PoW: The journal, from Marcus Aurelius to Bridget Jones

What do Marcus Aurelius and Bridget Jones have in common? The answer, of course, is that they both kept a journal, and used it in their efforts to change themselves. The first page of Bridget’s diary, on January 1st, shows her performing something of a ‘moral audit’ on herself after a two-day binge:

129 lbs. (but post-Christmas), alcohol units 14 (but effectively covers 2 days as 4 hours of party was on New Year’s Day), cigarettes 22, calories 5424.
Food consumed today:
2 pkts Emmenthal cheese slices
14 cold new potatoes
2 Bloody Marys (count as food as contain Worcester sauce and
tomatoes)
1/3 Ciabatta loaf with Brie
coriander leaves–1/2 packet
12 Milk Tray (best to get rid of all Christmas confectionery in
one go and make fresh start tomorrow)

Bridget is performing a spiritual exercise at the heart of ancient philosophy, which has also been taken up by Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: using a journal to keep account of one’s habits and one’s progress in changing them.  Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, told his students: “If you do not wish to be prone to anger, do not feed the habit…[instead] count the days when you were not angry: ‘I used to be angry every day, then every other day: next every two, next every three days!’ and if you succeed in passing thirty days, sacrifice to the Gods in thanksgiving.”

Keeping a journal helps us keep track of our progress in kicking bad habits and building good ones. It’s a technique I’ve been using this week, as I try to quit smoking for good (I’m on day thirteen, woo hoo!) People also use journals for more serious health problems, like bulimia. I read a story in this book on bulimia of a girl who kept a journal, keeping track of the times she binge-ate, or purged herself. After several weeks, she hit a low point, and felt she wasn’t making any real progress at all. Then she looked at her food journal, and reminded herself of quite how much progress she had made: her progress was clear, visible, quantifiable.

Keeping an account of oneself helps you, as the Roman philosopher Cicero put it, ‘to be doctor to yourself’. Today, new technology on computers and smartphones have massively increased our ability to keep track of ourselves. We are all becoming the doctors of ourselves.

Larry Smarr, the Marco Polo of his own body

The Atlantic magazine, for example, tells the story this issue of Larry Smarr, an astrophysicist turned computer scientist, who, like some digital Montaigne, is using computer technology to map his every physical function, and to help him battle Crohn’s disease (that’s him on the left with a computerised map of his gut). Larry thinks the health sector is about to become massively transformed through ordinary people’s access to digital technology that enables them to keep track of themselves and be their own doctors. The movement spear-heading this change is  called the Quantified Self movement, which has the very Socratic motto: ‘Self-knowledge through numbers.’

The self-help guru Tim Ferriss, who is both an avid self-quantifier and a big fan of ancient philosophy, makes the connection to Socrates:

It’s a Socratic process. First and foremost, I have to have a very clear, measurable objective, whether that’s in language acquisition or in power lifting. The common element is measurement, so you need to know when you have succeeded and how to measure progress to that success point, whether that’s a 500 pound dead lift or a 50 kilometer ultra marathon.

Quantified Self meet.ups happen all over the world.

Of course, the end-goal of Greek philosophy was not power lifting or language acquisition but eudaimonia – ‘spiritual flourishing’. That’s quite difficult to define and measure (although some Positive Psychologists are trying to do just that). But, as individuals, we can certainly identify good habits that we want to strengthen, and bad habits we want to weaken, and measure our daily progress in those goals. And we can share our progress with others, via new apps like GE and Facebook’s new project, ‘Healthy Share’. We can also go along to Quantified Self meetups, which happen all over the world, to hear about some of the fascinating new apps people are inventing to help themselves and other people achieve greater well-being.

Some more links:

In the UK, a new report came out by Lord Richard Layard warning that national and local government were cutting funding for the UK’s ambitious expansion of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).  He went on the Radio 4 show The Moral Maze to discuss the report. I wrote this piece suggesting the panel were too critical and had not done enough to celebrate the government’s support for mass therapy. Even if CBT isn’t all of the answer, it’s certainly some of the answer.

Here’s a great debunking of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek by John Gray.  And another bad review in the Guardian. I wish the Left would stop admiring this totalitarian poseur. His ‘radicalism’ is just verbiage, it demeans philosophy the same way Lacan’s pretentiousness demeaned psychology.

The Darwinians are in an up-roar over the concept of ‘group selection’. Could natural selection favour certain forms of social organisation, or does the idea only work at the level of the individual? Against the idea are Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, who wrote this eloquent piece explaining why he’s against it. And here’s an equally eloquent defence of the idea by EO Wilson, who is its principal champion.

Here’s a piece by Ben Goldacre and the British government’s Behavioural Science Unit on using randomised controlled trials to test public policy.Here’s a cover story I wrote for today’s FT Books & Arts, on philosophy clubs and the rise of the mass intelligentsia (a phrase invented by Melvyn Bragg, who is interviewed in the piece).

Finally, it’s Rousseau’s 300th birthday this week. Rousseau’s Confessions was written in conscious imitation of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, except that where Aurelius writes in order to change himself, Rousseau writes merely to celebrate his perverse uniqueness. Self-writing becomes, in his hands, not a means to self-transformation, but merely to self-justification and self-celebration. Rousseau did more than anyone else to invent the vain, self-regarding, neurotic modern self…which is not a great legacy to have left. But boy, could he write.

See you next week,

Jules

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