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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

The Philosophy Hub is go!

Photo of London Philosophy Club by Greg Funnell

Big day today. I’ve finally finished my report on grassroots philosophy groups, which you can download here: Connected Communities- Philosophical Communities.

It’s taken me eight months to research and write, and has made me realise quite how vibrant and diverse the world of grassroots philosophy is. There are 850 philosophy groups just on alone, with a combined membership of 125,000. I’ve found philosophy groups all over the world, from Fukushima to Rio de Janeiro. And I’ve learnt how grassroots philosophy often connects academia to society, with many academics happy to give their time for free to encourage the love of wisdom.

Until now, the broader grassroots philosophy movement has not had a dedicated website, so today I’m also launching a website called The Philosophy Hub, dedicated to ‘building a global thinking culture’. It has a map where people will be able to find their local philosophy group or upload their own group – do please add your own group. Group organisers can then log in whenever they want and add details of upcoming events to their page. There’s also a history of philosophy groups on the site, going back to ancient Greece, which comes from my report (it focuses mainly on the history of western philosophy groups, and I want now to learn more about grassroots philosophy in other cultures). The site also has lots of other resources for people interested in researching grassroots philosophy, or who want to set up and run a club. Finally, there’s a blog which will focus on grassroots philosophy. It launches with an interview with John Mitchinson, one of the founders of the quiz show QI, who talks about the QI Club – the progenitor of the Idler Academy and the School of Life. He’s a fascinating, likeable person.

The rise of grassroots philosophy is an encouraging phenomenon in a period of sudden and brutal change for higher education in the UK. This year, the coalition government slashed its block grant to universities by £3 billion, asking universities to finance themselves through higher tuition fees, which have risen from an average of £3,000 a year to roughly £8,000 a year.  Undergraduates are expected to pay these higher fees through loans from the Student Loan Company. The government’s hope is that this will increase consumer choice and competition among universities – this week, the government began granting university status to private education providers. Slashing the block grant and asking students to pay more was also, of course, intended to help reduce the budget deficit.

The anti-tuition student protest in London this week

No one knows quite what higher education will look like once the dust has settled. The reforms are rapid and bewildering, and often one part of the government seems to be acting against another part: the Home Office, for example, tried to crack down on the number of foreign students at English universities, just when universities desperately need their money. And already there are unintended consequences of the reforms. Andrew McGettigan, one of the organisers of the Big Ideas philosophy club in London, showed in an excellent report for the Intergenerational Foundation that the government had effectively tried to pull an accounting trick by switching funding from a block grant to state-provided student loans.

As Andrew shows, the trick may have reduced the deficit, but unfortunately (and apparently unexpectedly for the Business, Innovation and Skills department) all those new loans have also pushed up the Consumer Price Index (CPI) by about 0.6%. The CPI is used to calculate state pensions and other benefits, so a rise in the CPI of 0.6% means a loss to the public purse of around £2.2 billion annually. Vince Cable was asked about this unexpected consequence at a recent BIS parliamentary committee. He replied: ‘I don’t follow the logic’. This despite repeated warnings from the Office of National Statistics and the Higher Education Policy Institute of the effect of the loan-boom on inflation.

There could be more problems for the tax-payer further down the river. The Student Loan Company is set to lend around £10 billion annually, via income-dependent loans which will be paid back once graduates earn over £21K a year. But the government may have underestimated how much students borrow, while overestimating how much earnings will rise in the next decade, or how much interest rates could rise. If graduates take longer than expected to pay back the loans, or can’t pay them back, it could end up costing the tax-payer more rather than less. As McGettigan notes, students today may end up paying for their university education twice, once today and again as tax-payers in 20 years.

There are attempts to slow or oppose the reforms. This week, 10,000 students marched against tuition fees, but their demands were somewhat broad (from saving the NHS to freeing Gaza) and their alternative to student loan-financing was simply ‘tax the rich’. That may be some of the answer but it’s not all of it. Meanwhile, some senior academics have created the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which aims at resisting the commercialisation of higher education. But the CDBU risks looking like grumpy old academics trying to protect the status quo. They follow Stefan Collini’s argument that students don’t know what’s good for them, therefore putting them in control of the money is like letting children run a candy store. The CDBU worries that students will all choose subjects that give good salaries, like business and management studies, while neglecting more liberal subjects like history or philosophy (both of which have declined in popularity in the last few years, unlike almost every other subject). And the CDBU dislikes the government’s emphasis on quantifying the quality and ‘impact’ of research. Academics should, Collini argues, be free to pursue research for its own sake, without any regard to social or economic benefit.

To which I’d reply, yes, to an extent. But I think academics of my generation (if I can call myself an academic, despite my lack of a PhD) are far more comfortable with the importance of ‘impact’. We’re impatient with older academics who seem to see any attempt at community engagement as a distraction, who congratulate themselves on their ignorance of social media. We see the decline of the tradition of university extension as a great tragedy, an abandonment of the public role of the intelligentsia in society. In other words, I agree much more with the Stefan Collini who wrote Absent Minds, Collini’s 2006 book in which he bewailed the disappearance of public intellectuals in British culture. Nowadays we only seem to hear from academics when they’re complaining about the loss of their own privileges. Sixty years ago, Beveridge, who as a young man worked at Toynbee Hall, designed the welfare state while serving as Master of University College, Oxford. Bring back the Beveridge model of academics!

My generation also think universities should listen to the needs and desires of their undergraduates, and should do a lot more to provide well-being and counseling services on campus.  And I think we’re prepared to be creative and innovative in how subjects are taught at university. At Queen Mary, University of London, for example, we alas don’t have a philosophy department, so next year we’re launching a free practical philosophy course which any undergraduate can take, whatever their subject.  I’d also like to make the course available to the local community. And I think we can improve the university experience, so that one doesn’t simply study ‘management studies’ or ‘computer sciences’, but instead can learn from both the humanities, and the sciences, and learn vocational and life skills, to get a genuinely rounded education – closer to the American model, in other words, where students can study several subjects and get a broader education.

There is a lot to dislike about the government’s higher education reforms. They seem to be the sort of omnishambles we have come to expect. But resistance to austerity measures can’t simply be about protecting the status quo of the past. It needs to be a progressive vision, a positive vision, a vision of making things better.


Jesus, I sound like Tony Blair. Cue Brian Cox on the synth. In the meantime, here are some young academics with vision.

First, meet Patrick Ussher at Exeter University’s classics department (that’s him on the right with the laptop open, at a recent Exeter seminar on Stoicism and CBT). Patrick wrote his dissertation on Stoicism and Buddhism, and is now doing a PhD on Marcus Aurelius. I met him at the seminar shown on the right. Next week, he’s launching an initiative called Live Like A Stoic For A Week. He’s produced a booklet where people can find practical Stoic exercises for life. Pick one, try it out for a week, and record the results through one of the well-being questionnaires provided by the psychologists working on the project (Tim LeBon and Donald Robertson). Me, I’m going to give up booze for a week. How about you? The week is being covered by the Guardian and has attracted lots of interest. Go Patrick!

Ben Irvine of the Cambridge Well-Being Institute

On Wednesday, meanwhile, I traveled to Cambridge University to talk at a seminar on the politics of well-being organised by Tom Barker, an inspiring young PhD who is researching meaningful work. I spoke at the seminar alongside Ben Irvine, who is coordinator of the Well-Being Institute at Cambridge (where Felicia Huppert works), the founder of the Journal of Modern Wisdom, and the author of a new book, Einstein and the Art of Mindful Cycling. Ben, like me, passionately believes that intellectuals have a social responsibility to engage with society and communicate their ideas to as wide an audience as possible. I was very impressed with the range and calibre of people working on well-being in Cambridge, and how well the Institute brought people together fromdifferent disciplines (architecture, psychology, philosophy, geography etc).

This week, the Office of National Statistics published a big report presenting and reflecting on the data on national well-being it has been collecting for a year. The head of the civil service, Sir Jeremy Heywood, called for ministers and civil servants to start using the data to make actual policy decisions, while the previous head of the civil service, Sir Gus O’Donnell (who is now running a well-being programme at the Legatum Institute) said one clear policy recommendation was for the NHS to spend less on physical illnesses and more on mental illnesses.

The new CEO of Barclays Bank, Antony Jenkins, has (according to the Daily Mail) has “corralled his 125 most senior managers, including former close Diamond associate Rich Ricci, into attending a series of seminars and bonding exercises aimed at instilling ethical values. The executives will then be expected to act as evangelists for the new culture throughout the organisation. During the two days they will be immersed in sessions including history lessons on the bank’s heritage as a Quaker institution. They will also be subjected to ‘360 degree feedback’ on their performance, with people both above and below them in the hierarchy contributing to their bonus assessments. The process is designed to penalise self-serving or unethical behaviour.”

Sounds like the Cultural Revolution. I like the idea of lessons in Quaker values though. What I think would be great would be to combine ethics training courses with stress management / well-being courses – the essence of both resilience and ethics is good character.  I was at a fantastic conference on compassion and empathy today at the Quaker meeting house in London, by the way. The highlight for me was a workshop on Deep Listening by Rosamund Oliver. Good stuff, although she works for Sogyal Rinpoche. I loved his books when I was a teenager, and was gutted to find out he was a sex pest. Anyway, the Deep Listening workshop was brilliant.

Well, I think that’s enough information for one week. My book’s doing good in Holland, by the way, thanks to my amazing publishers, who lined up a lot of interviews and also launched a poster campaign (check it out on the right). They tell me it’s already going for a second printing. It also came out in Germany this week.

See you next week, and hope you like the report and The Philosophy Hub.