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Monthly Archives: November 2012

The re-birth of Stoicism

We’re coming to the end of Stoic Week. People all over the world have been practicing Stoic exercises and reflecting on Stoic ideas this week, thanks to this wonderful initiative, launched by a young post-grad at Exeter University called Patrick Ussher. Some of Patrick’s students have been sharing their thoughts on the exercises via YouTube. This is what studying philosophy at university should be like – experimenting, practicing, reflecting, sharing.

Of course, hardcore Stoics might say we shouldn’t share the fruits of our practice – we should ‘tell no one’, as Epictetus puts it. But I actually think it’s good to share your practice with other Stoics, as long as you’re not showing off. My own rather humble practice this week has been to knock off the booze for a week. Small steps, I know – but I’ve stuck to it out of the thought that it’s not just me practicing – there are lots of us out there, committing to this week. We’re stronger when bounded together.

It’s also been a good opportunity for people to say how they’ve been helped by Stoic writings in their life. People like Dorothea from Vancouver, who this week tweeted:

I went through an extremely difficult time a few years ago and one of the things that helped was Stoicism. Reading Epictetus was like having a wise friend sit with me in a situation that no one, not my friends or family, could understand.

Right on Dorothea! As I discovered when I was writing my book, there are loads of people out there who have been really helped by Stoic writings through difficult times, for whom Stoicism means a great deal to them. Everyone from Wen Jiabao, the prime minister of China, who says he has read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations over 100 times, to Elle MacPherson, who named her son Aurelius, to Tom Wolfe, who got into Stoicism a decade ago and is still very into it today (he said he’d write a quote for my book – Tom, if you’re reading this, get in touch…I need your help!)

So here’s my question: is Stoicism really enjoying a revival or a rebirth now? Or is that a gross exaggeration? And if there is a revival happening, where could it go?

I think there is something of a revival taking place, in large part thanks to Albert Ellis and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, but also thanks to the revival of the idea of philosophy as a therapy or way of life. And, finally, I think Stoicism fits quite well with our increasingly crisis-prone era. I’ll go through these three factors, quickly.

Stoicism and CBT

The biggest driver for the revival of Stoicism is its direct connection to Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. When I discovered this link, back in 2007, I couldn’t understand why it wasn’t more written about. I found it amazing that ideas and techniques from ancient Greek philosophy should be at the heart of western psychotherapy (2007 was the year the British government started putting hundreds of millions of pounds into CBT and also the year CBT started to be taught in British schools via the Penn Resilience Programme). And no one was writing about it. So I started to write about it. In 2009 I came across Donald Robertson, a cognitive therapist and scholar, who was also writing about it. I interviewed him for my first ever YouTube video.  Check it out and enjoy the trippy special effect at the end illustrating the Stoic idea of the ‘view from above’.

In 2010, Donald published the first ever book properly exploring the relationship between CBT and ancient philosophy. It’s a great book and helped me a lot.

Sam Sullivan, the Stoic mayor of Vancouver, accepting the Olympic flag in Turin

Then, this year, I brought out my book about ancient philosophies and CBT (not just Stoicism, also Epicureanism, Cynicism, Platonism, Scepticism etc),which featured interviews with lots of modern Stoics – Major Thomas Jarrett, who teaches Stoic warrior resilience in the US Army; Chris Brennan, who teaches Stoic resilience in the US Fire Service; Jesse Caban, who is a Stoic in the Chicago police force; Michael Perry, a Stoic Green Beret; Sam Sullivan, the Stoic former mayor of Vancouver, and others. I was helped a lot by the NewStoa community set up by Erik Wiegardt, which helped me get in touch with all these modern Stoics.

Since the book has come out, I’ve done a lot of talks about the connection between Stoicism and CBT, like this one on Radio 4. The book got a nice review in The Psychologist this week (behind a pay-wall alas), and I hope it has encouraged more of a dialogue between psychology and philosophy. The same month my book came out, Oliver Burkeman of the Guardian brought out his book, The Antidote, which also interviewed Albert Ellis and made the connection with Stoicism. We were both interviewed in this Guardian Books podcast talking about Stoicism and CBT.

Then, at the end of this year, Christopher Gill in Exeter’s classics department organised a seminar on Stoicism and CBT, which brought together Donald, me, Tim LeBon, a cognitive therapist and philosophical counsellor;  classicist John Sellars; Patrick Ussher, occupational therapist Gill Garratt and others. The Exeter Project has been a great help in making the connection between Stoicism and CBT a bit more explicit and academically credible.

The revival of philosophy as a practical way of life

Secondly, Stoicism has revived in the last few years thanks to a broader revival of ancient philosophy and the idea of philosophy as a way of life. When Alain de Botton brought out the Consolations of Philosophy in 2000, he was widely reviled by academics for dumbing down philosophy. A decade on, however, more and more academic philosophers have come round to the idea that philosophy can and should be an everyday practice, and even a form of self-help. That’s partly through the influence of de Botton and the School of Life network, but also through the work of academic philosophers like Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum, who have pushed forward a more personal and emotional form of philosophy (by emotional, I don’t mean gushing and sentimental, I mean it works on the emotions, it tries to help people flourish). So academia has played its part in the revival, but I’d suggest self-help writers like De Botton, Eckhart Tolle and Tim Ferriss have been key in bringing Stoic ideas to a wider public.

Stoicism is popular in times of crisis

Exeter during Stoic Week

Finally, I think Stoicism is enjoying something of a revival because it fits with our crisis-prone era. It’s a good philosophy for coping with volatile and chaotic times. You wouldn’t expect it to be that popular during an age of affluence, for example  like we were in from 1955 to 1975, although it was popular then among some officers in Vietnam like James Stockdale. But you would expect it to be popular in times like now, an age of austerity and emergency, when our economies are crashing and our cities are being constantly buffeted by floods and hurricanes. It is appropriate that, in the very week Exeter University hosts ‘Stoic Week’, floods are coursing through the town. Our imagination has become more apocalyptic – whether that be in films like Deep Impact, books like The Road, or TV shows like Derren Brown’s Stoic-inspired Apocalypse. We’ve started to wonder how we’d fare if some of our affluent accoutrements were stripped from us. How would we, poor bare forked animals, cope upon the heath without our lendings?

There has been a growth in nostalgia for the Stoicism of our grandparents – the generation before the baby-boomers, who went through the war with a calm Stoic spirit (or so it seems to us). Hence the popularity of the old war poster, Keep Calm and Carry On. Hence the interest in the history of the ‘stiff upper lip’. Hence the call this week by a Tory MP and GP for a return to the values of ‘post-war Stoic Britain’, when people took care of themselves and didn’t burden the NHS with all their self-indulgent lifestyle illnesses. We are in the midst of an austere reaction to the consumer excesses of the baby-boomers, and Stoicism goes quite well with that reaction. Though of course, the baby-boomers are a part of the Stoic revival too – not least in the increased interest in assisted suicide. The baby-boomers want the freedom to choose their own death, as Seneca put it. If death became the ultimate lifestyle choice, that would be a huge cultural shift, away from Christianity, and back towards Stoicism (the word suicide, by the by, was invented by a 12-century theologian in a tract written against Seneca).

Where could the revival go?

So, there is something of a revival happening. But where could it go?  Well, I think we’re all learning how to take care of ourselves better, learning how to be the ‘doctors to ourselves’ as Cicero put it. I don’t think that necessarily means we’re all going to become card-carrying Stoics, but I do think and hope we’re becoming more intelligent about our emotions and how to heal them, and more DIY about our health in general and how to take care of ourselves.  I suspect and hope that this will involve a continued growth of interest in ancient philosophies – Greek, Buddhist, Taoist, Confucian, Sufi and so on. One of the most encouraging phenomena in this difficult era is the synthesis of ancient wisdom and modern empiricism – the Shamatha project in California is one of the great examples of it. I hope that my psychology colleagues in the Exeter project, Donald Robertson and Tim LeBon, can do more empirical work on Stoic ideas.

However, I personally think Stoicism itself is lacking some things. As Martha Nussbaum told me in this interview, it’s part of an ‘anti-compassion’ tradition. It lacks compassion, is too cold, too uncaring. I remember, on Stoic email lists, when someone has said that something terrible has happened to them, no one would say anything consolatory to them. They would just stiffly quote Epictetus – the philosophical equivalent of a punch on the shoulder. And I would feel like giving that person a hug and saying ‘yes, that’s pretty shit, but you’ll get through it’. The Stoic position of ‘nothing is fucked here, Dude’ seems to me too cold. We’re not Gods, we’re humans. I think we should be careful that the revival of Stoicism does not become too libertarian, part of a backlash against the welfare state. We also need to make clear that Stoicism does not mean repressing your emotions. Far from it. Nor should it mean coping entirely on your own with difficulties. Stoicism today should mean taking care of each other, not just of yourself.

A key contemporary challenge is that Stoicism lacks a proper sense of community, and if you look at modern attempts at building a Stoic community – the NewStoa group, or the Stoic Yahoo list, I don’t think either of them have been that successful, because they are too logical and not caring enough, so they end up with men bickering over terminology, rather than humans caring for each other.

Nonetheless, let me end on a positive note: the Stoics taught us some amazing stuff about how to transform the emotions, and how to take care of ourselves.  It’s just that, in my opinion, those lessons are best taught alongside other philosophies of the good life. Again, I come back to the same point I often ask myself: can we build philosophical communities that are genuinely caring, compassionate, nurturing?


Tobias Jones

Next week, hopefully, I am off to meet a hero of mine, Tobias Jones, who runs a community like that in Dorset, for recovering addicts. Tobias wrote a fantastic book called Utopian Dreams, asking the same sort of communitarian questions that we are discussing. Do read it, it’s brilliant. I’ll hopefully be interviewing Tobias for a new podcast I’m putting together for Aeon magazine. Should be a really fun, exciting venture. Here’s a piece Tobias wrote for Aeon on his commune.

Next Tuesday, come to hear Angie Hobbs talking about the future of philosophy at the London Philosophy Club, at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. She’s a fascinating speaker, and it’s a brilliant venue.

This week, my friend Sara Northey arranged a brilliant LPC evening, with a talk by clinical psychologist Peter Kinderman. Peter put forward a radical and (in my opinion) quite persuasive argument about why most psychiatric diagnoses and unscientific and deeply unhelpful, and we should instead switch to a problem-based analysis of emotional problems. Here’s an interesting write-up of the event by Natalie Banner, a philosopher at KCL’s Centre for Humanities and Health.

The accuracy of social psychology studies is under the microscope, after Dutch psychologist Diederik Stapel was found to have faked some of his studies, without being found out by the social psychology journals in which he published his results. A new report condemns not just him but the whole field of social psychology for its ‘sloppy’ research culture.

This New York Times article (forwarded to me by Matt Bishop) has been widely discussed in among therapists – it says business is declining for therapists, as people increasingly want problem-fixing rather than long-term counseling (Peter Kinderman would approve!). So therapists are having to hustle to get more business, which means putting more effort into branding. I’ve often thought that therapists should, at the least, put a video of themselves on their website explaining who they are and what sort of problems they can help with (in fact I considered setting up a business to help therapists do this).

Talking of therapists making videos, here is a video of Windy Dryden, a leading cognitive therapist in the UK, doing a song-and-dance version of CBT to the tune of ‘Moves Like Jagger’. Bizarre! Though it did make me think – perhaps I could put together some CBT songs..

Tomorrow, I’m speaking at this conference in Amsterdam along with Alain de Botton, Philippa Perry, Roman Krznaric, Stine Jensen and others. Still a few tickets left I think, if you’re in Holland and fancy coming along. My Dutch publisher, Regine, has been really amazing in promoting my book in Holland, and it’s got into the top 100. She is a force of nature.

The book is now out in Germany. One of my readers, Julia Kalmund, has arranged for me to come and speak at Munich University.  Nice one Julia! She wins this week’s awesomeness prize. It’s also just come out in Turkey….any Turkish readers of the newsletter??

A guy called Ahmad from Pakistan got in touch with the London Philosophy Club this week. He wrote:

Philosophy should be promoted in every community because it is usually above any caste and creed…Unfortunately there are not favorable conditions in Pakistan for such activity, London has a certain attitude for this,as it provided shelter to Volatire and Marx when Europe wasn’t ready to tolerate them…I want to become an active member of London Philosophy Club and to try to go to London for studies,it would be a pleasure for me to remain in the company of such creative social minds.

I find that great and inspiring – that’s why I love philosophy, because it connects us beyond any caste or creed. Good luck to you, Ahmad. Meanwhile the British government has succeeded in lowering immigration…by putting off foreign students from studying here. Doh!

See you next week,


PS, if you fancy some weekend reading, download my report on Grassroots Philosophy

Is the NHS the best home for CBT? A sceptic’s view

I’m increasingly aware of two things: firstly, I can be a bit of a tub-thumping evangelist for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), as it worked for me; and secondly, the Improved Access for Psychotherapies (IAPT) government programme is far from perfect, and we need to look at how to improve it. So in the spirit of open rational debate, I’m going to publish some alternate views to my own, from people working in and around mental health services. Firstly, here is a piece by Robert Jenkins, a counsellor, transactional analyst and cognitive therapist from Yorkshire. Robert is pretty sceptical of the marriage of CBT and the NHS, and argues for a more de-centralised approach. Tell me what you think of the piece. Robert is helping to organise a rally and conference on the future of psychotherapy in north London on Sunday December 2nd. Details here. So, without further ado, over to Robert.

Is NHS primary care really the best place to get therapy? Or could offering it more widely in the community broaden its appeal, relevance and ultimately its effectiveness?

I share Jules Evans’ enthusiasm for making CBT and other therapies more widely available. Not just because I am a psychotherapist, not just because, like Jules, I myself have benefitted from it, but because I believe that the complexity, unpredictability and absurdity of modern life make it at times indispensible for all but the most resilient and resourceful amongst us.

Currently what is limiting the availability of therapy is not so much the expense [the relative cost of privately sourced therapy has never been lower] but the government’s insistence that it should be provided to a uniform standard across the whole of NHS primary care.

In a recent blog, Jules bemoans some therapists’ criticisms of CBT [increasingly the ‘uniform standard’ aimed at under the NHS’s IAPT programme] as “shallow, simplistic and mechanistic”. He suggests that they resent not being awarded any public money for their own types of therapy and reminds them that they can’t expect to get public funding for ways of working that have no convincing evidence-base.

I can assure Jules that most therapists, whether working in the NHS or privately, are acutely aware of the NICE Guidelines on the appropriateness of therapy for common ‘mental health conditions’ and of how they have been arrived at. They don’t question the need for an evidence base, but they are increasingly questioning the validity of the evidence base for CBT, which relies predominantly on the kind of randomised-controlled trials utilised in the testing of drugs, i.e. those prescribed for a precisely defined condition to effect relief of objectively defined symptoms, etc. while completely ignoring a much larger evidence base for the efficacy of other therapies on the grounds that the relevant research studies do not rest exclusively on the objectification of psychological distress.

Quite apart from its blatant disregard for the subjective experience of humans and the complex adaptivity of their relationships, a number of other problems ensue from the top-down approach to therapy exemplified by IAPT.

The most significant of these is the assumption, derived largely from the medical setting in which it is offered [or ‘prescribed’, if you will] that therapy is actually another form of medication to be ‘tried’, that there is therefore something ‘wrong’ with the patient. Her thoughts and/or feelings are ‘negative’, and being ‘seen’ by a therapist [or increasingly these days a Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner] skilled in a set of manualised techniques will somehow over the course of a six-session ‘treatment’ modify them, thereby enabling her to go back to work. This form of ‘therapy’, like everything non-urgent in the NHS, has to be rigorously titrated within a framework of so-called ‘stepped care’. The reality of CBT ‘delivered’ in such a setting is a million miles from its foundation in Stoic philosophical principles. The philosophy on which IAPT is based is distinctly utilitarian – and the impact of therapy offered under it is as a result more paternalistic than therapeutic.

Another is the attitude to ‘mental health’ that pre-supposes we should all aspire, if not conform, to certain ‘happiness’ standards. The ‘positive’ psychologists, in rejecting notions of pathology in favour of ‘what works’, have merely exchanged one set of instruments for another. They are not so much ‘positive’ as normative. And many governments, not just our own, have jumped on this bandwagon, and are now rolling out National Wellbeing Policies. But I’d better not get too miserable about this. Who knows where it might lead?!

A third consequence of IAPT is the abrupt closure by the NHS of hospital psychotherapy departments on cost grounds. From a utilitarian standpoint, filleting out layers of Band 8B consultant and principle psychotherapists in secondary care and bringing into primary care a raft of Band 3 PWPs whose training has barely reached NVQ Level 3 seems a great idea. Part of me wonders how a hospital like St George’s in London could once employ twelve psychotherapists at Band 8b [average salary £70k] while a hospital serving a similar demographic in Bradford can manage on two and half practitioners at that grade. However, I don’t think levelling the playing field by retiring such a huge wealth of knowledge and expertise makes any sense in the long term. True, more people will have more access to more therapy. But this is just another way of saying more boxes will be ticked on PHQ9-forms in more places and more “evidence” collected and entered into System One in support of the said top-down decision to hamburgerise wellbeing delivery.

I don’t doubt the good intentions underlying the current changes in therapy provision. I appreciate the need of successive governments to demonstrate that they are doing something, especially after raising so many voters’ expectations of shorter waiting times and more effective outcomes. And it’s good that the governments take anxiety and depression seriously. But there is something deeply disquieting about the degree to which naturally occurring reactions (“negative” thoughts and feelings) to unmanageable life conditions (poverty and austerity) are constantly medicalised and pathologised these days. Anxiety and depression are in 95% of cases emphatically not illnesses, and I seriously question whether the NHS should be tasked with “treating” them at all. Of course, there are medical conditions which can accompany or give rise to them and these need to be checked out. And psychological practitioners would be foolish to work completely apart from medical practitioners. But they don’t need to be regarded by the DoH, GPs and patients alike as part of the medical establishment, still less regulated according to the same criteria.

My own experience of working in the NHS, and that of many of my colleagues, has convinced me that it cannot provide the sort of secure base on which safe and effective psychological services can be built. From its inception, the NHS has been a political football constantly held hostage to electoral priorities. IAPT is but the latest in a long line of policy swings and roundabouts. Ask anyone working with it and they will tell you that its introduction has been immensely disruptive of time, personnel and facilities. To bring everyone “up to speed”, many therapists had to be taken out of service [sending waiting lists sky high] to go on CBT courses, which offered them very little they didn’t know or weren’t doing already, only to find a year down the line that they would be asked to continue in their original modality, since PWPs would be recruited to carry out the ‘basic stuff’.

Therapists do not criticise the notion of ‘increasing access’. They are concerned about increasing caseloads, increasing paperwork, and increasing stress – their own, not the patients’. Eavesdrop on their internet bulletin postings, listen to them in clinical supervision (as I have) and you will understand why there is so little to celebrate about IAPT. Practitioners (of whatever modality) are not complaining about the provision of CBT, or its supposed lack of rigour or depth. They are unhappy about the political and economic context in which the decision to implement it has been arrived at. It is the setting, which their guts tell them is fundamentally inimical to the provision of therapy, that is the problem.

Therapy has been around in some form or another throughout human history. The evidence base has its roots in antiquity, and not just in the West. It was only in the late 19th century that tracts of it were corralled by a rapidly rising medical elite, from which it has both benefitted and suffered to varying degrees. From the mid 20th century psychotherapy has largely shaken off the yolk of medicine, but even in the 21st it has still some way to go. Psychiatry is in the process of reforming if not disestablishing itself, and yet in much of the public imagination it is still synonymous with psychotherapy. It is certainly a good time to reacquaint the public with psychotherapy’s philosophical basis, and perhaps to remind them also that the ‘great learnings’ distilled over millennia by various peculiar intellects were once elemental pieces of folk wisdom. Yes, once we were all in it together.

There is no reason why therapy and other forms of wise and insightful support could not be more widely shared once again, why they shouldn’t be de-nationalised, de-centralised, de-standardised so as to appeal to the widely diverging needs of individual humans, each with their unique ideas about what happiness is for them. Good therapy does this already of course, and there are plenty of therapists working in the NHS to standards that are way above those expected by Layard. Many of them would prefer, as I once did before I left, to work in the service of their clients, rather than of a nationalised industry. Many of them succeed in spite of restrictive agendas to find the right balance of professionalism and compassion that constitute the best therapy. But the cost to them is, ironically, their own well-being.

I am for expansion of psychological services but not in IAPT and not in the NHS. I would re-brand IAPT as BAPT, where the B stands for Broadening and the name Be-Apt means what it says: adapted to and working within the real conditions in which people’s psychological inflexibilities first arise – family, school, neighbourhood, workplace, community. I would transfer it lock stock and barrel into the voluntary and private sectors where there are any number of settings equipped to provide a wider range and depth of psychological services to individuals and groups. These include anything and everything you like, from Sure-Start to Philosophy Clubs.
I invite readers to come along to a rally and conference of the Alliance for Counselling and Psychotherapy on Sunday 2nd December at the Selby Centre in Tottenham, North London on precisely these themes. It is entitled “The Future of Counselling & Psychotherapy” and features contributions from Andrew Samuels (Essex U), Rosie Rizq (Roehampton U), Phil Thomas (Critical Psychiatry Network, author of ‘Postpsychiatry’), David Pink (Chair of UKCP), Ian Simpson (former head of S London & Maudsley Psychotherapy Service) among others. It is a Pay On The Door event [minimum £20] but it helps if you let the organisers know you’re coming and whether you would like lunch [£6].

Here’s a link: