This is the afterword to the book I’m writing. All feedback and constructive criticism welcome. Thanks, Jules
My aim in this book has been to show that ancient Greco- Roman philosophy remains a living spiritual tradition, which many contemporary people use to cope with adversity and to give meaning to their lives.
A secondary objective was to show how modern psychotherapy draws on ancient philosophy, and how millions of people are now, perhaps unconsciously, using the resources of ancient philosophy through Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and its younger sibling, Positive Psychology (PP).
I have explored the relationship between CBT and Stoicism in articles for various newspapers and magazines, and these pieces have stimulated some responses and criticisms from other writers. They have raised interesting and important points which I would like to briefly address here.
1) The ‘pick n’ mix’ criticism
First, some have criticized the ‘pick n’ mix’ approach to ancient philosophy, in which people use some therapeutic or philosophical techniques of a philosophy, without full conversion to the entire moral and metaphysical system of that philosophy. This has been criticized as being a sort of ‘supermarket spirituality’, where all kind of different practices are thrown together without any deep commitment to one approach.
2) The ‘feel good’ criticism
Other readers have criticized the way CBT enlists the techniques of ancient philosophy with the aim of simply making people ‘feel good’. CBT, some people suggest, has hollowed out the moral content of ancient philosophy. As one philosopher put it, it has “looted” the treasures of ancient philosophy for its own superficial purposes.
3) The ‘happiness police’ criticism
The final criticism, which has been directed at western governments’ support of CBT, complains that governments are overstepping their jurisdiction in funding CBT and PP, because in doing so they are taking a position on the question of how to be happy, or how to live a Good Life.
Governments should not tell their citizens how to be happy, according to this argument, because it is none of their business. Governments of a secular, pluralist society should be more or less neutral when it comes to matters of its citizens private moral or spiritual beliefs.
Most practitioners of CBT and PP are not particularly concerned with the first two criticisms, but they are very concerned with the third criticism. They take great pains to insist that they are scientists, concerned with facts and empirical data, that their work is descriptive rather than prescriptive, and is in no way telling people how they should live their life or what their values should be.
It is very important for the practitioners of CBT and PP to present themselves as scientists rather than moral philosophers, because it is their claim to scientific empiricism that enables them to attract hundreds of millions of dollars in public funding.
If they presented themselves as moral philosophers, they’d be unlikely to attract any public funding, because governments would worry they were overstepping government neutrality on questions of the Good Life.
So practitioners of CBT and particularly of PP present themselves as diligent scientists, who test out various techniques advocated by philosophies and spiritualities from around the world (Stoicism, Buddhism, yoga, and so on), to see if they really do make people happier.
Practitioners test these techniques using questionnaires about people’s subjective well-being and life satisfaction levels before and after practicing a technique – ‘Aristotle with a seven-point scale’, as one Positive Psychologist put it.
By presenting themselves as scientific experts, the practitioners of CBT and PP try to sidestep controversial questions of value and morality. Happiness is a wonderfully uncontroversial goal. Everyone wants to be happy, don’t they?
But this eagerness to avoid criticism number 3 (the ‘happiness police’ criticism), and to present themselves as happiness scientists rather than moral philosophers, has led to criticism number 2: that CBT and PP are exploiting the techniques of ancient philosophy just to help people ‘feel good’, while completely ignoring the serious moral message of ancient philosophy.
The ancients, particularly the Stoics, weren’t interested in simply ‘being happy’. They were trying to achieve eudaimonia, which meant not just a happy life, but a meaningful life, a virtuous life, a Good Life.
The ancients saw philosophy as a form of science, as a psychology grounded in a scientific view of how the human mind works. But their philosophies also took a moral position on how human nature could ideally be, and what the goal of life should be. CBT, its critics say, draws on the ancients’ theory of psychology, and uses some of its techniques for psychic transformation, but apparently drops any idea of the higher goal of human existence.
How can we respond to these criticisms?
First of all, in response to number 1, the pick n’ mix criticism, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this approach to spirituality. In fact, I think everyone pick n’ mixes to some extent. Marcus Aurelius pick n’ mixed from Stoicism, Neoplatonism, mystery cults and literature. Seneca pick n’ mixed from Stoicism, Epicureanism and Plato. Cicero pick n’ mixed from Aristotle, the Stoics, the Epicureans, the Platonists, and others. St Augustine pick n’ mixed from Neoplatonism, Stoicism, and the Bible.
We are all pick n’ mixers, though that doesn’t have to mean that one’s spirituality is undemanding. It is up to the individual to decide how much they demand of themselves. This has always been the case historically, and is still the case today.
As to criticism number 2, the ‘feel good’ criticism: CBT might not mention values or ethics, because it is so keen to present itself as a science rather than a moral philosophy, but I don’t think it is possible to use CBT to overcome an emotional disorder without being morally transformed by the experience.
Or, to put it another way, I don’t think it is possible to use the techniques of ancient philosophy without absorbing some of the ethics of ancient philosophy.
What ethics are these? I would like to call them the five ‘Socratic Principles’.
1) Know yourself
We can learn to know our own thoughts, and to understand how these thoughts lead to our emotions. We can learn how negative or irrational beliefs lead to emotional suffering, and how more rational beliefs lead to freedom from unnecessary emotional suffering.
2) Question yourself
We can learn to question our thoughts and beliefs about the world, and to hold them to account, to see if they make sense and serve us well.
3) Take responsibility for yourself
Humans have some limited free will and agency, and we can develop this agency in order to choose how we think and how we behave. We can change our thinking habits, and change our behaviour patterns. Because we have some limited free will, we can and should learn to take responsibility for our thoughts and actions.
4) Practice, practice, practice
To change yourself, you have to work really hard. The human psyche is made up of habits, and it takes a lot of work and a certain amount of suffering and discomfort even to change one habit. Changing yourself means getting out of your comfort zone, and this can be very difficult for people. But you only get out what you put in. The harder you work, the greater your progress will be.
5) Change what you can change, accept what you can’t
It is wise to learn the difference between what you can control and what you can’t, and to learn a measure of detachment or acceptance of the things in your situation which, for the time being, you can’t control.
These are the five core ethical principles which CBT rests on, and which it derives from Greco-Roman philosophy. You could argue that these are psychological insights, or ‘skilful means’, more than ethical principles. I would argue they are ethics grounded in psychology.
Now if CBT rests on these Socratic ethical principles, then that opens CBT up to criticism number 3 – that it is telling us how to live our lives, and therefore shouldn’t be funded by the state.
I would respond to this by saying that any psychotherapy involves, to some extent, non-scientific questions about what constitutes a good or flourishing life. No psychotherapy can escape questions of value and the Good. CBT, like every other psychotherapy, makes some moral assumptions about what it means to be well.
But its assumptions are quite limited. They make some claims about human nature, and how you can transform human nature. They make some claims about what makes a good or healthy human being, and therefore about what makes a Good Life. But they don’t make any grand claims about the ultimate meaning of human existence, let alone about the existence or non-existence of God.
You can embrace these ethical principles, and be an atheist or a theist, a Christian, Jew, Muslim or Buddhist, an Epicurean or a Stoic. You could embrace these principles and be a rational hedonist, as Albert Ellis was, or a utilitarian, as Lord Layard is.
Because these principles are quite limited and modest, and because CBT has proved that these principle are grounded in sound psychology and genuinely help people to overcome emotional disorders, I think governments are valid and legitimate in their support for CBT.
More than that, these basic ethical assumptions are, in my opinion, the foundation of a healthy democracy. To have a healthy liberal democracy, you need citizens who are capable of governing themselves. That is what Socrates tried to teach.
Now PP is somewhat grander in its aspirations. CBT merely wants to help people overcome emotional disorders. It aims at the removal of suffering. PP, by contrast, wants to find out what makes people happy, and what constitutes ‘authentic happiness’. In other words, it is trying to discover what makes a Good Life, and therefore what the goal of life should be.
Martin Seligman, the inventor of PP, insists that it is a science, not a moral or spiritual philosophy. It is morally neutral, he argues. It is descriptive, not prescriptive. It is only interested in the data.
In this sense, PP could be seen as the inheritor of nineteenth century social scientists like Jeremy Bentham, the father of utilitarianism, who tried to create a ‘happiness calculus’ that could scientifically assess private actions and public policies to see if they lead to the greatest happiness of the greatest number.
Lord Layard, the British policy advisor who persuaded the British government to finance CBT and PP, is an avowed utilitarian, and is as optimistic as Bentham was that the ‘new science’ of happiness can be used to radically improve our society in a short amount of time.
And yet Seligman is not a utilitarian. Unlike Bentham or Layard, Seligman admits that happiness is not a single homogeneous experience. There are different forms of happiness, he says: hedonic happiness, engaged happiness, meaningful happiness, authentic happiness. Surveys of subjective states of well-being tend only to measure hedonic happiness, or transient pleasant feelings, he says.
In admitting that there are different forms of happiness, Seligman comes close to admitting, as John Stuart Mill did, that there are ‘higher’ and ‘lower’ forms of happiness. He clearly wants to try and help people towards something higher than simple pleasure, towards something closer to the Greek concept of eudaimonia, which can be translated as ‘meaningful happiness’ or ‘virtuous happiness’.
But as soon as you start talking about ‘authentic happiness’ or ‘meaningful happiness’, then you are beyond the realm of science, and in the realm of moral philosophy. You cannot scientifically measure whether someone is meaningfully happy or not, just as you can’t scientifically measure if their life is good or not. It’s a question of opinion, of values.
Who is to say whether someone’s life is meaningful or not? Seligman writes: “Meaning is assessed by some combination of societal judgement, factual consequence and subjective state.” In other words, there’s no way you could devise some scientific calculus, some mathematical hypothesis, for deciding if someone’s life is meaningful or not. It depends on your values.
What this means is that, while we can and should try to a certain extent to see which therapies really ‘work’ in scientific trials, psychotherapy can never be a pure science, because it inevitably involves questions of what constitutes the Good Life, which cannot be answered scientifically.
Ancient philosophy tried to be both a scientific theory of human psychology (a theory of how human nature usually is), and a moral theory of how human nature should ideally be. Modern psychotherapy is discovering the scientific validity of the ancients’ theory of human psychology, and the scientific efficacy of their techniques of psychic transformation.
But there comes a point where you reach the limit of science, the limits of what can be proved with empirical trials, and you simply have to decide for yourself what the goal of life should be, and then try to reach it.
Seligman tried to prove scientifically what Plato always claimed: that the virtuous life is also the happy life. Seligman writes: “successfully pursuing the Good Life and the Meaningful Life does lead to higher life satisfaction”.
But this is clearly not always the case. There might be some instances where doing the right thing does not lead to pleasant feelings, but to pain, discomfort, or even death.
In such instances, no amount of data from life satisfaction surveys can help you or guide you. No one who has died has yet come back to tell us how satisfying it is.
Plato got round this, as the Buddha did, by embracing the doctrine of the reincarnation of the soul. So even if you die horribly for a virtuous cause, it will still make you happy in the long-run, by bringing you happiness in your next life.
But unless you believe in reincarnation, which has yet to be proven scientifically, then you have to admit that not all virtuous actions will necessarily lead to happiness or life satisfaction, because some virtuous actions could lead to your death.
Therefore you have to make a choice: will you choose virtue or pleasant feelings as the guiding principle of your life? Often these two roads travel in the same direction, but if the two diverge, which path will you choose?
The Stoics famously claimed that the wise man could be happy even while being tortured, a claim that was ridiculed by rival philosophers. And clearly, being imprisoned, tortured or killed does not seem like any sane definition of the Good Life.
But what hopefully the stories in this book show, is that sometimes the most difficult and limiting periods of our life can also be the moments when we become more than machines, and most clearly declare our dignity and spiritual freedom. That is what the Stoics meant by happiness, and it is a happiness that is always within our grasp.