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How arts and humanities can influence public policy

I’ve just been at a three-day seminar at the Institute for Government, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, to help academics learn how to influence public policy. The seminar brought together 15 academics in disciplines ranging from literary criticism to design and urban planning.The IFG arranged an impressive line-up of Westminster big-wigs to talk to us, including senior civil servants, Matthew Taylor of the RSA,and Sir Gus O’Donnell, former head of the civil service. They gave us a fascinating look into how politics works, but also showed how hard it is for academics to influence policy.

As one civil servant told us, ministers are extremely busy and rarely get time to read a newspaper article, let alone a research paper. They want any ‘action points’ to be clearly expressed in a two-page document. Tony Blair apparently said that if you can’t express your idea in two sentences, you don’t understand it. All of this was quite off-putting for some of the academics, trained as they are to appreciate subtlety, nuance and multiple readings. One academic was particularly horrified by the idea of using an infograph to get their ideas across.

On their side, some policy-makers expressed frustration at how little useful advice they were getting for all the money they were putting into academic research. For example, the government somewhat controversially set aside a pot of money for academic research into the ‘Big Society’, but apparently, few practical recommendations have arisen from all that research. I think that shows a mistake in timing – there is a lag between ‘government time’ and ‘academic time’, and academics can best influence policy in the quieter years before government, when politicians are formulating their broader policy visions, rather than during government when any academic contributions risk being seen as entirely expedient.

American academics might be better at mass communication

Another policy-maker noted that American academics seemed to be better at influencing British policy than domestic thinkers: think of the ‘Nudge unit’ inspired by Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein and Daniel Kahneman; or the impact of Martin Seligman’s Positive Psychology on British policy. Why is the RSA’s schedule of public talks so full of visiting American intellectuals, with so few British intellectuals? Perhaps, one speaker speculated, American academics are better at selling themselves because they have a much bigger book market to sell into. That emphasis on mass communication makes them better able to deliver TED-style pitches to busy policy-makers.

However, it’s still the case in the US that arts and humanities scholars have little influence on public policy, with a few notable exceptions in history, law and ethics (Michael Sandel, Martha Nussbaum). English literature and cultural studies have little influence on policy, and perhaps that’s as it should be – novels and poetry thankfully resist the utilitarian bent of our times.

To be provocative: is it possible that the huge influence of critical theory, and particularly of Michel Foucault, on arts and humanities academics have, ironically, rendered them less capable of influencing power and changing the world? Doing an arts and humanities PhD sometimes reminds me of initiation into a cult – you go through a three-year period of social isolation, by the end of which you emerge fully inculcated in the radical doctrine of critical theory. This world-view puts you at odds not just with public policy, but also with mass society, including your friends, family and lovers. One academic told me that few relationships survive a humanities PhD, and that she herself had broken up with her boyfriend half-way through her studies (she’s now happily married to a Lacanian). The initiate in critical theory can end up so sceptical of power, they become incapable of influencing it. This limits their influence to the ‘in-culture’ of academia – a culture which is ironically very hierarchical.  I say this as an ‘outsider’ – someone without a PhD who came into academia through journalism (so perhaps I’m just insecure about my lack of qualifications!)

 Four ways that arts and humanities influence public policy

The bard has always played a central, if controversial, role in politics

Let me end on four positive ways that arts and humanities research can and do influence public policy. Firstly, through investigating stories and their impact on our emotions. The arts and humanities are right at the centre of public policy because political communication is to a large extent about stories, words, symbols and how they move us. The scop, the bard, the story-weaver, has always been an important part of court politics. The most obvious way that the arts and humanities could influence public policy, then, is through the exploration of rhetoric, narrative and its effect on the emotions. This exploration would include the recent work of social scientists and psychologists like Jonathan Haidt and George Lakoff into values and metaphor and how they move us.

At the moment, as far as I’m aware, there is only one centre for the study of rhetoric in the UK, which was opened in Royal Holloway’s classics department in 2010 – though I note that Philip Gould left money in his will for a ‘visiting professorship in rhetoric and the art of public persuasion’ at Oxford. There’s room for much more research in this area, and it would have the benefit of being very interesting and (dare I say it ) useful to politicians and their speech-writers. What are Shakespeare’s history plays if not explorations of the rhetoric, narratives and myths of political power? Winston Churchill was able to ‘mobilize the English language and put it to battle’ (as JFK put it) by studying rhetoric, by reading Shakespeare. Our political culture would be greatly improved if more politicians followed his example. Politicians improve or debase our political culture through their language.

Sir Adam Roberts

Secondly, history has an obvious role to play in public policy. We heard, for example, how the History and Policy project helped the policy-makers working on pension reform in the mid-noughties to unearth the history of the existing pension legislation and see how it had grown anachronistic. History helps us see how aspects of our culture that we might take as natural and eternal are in fact recent and constructed. It also gives us useful historical scenarios to think about where we are and where we’re going (think of Paul Kennedy’s work on imperial over-reach, for example, which might have been usefully read by the Bush government). Sir Adam Roberts is an example of a historian who has frequently contributed memoranda to parliamentary debates.

Thirdly, applied ethics has usefully engaged in public policy for several decades, from Baroness Warnock and others’ work on euthanasia, to the contribution of academic philosophers to the Leveson Inquiry’s debate on balancing press freedom with the right to privacy.

Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum: a good example of cooperation between the humanities and social sciences

Finally, arts and humanities scholars have a clear contribution to make to the politics of well-being. This new movement in politics has so far been dominated by economists and psychologists – the Office of National Statistics’ committee to define ‘national well-being’, for example, didn’t contain a single representative from the arts and humanities. Now, well-being economists and psychologists like Richard Layard and Amartya Sen are increasingly engaging with the humanities, particularly with philosophy. They are engaging with the history and plurality of philosophical definitions of well-being. This is good news, as it means well-being policy will become less top-down and dogmatic and more democratic. For example, I hope to work with Layard’s Action for Happiness to design a ‘well-being course’ for adults, which won’t try to shoe-horn everyone into one pre-fabricated definition of well-being, but will instead enable people to consider the scientific evidence, while also debating and forming their own idea of the good life.

At the moment, there are two main Centres for Well-Being in English academia – Richard Layard’s team at the LSE, which is mainly economists; and Felicia Huppert’s Well-Being Institute at Cambridge, which is mainly psychologists. Hopefully we can get the Well-Being Project at Queen Mary started up in earnest this year, to bring thinkers and practitioners from the arts and humanities more into the conversation.

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In other news:

Jonathan Rowson of the RSA’s Social Brain project has published a thoughtful new report applying Iain McGilchrist’s thinking on neuroscience to public policy.

MPs will finally get access to therapy at the House of Commons. It would be great if they also received personal training on how to cope with becoming a minister – I was surprised to hear from the IFG that they are thrown into top positions without any training.

Disgraced science journalist Jonah Lehrer, who was exposed for plagiarism and fabricated quotes last year, broke his silence to give a speech to the Knight Foundation – for which he was paid $20,000. Cue much public indignation from other journalists, and this apology from the Knight Foundation.

The National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) published its first recommendations for the treatment of psychosis in young people, deciding that anti-psychotics should only be used when absolutely necessary, and that CBT often works better. Another report highlighted that the popular association of psychosis with violence is not entirely a myth.

RIP Ronald Dworkin, the pre-eminent philosopher of law.

The London Philosophy Club is about to become the biggest philosophy club in the world! We’re poised to overtake our friends / rivals in New York. Join up and come see Clare Carlisle talk about Kierkegaard on the 27th, or Stephen Cave talk about immortality on March 13th.

Also, come to the free workshop on Epicurean philosophy and how we can use it in modern life, which I’m running this Tuesday evening at Queen Mary in London. Email me if you need details etc.

Finally, Alain de Botton, one philosopher not afraid of public engagement, declared in Metro newspaper that the Arts Council should be closed and arts engagement should focus on celebrities with millions of Twitter followers, like One Direction’s Harry Styles. Cue this tweet from Harry.

47,000 re-tweets for Socrates. Impressive. Although not quite as many retweets as Harry’s previous tweet:

See you next week,

Jules

‘Show me the compassionate atheist communities’

Do you know any good poo and wee stories? This is the question that confronts me as I arrive at Windsor Hill Wood, an open-door community run by the writer Tobias Jones and his wife Francesca, in Somerset. They live there with their three children – Benedetta is eight, Grace is five, and Leo is three – and there are five beds for guests. In the open-door tradition of Christian communities like Pilsdon and Little Gidding, those beds are available to anyone who turns up looking for shelter. For £10 a night, you get food and board, as long as you obey the three rules: no drink, no drugs, no physical or verbal violence. As a bonus, you get to field unusual questions from the children.

Tobias Jones

Windsor Hill Wood is a refuge for the wounded (particularly those suffering from substance addiction) and an experiment in communal living. It’s also a family home. The Jones children are full of life and mischief. Benedetta is at the age where she is amused by poo and wee, so, in an attempt to limit her dinner-time interjections, Toby has suggested setting aside a brief period after-dinner for ‘poo and wee stories’. Benedetta informs me of this as soon as I arrive, and says I have an hour or so to think up some good poo and wee stories. After dinner, she turns to me expectantly and says, ‘Here’s my story: when I was younger I peed in the bath. Now what’s your story?’ Grace, on my right, is amused by my name. ‘Jules? Like crown jewels?’ And she immediately sets to work making me a crown from some cardboard and feathers. I feel honoured.

Toby says he was inspired to set up the community by the Sermon on the Mount. Every morning and afternoon, he goes to prayers in the  wig-wam chapel on the edge of the wood. The prayers are 15 minutes of silent contemplation, and are completely voluntary. Guests are expected to take part in woodland work in the mornings – feeding the chickens and pigs, chopping wood, making furniture in the workshop, tending to the vegetable patch, fixing stuff. Every meal is taken together.

I first came across Toby last year, at the Hay-On-Wye book festival. He was there to talk about the detective novels he writes, the profits from which he uses to subsidize Windsor Hill Wood. In the festival bookshop, I picked up his book Utopian Dreams, a brilliant account of his travels with his wife and the one-year-old Benedetta to visit various spiritual and religious communities – a Quaker retirement village, a new age commune, a Catholic village without money or TV, and finally the Pilsdon open-door community in Dorset.  Their stay in Pilsdon inspired the Joneses to set up Windsor Hill Wood. The book is also a meditation on community and faith. Toby tells me: “We used to live under one shared sacred canopy – Christianity. Now faith has been privatized, and turned into a lot of little personal umbrellas.” ‘Cocktail umbrellas?’ I suggest. “Yeah, right!” And the price of that privatisation, Toby thinks, is that we have become alienated and lonely.

It’s not all bad, though, is it? I point out that the ‘shared canopy’ that existed before the Enlightenment involved the ruthless extermination of those who didn’t accept the dominant umbrella, whether that be Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Gnostics, pagans or free thinkers. And community isn’t all good: I’m quite glad I don’t live in a village where the vicar checks to see if I’m behaving myself. I like the freedom to choose my own beliefs, my own path.

Still, Toby offers a serious challenge to secular humanism, one which leaves me pondering as I drive back up the A303 to London. In Utopian Dreams, he wondered why faith seemed so important an inspiration to community. Someone in the book asks of the charitable and voluntary sector: “Where are the humanists and Fabians and socialists?” I ask Toby to explore that point further. He says:

Some friends sometimes say ‘you could do this without the religious element’, and I always reply ‘show me the atheist communities that do it. Where are the humanist communities that have an open-door policy, that genuinely look after all the people in need?’ And I’m afraid they don’t exist, or I haven’t discovered them. Even those iconic charities that are now secular in the way they run, like Save the Children or Emmaus or Amnesty International, their inspiration was religious. I’ve yet to discover the agnostic or atheist community that shows that degree of compassion. In theory, love of humanity is a sufficient motive for compassionate communities. But show it to me in practice. I’m more interested in the fruits than the roots.

If that’s the case, I ask, why would that be? Toby replies:

What does it say about religion? That it’s true. You can’t re-package religion for a secular age and say ‘the sacred is really useful,  because it helps us build community and makes us compassionate, ethical people. So let’s take the Sermon on the Mount and forget about God’. That’s not going to work. The core of religion is true, not just the fringe benefits. All the other stuff is a consequence of God. I know I’m in a tiny minority, but I don’t think you can put the cart before the horse. Religion gives humanity an extra gear for cruelty and stupidity and witch-hunting and all the stupid things religions have done for millennia. But it also gives humanity an extra gear for fellowship and compassion. Religion should in theory entirely remove the focus from the self, so that the paramount thing is no longer me and what I’m going through, but something external. That works on the personal level and at the community level, because the community has something outside of itself that is sacred and paramount. We can get together to be reciprocal and compassionate to each other, but that doesn’t suffice. You need something external that gives devout purpose to a bunch of human beings.

The fruit, not the roots

Albert Ellis. Good man. Atheist.

This got me thinking. Certainly there are many noble charities and organisations which were inspired by religion, from the Red Cross to Alcoholics Anonymous. But there are also many worthwhile institutions that weren’t inspired by religion, such as the entire United Nations and all its works, including UNICEF and UNDP. I can also think of many humanists and atheists who have done a great deal to relieve human suffering (if we’re talking about the fruits and not the roots). Albert Ellis, the inventor of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, was a fervent atheist, and quite an egotist, but the therapy he developed has helped millions of people out of suffering. Not to mention all the scientific advances that have relieved human suffering, from penicillin to the household toilet. Some of the scientists who helped build the modern age were religious, but many were not. Some might not even have been that kind or sociable. But their inventions have dramatically improved the conditions of our life.

The secret of the modern age compared to the religious age is that it’s not about the saintly charismatic individual – the Mother Theresa or the Jean Vanier. It’s about effective laws, effective technologies and effective institutions. That might not sound very soulful but, as Jeremy Bentham pointed out, a good pragmatic reform like the minimum wage is more important to relieving human suffering than any number of saints or Salvation Armies. And sometimes good inventions and good laws are made by not very saintly people, like the philanderer Lloyd George. As Adam Smith pointed out, sometimes not very moral behaviour (like status-seeking) has pro-social benefits (like higher economic growth).

There is a big evangelical revival in western Christianity at the moment, a revival in the belief in miracles. That revival is often fuelled by westerners traveling to the Third World, particularly Africa, and witnessing miracles there. Some of my Christian friends are very inspired by this revival and the power of faith and charisma to heal sickness. In some ways, I think this revival is a flight from modernity. Look at child mortality rates or life expectancy in countries with a low level of faith and a high level of scientific expertise, like the UK, and compare it to life expectancy in African countries, which have high levels of faith and low levels of scientific expertise. Faith may sometimes work wonders, but chemotherapy cures more people of cancer. Post-religious societies like the UK are also, on the whole, less violent than intensely religious societies like, say, Pakistan, Israel or Nigeria. I know it’s simplistic to lay those countries’ problems entirely at the door of religion, but religions seem to me to get in the way of solving those problems, rather than helping people arrive at pragmatic and effective solutions.

But of course, secular liberalism has its downsides. As I put it in Philosophy For Life, we have won our privacy, but at the cost of terrible loneliness. We have relied heavily on the scientific, the instrumental, the technocratic. We have relied on scientific expertise divorced from human feeling. And that has sometimes led to vast bureaucratic institutions like the welfare state or the NHS, which can sometimes feel impersonal, un-compassionate, soulless even.  They are contractual rather than transcendental. We meet in them as service-users and service-providers, rather than humans.

We still hunger for loving communities, we long to be joined together in a common sense of the sacred and transcendent. In the last few months, several humanists have suggested the need for ‘humanist churches’ in recent months, from Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists and the School of Life, to the humanist chaplains of Harvard, to the new atheist church in Islington, set up this month and run by two comedians. I’ve taught classes at the School of Life, and I think it’s a wonderful initiative. It offers ideas, stimulation and community to people without faith in God. It is a platform for some of our best thinkers and writers – this week it hosted Richard Sennett. The School means something to people. It helps them think about their values. And yet Toby’s challenge is a good one to consider.

The problems with humanist communities

One of the wonders of the universe: Brian Cox’s ego

Firstly, do humanist communities have good moral leaders? Do they offer us worthwhile moral patterns we can embody in our own life? Many of the most prominent humanists are prominent not because of their emotional or moral qualities, but because of their scientific skill. But not everyone can be a world-class scientist like Richard Dawkins, so that sort of leader is of limited use as a pattern to imitate. And in many humanist leaders, I see an egotism which is not present in the best religious leaders like, say, Jean Vanier. I follow one of Harvard’s young humanist chaplains on Twitter. Every other tweet of his is a retweet of a compliment someone has paid him. He seems to be motivated by the desire for publicity and approval. Nothing wrong with that. Me too, and I’m older than him and should know better. But I want my spiritual leader to be better than that. I want them to be above the desperate desire for fame and publicity that affects most of us (particularly me). I think of that line in the Lord’s Prayer: ‘Thine is the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory.’ Thine is the glory. Without God, I think we can easily end up glorying in our own images. Watching Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Universe, I was amazed how often Cox’s own grinning face fills the cosmos. Again, nothing wrong with that, why shouldn’t media personalities have big egos? I’m just saying, we hope our spiritual leaders are better than that.

Secondly, do humanist communities have the emotional depth of religious communities? How low do they go? Are they capable of facing the depths to which the human spirit can sink? Are they open not just to the educated and well-heeled, but to the broken and wounded, and to human suffering in all its ugliness and awkwardness and blood and poo and wee? Much as I love the School of Life, I think it caters essentially to the middle – the middle-class, and the middle-suffering. I don’t think it would be much help to the truly broken, to the sick, to the dying. I think Roger Scruton is right that secular humanism struggles to find appropriate emotional reactions to major life events, like death. It often becomes mawkish and sentimental, or simply bathetic. Life isn’t all ha-ha hee-hee. The atheist writer Alom Shaha visited Islington’s atheist church recently, which is run by two comedians, and wrote:

The emphasis on making people laugh (which is no bad thing) may, to some extent, have been inevitable considering the background of the organisers, but I hope that The Sunday Assembly might move away from being performer and entertainment driven (similar to events like Nine Lessons and Carols for Godless People) and become more, dare I say it, serious and thinker-driver (if that makes sense).

Yes, it does. But fellowship isn’t just about learning facts, nor is it about TED-like solutions for better living. It’s also about facing failure, suffering and death together.

Is it possible, then, that Toby is right, and that having something in common outside of us – God – allow us to open up and be vulnerable to each other and to share our imperfection and woundedness? Does it enable us to take off our masks and meet each other? One thing that strikes me about my Christian friends is the central importance they give to friendship and meeting. They listen to each other, honour each other. They take their relationship with God very seriously, and they also take their relationships with other humans seriously. I admire that.

Finally, does humanism place too much emphasis on the rational autonomous self? I’ve met some addicts who enjoyed reading Philosophy for Life, and who commented on the parallels between Stoicism and the various Twelve Steps programmes like AA or NA. Both, for example, emphasise knowing the wisdom of knowing what you can control and what you can’t. But AA goes deeper than that. It says that we’re not in control, we can’t do it on our own. We need God and other people to help us.

Well, this is a complex area. Let me end by telling you my poo and wee story. I had broken my leg skiing in Norway, and was flown back to the UK and picked up from the airport in an ambulance. We were driving down the M4 to London, and I needed to pee. So the medic next to me gave me a urine sample bottle to pee into. But I really needed to pee, and it became rapidly clear to me that I was going to pee more than the capacity of the bottle. ‘I’m going to fill it!’ I said. ‘Is there another bottle?’ There wasn’t. As we sped down the M4, the medic and I looked around desperately for another container. Then a voice came back from the driving seat. ‘Use this’. And the driver passed back his lunch box. Sighing with relief, I peed into that. Was the ambulance driver a theist or a humanist? I don’t know, but I was grateful for his help.

I interviewed Tobias for a podcast for Aeon Magazine, which will be released shortly. 

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In other news:

Here’s former LPC speaker Peter Kinderman on why grief and anxiety aren’t illnesses, with reference to DSM V.

Next Tuesday, come and hear Jacqui Dillon, director of the Hearing Voices Network in England, talk at the LPC about her experience hearing voices, why the experience can be meaningful, and how the Network helps voice-hearers to help themselves.

On February 6th, come to the School of Life and hear me talk to philosopher Havi Carel about how philosophy helped her when she faced a potentially terminal illness.

I’m launching a six-part evening course on Philosophy For Life at Queen Mary, University of London. Every Tuesday evening from 6pm to 8pm, starting Tuesday 5th February. It’s free. Details here.

The OUP has published a new Handbook on Happiness, with contributions from leading UK positive psychologists like Ilona Boniwell and Felicia Huppert, and well-being policy pioneers like Nic Marks and Geoff Mulgan. Looks great, if expensive.

Struggling to get PhD funding? Head for Asia.

Get ready for Slavoj Zizek, the opera. And three Oxford undergrads are launching John Rawls’ Theory of Justice: The Musical. I like this new trend.

Here’s an article in the Daily Mail (sorry) about the Liverpool reading project and its latest neuroscience research into what complex poetry does to our brain.

Here’s an article about Drake’s philosophy of YOLO (you only live once).

This week’s newsletter is sponsored by NIETZSCHE BARS.

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,

Jules

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

Postcard from Antwerp

I’m writing this from a cafe in Antwerp, at the end of my first mini book tour abroad, having spent the last week doing talks and interviews in Amsterdam and Antwerp. My Dutch publisher, Regine, has been putting a lot into the promotion here – there’s even going to be a poster campaign around the country. The poster-slogan will be ‘Like Alain de Botton…but with hair!’ I went to the Antwerp book fair yesterday and was gratified to see one of the posters, above an enormous pile of books.

Regine also set up eight or so interviews in the last week with newspapers, magazine and radio. The photoshoots were a bit weird for me – I’m not very photogenic, and just about the only good photos of me in existence were taken by my friend Claudia on the Camino de Santiago – in fact, one of her photos from that trip is on the Dutch cover and another is on the South Korean cover.

The interviews were also quite…um…direct. It was strange to get personal questions lobbed at me like ‘how is your love life?’, ‘do you believe in God?’ and (my personal favourite) ‘have you really recovered from mental illness?’ What can you say to that? ‘No, I still live perched on the edge of madness’.

In Amsterdam, I met Stine Jensen, who is the young face of philosophy in Holland (though she’s actually Danish). She has a real portfolio career – teaching literary theory in the university, writing a philosophy column, appearing on radio, and even hosting her own philosophy TV show, called DusIkBen. She told me she’s about to launch a philosophy show for kids, called DusIkBen Junior. She also has a new range in philosophical gifts – she is launching a ‘conversation box’ in time for Christmas, with quote-cards by Nietzsche, Kierkegaard etc, to stimulate better family conversations this Yuletide.

The Dutch are very into self-help

The Dutch are immensely into self-help, psychology and practical philosophy – perhaps even more than us. One of their most popular magazines is called Happinez. Practical philosophy is perhaps not quite as big there as in the UK (I think we’ve developed something quite special in that respect) but it’s not far behind. Alain de Botton, for example, is very popular here, and is often on TV. His lifestyle-design approach to philosophy works perfectly in Dutch culture, which is very secular, middle class, and house-proud.

Why should the English and the Dutch be so hot on practical philosophy? I guess it’s a part of our Protestant culture – that sense of trying to improve our selves, rather than relying on God or the Church or great prophets like Marx and Rousseau. We are more practical people, suspicious of intellectual prophets. And both our cultures are quite private and individualistic. We don’t want others intruding into our lives. We don’t like the enforced community of religious societies – we want self-help advice, not commandments and diktats.

But the flip-side of that, perhaps, is that our cultures can be quite individualistic and uncaring for the poor and marginalized. You’re suffering? That’s on you pal! Take care of yourself. As someone put it to me, the Dutch are very tolerant – we don’t care what you do. Perhaps practical philosophy / self-help can also be quite individualistic and uncharitable, compared to Christianity. I wonder again whether practical philosophy can be more than personal self-help, whether it can create genuine caring communities, where people don’t just tolerate each other, but care for each other. Could be a philosophy group where people know each other, care for each other, love each other. Sounds like an invasion of your privacy? Well, that’s the whole point.

And could such groups really change society, to make it less unequal and more caring? I don’t know, but it seems to me we can’t afford to retreat into private Epicurean communes of the affluent, arranging our beliefs like so many scatter cushions. Stine Jensen asked me, why are so many English philosophers from fairly privileged backgrounds? Good question. Because we have a very unequal education system…we need to admit that, and think how to improve it.

De Rode Hoed

I visited two practical philosophy organisations while here, one in Antwerp and another in Amsterdam. The one in Amsterdam is called De Rode Hoed (the redhead), which hosts ideas discussions every evening or so. It’s a beautiful converted ‘secret church’. There’s another philosophy place recently opened in Amsterdam, called Brandstof. It’s aiming, I think, to be the Dutch version of the School of Life, and is organising a big one-day event on December 1 with lots of Brits from the School of Life coming over, including Alain de Botton, Roman Krznaric, Philippa Perry, and me. The British invasion!

In Antwerp, meanwhile, I gave a talk at an unusual place called The Searching Deer, which hosts monthly talks by visiting philosophers. I love the Searching Deer, it has a philosophical doorbell…

 

 

Even the wine is philosophical:

Michel de Montaigne wine

 

I stayed in the guestroom there, which had a large mural of Nietzsche on the wall and a statue of a strange woman in the bathroom.

In Antwerp, there was a strange woman in my bathroom.

 

The place was set up by Eddy and his wife. They go on book-holidays where they follow in the footsteps of their favourite writers, while lugging a suitcase full of that writer’s books – last year they followed in the footsteps of Virginia Woolf around the south of England.

I’m off back home this evening, tired but happy. Thanks to my wonderful Dutch publisher, Regine, and also to Wilhemina for organising such a great and busy programme. Regine is really a perfect publisher to have – good at her job, eager to promote you, and not in it for the money. After I gave my talk at De Rode Hoed, she gave me a big hug and said ‘I’m so proud of you!’ That’s the type of publisher she is. Next week the book comes out in Germany. I haven’t any events or interviews set up there yet, but am hoping some will happen.

*****

In other news:

Someone has set up a ‘well-being bank’ in Hartlepool where people can swap good deeds.

Here’s an interesting article on how the Coalition’s idea of ‘Health and Well-Being Boards’ can be used as a vehicle for Socratic discussion, in this instance between prison inmates and prison officials about improving prisoners’ mental health and well-being.

Could the Quantified Self or ‘digital well-being’ market be worth $2 trillion? Sounds like colossal hype to me.

Here’s a piece in Newsweek by my friend Peter Pomeranzev about the Dalai Lama’s new book, which claims that ethics classes could save societies from moral corruption.

Here’s a great article from Aeon about how scientific investigation into hallucinogenics is bringing western rationalist materialism up against some ‘squirmy questions’ about God and the spirit realm. Can we steer through the Scylla of neural reductionism and the Charybidis of Woo-Woo?

Check that the philosophy you use is free range. Force-fed industrial philosophy can be cruel and harmful, plus the product is less nutritious.

Once again a physicist said philosophy has lost its bite, and once again it provoked a lot of soul searching among philosophers – some of whom agreed that the academicization of philosophy may have actually impoverished it rather than improved it. I tend to agree – we need to free academic philosophers from their chicken-coops. We need free-range philosophers.

People are worried that the government’s new EBACC has completely ignored the arts, including art, theatre and philosophy. All the good stuff! Here’s a letter written by some eminent artists to the government.

Here’s a piece by The Education Elf on a new RCT testing a whole-school intervention to improve children’s well-being through Positive Behavioural Interventions and Support. They use these techniques in 16,000 schools across the US, and the study found that it works – sort of.

OK, I’m off home now. Looking forward to sleeping in my own bed, though I will miss the taciturn lady in the bathroom.

See you next week,

Jules

Roman Krznaric: Practical philosophy offers more than lifestyle advice

Roman Krznaric is the author of two popular books that came out this year – The Wonderbox: Curious histories of how to live and How to Find Fulfilling Work – and is also one of the founding faculty members of the School of Life, which teaches the art of living to its clientele. He talked to me about his work in the past with Theodore Zeldin, how the School of Life came to be, and how the practical philosophy movement can do more than offer lifestyle tips, and might even help to tackle the great problems of the age.

Would you say there is such a thing as a ‘practical philosophy movement’?

Yes, though it’s a very broad movement. What’s happened is that over the last 20 years there’s been a revolutionary rise of interest in the question of how to live. And that question has taken a practical focus in many ways, through philosophy clubs and organisations like the School of Life and Oxford Muse.

Why is there this interest in the question of how to live? Why now?

A number of factors spring to mind. Firstly, in the last decade or two, there’s been a flux or crisis in the art of living because of rapid technological changes, like the growth of online dating and social networks, which are raising new issues about how we conduct our relationships. Questions about how to live have also arisen because of the perceived failure of consumerism to deliver the good life, and due to advances in medical technology which mean we’re living longer than ever and having to think more about how to spend the extra years granted to us. Another factor is that people are rethinking their lifestyle choices in the face of the growing threat of climate change.

And finally, I’d suggest these questions have become more prominent as an unintended consequence of the Freudian revolution. We’ve just emerged from a century of psychoanalysis, of a therapy culture that says look inside of yourselves. That inner gaze has not done enough to solve the dilemmas of life. So we’re beginning to look outside of professional therapy for answers, and we’re looking to more communal places like The School of Life or the London Philosophy Club.

A lot of those questions about the good life, it seems to me, were asked by student radicals in the 1960s. One of my hypotheses is that the practical philosophy movement is in some ways the child of 1968.

Tom Wolfe suggested the 1970s was the 'Me Decade'

Perhaps. Though of course the 1970s was the Me Decade, when self-obsession reached new heights. It’s reflected in the rise of things like erhard seminars training, Maharishi communes, therapy culture. Peter Singer writes about this in How Are We to Live?: Ethics in an Age of Self-Interest (1997), where he notes that all his academic colleagues are on therapy, spending a quarter of their salary on analysis. He thought they were being too inward looking in their search for the good life.

So do you think self-help is just selfish and narcissistic?

There are competing streams in the broad self-help movement. In the 1970s and 1980s, you see a very commercial version of self-help emerge, which is all about scrambling up the corporate ladder. Then, as a counter to that, you have a more spiritual form of self help, people like Ram Dass, and the simple living movement which arose in the 1980s. The dominant stream, however, was the commercial / corporate form of self-help.

Tell me how you got into this area.

When I was 17, I discovered Bertrand Russell and read his books. Then, from 1989 to 1992, I studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Oxford. I discovered to my horror that the great questions of how to live were not addressed in an Oxford PPE degree. This was a great disappointment. I’m not certain that academic philosophy has changed much since then. Academic philosophy has mainly failed to respond to the public demand for  guidance as to how to live, and has lost the Ancient Greek ideal that philosophy is something that should be applied to the dilemmas of everyday living.

After graduating from Oxford, I travelled for a couple of years, then I did a masters in Latin American Studies. Following that I did a PhD in political sociology, and began university teaching, mainly in the fields of sociology and politics. I didn’t at that point have any intention to be a philosopher, or write popular philosophy books (in fact, I don’t really think of myself as a philosopher). But I came to believe that the best way to achieve social and political change was not through big structural changes such as new laws or institutions, but rather that the biggest changes in history came through changes in individual relations, through the flowering of empathy. I became very interested in empathy, as a meeting point between the art of living and social change. And that led me to leave academia, because at that point empathy couldn’t easily be researched in academia. It was seen as a psychological phenomenon, and I saw it as more complicated and as involving many different disciplines. I also wanted my investigation to be more practical and to affect people’s lives.

So you left academia. It strikes me that many interesting intellectuals of your age left academia – Alain de Botton, Adam Curtis, George Monbiot. Why the diaspora?

By the late 1990s, to be an intellectual and thinker, you had to escape from the bureaucracy of academia. Take George Monbiot. He could easily be a professor in a range of academic fields – he has enormous scholarly acumen – but my sense is that he feels more intellectual freedom outside of academia, and has more space to pursue his political activism (he has, though, been a visiting professor at several universities). I feel that The Wonderbox is no less rigorous than an academic work. But academics have always been suspicious of popularising or outreach, particularly in history. Historians are embarrassed to look into the past and find lessons for today. Or they think history can teach us how to organize big political systems, not so much provide life lessons on the individual level.

So what options were there for thinkers outside of academia in the late 1990s?

Theodore Zeldin, historian and founder of Oxford Muse

By a fluke, my partner, a development economist, had a research assistant who was working with Theodore Zeldin. I’d read Zeldin’s An Intimate History Of Humanity, and thought it was one of the greatest books I’d read. I’d heard a talk by him about conversations on the radio. Then I discovered that Zeldin had an organisation in Oxford, where I lived, called Oxford Muse. I went to meet him one evening, at a dinner organized by my partner’s research assistant. He liked me, I liked him, and I was intrigued by what Oxford Muse was trying to do – create conversations that promoted mutual empathy.

What is Zeldin like?

I thought he was one of the most amazing and original thinkers I’d met. I worked with him for three and a half years, and what I really noticed was how he would question absolutely everything. He would come into The Oxford Muse and say ‘right, today we’re going to re-invent the insurance industry’, or he’d say ‘there’s a problem with money, we need an alternative’. Then he’d spend months trying to come up with an alternative. He incorporated his daily experience into his ideas, and he never described The Oxford Muse the same way twice. My time working with him was enormously intellectually invigorating.

Tell me about his Feast of Strangers project.

They’re basically what The Oxford Muse calls Conversation Meals, using a Menu of Conversation containing questions like ‘What have you learned about the different varieties of love in the course of your life’. It’s very philosophical – you try to get strangers to talk about how they see the world and themselves. We would try to draw together different groups, like CEOs and homeless people. Or, within companies, we would create conversations across hierarchies. Zeldin thinks that, in a conversation between two people, it is possible to create a tiny bit of understanding and equality – that’s how you change the world, using a microcosmic strategy, one conversation at a time. Another thing we did at The Oxford Muse was to create written portraits of people around Oxford, where they describe themselves and their philosophy of life in their own words. We recruited hundreds of volunteers to talk to people, and created a book called Guide to the Unknown University – revealing the lives of people from every walk of life who exist around Oxford.

One of Oxford Muse's Conversation Menus

So you left Oxford Muse in 2006.

Yes, I felt it was time to move on. I wanted to teach my own courses on the art of living, so started to do that.

Where?

Well, in the beginning I couldn’t find a venue, so the first courses were held in my kitchen. I covered topics such as love, time, work and empathy, and particularly approached them through the lens of cultural history. How can looking at the past help us rethink our approach to everyday life? I also wanted to encourage creative and adventurous thinking about how to live. Gradually, those classes shifted into the public realm. The QI Club in Oxford was looking for new public events, so I began running evening workshops there. My first one was on Love and the Art of Living. I tried to make them as participatory as possible, to get away from the academic seminar format. My main advice is never to speak for more than 20 minutes before you give the audience an opportunity to participate. Try to make ideas accessible and get the audience to work on them. For example, if I was teaching a course on love, I’d not only speak about the history and philosophy of love, I’d get people to draw ‘love maps’ depicting the different kinds of love in their own lives. I thought hard about teaching and the structure of workshops.

To what extent did you feel you were doing something new and unusual?

I didn’t know anybody else doing those sort of classes. I knew of the School of Economic Science’s courses in practical philosophy, but that’s different [Jules’ note: they’re a neo-platonic sect, as I describe in my book]. Then, in 2007, Alain de Botton, who knew about my work at The Oxford Muse, got in touch to talk about the possibility of setting up some kind of ‘university of life’. This is what eventually became The School of Life. Its first director, Sophie Howarth, was the driving force behind shaping the intellectual approach and feel. She asked me to develop one of the five core courses that The School of Life was going to offer, on the topic of work. The love course was developed mainly by Mark Vernon and Alain, the family course by Charles Ferneyhough and Rebecca Abrams, politics by Maurice Glasman and myself, and play I believe grew out of Sophie Howarth’s ideas. Other thinkers such as the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith were also involved. They were all designed to be six week courses, or intensive weekend courses.

Preparing the launch of the School in 2007 and 2008 was a very wonderful period of my life. I wrote a 100,000 word course handbook for the work course, drawing on literature, philosophy, history, anthropology. People don’t realise how much intellectual work went into the School of Life. We’d all draft sections of courses, then come together to discuss them, try out classes, hammer out ideas. It was done very professionally, and required a lot of hard work to get right. We were trying to do something that had never been done: to create a university of life, which was an alternative to mainstream university, intellectually vibrant and absolutely practical.

Most of the people that Sophie Howarth recruited and that Alain got onboard were trying to develop their ideas and careers outside of academia. But they were all academically very well qualified: Robert Rowland Smith had been a fellow of All Souls, Mark Vernon was a PhD, Maurice Glasman was a lecturer at London Met, Rebecca Abrams had published books on family relations (while also teaching creative writing at Oxford University), and Alain got a double starred first in history at Cambridge.

How was it funded?

The idea was that funds were available to get it going for the first few years. There were debates about pricing, and about balancing financial sustainability with accessibility. We felt the courses were affordable – a lot cheaper than the cost of doing an Open University degree, for example. We had to charge, though, to make the School self-sustaining. We also wanted it to expand – the idea was always not just to have one School of Life, but one on every high street.

Was it Sophie’s plan at the beginning to make it more of a social enterprise?

Well, Sophie came from the Tate Musuems’ public engagement programme. Her idea was that The School of Life should strive to be as community-orientated as possible. Although not set up as a charitable foundation, it was certainly not intended that it should be a great profit-making enterprise. Sophie eventually left to start a family, rather than because of any disagreements. The School of Life is now very lucky to have Morgwn Rimel as the director,  who is doing a great job taking it forward.

How has the School done?

It’s now almost four years since it launched. It’s been amazingly successful. Approximately 50,000 people have come through its doors. It is clear that there is a real hunger for public spaces where people can think about the big questions of everyday life.

Has it changed since the launch?

The core vision is still there, the practical model has changed. Initially it was focused on these six-week courses or intensive weekends. But we noticed people would sign up but not be able to go every week. So we incorporated more individual classes in the evening. But the quality and intellectual breadth of the content hasn’t altered.

Tell me about the Sunday Sermons.

I think there was a recognition that people love community and ideas, and there’s something wonderful about the sermon tradition, but we wanted to do it for the modern age. And they’ve been packed out since we launched it. I could never have predicted that public hunger for ideas.

Do you think the School of Life is a community?

I think people come not just to get good ideas for their lives, because it makes them feel they’re not alone. People turn up and realise there’s a large group of like-minded people who care about how to deal with the dilemmas of life. The hunger for shared community is part of the grand transformation that’s happening now – the escape from extreme individualism and the age of introspection, and the recognition we need to nurture our social and communal selves. It’s happening in many forms – in philosophy clubs, in Transition Towns, and so on.

The School of Life has worked with hotels to create 'minibars for the mind'

People have criticised the School of Life as being a bit commercial, a bit lifestyle-obsessed.

I don’t think it’s commercial, it’s driven by ideas. But it doesn’t necessarily yet have as much of a collective ethos to it as it could have, that strong sense of collective ownership among the people who attend. If The School of Life is going to thrive in the long term, I think it needs to develop that. Is The School of Life a community? Yes, but not yet fully realized. You often see the same people coming to classes, sermons etc, but they’re not necessarily creating their own self-sustaining communities once they step back outside the door.

How involved are you in the School now?

Not hugely involved right at the moment because I’m working on a new book. But I still teach classes and courses, and am involved in some of the larger events we do, such as conversations with visiting thinkers like the recent interview I did with Brené Brown at Conway Hall. I also authored one of the School’s six new self-help books, on How to Find Fulfilling Work, and went on tour with my fellow authors. I understand the School is going to be opening branches in Australia, Brazil, and the US over the next year or so, although I’m not directly involved in that.

So how do you think the practical / grassroots philosophy movement will grow?

I think the great task of philosophy clubs is to turn into collective movements of social change, which are capable of tackling the great problems of our age. Look at what they did in the past – at how the Circle of Tchaikovsky in 19th century Russia drew thinkers together and helped to inspire socialist and anarchist movements. That’s the potential of philosophy clubs – they need to escape the obsession with lifestyle. I think we need to wean ourselves off the contemporary obsession with happiness. It’s framed in too individualistic terms. I think we’re going through a great revolution in our understanding of the self, and are realising we’re wired for empathy and mutual aid. If we just obsesses about our own lifestyles, I don’t think we’ll get very far.

Do you think philosophy clubs could help tackle climate change, for example?

Roman talking on the School of Life's recent tour

I think of our failure to tackle climate change as an empathic failure. It’s a failure to step into the shoes of other people today – especially in developing countries who are suffering the impacts of climate change – and of future generations. We’re hopeless at empathising with people who will be alive in 2100. I’m going to continue my work on empathy to try and contribute to that grander project.

You’re planning to set up an empathy museum?

Yes, it will be the world’s first. We need new institutions in public culture. The Empathy Museum may start by existing online, offering downloadable exhibits. I’m interested in the Human Library Movement, which began in Denmark in 2000. You go along to the library on a certain day, but instead of borrowing a book, you borrow a person for conversation, who tells you their story and answers your questions about their life. I’d like to create a downloadable kit so you can put on events like Human Libraries or Conversation Meals in your own community, school or organisation. Then the museum can be put on everywhere by everyone. It breaks down the old static model of the museum and makes it more participatory.

I’m also an advocate for teaching empathy in schools. And perhaps the next revolution for practical philosophy, which grew up outside of university, is to take it back into universities. They need to be reinvented.

This interview was done as part of my research project into grassroots philosophy clubs, which will eventually be found at www.thephilosophyhub.com, with interviews with several other pioneers of grassroots philosophy, and a global map of philosophy clubs.