Philosophy as self-help

I did my first philosophy talk in the UK last night (well, if you don’t count the comic attempt at Speaker’s Corner a couple of years back). I gave a short talk at the London Philosophy Club, which meets once a month at the ICA. I think it went well and I enjoyed the discussions after the talk. Thanks to everyone who came, hopefully we’ll get a video of it posted before long. Below are the notes / quotes I used for the talk.

1) Ancient philosophy as self-help / psychotherapy

Ancient philosophy was something people used to transform their thoughts and emotions, and to heal their souls of emotional suffering. It was a form of psychotherapy – a word which comes from the ancient Greek, meaning care of the soul.

Epicurus: “Empty is that philosopher’s argument by which no human suffering is therapeutically treated. For just as there is no use in a medical art that does not cast out the sicknesses of bodies, so too there is no use in philosophy, unless it casts out the suffering of the soul.”

Cicero: “There is, I assure you, a medical art for the soul. It is philosophy, whose aid need not be sought, as in bodily diseases, from outside ourselves. We must endeavour with all our resources and strength to become capable of doctoring ourselves.”

Philosophy could cure us of emotional suffering, the ancients claimed, because that suffering was caused by our beliefs. Epictetus: “It’s not events, but our opinions about them, that cause us suffering.”

We interpret the world through the prism of our beliefs, and if our beliefs / expectations are wrong or foolish, we will suffer emotionally as a result. Philosophy can help us by transforming our beliefs, which in turn will transform our emotions.

2) Philosophy will help us reach eudaimonia

The ancients claimed that philosophy could help us achieve eudaimonia, which literally means ‘a well-disposed soul or daimon’, but which they used in the general sense of ‘flourishing, fulfilment, happiness’. They believed that philosophy developed what is most fully human in us – our consciousness and rationality – and therefore philosophy guides us to our fulfilment as human beings. As a result, the philosopher would be “happier than any other person”, according to Aristotle.

Paradoxically, in order to achieve fulfillment as human beings, we have to work hard and undergo a rigorous training (what the Greeks called askesis. Philosophy was less a dogma or theory to be learnt, and more a set of practical exercises which the trainee should practice every day, turning the insights of philosophy into automatic habits, so that their philosophical training becomes ‘second nature’ as Aristotle put it.

That means that philosophy is not something one merely reads or listens to or discusses. It is something one practices in every situation: on the street, on the battlefield, in the workplace, in love, in sickness, in the marketplace, and especially on your deathbed (Socrates: “Philosophy is a preparation for death”.)

The great example of philosophical askesis is Diogenes the Cynic, whose whole life was a form of rigorous or extreme philosophical practice, in which he showed how humans needed much less to be happy than civilization had led them to believe, which he ‘proved’ by living in a barrel in the middle of the marketplace, feeding off scraps, and generally living like a tramp.

Epictetus said of him: “Nay, but how is it possible for a man who has nothing, naked, without home or hearth, in squalor, without a slave, without a city, to live a tranquil life?’ Lo, God has sent you one who shall show indeed that it is possible. ‘Look at me, I have no house or city, property or slave: I sleep on the ground, I have no wife or children, no miserable palace, but only earth and sky and one poor cloak. Yet what do I lack? Am I not quit of pain and fear, am I not free?”

3) Where did it all go wrong?!

How did philosophy change so much, to become the highly specialized, jargonized discipline that it is today? One theory – put forward by Pierre Hadot – is that everything went wrong with the rise of the university in the Middle Ages, which took philosophy off the streets, detached it from ordinary people, and professionalized it. Philosophy stopped being a way of life, and instead became a matter of winning funding and the respect of your fellow professional philosophers. It no longer mattered how a philosopher lived, only how much they were published and cited. Philosophers stopped being interested in helping ordinary people overcome their emotional problems.

Henry David Thoreau: “There are nowadays professors of philosophy but not philosophers.”

Schopenhauer: “university philosophy is mere fencing in front of a mirror…it’s goal is to give students opinions which are to the liking of the minister who hands out the chairs.”

Marx: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

4) Philosophy strikes back (sort of)

I argued that the vacuum created by the withdrawal of philosophy behind the ivory walls of academia was filled by psychology to some extent, but mainly by self-help. I noted that a great deal of popular self-help is really a regurgitation of the Stoic insight that ‘Life itself is but what you deem it’ as Marcus Aurelius put it.

I then discussed the influence of ancient philosophy on cognitive therapy (CBT), and looked at how CBT is really closer to what the ancients would have thought of as philosophy than anything that is being taught in academic philosophy today.

Finally, I ended the talk by discussing some of the techniques and exercises that the ancients used, such as the View From Above, the Memento Mori, the Journal, the Handbook, and some of the physical training exercises.

Here’s the video of it.

And another bit:


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