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Aaron Beck

In defence of Stoic Week

I was slightly surprised to see that Julian Baggini had used his column in the Independent to make some criticisms of ‘Stoic Week’, part of a project at Exeter University with which I’m involved. When you think of all the serious things happening in the world at the moment, from extreme weather to the war in Gaza, it seems odd to use your column in a national newspaper to criticise a project which, taken all together, is in my opinion a small but positive thing within the philosophical landscape.

Philosophy is so utterly marginal to British culture, so threatened with irrelevance at school and university level – is it really helpful for prominent philosophers to use what little public space they get to criticise initiatives aimed at broadening the public awareness of philosophy?

The project at Exeter brings together classicists, philosophers and psychologists to engage in a dialogue about the relationship between Stoic philosophy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). As regular readers of this blog will know, CBT was directly inspired by Greek philosophies (not just Stoicism, also Socrates, Plato, the Sceptics and Epicureans…but mainly the Stoics). CBT is now the most scientifically credible and popular form of therapy for many emotional disorders. To my mind it is fascinating that CBT has built up an evidence base to show that the Stoics’ ideas and techniques for transforming the emotions genuinely work. It is extraordinary that ideas about the emotions conceived two millennia ago should still be our best guide for healing the emotions today.

I have written about this connection between Stoicism and CBT for five years or so, and all that time I could not understand why more philosophers did not write about it and see it as something really positive and interesting. The exception is Martha Nussbaum, whose 2001 book ‘Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions’, explores the scientific evidence for the Stoics’ cognitive theory of the emotions (although Nussbaum does not accept the Stoics’ normative position, and characterises her own position as ‘neo-Stoic’).

Now, thanks to the Exeter project and to a series of books in the last two years on the relationship between Stoicism and CBT (including my own book), there is a lot more interest in how ancient philosophies can really help people cope with difficult situations and transform their emotions.

There have always been philosophers who criticise the modern use of Stoicism as a form of practical therapy. When I published an interview with Albert Ellis (the pioneer of CBT) back in 2007, Mark Vernon criticised my article for mistakenly conflating Stoicism with CBT, and ignoring the differences between the two. CBT was, at best, ‘Stoicism lite’, he wrote. I disagreed at the time, but now I think he makes a fair point – CBT does leave out a lot of Stoicism, not least its cosmology, its theism, and its ethical value system. It instrumentalises it, turning it into a set of techniques rather than a comprehensive moral system.

You can understand why CBT did that. To become a scientifically credible therapy, it had to drop any talk of God or providence, or even of the meaning of life. It teaches people how to transform their emotions, how to steer the self, without telling them where to steer the self to. It leaves people to decide for themselves what the meaning or goal of life is. You could develop a Marxist CBT, or an Islamic, Buddhist, Epicurean, capitalist or Aristotelian CBT. All it teaches you is how to transform the self and its emotions, not what the ideal self looks like.

Many people who have been helped by CBT go on, as I did, to explore the Greek philosophies from which it evolved – they get into ‘Stoic CBT’ or ‘philosophical CBT’. We fill in the bits that CBT left out – about God, society and the meaning of life. That is for us to do, not cognitive therapists working in the NHS. My book shows the different ethical directions that the Greeks took the cognitive theory of emotions, and leaves the reader to make up their own mind.

Baggini, in this latest salvo, suggests that the Exeter project is part of a mass ‘therapisation’ of our culture. He writes:

Not so long ago, therapy was widely seen as something only for the seriously disturbed or neurotic, overeducated Americans. Now, all that is good is being turned into therapy. Rather than seeking help on Dr Freud’s couch, people are turning to Monty Don’s allotment or Jamie Oliver’s kitchen to soothe their troubled psyches. Ancient philosophy is also undergoing this process of therapisation.

I’m not sure about the first sentence. ‘Not long ago’…as in when? Therapy and self-help have been pretty central to western culture since at least the Sixties. And I don’t think that people see Jamie Oliver as a particularly therapeutic figure, do they? And if people do find that gardening or cooking makes them feel good, what is wrong with that? I hardly think that finding gardening soothing to soul is a decadent modern invention.

Baggini’s on even shakier ground when he suggests that we are distorting ancient philosophy by trying to turn it into a form of therapy. I’m sure he’s read the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Sceptics and so on – so he’ll know that they themselves very explicitly saw their philosophy as a form of therapy, which heals people of emotional problems. The Greeks’ view of philosophy as a form of therapy is explored at length in my book; or Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics; or Richard Sorabji’s Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation, or the Royal Institute of Philosophy essay collection, Philosophy as Therapeia. The therapy of the emotions is there on every page of Hellenistic philosophy.

Baggini may not be into this Hellenistic tradition. He might think it’s all a load of sap. He might prefer, I don’t know, the modern analytic tradition, or continental philosophy, or British empiricism. That’s absolutely fine. But the Hellenistic tradition is very much concerned with the emotions and how to transform them. It’s very much concerned with therapy or the art of being doctor to yourself. We’re not distorting it.

Baggini writes:

The only good reason to embrace a philosophical position is that you are convinced it is true or at least makes sense of the world better than the alternatives. I’m not a stoic because I do not agree that we are all fragments of an all-pervading divine rationality which is providentially organising the world, or that Epictetus was right to say you should not be disturbed if your wife or child dies or that “my father is nothing to me, only the good”. To become a stoic is to endorse the truthfulness of its world view and accept its prescription for how you ought to live, not just to like how it makes you feel.

Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive-behaviour therapy, and Albert Ellis, founder of rational-emotive behaviour therapy, both appropriated Stoic ideas for their own ends, as does the philosopher Richard Sorabji, who says of Stoicism: “I choose the bits which I find helpful and I don’t take the full theory.” Such cherry-picking is perfectly legitimate. What’s objectionable is praising the joys of scrumping as though it were on a par with the care, dedication and understanding of growing an orchard.

This is the ‘all or nothing’ argument that I have sometimes been presented with. Don’t talk about Stoicism unless you are going to be a 100% Stoic, accepting all their ideas (including belief in the Logos, indifference to all external things, and faith in the periodic conflagration of the universe). Otherwise you’re just ‘pick n’ mixing’, not really seriously committing to a particular ethical path.

My response to this is that the ancients themselves pick n’ mixed. Marcus Aurelius pick n’ mixed from the Epicureans and Neo-Platonists. Posidonius pick n’ mixed from Plato and the Stoics. Augustine pick n’ mixed from Christianity and Platonism. Cicero pick n’ mixed from every philosophy out there. Baggini took some ideas from Hume in his book The Ego Trick. Does he agree with 100% of Hume’s ideas? No? Well that’s just pick n’ mixing! That’s just scrumping!

We all, to some extent, construct our own philosophies. What is important is whether our life-philosophies fit with human nature and the needs of our society at this particular time, and whether we actually live by them.

Most of the people I know who are into Stoicism today are fairly heterodox. But they make an effort to understand what the ancient Stoics really meant. They read not just Seneca and Aurelius, but also AA Long, Nussbaum, Hadot, Annas, Sorabji. They are serious about their philosophy of life, even though they’re not academics. And I also know a lot of people who have never read AA Long or Sorabji, but who have still read some Epictetus or Seneca, and found it really helpful – even a life-saver. Are they ‘pick n’ mixing’? Are they ‘scrumping’? Who the hell cares. Thank God, they have been helped by the Stoics through life’s many difficulties. I don’t care if they are a ‘proper Stoic’ or not. I care if they are suffering, and if they find something that helps them to cope with the suffering.

I personally am not a proper Stoic. I do not think externals are indifferent. I believe in reincarnation. I believe some passions are appropriate. However, I think the Stoics were unrivalled in their understanding of how emotions arise and how we can change them. They were unrivalled in some of their practical ideas for how to stay resilient in chaotic conditions, such as Epictetus’ idea of knowing the difference between what you can control and what you can’t. These ideas saved my life, and got me through depression and anxiety. I still use these Stoic ideas and techniques today, despite not accepting the Stoics’ normative position. I don’t think this is illegitimate, nor do I think Ellis and Beck’s ‘appropriation’ of Stoic ideas and techniques is illegitimate: CBT has helped millions of people to overcome suffering, which is more than can be said for most contemporary philosophers.

Baggini wants to keep therapy and philosophy safely apart, he says. Therapy (like CBT) is a set of instrumental techniques for ‘coping, not treating the whole person’, while philosophy helps us develop ‘a comprehensive outlook on life, along with a set of values’. I agree that, if you have an acute emotional disorder, you need immediate coping strategies, not total moral systems. But for the Greeks and Romans, these two things were on a continuum – first the immediate coping with crisis, and then the searching out of a more comprehensive philosophy of life. How can you draw a firm line between CBT and the philosophies from which it emerged…and why would you want to?

Philosophy and psychotherapy: no talking allowed!

I think therapists are increasingly learning that it is difficult to avoid normative questions of value and of what we mean by ‘flourishing’ etc. And philosophers are learning that it’s important to ground ethics in proper working theories of human nature and the emotions. As I put it in my book, ethics without psychology is a brain in a vat, while psychology without ethics is a chicken without a head. So I don’t think we can or should draw a hard line between psychotherapy and philosophy  – and I think it’s strange that Baggini should want to, considering he writes a weekly column with his psychotherapist partner called ‘The Shrink and the Sage’.

Finally, Baggini criticises ‘Stoic Week’s use of well-being questionnaires. Well, look, I think he is taking too seriously what started off as a small and fun project for Exeter classics undergrads. I know Baggini hates ‘happiness measurements’ and the attempt to try and use them to draw moral prescriptions (I have some sympathy with him here), and perhaps he sees this as an invidious example of that positivist trend. Of course the Stoic ethos is not about personal happiness – although I think these questionnaires try to measure flourishing or resilience rather than happiness. I personally am taking part in the week without religiously filling in the questionnaires.

In general, Stoic Week was the idea of a young post-grad at Exeter called Patrick, who is part of the Exeter project, and who wanted to give his students a sense that Stoicism wasn’t just something to study, but something you could practice each day. That is a fantastic idea, and his students have posted some YouTube videos of their experiences. No one, especially not Patrick, expected Stoic Week to gain international attention, or to attract the criticisms of a prominent British philosopher in the Independent! In general, though, I’d suggest that if the next generation of academics have half as fresh, engaging and practical an attitude to philosophy as Patrick does, then the future looks bright.

As to the questionnaires, no one is saying this is a serious scientific study. But the reason CBT has succeeded in reaching and helping millions of people, is it created an empirical evidence base to show it really worked. Likewise, the reason mindfulness therapy is now accepted in the NHS is it built up an evidence base to show it helped people overcome depression etc. Keeping evidence is not so out of kilter with the ancients’ tradition – they would also keep track of their ethical progress in journals. You don’t have to measure your daily happiness. You could measure your success at not losing your temper, for example. Epictetus said ‘count the days on which you were not angry’. So keeping track of your progress can be a useful part of the philosophical life.

I look at the utter marginalisation of philosophy in our culture today, and I think it is a pity. I personally believe philosophy is an extraordinary thing, something that can transform and even save lives. I wish more people knew that. Philosophy needs all the help it can get right now, so why knock initiatives that succeed in getting people involved and showing them the wonderful riches within our philosophical tradition?

Let me end with my favourite quote from Seneca, an exhortation to all philosophers great and small: “There is no time for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?”

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