Getting practical philosophy into the classroom

I would love there to be more practical philosophy in schools. At the moment, the teaching of ethics and philosophy in schools and universities is almost entirely theoretical. Students learn that philosophy is a matter of understanding and disputing concepts and theories, something that only involves the intellect, not your emotions, actions or life outside of the classroom.

This is a consequence of the splitting off of psychology from philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century. Philosophy lost touch with the central and immensely practical question of how to live well, and that ethical vacuum was filled by psychology, and even more by pharmacology.

Ironically, the most evidence-based talking therapy – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – was directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, and uses many of its ideas and techniques. CBT picked up the baton which modern philosophy dropped, of trying to help ordinary people live happier lives. But it lacks the ethics, values and meaning dimension that ancient philosophy had.

Philosophy and psychology need each other. Philosophy without psychology is a brain in a vat, artificially cut off from emotions and actions and the habits of life. Psychology without ethics is a chicken without a head, focused entirely on evidence without any clear sense of the goal. Practical philosophy is a bridge between the evidence-based techniques of psychology, and the Socratic questioning of philosophy.

I wish that, when I was suffering from social anxiety and depression at school, someone had told me about Stoic philosophy, and explained their idea that my emotions are connected to my beliefs and attitudes, and we can transform our feelings by changing our beliefs. They might also have explained how CBT picked up the Stoics’ ideas and tested them out. Instead I had to find all this out for myself, and it took me several rather unhappy years. When I did finally come across ancient philosophy, it helped me enormously.

And I’m not alone in this. John Lloyd, the creator of Blackadder and QI, was a very bright boy at school, but never learned to reflect on the good life or how his thoughts create his subjective reality. He had to learn that himself, coming to philosophy after a five-year breakdown in his thirties. He now says: ‘I think every child should learn Stoic philosophy.’  Making Stoicism part of the national curriculum is quite a big ask. But wouldn’t it be great if there was at least some practical philosophy, some indication that philosophy can practically improve students’ lives?

Eight Key Ideas To Get Across

Stoicism for Everyday Life is a project bringing together philosophers, psychotherapists and classicists, who are fascinated by the links between Stoic philosophy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and committed to raising public awareness of Stoicism as a life-improving resource. We’re organising Live Like A Stoic Week (Nov 25 – Dec 1), and trying to get people involved in Stoic events all over the world. We’re preparing a handbook for Stoic Week, with a different Stoic idea and exercise for every day, and we’re inviting people to follow the Handbook for the week, then reporting back to us via a brief questionnaire. It will be released in November.

We’d love it if students at schools and universities got involved too. Last year, several schools around the world got involved for the Week, and some undergrads posted YouTube videos describing how they found the practical exercises. If you’re a teacher, and you want to do a class or philosophy club on Stoicism, here are eight key ideas that, speaking personally, I wish I’d come across at school:

1) It’s not events that cause us suffering, but our opinion about events.


People often think ‘Stoic’ means ‘suppressing your emotions behind a stiff upper lip’. This is not what ancient Stoicism meant. The Stoics thought we could transform emotions by understanding how they’re connected to our beliefs and attitudes. The quote above, from the philosopher Epictetus, is so powerful and useful – and it was the main inspiration for CBT. Often what causes us suffering is not a particular adverse event, but our opinion about it. We can make a difficult situation much worse by the attitude we bring to it. This doesn’t mean relentlessly ‘thinking positively’ – it simply means being more mindful of how our attitudes and beliefs create our emotional reality. We don’t realise that often we are the ones causing ourselves suffering through our thoughts. Have you noticed how people react very differently to exactly the same event, how some sink rapidly into despondency while others shrug it off? Perhaps we can learn to be more resilient and intelligent in how we react to events.

2) Our opinions are often unconscious, but we can bring them to consciousness by asking ourselves questions

Socrates said we sleepwalk through life, unaware of how we live and never asking ourselves if our opinions about life are correct or wise. CBT, likewise, suggests we have many cognitive biases – many of our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world might be destructive and wrong. Yet we assume automatically they’re true. The way to bring unconscious beliefs into consciousness is simply to ask yourself questions. Why am I feeling this strong emotional reaction? What interpretation or belief is leading to it? Is that belief definitely true? Where is the evidence for it? We can get into the practice of asking ourselves questions and examining our automatic interpretations. The Stoics used journals to keep track of their automatic responses and to examine them. CBT uses a similar technique. Maybe your students could keep a Stoic journal for a week.

3) We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we react

This is another very simple and powerful idea from the Stoics, best presented by Epictetus, the slave-philosopher, who divided all human experience into two domains: things we control, things we don’t. We don’t control other people, the weather, the economy, our bodies and health, our reputation, or things in the past and future. We can influence these things, but not entirely control them. The only thing we have complete control over is our beliefs – if we choose to exercise this control. But we often try to exert complete control over something external, and then feel insecure and angry when we fail. Or we fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts and beliefs, and use the outside world as an alibi. Focusing on what you control is a powerful way to reduce anxiety and assert autonomy in chaotic situations – you could use the stories of Rhonda Cornum, Viktor Frankel, James Stockdale or Sam Sullivan to illustrate this idea – they all faced profound adversity but managed to find a sense of autonomy in their response to it. The Serenity Prayer is also a nice encapsulation of this idea.

4) Choosing your perspective wisely

Every moment of the day, we can choose the perspective we take on life, like a film-director choosing the angle of a shot. What are you going to focus on? What’s your angle on life?

What’s your angle on life?

A lot of the wisdom of Stoicism comes down to choosing your perspective wisely. One of the exercises the Stoics practiced was called the View From Above – if you’re feeling stressed by some niggling annoyances, project your imagination into space and imagine the vastness of the universe. From that cosmic perspective, the annoyance doesn’t seem that important anymore – you’ve made a molehill out of a mountain. Watch this video interview with the astronaut Edgar Mitchell about ‘seeing the Big Picture’. Another technique the Stoics used (along with Buddhists and Epicureans) was bringing their attention back to the present moment, if they felt they were worrying too much about the future or ruminating over the past. Seneca told a friend: ‘What’s the point of dragging up sufferings that are over, of being miserable now because you were miserable then?’

5) The power of habits

One thing the Stoics got, which a lot of modern philosophy (and Religious Studies) misses with its focus on theory, is the importance of practice, training, repetition and, in a word, habits. It doesn’t matter what theory you profess in the classroom if you don’t embody it in your habits of thinking and acting. Because we’re such forgetful creatures, we need to repeat ideas over and over until they become ingrained habits. It might be useful to talk about the Stoic technique of the maxim, how they’d encapsulate their ideas into brief memorisable phrases or proverbs (like ‘Everything in moderation’ or ‘The best revenge is not to be like that’), which they would repeat to themselves when needed. Stoics also carried around little handbooks with some of their favourite maxims in. What sayings do you find inspirational? Where could you put them up to remind yourself of them throughout the day?

6) Fieldwork

Another thing the Stoics got, which modern philosophy often misses, is the idea of fieldwork. One of my favourite quotes from Epictetus is: ‘We might be fluent in the classroom but drag us out into practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked’. Philosophy can’t just be theory, it can’t just be talk, it also has to be askesis, or practice. If you’re trying to improve your temper, practice not losing it. If you’re trying to rely less on comfort eating, practice eating less junk food. Seneca said: ‘The Stoic sees all adversity as training’. I love the bit in Fight Club where students from Tyler Durden’s school get sent out to do homework in the streets (even if the homework is a little, er, inappropriate, like intentionally losing a fight). Imagine if philosophy also gave us street homework, tailor-made for the habits we’re trying to weaken or strengthen, like practicing asking a girl out, or practicing not gossiping about friends, or practicing being kind to someone every day. Imagine if people didn’t think philosophy was ‘just talking’. Diogenes the Cynic took askesis to the extreme of living in a barrel to prove how little we need to be happy – students tend to like stories about him.

7) Virtue is sufficient for happiness

All the previous main points are quite instrumental and value-neutral – that’s why CBT has taken them up and turned them into a scientific therapy. But Stoicism wasn’t just a feel-good therapy, it was an ethics, with a specific definition of the good life: the aim of life for Stoics was living in accordance with virtue. They believed if you found the good life not in externals like wealth or power but in doing the right thing, then you’d always be happy, because doing the right thing is always in your power and never subject to the whims of fortune. A demanding philosophy, and yet also in some ways true – doing the right thing is always in our power. So what are we worried about?

At this point your students might want to consider what they thing is good or bad about this particular definition of the good life. Is it too focused on the inner life? Are there external things we also think are necessary for the good life, such as friends or a free society? Can we live a good life even in those moments when we’re not free, or we don’t have many friends? What do your students think are the most important goods in life?

8) Our ethical obligations to our community

The Stoics pioneered the theory of cosmopolitanism – the idea that we have ethical obligations not just to our friends and family, but to our wider community, and even to the community of humanity. Sometimes our obligations might clash – between our friends and our country, or between our government and our conscience (for example, would we resist the Nazis if we grew up in 1930s Germany?) Do we really have moral obligations to people on the other side of the world? What about other species, or future generations? A useful exercise here, as Martha Nussbaum has suggested, is the Stoic exercise of the ‘widening circles’, imagining all the different wider communities that we’re a part of.

Those are just some ideas I’ve found useful, and which I’ve found people of all ages respond to in workshops (including teenagers). Feel free to suggest other things I’ve missed out in the comments. If you’re a student or teacher who wants to take part in Stoic Week, or who wants to help get more practical philosophy into schools, get in touch.



In other news this week:

This week I got to take part in a fascinating workshop on spirituality, part of Jonathan Rowson’s spirituality project there. One of the participants was Pippa Evans of the Sunday Assembly – the ‘atheist church’ who are in the process of trying to crowd-fund £500,000 to help launch other Sunday Assemblies around the world.

Another cool initiative: Unbound, the crowd-funded publisher set up by John Mitchinson (the other brain behind QI), has raised £1.2 million to expand.

Scary article: Vice magazine on how hackers hack into people’s computer-cameras, video then when they’re…er…indisposed and then blackmail them!

Everyone’s discussing Russell Brand’s call for revolution in the New Statesman. Persuaded? Sounds incredibly half-baked to me, although the problems he addresses are real enough. And I like his support for meditation. I just find his attack on democracy a bit depressing.

Next week I get to be on a panel with Sir Gus O’Donnell! GOD himself. That’s at the launch of the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index. Here’s an article he wrote on improving government, including how to use well-being data more successfully. Talking of which, the ONS published the latest happiness data, showing not much change, and no one paid much attention.

Two philosophers (Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald) got in a bun-fight about whether materialism precludes free will, and what it all means for the appreciation of poetry. I think MacDonald has a point – most poets believe in the Platonic theory of the arts (the idea that the best artists get their inspiration from spirits / God) – so materialism is anti-poetry (though for different reasons than he argues).

Tomorrow I’m off to Gateshead for the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival, where the theme is ‘Who’s In Control?’ and I’m talking a talk on ecstatic experiences. Looking forward to it.

Have a good weekend – oh, and if you enjoy the blog, I’d welcome donations – it takes up a day a week, and costs me to run the site and newsletter, so if readers could give £1 a month or £10 a year, that’d be great! Alternately, if you want to advertise your company or product and think there’s a good match with my blog, get in touch.



  • Margaret Kelly says:

    Doing the right thing may be in our power, but we’re also strapped to institutions and networks that often make doing the right thing rather costly. The bartender may want to do the right thing by refusing service to a man she knows is an alcoholic, but she’s liable to be fired because her good deed cuts into the bar’s bottom line. The journalist may want to do the right thing by pursuing the really important story about political corruption, but her editor presses him for pet slideshows instead. The marketing executive knows that cigarettes cause cancer, but Philip Morris just paid for a big campaign, so she needs to spend the bulk of her year working on expanding their influence instead of doing the right thing and reducing it. And so on and so on.

    I’m all for virtue ethics, but I don’t think the virtue ethicists – and the major institutions that currently teach and champion virtue, like Christian institutions – sufficiently consider how virtue can be systematically undermined by the corporations for which we work, the political systems in which we live, and so on. Too often we can’t pursue good habits or excellence because we spend our working days pursuing other things. I agree with Alasdair MacIntyre that an economic system in which extrinsic ends (like wealth and popularity) and more important than intrinsic ones (the ends of the activities themselves) inevitably corrodes the character of the individuals living within it.

    But we need to belong to this system in order to survive. So what is to be done?

  • Margaret Kelly says:

    *are* more important than intrinsic ones

  • […] Some key ideas about Stoicism to try out, and a good reason to do so with an event that really appeals to me – ‘Live like a Stoic week’ which challenges those who would put good intentions into practice to write a journal of their week. I think any exercise that causes us to direct our attention in a slightly different way can generate awareness; and the more awareness we have, the more we can direct the flow of events and reactions to events. In a helpful fashion. […]

  • Margaret Kelly says:

    Also, for all our efforts, I don’t see how anything’s going to be as good as popularizing and disseminating philosophy as organized religion. This is one of the reasons I miss being a Catholic, even though I don’t think I can go back because I’m not sure the dogma is actually true. But when you’re a Catholic, you have texts and priests fellow Catholics trying to live philosophically. I haven’t found another home for that and I desperately long for one!

  • Jules says:

    Church is great but it’s not for everyone – besides, there’s far more religious education in our schools than there is philosophy.

    As far as you’re concerned, though, surely you can find some liberal church to belong to? I’m a complete heretic but still like worshipping God with other people and muddling through together.

  • Mark says:

    Margaret, you are in precisely the same boat as I am: I miss being Catholic, but I can’t go back either because of that little problem with believing the church’s main tenets. It was a great community, and I sorely miss it. I do stay involved in the church and friends there, through my wife mostly, and I help with the work around the place…but I don’t attend Mass. I just can’t connect with the ritual anymore, and it actually makes me sad when I do go, because I rue my loss of faith. I have found a measure of solace and just good, solid advice in these old Greco-Roman moralists–and a useful and reasonable conception of God, even–but no sense of community as in the church.

    On the question of the possibility of living virtuously in a world that’s a tangle of conflicting values, I have two thoughts: 1) I’d say the straight-line moralists would say that if your job prevents you from living virtuously, you should find other means of employment. It’s a tall order, and inconvenient, if not downright devastating, but that choice is where your freedom lies and is what virtue demands. That’s not just a western idea, of course; it’s a tenet of Buddha’s eightfold path, as well–“right livelihood.” 2) The stoic “sage”–the person who actually lives out these virtues perfectly–is an aspirational figure; we are to stay alert and do the best we can with our brains and our moral compasses, making the wisest choices we can, but realize that we won’t be hitting 100% all the time.

  • Stephen says:

    Mark said “I miss being a Catholic”. I also found this when I turned away from religion and the RC Church. I feel it can be a cold lonely place but at the same time intuitively satisfying to face the realities of life.

    On a general point, I love the website and have bought the book. I should not let this concern me, but the more I read, the more I sense that Philosophical Counselling and its renaissance over the past decades has been hijacked by the Psychologists again. I feel that psychology wants to label everything, even pathologise everything. I note on a few websites that offer CBT training here in Australia, that accreditation can only be had with ‘Psychology’ Board membership or similar. Just a thought or two…

  • Jules Evans says:

    Well, I don’t think Philosophical Counselling was ever ‘hijacked’ by the psychologists, was it? It was its lofty disregard for any sort of evidence base that determined PC not really taking off at all.

    What I’m trying to do, what I explore throughout the book, is how to find a balance between the useful evidence base of CBT, and the broader Socratic enquiry of philosophy. I think we need both psychology and philosophy, not one or the other.

    All best


  • Stephen says:

    Hi Jules
    Yes, I see your point. I suppose I was thinking out loud about the detachment of psychology from philosophy early last century and psychology becoming over time ‘clinicalised’ and so my hunch is that psychology in losing its parent, has returned to it in some sense, for guidance. Fumbling along here but you get the picture…
    I thought Colin McGinn’s autobiography dealt with the two disciplines and their separation quite well.
    I’m interested in what you say about a lack of evidence base for PC and this struck me as worthy of some serious thought. The flashbulb that went off concerned the ancient philosophers themselves. In one sense they don’t appear to have any evidence base, as we would find acceptable today, as a foundation for their prescriptions, yet it is to those ancients that we look to for guidance and inspiration. I’m not sure there is irony here but certainly something to ponder on.
    Regards, Stephen

  • I’m very sympathetic towards a lot of your points here: especially the need to integrate philosophy and psychology and the need to bring practical philosophy into schools. However, your key ideas are those shared by all the Hellenistic schools and by practical philosophy in general. They’re not specific to Stoicism. Stoicism also contained dogmas (e.g. the orderliness of the universe and causal determinism) and was not just practical philosophy. So why are you claiming the whole legacy of Hellenistic Philosophy and identifying it with Stoicism specifically? If you presented this as ‘Stoicism’ in the classroom, students would be likely to assume that ‘Stoicism’ was just practical philosophy and take on Stoic dogmas unreflectively in the process: why are these better than Christian, Marxist or any other metaphysical dogmas?

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