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Monthly Archives: October 2013

Getting practical philosophy into the classroom

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?

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?

6) Fieldwork

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.


The Stoic mayor

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.

He adds:

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.”

He adds:

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.”

He says:

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.