Here’s a talk I gave last month at TEDX Breda.
Here’s a transcript of a talk I gave at Radio 3′s Free Thinking Festival last month, which was broadcast last week (you can download the podcast here).
I’ve spent the last year researching the history of ecstatic experiences. This might seem like a strange way to spend a year – don’t worry, it’s not tax-payer-funded. Here’s why I think ecstasy is interesting, and important.
Lots of people have ecstatic experiences in their lives. And they are often life-changing moments. They can be profoundly healing moments, when a prison door swings open and they suddenly get released from destructive habits, narratives and lifestyles.
The search for ecstasy can also be dangerous. We can seek it in inappropriate ways – through extreme violence, extreme drug-abuse, extreme sex, extremist politics. And what makes ecstasy so interesting is that it is profoundly uncertain, particularly in our postmodern, post-religious era. Are we really connecting to something or someone ‘out there’, or is it just a nice feeling?
I’d like to compare the modern self to a rickety old shed in a forest. Sometimes we seem to hear or see or connect with things beyond or beneath that shed – and how we interpret those liminal experiences has a huge impact on our world-view and our life. But our interpretations are ultimately uncertain. We can’t be sure if there really is something out there, what it is, what it wants with us, or whether it was just the wind in the trees.
What is ecstasy?
So, let’s begin with a working definition. Ecstasy comes from the ancient Greek exstasis, which literally means ‘standing outside’, and more figuratively means ‘to be outside of where you usually are’. In Greek philosophy, in Plato and Neoplatonists like Plotinus, it came to mean moments when a door opens in your mind or soul, you feel an expanded sense of being, an intense feeling of joy or euphoria, and you feel connected to a spirit or God. Its closely connected to another word in Plato, enthousiasmos, which means ‘the God within’. So in moments of ecstasy, according to Plato, you stand outside of yourself, and God appears within you.
Ecstasy can happen in two ways, according to Plato. The best way, according to him, is the way of the philosopher or mystic, who over years and years of contemplation frees their soul from ignorance and finally attains an ecstatic knowledge of the Divine.
The other path is the way of the artist or seer, who suddenly gets seized by God and goes into an ecstatic trance, a sort of divine madness. And their art can carry us all off into a rapture too. Plato thinks this is inferior because the artist or seer doesn’t really understand how this inspiration happens or when it will occur. They just have to put a fishing line down into the sea of their unconscious, as David Lynch puts it, and hope that a big fish bites.
Now in these days of scientific materialism and economic utilitarianism, you rarely hear anyone make the Platonic defense of the arts – that they are ecstatic transporters which take us beyond our ordinary selves and connect us to something supra-human. But I happen to think it’s a good defense, and one still held by many artists, from Ted Hughes to Jeanette Winterson.
Let me quote Christopher Hitchens in support of the Platonic view of the arts. Hitch says:
I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates.
That’s a very interesting statement – the Ecstatic is, according to Hitchens, something that brings profound meaning to our lives, something that lifts us above the merely Darwinian, yet it’s also something hard to pin down and quantify, a bit like the angel that Jacob wrestles with who refuses to tell him its name. The best way to explore it, perhaps, is through our personal accounts of it, so let me crash through all academic barriers and tell you one of my own ecstatic experiences.
As those of you who’ve read my book will know, I suffered from social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder for five years or so in my late teens and early twenties. I was stuck in a narrative of having permanently damaged myself, and my life had become a wasteland.
Then, in 2001, I went to Norway with my family, as we do every year, usually we go cross-country skiiing but this year, fatefully, on the very first morning, I followed my cousins down the black slope of a mountain called Valsfjell. The visibility wasn’t very good, and I’m not a very good skiier, and I crashed through the fence on the side of the slope, fell thirty feet, broke my leg and three vertebrae, and knocked myself unconscious.
When I awoke, I saw a bright white light, and I felt filled with love. I had a sudden deep sense that there was something in me, in all of us, that can’t be broken, that can’t be damaged. I felt that what had caused all my suffering was not actually some chemical dysfunction in my brain, it was my belief that I was damaged. I could let go of this belief, and trust in my soul, in what the philosopher Epictetus called the God within.
Now this experience was incredibly intense. But it was also somewhat uncertain. Was that white light something outside of me, or within me? Was it simply my body reacting to trauma with a surge of dopamine? If it was something Other, was it God, or a spirit, or a Higher Intelligence, or what?
All I know for sure is that this moment of ecstasy was enormously helpful and healing to me. It opened a door, and freed me from the narrative of being permanently damaged, which I’d been stuck in for the last five years. I could let go of that toxic belief, trust myself, and begin to heal.
So I went on to write a book about Greek philosophy, trying to spread this idea that it’s our beliefs rather than our neurochemistry that often causes us suffering. Ironically, the book is very much about the power of self-control and self-knowledge, despite the fact it emerged from an experience beyond my control and beyond my knowledge. I didn’t talk much about that experience on the mountain, because I was worried people would think I was crazy.
Ecstasy and the Enlightenment
That is, I think, quite a common view-point in Enlightenment societies. Many people have ecstatic experiences, and find them deeply meaningful, but they keep them to themselves, for fear of what others might say.
As historians of ecstasy like Michael Heyd have explored, one of the things that happened during the Enlightenment was that some philosophers sought to discredit, ridicule and marginalize ecstasy. The Enlightenment came after two centuries of religious wars, and philosophers like David Hume and John Locke quite rightly thought that ecstasy, or enthusiasm as they called it, often led to fanaticism and religious violence. A person or group has a revelatory experience, and then insists that their revelation is the only path to God, and all other paths are demonic. That’s not a very useful attitude for a tolerant, multicultural society.
During the 17th and 18th centuries, enthusiasm was pathologized – it was seen as a form of mental illness, similar to what we’d call manic depression today. Enthusiasts – people who claimed to have a divine connection to God – shouldn’t be listened to, they should be educated, or mocked or if necessary locked up.
Ecstasy was what JGA Pocock called the anti-self of the Enlightenment. According to Enlightenment philosophers like Adam Smith, we should remain rational, self-controlled, polite and industrious at all times. Ecstasy is the complete opposite of that – non-rational, out of control, wild.
When modern academic subjects like sociology, anthropology and psychology emerged in the late nineteenth century, they defined themselves as serious scientific disciplines by coming up with naturalistic explanations for ecstatic experiences. The sociologist Max Weber argued that ‘charisma’ was a stage on the evolution to the triumph of rational bureaucracy. According to early anthropologists like Sir Edward Burnett Tylor, for example, ecstasy is a sort of trance state that happens to primitive people in undeveloped cultures. According to early psychologists like Freud or Charcot, ecstasy is a form of automatism or hysteria that happens to weak, neurotic and irrational types like women or Welsh people.
But some academics tried to find a more positive explanation for ecstasy. The sociologist Emile Durkheim suggested that moments of collective ecstasy are an important form of social bonding – think, for example, of how the euphoria of the Olympic Games brought people together.
The psychologist and philosopher William James, meanwhile, suggested, in his 1902 book The Varieties of Religious Experience, that science might not be able to prove where ecstatic experiences come from, but it could show that they often genuinely healed people, helping to liberate them from destructive habits like alcoholism (indeed, his book was one of the inspirations for Alcoholics Anonymous). They might be accessing some healing power in their unconscious, or it might be some healing power ‘out there’ in the cosmos – either way, something beyond their rational everyday self was helping them.
James hoped that his book would provide a scientific defence for Christianity in an age of skepticism. In fact, his work helped to create a whole new demographic – the ‘spiritual but not religious’ – by showing that people have ‘spiritual experiences’ in many different religions, and also outside of any religion. Indeed, people often seem to have spiritual experiences on certain drugs – a 2011 study at Johns Hopkins Medical School gave magic mushrooms to 18 volunteers, of whom 17 said it was one of the most meaningful and spiritual experiences of their life.
And it was not long after James’ book came out before atheists insisted that they also had ecstatic experiences. In the 1960s, a Radio 3 journalist named Marghanita Laski undertook a survey on ecstatic experiences, and found that atheists had just as many as believers. Respondents described ecstasy as a feeling of fullness, expansion, surrender, a sense that all was well in the world; typically they reported experiencing such moments less than a dozen times in their life.
Laski was particularly interested in what had triggered such experiences – the most frequent trigger was sex, closely followed by classical music – particularly Beethoven. This led Laski to conclude that Radio 3 listeners felt far more ecstasy than the rest of the population – she couldn’t accept that people felt ecstasy listening to the cacophony on Radio 1.
This was rank snobbery on Laski’s part. In fact, for most people today, pop music is our main pathway to ecstatic experience. Rock and roll and rhythm and blues grew out of the gospel music of Baptist and Pentecostal churches, and provided a sort of church for the unchurched. Pioneers like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Ray Charles, James Brown and Tina Turner took the screams, wails, whirls and frenzies of Pentecostal worship, and brought them to an ecstasy-starved white audience. In our very self-controlled, rational and atomised society, rock and roll provided a place where people could lose control and come together. Rock and roll was, I’d suggest, the Third Great Awakening in American religion.
According to the musician Brian Eno, ecstatic experience emerged as a biological adaptation, teaching us to surrender and accept the limits of our control. Religion, Eno told me in an interview this year, used to be the way we got our hit of ecstatic surrender, but now we mainly get that experience from the arts, particularly music.
Eno is a committed atheist, and insists that one can have the experience of ecstasy without any religious beliefs. He used to go along to sing with a gospel choir in New York, he was the only atheist in the choir, but he insists he got exactly the same experience of ecstatic surrender as all the believers.
I wonder if that’s true. Let me end this evening by asking if we can really detach the emotion of ecstasy from particular beliefs.
If you listen to some of the ecstatic anthems that Eno has helped to produce, like U2’s Where the Streets Have No Name or Talking Heads’ Once In A Lifetime, they are not just good feelings. They also embody a particular attitude which I think is key to ecstasy: a belief or faith that the universe is a good place. Eno has said of gospel music: ‘The big message of gospel is that you don’t have to keep fighting the universe; you can stop and the universe is quite good to you. There is a loss of ego.’
Here’s David Byrne talking about how Pentecostal and Baptist worship inspired Once In A Lifetime:
So I would suggest that ecstasy is not just a feeling but an attitude of cosmic optimism – a belief that the universe is good to you. And this is also tied to an optimism about human nature – a belief that if you let go and journey beyond the ego, you might find not just dragons, but also hidden treasure, healing power and creative inspiration.
And ecstatic experience also embodies hope about the world, and an expectation that the human society is becoming or could become radically better, regenerated, renewed. Of course, that expectation is consistently disappointed. Throughout history, people have thought they were entering a new age of love, and time has continually proved them wrong. It’s a history of waves of hope and troughs of despair. And yet hope springs eternal. Humans need ecstatic experiences, particularly in historical moments when we feel we’re stuck and there’s no way out.
Our society is very good at emphasising the need for self-control. It is, I’d suggest, the central moral value of our rational industrial scientific era. What we have forgotten is the the art of losing control without damaging yourself and the people around you.
More on the link between Pentecostal worship and rock and roll – check out Janelle Monae on Jools Holland in September, performing ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ (which taps into a rich vein of millennarian funk in Afro-American music going back through Gnarls Barkley, Prince, George Clinton, James Brown and others). At 3 minutes, she shouts ‘here comes the Holy Ghost!’ then falls onto the floor in a mock-trance.
In other links (for subscribers to my weekly newsletter):
Today is the centenary of Alfred Russell Wallace, the other discoverer of evolution, the theory of which came to him ‘in a millenarial fit in a jungle in South-East Asia’, as Bill Bailey put it. A fascinating figure, who thought God sometimes intervened in evolution. Darwin was also prone to the occasional ecstatic moment, by the by. He wrote of his time in the jungle, in The Voyage of the Beagle: ‘It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind … I well remember my conviction that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.’
Right, time to sober up. Here’s Gregory Tate on how Jane Austen’s rational heroines anticipate the insights of behavioural economics.
The Stoicism for Life conference approacheth – on November 30, in London. You can register and see the roll-call of great speakers here.
Here’s an interesting article on the first public placebo-controlled trial- by Benjamin Franklin, to debunk Mesmerism.
Here’s a video of me and others discussing the old ‘can governments measure and enhance well-being’ question, at the Legatum Institute last week.
An important part of the politics of well-being involves learning how to sleep better, argues Simon Williams in the RSA Journal.
Thomas Nagel argues moral psychology (a la Joshua Greene) needs moral philosophy.
Here’s Cambridge PhD Andy Wimbush on Samuel Beckett and Quietism.
Open University has launched an online philosophical ‘choose your own adventure’!
The Reith Lectures by Grayson Perry ended with another brilliant talk. One of my favourite things this year.
Right, that’s your lot. Thanks for emails asking how you can donate to the blog, below is the PayPal link (you could donate a tenner for the year, for example). Hopefully it works. My PayPal name is julesevans.
When Dr Robin Carhart-Harris finished his masters in psychoanalysis in 2005, he decided he wanted to do a brain- imaging study of LSD to see if he could locate the ego and the unconscious. That might have seemed an impossible dream, considering he had no neuroscientific experience and there had been no scientific research into psychedelics in the UK for over three decades. And yet that’s precisely what Robin has done. We went to Imperial College’s experimental psychology department to meet the 33-year-old whizz kid of psychedelic research.
How did you get into psychedelic research?
It all started when I was studying psychoanalysis at Brunel University. I was in a seminar where the seminar leader raised the different methods for accessing the unconscious mind. It seemed as though the methods used by psychoanalysis were very limited – free association, dreaming, hypnosis, bungled actions, slips of the tongue. They never really convinced everyone.
So I thought if the unconscious is real, could drugs reveal it? I must have had psychedelics in mind. Then I found that there was a book by Stanislav Grof called Realms of the Human Unconscious: Observations from LSD Research, it was a light-bulb moment really. I realized there is all this literature from the 1950s and the 1960s, and the rationale was the drug lowered ego defences such that you could gain privileged access to the unconscious mind. Especially in the early days, that was the idea – that people on LSD might get spontaneous insights into memories or relationships that are causal of whatever symptoms they have. So that’s how my interest started.
What did that first phase of psychedelic research establish?
Unfortunately, I’d say it established nothing. To establish something, you need a robustly designed study, with outcomes that are valid and replicable. A lot of those ingredients were missing. It was certainly highlighting the unique potential of psychedelics.
How long did that phase of research last for, and why did it stop?
The first English language paper on LSD was in 1950, that was by a couple of Americans. Then the 50s was a busy time, by 54, 55, there were a significant number of papers in the UK, Europe and elsewhere. It peaks around the late 50s. By the time we hit the 1960s, the drug has crossed over and is being used recreationally. So that’s the period of controversy, with negative media reports on LSD, and individuals like Timothy Leary becoming a kind of figurehead, and saying arguably irresponsible things.
I suppose it did have a huge cultural impact.
Yes. One way to look at it is that Timothy Leary’s loud mouth turned a lot of people on to LSD. However, it also turned off the legitimate scientific research.
Can you blame Leary alone?
It would be easy and unfair to blame one individual. People do. But it’s probably unfair. He was stoking the flames. People were saying ‘tread carefully, don’t spoil the party’. And his vision became something other than scientific research, it was about a social and psychological revolution. People were taking LSD without sufficient knowledge of its effects or sufficient caution. So LSD became illegal in 1967, and the illegality made it so much harder to do research.
But there was still some research in the 70s and 80s?
Not really. It’s just barren, in terms of high-end research. In the US and UK it entirely dried up.
When did it restart?
The first modern human study was I think in the mid 1990s, by an American researcher, Rick Strassman. He had a simple study where he gave people DMT (from ayahuasca) intravenously, and he reported on the effects. He had a larger grand theory, that DMT occurs spontaneously in the brain and is responsible for religious experiences. But the study was quite simple. What was odd was he didn’t really do many more studies after this.
But then Franz Vollenweider, who is a Swiss psychiatrist and pharmacologist, started doing research with psilocybin (magic mushrooms), and he did some interesting brain-imaging studies of the effects. People started to consider the potential therapeutic benefits of psychedelics again – there was an early study looking at the impact of psilocybin in OCD. And since then there’s been a psilocybin study for reducing anxiety in terminally ill patients.
Was that Roland Griffiths’ team at Johns Hopkins?
No that was Charles Grob at UCLA, although Roland is doing this too now. However, Roland Griffiths’ big papercame out in 2006, and he reported on giving high doses of psilocybin to healthy, psychedelically naive people, who’d never tripped before, and lo-and-behold, they had the experience of their lives. It was a very clever study, because it communicated to the man in the street, who doesn’t know anything about psychedelics, that these are drugs that can produce experiences that are among the most meaningful in your life, comparable to things like childbirth for example.
Has there been research on using psychedelics to treat alcoholism?
Yes, there is American research on using psilocybin to treat alcoholism. Some people have argued that perhaps the strongest evidence base for psychedelics is for LSD to treat alcohol dependence. There were a number of studies in the 60s, and some of their design wasn’t that bad. Outcome measures were improving. And with alcoholism, you have a more concrete measurement. A meta-analysis of the old research was carried out quite recently, and they looked at those studies which had the most rigorous methodology, and they found that the better-designed studies were showing good efficacy, comparable to the leading treatments today.
When did research start again in the UK?
I went to see David Nutt [former UK government drugs advisor] in 2004 / 2005 [when he would have been 24]. I was finishing my masters in psychoanalysis at Brunel, and wanted to do a PhD. I found a flyer on consciousness research, and contacted somebody who told me about David Nutt and Amanda Fielding at the Beckley Foundation. So I went to see both, and told them that my dream was to do a brain imaging study of LSD, and my hypothesis was that the psychedelic experience is like a REM experience, so you’re dreaming while awake. David said you have to walk before you can run – I didn’t have any experience in neuroscience at that stage – and I ended up doing a PhD on something vaguely related: MDMA, sleep and serotonin.
I still had these ambitions to do a brain imaging study about LSD. Amanda Fielding shared them – she runs a charity that does drug policy work and consciousness research, and after I’d finished my PhD, David said she had money to pay for a brain imaging study of psychedelics. At that point I designed the study of the effects of psilocybin.
Was that the first psychedelic research in the UK for a long time?
Yes it was. I don’t think there had ever been a published study on psilocybin in the UK.
How strange that no one else did a study in all that time.
Yes, it’s tricky to do.
Why were you able to do it?
Because a number of critical ingredients came together, like David Nutt, an established pharmacologist at the top of the tree; and an independent philanthropist funder, because mainstream funders wouldn’t fund it; and then I guess a young researcher who had the energy.
Tell me about the study.
We gave psilocybin intravenously to people, so the effects are almost instantaneous and will last 45 minutes, rather than five hours. Rick Strassman referred to such trips as a ‘businessman’s trip’. Then we did an fMRI scan of their brains. And that’s when we saw a decrease in blood flow to certain parts of the brain. That was a bit of a revelation, as no one had ever shown that before. Some people had shown the opposite. So it was a bit of a head scratcher. We spent a good duration of time checking our results. But then we replicated what we found using a different modality – again an fMRI measure – and we again found drops in the fMRI signal after we infused the drug, in a particular area.
The decreases were in regions of the brain that have very dense connections – they’re like hubs in the network, centres of high interconnectivity. It was these regions that were showing the largest decreases. That got us thinking, when you have decreases in centres of information-integration, what happens to the system. The natural inference was, you’d have a more chaotic system that operates in a less organized and constrained way.
Do you see similar kind of activity during REM sleep?
You see decreased blood-flow in association cortices at least posteriorly, so yes, you seem some correlation. So it’s possible that if these association regions have a constraining influence on other regions in the brain, that you may take the lid off the system and cause some dis-inhibition in other areas. In fact, that’s one of our most recent findings – there are regions that show elevated or at least more erratic activity after psilocybin. And the regions that show the increase in signal amplitude are particular subcortical regions like the hippocampus. And in REM sleep, brain imaging has also found increased activity in the hippocampus and the limbic region.
Which are more associated with memory and emotion?
What’s your hypothesis of what’s happening?
It brings me back full circle to the Freudian model. It’s no coincidence that one of the most common descriptions you associate with psychedelic experience is ego disintegration. When people talk about ego disintegration, it isn’t cliquey Freudians smoking their cigars, it’s psychonaut kids.
So what does that mean at a physical and biological level? The networks that are the strongest candidates for the sense of self and the personality are precisely those that are ‘knocked out’, for want of a better word, under psychedelics. The puzzle is starting to fit quite neatly in my mind. If you’re decreasing the function in this particular network, then I offer the explanation that it’s a correlate of ego disintegration. In a further study using MEG – which measures brain waves – when we looked in one of the regions that showed the marked decrease in oscillatory power, its magnitude correlated positively with a subjective rating scale of ego disintegration (people were asked ‘Did you experience ego disintegration?’ and people answered on a scale from ‘not at all’ to ‘very much’.) Those who rated that very highly also had the biggest decreases in oscillatory power in this region which is part of the self network – the posterior cingulate cortex.
The unconscious that people seem to discover through psychedelic experience – is it closer to the Jungian unconscious than the Freudian model? People don’t seem to go into a savage Freudian jungle where they have sex with their mother and kill their father. It seems more like the Jungian wonderland – a more positive model of the unconscious, where people encounter not just dissolution and monsters, but some bigger cosmic Self.
I agree. Freud’s great merit was his mechanistic approach, he talks about systems – the ego system and the unconscious or id system. However, when he came to describe the quality of what the unconscious is, what you see under psychedelics isn’t really that, as you say it’s more consistent with Jung’s description of the unconscious. It’s tricky, because potentially at low doses, it may be more subtle, interpersonal insights and one’s self and relationships, whereas when the dose is higher, things might start becoming more archetypal, and be more about the history of the human animal.
What are the effects of psychedelics on memory? Freud suggested (like Wordsworth or De Quincey) that we never fully forget anything, experiences are always there in the unconscious. Do psychedelics unlock those memories?
You’ll find this in the literature – there are reports of vivid recollection. You sometimes see age regressions, people go back to being a child. Or they go back to what Stanislav Grof called ‘systems of condensed experience’ – experiences of particular salience and personal importance that the mind will go back to, and which you can sometimes re-live. This tends to happen spontaneously. It may happen when the drug is given orally rather than intravenously. A tricky issue is that when you give psychedelics, people seem to become hyper-suggestible. So there’s the question of whether this spontaneously occurs or if it’s being suggested to them.
Can psychedelic experiences be healing for people, and if so how?
Yes. There are a couple of different models. There is an idea that psychedelics can allow personal insights – if one has a disorder or some symptoms of depression or anxiety, you might experience facilitated insight into the causes of these symptoms. That’s the classic idea of psychedelics to assist psychoanalytic therapy. Other models are more pragmatic – if, under the drugs, you induce a plastic state where people are hyper-suggestible, you might have a window of opportunity where you can address fixed behaviours which probably rest on fixed connections in the brain. For instance, with depression you might have a patient who is stubbornly pessimistic. What if you give them a psychedelic drug where all of a sudden you allow them to think differently and more fluidly. You might be able to start working with their cognitive biases and to get them to question their fixed schema about who they are.
Can you do that sort of CBT approach while someone is tripping?
I don’t think you could do it while someone is in the throes of a profound hallucinogenic experience. But it does loosen people up. What Roland Griffiths says is that often the most important work happens after the experience – it increases openness to new associations.
To what extent do people have spiritual experiences on psychedelics?
The literature is rich in reports of spiritual experiences. In our own work with psilocybin, we haven’t seen it to an impressive extent, maybe because the experience is short-lived, maybe because it’s not our participants’ first time tripping, so it perhaps is less new and revelatory.
You get people like Terrence McKenna who suggest you’re not encountering something within, but also something ‘out there’ – spirits, God etc. I’m interested if people are encountering similar things out there.
Well, there is the collective unconscious, so if they experience similar entities, it might be appealing to a collective aspect of the unconscious which is about entity. Maybe it has a maternal presence. Also the wide eyes that people report around extra-terrestrials – Jung wrote about this, and suggested it might be related to memories of the mother looking down with big eyes. I find that appealing. For a materialist scientist, I don’t believe the theory that people gain access to a metaphysical or spiritual realm, I think what they have access to is the vastness of the human mind, which includes their entire history – which isn’t just human. It’s very easy to become less than objective, to believe that things are really happening, that the walls are breathing…but they’re not.
Still, I wonder if the beauty and healing of those experiences change one’s view of the unconscious – if you open up and let go of control, it can be a positive experience.
That’s probably true. My view of human nature has been changed not just through my limited research but through reading the psychedelic literature. But one thing I would say – when Freud wrote about the unconscious, one thing he emphasized is there’s no right and wrong in the unconscious. That’s why people get the ability to experience contradictory things simultaneously, like heaven and hell.
Have there been any studies of people tripping together?
Yes, I think so, in the fifties. I’d be skeptical of that sort of work, way too many confounds.
Usually people do it collectively – I’m just thinking of the setting of studies now, people on their own in hospitals.
It’s an interesting thought, it’s difficult to know what you’d infer. I recall a study where people are not talking, they’re looking each other, trying to communicate telepathically. And post-experience, they compared notes, and found they weren’t thinking about the same thing at all.
Yes, exactly, it would be interesting to test out whether people’s feeling that their minds somehow get entangled or extended is really true. But I guess mixing psychedelic research with paranormal research might be a step too far for most funders!
There are a lot of people interested in psychedelics within the research realm who are interested in that. They’ll tell you they’re skeptics, but I know they’d be very happy to find evidence of that. Of course, it would be a momentous discovery. My concern is that there’s a very strong potential for a bias around the fact that we get excited by the prospect of a complete paradigm shift. It’s a very seductive possibility, and it can cloud reason.
So it’s still difficult to get government approval for psychedelic research. What would you like to see changed?
It would be nice if they based their policy decisions on scientific evidence, and if they gave that primary consideration rather than secondary. Now they try and fit scientific data into their policies. Also it seems as though it’s relatively unproblematic to have these drugs as Schedule 1 – the idea is that shouldn’t affect research. You need a Home Office license to store and administer these drugs. The reality is these licenses are very expensive. Funders aren’t willing to pay for it. And they take a long time to set up – over a year. And there are more and more controls on the license. Things that should be relatively easy, like transferring a drug from one centre that has a license to another centre that has a license, are incredibly difficult. It’s harming the research. If this is a particularly exciting area of research, with huge potential, then these bureaucratic burdens will hold us back and handicap us.
And what, in a nutshell, is the potential?
So do you think there could be psychedelic treatments of things like depression and alcoholism?
If the evidence supports it, it would be unethical not to pursue them.
There was a recent meta-study suggesting there are no harmful impacts from psychedelics. Do you really think that’s true? It doesn’t seem to be in my experience and among my friends.
I’d have to read the paper. I think it’s the same team that did the meta-analysis on LSD and alcoholism. Other meta-analysis which have looked at the potential for harm, and also surveys we’ve run, and also meta-analysis of modern research, suggests that these drugs are certainly not without potential risks. However, the risks of adverse effects are relatively small, especially compared with other drugs. It’s a tricky one, which is difficult to summarise. There are certainly potential harms.
If we think they are dissolving the ego…
You have to ask why the ego is there at all.
And if people resist that dissolution, that might freak people out.
Exactly. That may be what ‘freaking out’ is – if people hold on to their ego while it’s dissolving, that could feel like dying.
In other news:
I did a TED talk yesterday! In Breda, in southern Holland. Look, photographic proof. It will be online in a few weeks, I hope. While there I picked up a copy of this fantastic book, The Inner Game of Tennis. Published in 1972, it seems ahead of its time in its discussion of being ‘in the zone’ and of the two systems of thinking (a la Kahnemann). Great book.
Tomorrow I’m doing another talk at the Heffers classics festival in Cambridge, at 10am.
And this evening you can hear me talk about ecstatic experiences on Radio 3, at 10.45 pm. It’ll be online after that.
Here is a good review of Ronald Dworkin’s new book, about Religion Without God.
Have higher rates in anti-depressant prescriptions led to lower rates of suicide?
Here’s a study suggesting growing up in poverty affects our minds’ ability to regulate emotions (which is obviously a challenge to Stoic philosophy).
DARPA, the US Army’s research centre, has an interesting new project called SUBNETS, to research PTSD through brain-implants that can do ‘deep brain stimulation’. Bet they’re secretly making telepathic super-soldiers!
Here’s a good NYT blog on medicine’s search for meaning, and the role of emotions in healing.
As you know there’s a great event on Stoicism for Everyday Life coming up on November 30. You can see the programme and register here.
Finally, check out this mad account of the violent feud in the heart of the Karimov ruling family in Uzbekistan. It’s like an episode of the Sopranos.
See you next week,
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?
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?
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.
At the age of 19, Sam Sullivan, a lanky, athletic teenager from Vancouver, British Columbia, broke his spine in a skiing accident, and lost the use of his arms, legs and body. For six years, he battled with depression and suicidal impulses. Then he managed to get a philosophical perspective on what had happened to him, so that his spirit wouldn’t be crushed along with his body. He says:
I played many different mind games to get a perspective on what had happened to me – I don’t mean games in a frivolous sense, but in the philosophical sense. For example, I imagined I was Job [the Old Testament prophet], and God was looking down on me and saying, ‘anyone can manoeuvre through modern society with two good arms and two good legs, but let’s take away the use of his arms, legs and body – now things are starting to get interesting, now let’s see what the guy’s made of’.
The young Sam displayed a typically Stoic approach to disaster, seeing adversity as an opportunity to test one’s powers of agency and
resilience. As Epictetus wrote:
Difficulties are the things that show what men are. Henceforth, when some difficulty befalls you, remember that God, like a wrestling master, has matched you with a rough young man. For what end? That you may become an Olympic victor, and that cannot be done without sweat.
Sam’s spiritual recovery from his injury involved a transformation from a passive victim of adversity to an active victor over it. He started to take control over the things he could take control over. He worked to regain the use of his biceps and interior deltoids. He contacted an engineering firm, and an engineer helped him devise technology to, for example, open the curtains, keep the freezer door open, cook TV dinners.
He says: “I could solve problems. When you’re an able-bodied person, you don’t really have a lot of focus. When you’re disabled, you have to plan everything.” He started to use his can-do energy to improve the life of others in the disabled community. He campaigned for better access for the disabled on Vancouver’s streets, public transport and public services. He helped design sailing boats that could be used by the disabled, and campaigned for public funding for their introduction. He helped introduce disabled rock-climbing to Vancouver.
This sort of NGO activism gradually led him into local politics. He says: “I increasingly came up against the local government in my campaigning, and somebody I knew suggested I go into politics. So I did. In 1993, I successfully ran for a seat on Vancouver’s City Council, running on the Non-Partisan Alliance (NPA) party ticket.” Sullivan served on the Council for the next 12 years.
Then, in 2004, when his party sought a candidate for the 2005 mayoral elections, Sullivan’s name was suggested – by that stage he was the party’s only member of the City Council. He says: “I drew up list of ten people who I thought would make a good mayor, and I went to them and asked them if they would run. They all turned it down, so I ran. And to my great surprise, I won.”
One of his earliest international responsibilities as mayor of Vancouver was to travel to Turin for the closing ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics, and there to accept the Olympic flag from the mayor of Turin, in preparation for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. He joked that it was strange Vancouver was sending the city’s worst skier to the event.
Sullivan accepted the ten-foot Olympic flag and placed it in a special holder on his wheelchair, and then rotated his wheelchair to twirl the flag. He says he had practised the manoeuvre in car parks at night in Vancouver. The moment was seen by millions of viewers, and Sam was subsequently flooded with “around 5,000 emails, letters and phone calls, a lot of them from disabled people saying they had been inspired by the moment, though really, I don’t consider accepting a flag as one of the great achievements of my mayoralty”.
Sam says that part of the inspiration for his life of political activism comes from his admiration for the Stoics:
One of the things that most attracts me to Stoicism is the commitment to public life, the engagement with society. Think of Zeno, hanging out on the painted porch, right in the centre of the action. Yet it also has the ascetic angle, the idea of detachment from worldly values. It’s the idea you can fully engage with the world and still have that detachment running through your life. Stoics believe that is our duty to engage in politics, because politics is the fulfillment of our nature as humans and children of the Logos. Every human has a ‘fragment’ of the Logos within them – their rational soul – and this means that all humans are connected.
“We are all fellow citizens and share a common citizenship”, Marcus wrote. “All are linked together by mutual dependence”. One consequence of this (religious) belief is that Stoics believe it is our duty to put up with each other’s foibles, as brothers and sisters put up with each other, and to work to try and help each other through public service, despite the foolishness of most humans, and despite the risks and sacrifices of public service.
If politics has improved, and become fairer and more civilised since the days of the Roman Empire, it is because good people have had the courage to go into politics, despite the risks, setbacks and vested interests they will inevitably encounter.
Jumping into political life in the way that I did is a sacrifice, in a way. Politics is more depressing than it is exciting. For example, chairing public hearings, you encounter many people whose motivations often have little to do with the public good, and more to do with a private agenda. It can make one jaded, the type of demagoguery that goes on. If any honest person looks at it, there’s not much critical thinking that happens there. There’s a lot of bashing, a lot of ‘gotcha’ politics. It can be very hard for some to stomach.
The proper response to this kind of behaviour and environment is not to withdraw. It’s to jump in, to try and put it on another vector. But you sometimes need to be Stoic not to be too depressed by what you encounter. I’d say to myself, ‘Well, not so long ago politics was run by intimidation and thuggery. At least there’s a lot less blood spilt today’. Because the Stoic tries to dedicate themselves to the common good, that means they don’t merely work for their own supporters, their own tribe or electoral base, if they get into office. We hear from the historian Eutropius, for example, that Aurelius “dealt with everyone at Rome on equal terms”.
You have government and you have politics. They require different values. In politics, you have to rigorously favour your friends and oppose your enemies, but in good government you have to be impartial, and try to rule for all society. Once you’re in government, you should pursue government. I have a disdain for those who see government as merely an extension of politics – it’s harmful to the public good. The Stoic tries to do what is right for the whole of society, rather than merely using government as a means to reward those who supported them. This idea, which perhaps seems obvious to us, was actually quite against the traditional Roman culture, which was rooted in the idea of debts, favours and family ties.
The Stoic strives to do the right thing, rather than what’s most popular.
Sullivan says: “There’s a phrase of Marcus Aurelius’ that I often think of – ‘the empty praise of public opinion’. I don’t think you can approach politics just to be popular. There’s no point running for mayor just for the sake of being mayor. As Seneca put it, it’s not how long you live but how nobly. Likewise, it’s not how long you stay in power but what you do with it.”
I’m so not impressed with the judgment of public opinion. We’ve seen it be wrong so many times in history, at the most important times. That’s why I got worried when I got high in the polls: it made me worry I was making really bad decisions. I’m more interested in the judgment of history – the judgment of intelligent people who have time to really consider what the issues were. The Stoic politicians of the past reminded themselves that politics was a grubby business run among people “whose principles are far different from your own”, in the words of Aurelius. Politics was far more a duty than a pleasure for the Stoics, and if necessity forced one to leave the political stage, then one can leave gladly, and use one’s newly-recovered leisure to concentrate on one’s true love: philosophy. And indeed, many of the great classics of Stoic literature were written by people who were banished from the political stage. Their greatest philosophical achievements were born from political set-backs and failures.
Sam Sullivan’s time as mayor of Vancouver ended in 2008 when he was challenged for the leadership of the NPA party, and narrowly lost the vote. He says: “My rival persuaded the party that it would lose the election heavily if I was the candidate. In the end, he lost the election heavily himself.”
Sullivan muses: “I was the incumbent, and 80% of incumbent mayors are re-elected. So my party turned what should have been a comfortable victory into a rout.” Does he resent his opponent for the damage he caused? “Sure, he damaged my political career, but I didn’t mind that. In fact, I regularly toast him – he’s the person who gave me back my freedom. Thanks to him, I can now do things like read books or go to the movies. I can make a commitment to do things with other people without making it contingent on there not being a crisis in the city. I actually prefer the contemplative life. Public service really is a sacrifice.”
But he adds: “What I disliked more was the repudiation of our political traditions – this was one person deciding his political ambitions would be the defining feature of the party. After I lost the leadership of the party, I tried to reason my way through. Many said they were going to quit the party. I convinced them not to, I said, ‘suck it up, go into the election, and try to minimise the damage’. It was clear the party was going to do badly, but I thought that if the public thought they’d seen a murder, it couldn’t be a murder if they couldn’t see a body. So I went out there and supported the new guy.”
The one gift I could leave my party was modelling a new way of responding to adversity – a Stoic response. We’ve had models of leaders responding to perceived slights from their party, people who’ve let their party fall apart, or who have gone over to other parties. I tried to model a new response to adversity: when I get kicked in the teeth by my own people, I would suck it up, allow the criticism to go to me, and I would endorse the new guy.
I ask Sam if he ever used his office to introduce Stoic policies to his city. He says: Stoicism is more about your actions and the way you live. It’s not a religion that you could proselytise. I never really talked about philosophy as such. Vancouver is very much a cosmopolis, with a lot of different cultural groups living side by side, so you have to be respectful of people’s different faiths and beliefs. Not that I read Epictetus or Marcus Aurelius every day. I just find great comfort in referring to them occasionally when things get rough.
But, he adds:
In some senses, my whole term was Stoic. For example, the Stoic idea of being a cosmopolitan was very useful to me. Vancouver is the most diverse multicultural city in Canada, and quite possibly in the world. It’s quite remarkable how many different ethnic communities we have. So that whole cosmopolitanism is very appropriate, certainly in Vancouver’s context. Part of that led me to try to give respect to all the different communities. For example, I learnt some Cantonese in the election. Many people believe the reason I won was because of my facility in Cantonese. I was quite well supported by the Chinese-speaking citizens, the majority of whom are Cantonese. I also speak a bit of Mandarin, I learnt rudimentary words in Punjabi, I had some success in Italian, I can speak French, so the Stoic commitment to the cosmopolis is, to me , not at all out of line with being mayor of a city like Vancouver, and being a host to the world for the Olympics.
I also wanted the city to live according to nature. That was the whole idea of the EcoDensity project I set up – the idea that to make our cities environmentally sustainable in North America, we have to accept that we will need to live in high density cities, rather than sprawling suburbs. My view is that our present way of life, particularly the suburban culture, was running rampant over the environment. We’re completely undisciplined in our approach to the way we live. I’d like to have a Stoic city, a city that’s respectful of nature, that’s conscious of its actions. Stoicism is the discipline of being able to understand the universe you’re living in, and being more respectful towards it.
You can get involved with Stoic Week in the last week of November, and if you’re in London come to the public event on Saturday November 30.