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Monthly Archives: September 2011

PoW: Paranoia and EU-noia

It would feel a bit strange to write about anything other than the European crisis at the moment – although you’re probably sick of it. One point I would hesitantly make, however, is that this isn’t just an economic and political crisis. It’s also, perhaps most fundamentally, an identity crisis. European countries are stuck between two phases of their relationship with each other – stuck between monetary union and full fiscal union – and they can’t decide whether to go forward, set up joint bank accounts and consummate their awkward marriage of convenience – or do a runner from the church. We call it coleslaw, you call it sauerkraut, oh, let’s call the whole thing off.

Like nervous fiancees, Europeans are drawing up lists of what they really have in common with each other. We have a shared artistic and cultural heritage of wonderful richness – probably the greatest of any continent. But if you look at our contemporary political and economic cultures, they’re extremely different. Could anything be further apart than the staid, Protestant culture of Germany, and the commedia antics of that harlequin Silvio Berlusconi?

Europe’s political elite, which for decades has dreamed of creating a ‘United States of Europe’ to rival America, retort that the US also brings together states with very disparate cultures. But the US has the advantage of a single language. Even then, the United States often seem very disunited. It took two centuries and a civil war to really bring the country together, and it still seems on the verge of falling apart – last month, the US almost defaulted because its parties couldn’t agree on a budget.

What Europe really lacks, more than any financial rescue package, is what the ancient Greeks called eunoia. It’s the opposite of paranoia. It means goodwill, togetherness, sympathy, trust and love. Europeans don’t really feel much eunoia for each other at the moment, despite the efforts of the elite to bring us together, despite the European constitution, despite the European anthem (anyone know what it is?), despite the billions of euros spent on ‘Erasmus schemes’ and other gravy trains. Despite all this, we don’t know each other, we don’t trust each other, we don’t like each other. And yet it seems the only way out of this crisis is towards an ever-closer legislative union. And so the members of Europe reluctantly approach the altar, casting little death-stares at each other, while the markets wave the shot-gun behind them.

The ancient Greeks fostered cross-tribal eunoia through a religious cult called the Eleusinian Mysteries. Every September, at around this time of year, initiates from all the various Greek city-states would travel to Eleusis, a sacred grove outside of Athens. There, they would strip off their clothes, take some psychedelic potion called the kykeon, and then go on a mass trip down to the underworld to free Proserpine from Hades, and bring her back to her grieving mother, Demeter. The three-day ceremony ended with an ecstatic celebration of the sacred marriage of Zeus and Demeter, and the birth of their son, Iaccus, or Joy. The initiates would feel re-born, as children of Demeter and brothers and sisters of each other, and would go back to their respective city-states brimming with eunoia for their fellow Greeks. It was a mystical and deeply powerful affirmation of their collective transnational identity.

There is only one real, long-term solution to the European crisis of trust. Yes, we need to bring back the Eleusinian Mysteries. We need to drink magic potion, take off our clothes, sing to Dionysus, and dance with the torch-bearing Eumenides. I shall send this proposal to Herman Van Rompuy, and await a response. Did you know, by the by, that the words for the European anthem – Beethoven’s Ode to Joy – come from Frederick Schiller, and were conceived as an Ode to Eleusis? The first verse of Schiller’s poem (and our continental anthem) goes:

Joy, thou source of light immortal,
Daughter of Elysium!
Touched with fire, to the portal,
Of thy radiant shrine, we come.
Your sweet magic, frees all others,
Held in custom’s rigid rings,
All men on earth become brothers,
In the haven of your wings.
Be embraced, you millions!
This kiss for the entire world!

Schiller wrote another poem about Eleusis, which you can read here. If only Schiller were here, he could preside over this awkward Helleno-German marriage and make everything go more smoothly.

Remember how I wrote a couple of weeks ago about how the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous was ‘saved’ from alcoholism after taking deadly night-shade and having a religious experience? Well, there’s a special centre in the US dedicated to researching the use of psychedelics to cure alcoholism. It’s called…Eleusis!

Right, that’s enough psychedelia for one week. It’s party conference season here in the UK, and the Liberal Democrats just called for the creation of a National Well-Being Institute (or ‘ministry for happiness’, as I predict it will be nicknamed), as part of a new report called Quality of Life: A New Political Purpose.

The economist Jeffrey Sachs, once an attack dog of the Washington Consensus, has become the latest convert to the Well-Being Consensus. His new book, The Price of Civilization: Re-Awakening American Virtue and Prosperity, claims that the solution to the present economic crisis is a rediscovery of “personal and civic virtue” – and he credits the Buddha and Aristotle as being the two best guides for this re-awakening of virtue. He also thinks the US government should start measuring its citizens’ well-being. Here, by the way, is a Google ngram graph showing the sudden rise in the popularity of Aristotle since the 1980s – funny how he started to come back at the height of neo-liberalism.

The father of happiness economics, Richard Easterlin, is in the UK next week. He’ll be debating Andrew Oswald of Warwick University at the British Academy on Thursday October 6. I hope to interview Easterlin there. Happiness economists so often use the Easterlin Paradox graph to argue that we should make major shifts in our politics, economics and lifestyles. But what does the graph really prove? It seems to suggest that, after a certain stage of development has been passed, happiness is no longer correlated with anything – not with employment fluctuations, not with recessions, not with the sexual revolution, not with the massive spread of therapies and eastern spiritual practices since the 1970s. None of this seems to have made any impact on national happiness levels. This may say more about happiness measurements than it does about our actual happiness levels. If the measurement device doesn’t respond to anything, then perhaps it’s the device that’s broken, rather than our societies.

Germany has also started measuring its national well-being, following the recommendations of a Bundestag commission in 2010. The inaugural findings suggest that, despite Schiller, Germans feel less good than Brits or Americans. Another victory for the Anglo-Saxon model!

Here’s an old but interesting (and free) journal devoted to philosophical counselling.

Here’s a little interview I did with Darian Leader, psychoanalyst and arch-critic of the government’s support for CBT. We talk about ancient Greek philosophy, and whether the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is a modern capitalist invention (I think not, he thinks so).

Here is an interesting-looking project, called The Pursuit of Happiness, which brings together techniques and research from Positive Psychology with insights and critical thinking from ancient and modern philosophy – in a format for secondary schools and universities. Basically what I would like to see happen here in the UK: combine the empirical rigour of psychology with the analytical and critical rigour of philosophy, to teach ideas of the good life. It involves Todd Kashdan, one of the more intelligent people working in Positive Psychology.

And finally, here’s a Newsnight interview with the wonderful Mark Rylance, star of the Jez Butterworth play Jerusalem, which is returning to London from success on Broadway. He says: ‘You don’t have to believe in the Mayan prophecies to realize that the way we’re living isn’t really sustainable. Everyone has a consciousness underneath that a big change is coming – and it’s hard to change by ourselves, and it’s hard for the governors to change. I think the play talks to that conscious or unconscious feeling that a big change is coming.’

See you next week or, as Schiller would put it, “Eine heitre Abschiedsstunde!”


Darian Leader on philosophy and psychotherapy

Here’s a little interview I did for the new issue of Psychologies magazine with the psychoanalyst Darian Leader, who’s the most vocal critic of the government’s support for CBT. He thinks CBT peddles ‘rose-tinted positive thinking’ and likens the government’s support for it to Maoist brain-washing. I started off asking him about the riots:

Jules Evans: What’s your take on the riots?

Darian Leader: I think we’ve progressively lost the distinction between ethics and morals. Morals is simply saying something is right or wrong. Ethics is understanding the thought that leads to an action. It’s classically been distinguished from simply attacking an action as bad.

Jules Evans: So you think there’s been a lot of moral analyses of the riots, and not much ethical analysis?

Darian Leader: It’s been an interminable commentary. Everyone was simply sticking to their prejudices, you never heard people listening to each other and saying ‘that’s a good point’. That’s why dialogue is so different. Maybe we acquire the ability to hear others in childhood, or we don’t. We seem to live in a society that has lost the ability to hear each other.

Jules Evans: Do you think psychology can shed any better light on the riots?

Darian Leader: Yes, but I don’t think it should simply come up with an immediate soundbite. One idea it would question is that people necessarily know why they took part in the riots. Journalists have asked them if they were doing it for political reasons. But that assumes their own motivation is transparent to them. Psychology and philosophy would question if we’re always aware of our intentions.

Jules Evans: Can we discover our intentions?

Darian Leader: I don’t think that’s possible unless you engage in a dialogue with someone else. Think of the Platonic dialogues.

Jules Evans: Do you think this sort of dialogue can make us a better person or can lead us to better values?

Darian Leader: As soon as it tries to do that, it’s being normative, it’s moved from ethics to moralizing. Since its inception,psychology has offered a space free from the dominant value systems of culture. People aren’t condemned or judged, they’re not labelled good or bad. It’s important to preserve that space. In some parts of psychology, there’s now an effort to impart the values of the state in the counseling room.

Jules Evans: But surely even in psychoanalysis there’s a positive conception of the good life, of what it means to live well?

Darian Leader: I’m sure you can find plenty of analysts who try to sell some version of the good life. They’ve basically become life coaches. But other analysts don’t try to do that. Sigmund Freud rejected the idea of mental health and flourishing. The discourse of well-being is about selling things and making money. The Freudian vision is much darker. It rejects the concept of the well-rounded person.

Jules Evans: But Civilization and its Discontents talks about how we can to some extent redeem the savage animal in us, doesn’t it?

Darian Leader: That monograph suggests there will always be fractures in our civilization which can’t be healed. Each person has to find their own unique way in which to be saved. It doesn’t say everyone needs therapy. In fact, it suggests what’s most important is the arts.

Jules Evans: So you’re saying that psychology can explore the ethical – what makes us do something – without moving into the moral sphere. But ancient philosophy surely was ethical and moral. It explained our motivation, and also guided us to happiness and virtue. We seem to have lost that.

Darian Leader: I don’t think so. These aims, that we should ‘find ourselves’ or ‘be happy’ are recent inventions.

Jules Evans: What about Socrates’ injunction: ‘know thyself’?

Darian Leader: But ancient philosophy didn’t try to make people happier.

Jules Evans: Yes it did.

Darian Leader: I think Plato’s dialogues are more sceptical than that. They’re dialogues. The idea is that we shouldn’t take other people’s word for it. We should ask questions, discover how little we know.

Darian has a new book out, called What is Madness?