each thing has its function – a chair, a human – and is ‘good’ when it performs that function well. Humans can be said to be flourishing when they develop their characters so as to perform humanness well in all its many facets. This was originally a teleological ethics, based on the idea that we are designed by God and achieve flourishing when we fulfill that heavenly design (hence the phrase ‘a fulfilled life’). But Letwin, along with most other contemporary virtue ethicists, think we can detach Aristotelian ethics from a divine teleology, and instead base our ethics on a “fundamental belief that a person should engage in intelligent, purposive activity, and should promote such standards in others”.
This is not far from what Positive Psychology argues: the meaning of life is to have meaning in your life. But what meaning? How do we adjudicate between various possible purposes we could embrace? Is being a Jihadi terrorist a good meaning? You can, after all, be a very intelligent and purposive Jihadi terrorist. Not at all, says Letwin, because then you are harming others, and not promoting intelligent, purposive activity in them. Well..a terrorist might argue they are harming a few others, but doing far more to promote intelligent, purposive activity in humanity through that small sacrifice of a few thousand lives. If think your society is deeply sick, self-destructive and heading for disaster, then you might argue it is rational, intelligent and pro-social to try and oppose it or even destroy it – like Oedipus or Antigone opposing the corrupt city of Thebes. But Aristotle, the calm optimist, never writes about such a possibility – even though he himself was exiled from Athens.
The Aristotelian response to this ‘Machiavellian problem’ would be ‘use your practical wisdom to decide if it’s worth violently opposing the state’. In any moral quandary, ‘use your practical wisdom’. But I wonder if that’s not just devolving the problem. I mean, yes, in practice one does use one’s practical wisdom and try to choose a good purpose to devote your life to. But it’s not such an easy process to find a good purpose, one you care about, which improves your society, which you are good at and from which you can make a living. That’s the Holy Grail, really, isn’t it? Do Aristotelians think we can all find such a purpose?
Anyway, the final false division Letwin takes aim at is the division between reason and emotion. This is a false division, Letwin insists, because emotions are really cognitive judgements about the world and how it should be. Those judgements might be ingrained as habits, which feel involuntary and automatic, so that if we have social anxiety for example, we automatically feel anxious when we enter a social situation. But we can use our reason to bring our habits into consciousness, consider their wisdom, and change them. Our selves are malleable and plastic – we can create new habits, better selves. This is what Aristotle and the Stoics insisted, and its what modern philosophers of emotion like Martha Nussbaum have argued. It’s also what cognitive psychology argues and has to some extent proven.
Because our emotions are cognitive judgements about how the world should be, our emotions are controllable and changeable. We can use our reason as a sculptor (a nice image that Letwin takes from Hegel), “slowly fashioning a life”. Letwin writes: “one can (as Aristotle suggests) gradually turn oneself into the sort of person who has certain emotions and makes certain judgements”. This means we don’t have to be the angst-ridden, chronically divided and unhappy souls that the romantics suggest, torn between our higher selves and our Mr Hyde-esque doubles. We can become a “harmonious, Aristotelian whole, without struggle or conflict”, following a life “neither too hot nor too cold” – more like the calmly optimistic and practical heroines of Jane Austen than the passion-swept maniacs of the Bronte sisters, as Letwin puts it.
But if our thoughts and emotions are our responsibility (as the Stoics and Aristotle insist), then “one may legitimately be blamed for having become – having allowed oneself to become – the sort of person who makes the wrong sort of judgements.” Indeed, while the classicist frees himself from angst, “he also understands himself to be responsible for all aspects of his own life…any incoherence is man-made, a failure on the part of the individual. In this sense, philosophical classicism imposes on us more responsibility, indeed a complete responsibility, for what we do and are: its optimism has a price”.
An interesting book. I want to make two quick points about its philosophy, and what it implies for public policy. Very briefly, as this post is already far too long and I am very probably talking to myself at this point.
Firstly, Sir Isaiah Berlin would worry that its optimism could lead to authoritarianism. Letwin’s version of Aristotelianism seems pleasingly pluralistic and democratic – it appears to resist the division of human life into higher and lower, and to accept the plurality of worthy aims in life. But it also believes in standards – in doing a thing well or badly, whether that be philosophy or football. It’s a pedagogic model of life, in which a teacher teaches us how to do something well, and punishes us if we do it badly. The teacher (or the state) guides our character towards excellence, albeit excellence in various different fields. I think it is quite hierarchical, ultimately – it believes you can grade excellence, even quantify it, and measure to what extent a person has achieved it. That means some people are deemed virtuosos, others as mediocre failures. I’m not sure life is as easy to mark as a schoolboy’s essay.
And the metaphor of reason as the sculptor of the beautiful self is insidious, as Sir Karl Popper pointed out in his critique of Plato’s Republic. If the self can be sculpted into a harmonious whole, then can society as well? Can we all be fused together in one somewhat mystic sense of the common good? I think Aristotle believed that, on occasion, but I wonder if Letwin did or does.
Certainly, it’s a problem for Neo-Aristotelianism – it has a rather idealistic idea that given sufficient education and freedom, citizens will all muck in together and work together to build a glorious eudaimonic future. Policy makers might try to achieve that through central planning like philosophy in schools or the National Citizen Service, or through de-centralised initiatives like the Big Society. Either way, there’s a faith that our various social and political goals are ultimately compatible and we can all join together in seeking eudaimonia. I’m not so sure. Even Aristotle, in his less idealistic moments, recognised that this politics of the common good wouldn’t work if society becomes too unequal – and contemporary Anglo-Saxon societies are far more unequal than Athens in Aristotle’s day (partly because our societies abolished the slave system, and gave workers freedom and voter rights).
Secondly, Stoic and Aristotelian ethics do, as Letwin says, make heavy demands of us. They demand we take full responsibility for our beliefs, emotions and acts, and can be blamed if we think, feel or behave inappropriately. That could lead to a pretty severe penal policy. But we should remember that Aristotle thought the good life was only possible for a handful of wealthy aristocrats. Only they would have the leisure, support, wealth and ‘mental equipment’ to turn themselves into the ‘great-souled man’ as Aristotle put it.
I don’t think you can hold everyone to the same account or high standard. It’s much easier to develop a good character in the sort of nurturing, privileged and elite environment in which Letwin grew up. It’s much harder in an inner city environment where much of the external conditioning instills bad habits, and you have to be a truly resilient and heroic character to resist that conditioning. Most people do not create themselves – they are created by their environment and simply go along with it unquestioningly. That’s as true for rich people as for poor people. It’s just rich people have an easier environment to go along with – and when they go wrong, society usually shrugs and lets them off.
How do you create good characters with limited resources for education? That’s a question I asked Letwin’s former colleague, James O’Shaughnessy, who recently left Number 10′s policy unit to set up a chain of academies – I’ll post the interview tomorrow.
Anyway, Letwin doesn’t seem entirely the old school sort of ‘hang ‘em and flog ‘em’ Tory. I notice he made a speech back in 2003 recommending the ‘neighbourly society’ and saying some people needed the support of their community to have “good virtues” instilled in them. He said: “Each one of us has a choice, but for some, the help needed to acquire virtuous habits is less present”. It’s a sort of community / Big Society form of virtue politics.
Personally, I’ve come round to a more Aquinian version of Aristotle, which respects the role of reason in making us strong, autonomous and responsible beings, but also accepts that we’re flawed, vulnerable, dependent creatures who get sick, old, who make mistakes, and who need each other – including needing each other’s forgiveness. I think without that more Christian sense of human imperfection, Aristotelianism becomes a little annoying and elitist, always banging on about becoming a ‘virtuoso in living’, like the philosophical equivalent of a Financial Times weekend supplement.
Did anyone get to the end of this? Anybody there? You win a prize if so.
Philosophy for Life - official website of author Jules Evans -]]>