In defence of Stoic Week

I was slightly surprised to see that Julian Baggini had used his column in the Independent to make some criticisms of ‘Stoic Week’, part of a project at Exeter University with which I’m involved. When you think of all the serious things happening in the world at the moment, from extreme weather to the war in Gaza, it seems odd to use your column in a national newspaper to criticise a project which, taken all together, is in my opinion a small but positive thing within the philosophical landscape.

Philosophy is so utterly marginal to British culture, so threatened with irrelevance at school and university level – is it really helpful for prominent philosophers to use what little public space they get to criticise initiatives aimed at broadening the public awareness of philosophy?

The project at Exeter brings together classicists, philosophers and psychologists to engage in a dialogue about the relationship between Stoic philosophy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). As regular readers of this blog will know, CBT was directly inspired by Greek philosophies (not just Stoicism, also Socrates, Plato, the Sceptics and Epicureans…but mainly the Stoics). CBT is now the most scientifically credible and popular form of therapy for many emotional disorders. To my mind it is fascinating that CBT has built up an evidence base to show that the Stoics’ ideas and techniques for transforming the emotions genuinely work. It is extraordinary that ideas about the emotions conceived two millennia ago should still be our best guide for healing the emotions today.

I have written about this connection between Stoicism and CBT for five years or so, and all that time I could not understand why more philosophers did not write about it and see it as something really positive and interesting. The exception is Martha Nussbaum, whose 2001 book ‘Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions’, explores the scientific evidence for the Stoics’ cognitive theory of the emotions (although Nussbaum does not accept the Stoics’ normative position, and characterises her own position as ‘neo-Stoic’).

Now, thanks to the Exeter project and to a series of books in the last two years on the relationship between Stoicism and CBT (including my own book), there is a lot more interest in how ancient philosophies can really help people cope with difficult situations and transform their emotions.

There have always been philosophers who criticise the modern use of Stoicism as a form of practical therapy. When I published an interview with Albert Ellis (the pioneer of CBT) back in 2007, Mark Vernon criticised my article for mistakenly conflating Stoicism with CBT, and ignoring the differences between the two. CBT was, at best, ‘Stoicism lite’, he wrote. I disagreed at the time, but now I think he makes a fair point – CBT does leave out a lot of Stoicism, not least its cosmology, its theism, and its ethical value system. It instrumentalises it, turning it into a set of techniques rather than a comprehensive moral system.

You can understand why CBT did that. To become a scientifically credible therapy, it had to drop any talk of God or providence, or even of the meaning of life. It teaches people how to transform their emotions, how to steer the self, without telling them where to steer the self to. It leaves people to decide for themselves what the meaning or goal of life is. You could develop a Marxist CBT, or an Islamic, Buddhist, Epicurean, capitalist or Aristotelian CBT. All it teaches you is how to transform the self and its emotions, not what the ideal self looks like.

Many people who have been helped by CBT go on, as I did, to explore the Greek philosophies from which it evolved – they get into ‘Stoic CBT’ or ‘philosophical CBT’. We fill in the bits that CBT left out – about God, society and the meaning of life. That is for us to do, not cognitive therapists working in the NHS. My book shows the different ethical directions that the Greeks took the cognitive theory of emotions, and leaves the reader to make up their own mind.

Baggini, in this latest salvo, suggests that the Exeter project is part of a mass ‘therapisation’ of our culture. He writes:

Not so long ago, therapy was widely seen as something only for the seriously disturbed or neurotic, overeducated Americans. Now, all that is good is being turned into therapy. Rather than seeking help on Dr Freud’s couch, people are turning to Monty Don’s allotment or Jamie Oliver’s kitchen to soothe their troubled psyches. Ancient philosophy is also undergoing this process of therapisation.

I’m not sure about the first sentence. ‘Not long ago’…as in when? Therapy and self-help have been pretty central to western culture since at least the Sixties. And I don’t think that people see Jamie Oliver as a particularly therapeutic figure, do they? And if people do find that gardening or cooking makes them feel good, what is wrong with that? I hardly think that finding gardening soothing to soul is a decadent modern invention.

Baggini’s on even shakier ground when he suggests that we are distorting ancient philosophy by trying to turn it into a form of therapy. I’m sure he’s read the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Sceptics and so on – so he’ll know that they themselves very explicitly saw their philosophy as a form of therapy, which heals people of emotional problems. The Greeks’ view of philosophy as a form of therapy is explored at length in my book; or Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics; or Richard Sorabji’s Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation, or the Royal Institute of Philosophy essay collection, Philosophy as Therapeia. The therapy of the emotions is there on every page of Hellenistic philosophy.

Baggini may not be into this Hellenistic tradition. He might think it’s all a load of sap. He might prefer, I don’t know, the modern analytic tradition, or continental philosophy, or British empiricism. That’s absolutely fine. But the Hellenistic tradition is very much concerned with the emotions and how to transform them. It’s very much concerned with therapy or the art of being doctor to yourself. We’re not distorting it.

Baggini writes:

The only good reason to embrace a philosophical position is that you are convinced it is true or at least makes sense of the world better than the alternatives. I’m not a stoic because I do not agree that we are all fragments of an all-pervading divine rationality which is providentially organising the world, or that Epictetus was right to say you should not be disturbed if your wife or child dies or that “my father is nothing to me, only the good”. To become a stoic is to endorse the truthfulness of its world view and accept its prescription for how you ought to live, not just to like how it makes you feel.

Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive-behaviour therapy, and Albert Ellis, founder of rational-emotive behaviour therapy, both appropriated Stoic ideas for their own ends, as does the philosopher Richard Sorabji, who says of Stoicism: “I choose the bits which I find helpful and I don’t take the full theory.” Such cherry-picking is perfectly legitimate. What’s objectionable is praising the joys of scrumping as though it were on a par with the care, dedication and understanding of growing an orchard.

This is the ‘all or nothing’ argument that I have sometimes been presented with. Don’t talk about Stoicism unless you are going to be a 100% Stoic, accepting all their ideas (including belief in the Logos, indifference to all external things, and faith in the periodic conflagration of the universe). Otherwise you’re just ‘pick n’ mixing’, not really seriously committing to a particular ethical path.

My response to this is that the ancients themselves pick n’ mixed. Marcus Aurelius pick n’ mixed from the Epicureans and Neo-Platonists. Posidonius pick n’ mixed from Plato and the Stoics. Augustine pick n’ mixed from Christianity and Platonism. Cicero pick n’ mixed from every philosophy out there. Baggini took some ideas from Hume in his book The Ego Trick. Does he agree with 100% of Hume’s ideas? No? Well that’s just pick n’ mixing! That’s just scrumping!

We all, to some extent, construct our own philosophies. What is important is whether our life-philosophies fit with human nature and the needs of our society at this particular time, and whether we actually live by them.

Most of the people I know who are into Stoicism today are fairly heterodox. But they make an effort to understand what the ancient Stoics really meant. They read not just Seneca and Aurelius, but also AA Long, Nussbaum, Hadot, Annas, Sorabji. They are serious about their philosophy of life, even though they’re not academics. And I also know a lot of people who have never read AA Long or Sorabji, but who have still read some Epictetus or Seneca, and found it really helpful – even a life-saver. Are they ‘pick n’ mixing’? Are they ‘scrumping’? Who the hell cares. Thank God, they have been helped by the Stoics through life’s many difficulties. I don’t care if they are a ‘proper Stoic’ or not. I care if they are suffering, and if they find something that helps them to cope with the suffering.

I personally am not a proper Stoic. I do not think externals are indifferent. I believe in reincarnation. I believe some passions are appropriate. However, I think the Stoics were unrivalled in their understanding of how emotions arise and how we can change them. They were unrivalled in some of their practical ideas for how to stay resilient in chaotic conditions, such as Epictetus’ idea of knowing the difference between what you can control and what you can’t. These ideas saved my life, and got me through depression and anxiety. I still use these Stoic ideas and techniques today, despite not accepting the Stoics’ normative position. I don’t think this is illegitimate, nor do I think Ellis and Beck’s ‘appropriation’ of Stoic ideas and techniques is illegitimate: CBT has helped millions of people to overcome suffering, which is more than can be said for most contemporary philosophers.

Baggini wants to keep therapy and philosophy safely apart, he says. Therapy (like CBT) is a set of instrumental techniques for ‘coping, not treating the whole person’, while philosophy helps us develop ‘a comprehensive outlook on life, along with a set of values’. I agree that, if you have an acute emotional disorder, you need immediate coping strategies, not total moral systems. But for the Greeks and Romans, these two things were on a continuum – first the immediate coping with crisis, and then the searching out of a more comprehensive philosophy of life. How can you draw a firm line between CBT and the philosophies from which it emerged…and why would you want to?

Philosophy and psychotherapy: no talking allowed!

I think therapists are increasingly learning that it is difficult to avoid normative questions of value and of what we mean by ‘flourishing’ etc. And philosophers are learning that it’s important to ground ethics in proper working theories of human nature and the emotions. As I put it in my book, ethics without psychology is a brain in a vat, while psychology without ethics is a chicken without a head. So I don’t think we can or should draw a hard line between psychotherapy and philosophy  – and I think it’s strange that Baggini should want to, considering he writes a weekly column with his psychotherapist partner called ‘The Shrink and the Sage’.

Finally, Baggini criticises ‘Stoic Week’s use of well-being questionnaires. Well, look, I think he is taking too seriously what started off as a small and fun project for Exeter classics undergrads. I know Baggini hates ‘happiness measurements’ and the attempt to try and use them to draw moral prescriptions (I have some sympathy with him here), and perhaps he sees this as an invidious example of that positivist trend. Of course the Stoic ethos is not about personal happiness – although I think these questionnaires try to measure flourishing or resilience rather than happiness. I personally am taking part in the week without religiously filling in the questionnaires.

In general, Stoic Week was the idea of a young post-grad at Exeter called Patrick, who is part of the Exeter project, and who wanted to give his students a sense that Stoicism wasn’t just something to study, but something you could practice each day. That is a fantastic idea, and his students have posted some YouTube videos of their experiences. No one, especially not Patrick, expected Stoic Week to gain international attention, or to attract the criticisms of a prominent British philosopher in the Independent! In general, though, I’d suggest that if the next generation of academics have half as fresh, engaging and practical an attitude to philosophy as Patrick does, then the future looks bright.

As to the questionnaires, no one is saying this is a serious scientific study. But the reason CBT has succeeded in reaching and helping millions of people, is it created an empirical evidence base to show it really worked. Likewise, the reason mindfulness therapy is now accepted in the NHS is it built up an evidence base to show it helped people overcome depression etc. Keeping evidence is not so out of kilter with the ancients’ tradition – they would also keep track of their ethical progress in journals. You don’t have to measure your daily happiness. You could measure your success at not losing your temper, for example. Epictetus said ‘count the days on which you were not angry’. So keeping track of your progress can be a useful part of the philosophical life.

I look at the utter marginalisation of philosophy in our culture today, and I think it is a pity. I personally believe philosophy is an extraordinary thing, something that can transform and even save lives. I wish more people knew that. Philosophy needs all the help it can get right now, so why knock initiatives that succeed in getting people involved and showing them the wonderful riches within our philosophical tradition?

Let me end with my favourite quote from Seneca, an exhortation to all philosophers great and small: “There is no time for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?”

Comments:

  • Dave says:

    Great piece.

  • Excellent response Jules. I’m going to try to write something as well so just a couple of comments briefly:

    1. I did think it was a bit rotten of Julian Baggini to trash something that so much work had gone into, especially as a lot of young students were involved and as his criticisms are so obviously rhetorical and lacking in substance.

    2. Yes, it seems bizarrely hypocritical of him also given that he writes a column, and has published a book, about philosophy and psychotherapy – something he fails to mention in the article.

    3. He seriously misrepresents things by failing to mention that it’s just an initial pilot study. Readers might not realise that’s completely normal practice. You often do a test run first to see if a procedure (like the Stoic handbook here) is workable before doing a methodologically more robust follow-up.

    4. He doesn’t actually quote once from the Stoicism Today (Stoic Week) blog or the study handbook that he’s attacking. So with respect, the article very much reads to me as though he’s just vaguely heard of the study and decided to write a negative piece on it, without even bothering to find out what it was about. If so, that’s obviously extremely shabby and lazy journalism. I’d like to think that’s not true but then why does he misunderstand the study so badly and fail to refer even once to the contents of the handbook or blog that he’s talking about.

    5. He seems to be assuming that the link between Stoicism and “therapy” is a novel and controversial notion, which he decides to ridicule. As you note, anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with classical philosophy will know that the “therapeutic” theme is central to many ancient philosophies, particularly Stoicism, and has been written about extensively by many academics. Again, it’s difficult to put this any more “diplomatically” but Baggini appears to be profoundly ignorant of a major theme in ancient philosophy and therefore dropping the academic “clanger” of assuming Stoic Week has just pulled this “therapisation” of philosophy out of thin air. (Again, if he’d actually read the blog or study handbook then he’d surely not have been able to make such a huge gaffe.)

    6. He opens the article with whopping great picture of Sigmund Freud smoking a cigar beside his therapy coach. He then proceeds to talk about Freud and creates the impression, I think, to his readers that the Stoic Week study has somehow got something to do with Freudian psychoanalysis or something. I’m not sure what he’s trying to communicate by using this image or referencing Freud in the way he does. However, it seems totally out of place and bound to foster the misconception that the study somehow involved something akin to Freudian psychoanalytic therapy. In fact, it was about self-help techniques derived from classical Stoic literature, and modern CBT practitioners (not Freudians) merely helped the academics to explain the modern relevance of these ancient texts and techniques.

    In short, the whole piece comes across as a (rather garbled) “straw man” argument, which may sadly tarnish a very worthy exercise in developing awareness of the contemporary relevance of ancient Stoic psychology and psychotherapy. Ultimately, though, I think people will see through it – if only because anyone who reads the blog or handbook will spot within about 30 seconds that Baggini has seriously misrepresented them! In the long-run, it will probably just generate more interest in the subject, which I believe is a very good thing.

  • Jules says:

    I think it’s probable he didn’t pick the photo…

  • Sorry, I should have said something about that. It’s possible he didn’t pick the photo. He does start off the article, though, saying: “Rather than seeking help on Dr Freud’s couch, people are turning to Monty Don’s allotment or Jamie Oliver’s kitchen to soothe their troubled psyches.” Then the way he goes on about diagnosis and other aspects of the article combine, IMHO, to create the impression that he’s somehow trying to lump together Freudian psychoanalysis, “ecotherapy”, CBT, Stoicism, etc. God only knows how he managed to crowbar in Jamie Oliver, though – I’m still trying to get my head around that one!

  • Life is to short to go through all the things I take issue with above, but as a general indication, anyone who read this would be surprised to see that my concluding paragraph begins “Stoic week has a valuable part to play in getting people to think more about how the deepest issues in their lives might not be just local psychological difficulties but concern more profound questions about how to live.” Is that “trashing” Stoic Week?
    Also, it is very naive to think that I was “using my column” for this when I could have been talking about war etc. I don’t have a regular column: I only got to write one because it was related to philosophy. And by getting the piece in a national paper I helped the project of getting people to think about philosophy. How much other national coverage of the week was there?
    I would hope that neo-Stoics of all people could take a little criticism without reacting as though I had launched an all out assault! I repeat, I described the week as “valuable”.

  • And having just read Donald’s comments. Well I’m sorry but can you really not see the difference between (a) expressing some reservations and make a few criticisms, which are generally not of Stoic Week in particular anyway and (b) completely opposing any link between philosophy and therapy, trashing Stoic Week? Jules too missed another obvious nuance: I say there’s nothing wrong with cherry-picking, if it’s done right.
    And also, Donald, please do not resort to using nasty ad hominem terms like “hypocritical”.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Hi Julian,

    I think we have clear differences of opinion about the conception of philosophy – I personally am much more interested and in favour of the idea and use of philosophy as a practical form of therapy or self-help, while your article, taken as a whole, is clearly against that idea, from the headline and intro all the way down.

    I am personally very interested in the overlap between philosophies of life and therapy, while you think, I suspect, that I am ‘muddying the waters’ between the two. I am interested in the overlap between CBT and virtue ethics, while you seem to want to keep them apart.

    We also have a clear difference of opinion about to what extent it is appropriate to use techniques from an ancient philosophy without signing up to that philosophy’s entire ethical doctrine.

    Is that a fair description of our differences of opinion?

    I think this is a good and important discussion to have, about an important topic: what is the proper role of philosophy today. I’m sure the discussion will continue. I hope my piece laid out some constructive responses to your criticisms. I didn’t say you’d ‘trashed’ Stoic Week, nor did I attack you personally.

    And yes, you’re right, it’s great that you gave the project some national coverage.

    All the best,

    Jules

  • Julian, there’s a difference between Stoics (or anyone else) being upset about something and having a desire to correct false information that’s likely to fuel confusion about the subject. Are you seriously suggesting that people aren’t entitled to question the accuracy of your piece if they think it’s wrong or misleading? However, the barbed nature of your own recent comments on Twitter reflect very badly on you. I hope you’ll reconsider and accept criticism in a more philosophical manner yourself.

    The main question I’d like to put to you personally, with respect, after reading your article, is this: Did you actually *read* the blog or handbook for the study before writing your piece?

    You don’t refer to the contents anywhere and I think anyone reading both will immediately be able to spot that you have completely misunderstood the nature of the project. For example, your Independent article creates the impression that you’re (somehow) completely unaware of the therapeutic theme in the ancient Stoic writings, which is the basis of the study. (Again, with respect, I think that’s the impression anyone reading your own words is likely to take away.) How can you not know about that if you’ve actually read the thing you’re supposed to be commenting on? Apologies if I’ve misunderstood: maybe you can clarify?

  • peter robinson says:

    The picture is indeed complex but one thing seems abundantly clear and that is that we have a case of modern pseudo-Stoics intolerantly closing ranks against any that dare to voice just and open-minded criticism of their dogmatic doctrines and beliefs; I believe the ancient, rather more authentic, Stoics behaved in a somewhat similar unhealthy manner towards non-Stoics – and begorrah even towards heretics in their own school! Surely the real Stoic, show me one, would take criticism in his stride regarding it as nothing to him?

  • Jules Evans says:

    Bit harsh, Peter. I said above I don’t consider myself a Stoic, so not sure how I’m closing ranks.

  • peter robinson says:

    Apologies, Jules, I missed that one.

  • peter robinson says:

    By the way, hugely impressed with your website, with what you’ve done and with what you’re attempting to do, so much so that I’ve ordered ‘the book’ from Amazon. Best wishes for the future.

  • Jules Evans says:

    Thanks very much Peter! Appreciate it.

    Jules

  • Repeat after me, 100 times: “Just because someone expresses disagreement with someone else’s opinions, it doesn’t necessarily mean that they’re angry or intolerant.” :)

  • peter robinson says:

    Yes, of course, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that Stoics don’t at times get angry or show intolerance either! It is perhaps this pretence that the tribe of Stoics are somehow different from the rest of humankind in this respect that I question.

    Lucian of Samosata’s second century sceptical view of the subject, and I should point out that he was an immense admirer of the definitive Stoic Epictetus, (and of Epictetus’ pupil, the Cynic, Demonax, too,) cannot be summarily dismissed if we are to compose a truly balanced picture.

    In his dialogue, ‘Zeus Tragoedus’, Lucian has Timocles, a Stoic philosopher, maintaining the reality of Providence in public debate with the formidable Epicurean Damis,—and, yes, I know this is a fictional and comic account, but then, as the proverb has it, ‘many a truth is told in jest.’

    Lucian paints a picture of the strict father Stoic as naive wiseacre given to abuse, name-calling, and angry outbursts. Take for example the Stoic’s intolerant and angry words towards the end of the dialogue that begin, “You are playing with me, are you, you vile body-snatcher, you loathsome, well-whipped scum!”, (the rest of the outburst doesn’t bear repeating.)

    Now does Lucian mean us to understand that his Stoic character spoke without anger?

    I think not. Lucian pokes fun at the Stoics’ view of themselves in their own eyes as ‘holier than thou’ to make a crucial point. The idea that they are somehow, or can become, immune from anger and intolerance is a myth.

    I think also that this problem, one in which the Stoics have long been seen by many as disagreeable, haughty, austere, easily vexed, sensitive to perturbations, (which they would have unreasonably eradicated,) and generally unwilling to suffer so-called ‘fools’ gladly, can no longer simply be swept under the carpet.

    I say ‘unreasonably’ in the light of modern discoveries in cognitive science.

    As I said the issues are complex; the whole subject vast and one I unfortunately don’t have time to go into in great depth. Nevertheless the debate should continue.

  • Jason says:

    I agree with both authors here (Julian Baggini and Jules Evans). However, I was disappointed to see the psychologists involved in the project, which is why I stayed away from it. I think, overall, psychology has done more harm than good to society, and it is at its worst right now, basically convincing our entire population that they are weak, that they cannot handle life, and a pill (or pills) is the answer. Don’t get me started on what they are doing to our children.

    The Cynic in me says that this is free research for their practices and papers.

    Yes, Stoicism did claim to be a form of therapy for a “sick soul.” But this stemmed from a holistic view of the human being, with Divine Reason as one of our attributes. We don’t see ourselves, or the world, that way anymore.

    I would have preferred if the project had stuck with philosophy, and left the shrinks out of it.

    Jason

  • Jason…

    1. The main contributors to the study were a mixture of philosophers and psychotherapists, not psychologists – that’s a different field.
    2. It’s cognitive therapy or CBT that we do, which is originally derived from Stoic philosophy – not Freudian psychoanalysis (a completely and utterly different approach) as Baggini’s article implied.
    3. Psychotherapists and psychologists in the UK do not prescribe medication – so your concern about pills is totally mistaken, with respect – you’ve just mixed-up two completely different approaches.
    4. The study uses excerpts from ancient Stoic texts and summarises of the exercises put together by academic philosophers and classicists with some advice from others who combine research on philosophy and cognitive therapy. For all the fuss about this, there’s actually no “psychotherapy” involved in the content of the actual study!
    5. Stoic philosophy had a very explicit “therapeutic” dimension, based on an analogy with ancient medicine. That’s what the study is about. Yes, it’s based on a broad philosophical perspective rather than curing clinical depression, for example. The study is based very directly on the Stoic texts, though, so that’s the approach it takes.
    6. Most of these concerns are best settled, though, just by looking at the website and study handbook, all of which are available for everyone to read on the Stoicism Today website. Otherwise we seem to risk getting into fairly pointless debates based on demonstrably false assumptions about what the thing itself actually looks like and says. There’s no point basing a discussion on the newspaper article because it’s clearly mistaken. It looks like the author possibly didn’t even read the study he’s talking about.

    Donald Robertson

  • adobe says:

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