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Why I love Thomas Traherne

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I  had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder from 1995 until 2001. Seven years of fear, anxiety, depression and paranoia, which I feared would last forever. But I got better, thanks to a near-death experience.

Your heart may sink when people start recounting near-death experiences. As a bishop once said to the Methodist John Wesley: ‘Pretending to special revelations of the Holy Spirit is a horrid thing.’ I don’t think my ‘revelation’ was in any way unique or unusual. A lot of people have these kinds of experiences, including as many as one fifth of people who suffer cardiac arrests. In themselves, they’re not necessarily significant or sanctifying. But sometimes, whatever they are and wherever they come from, they teach us useful things.

In 2001, I fell off a mountain while skiing, broke various bones, and knocked myself unconscious. When I came to, I saw a white light and felt completely filled with an infinite love, for myself and for everyone else. I felt that light was our souls, and they were perfect and immortal.

For some reason we had lost touch with this treasure within us, and allowed ourselves to become imprisoned by false beliefs, false opinions. I, for example, was imprisoned by the belief: ‘I am permanently damaged and therefore unlovable’. This made me very anxious about whether others still liked or loved me. In that moment, I realized I was lovable, we all are, and we just need to trust in the treasure of love within us, rather than anxiously trying to prove ourselves to other people.

For several weeks, I felt completely healed, not just healed, more than healed, I felt in love with the world. Music sounded better, life felt better, everything was illuminated. But then gradually the insight faded, the old mental habits came back, and I found myself becoming imprisoned by depression and anxiety again.

So I went to do a course of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, knowing that it was based on the same wisdom I had accessed in my accident – that what hurts us is our own beliefs, and we need to learn to free ourselves from them. I practiced and practiced and gradually turned my insight into habits.

Then I wrote a book about how CBT came from Greek philosophy, and spent several years working to communicate the benefits of Greek philosophy to people – particularly non-believers, for whom Stoicism is a very useful resource.

But I started to feel both Stoicism and CBT left something out. I still wondered: what was that experience on the mountain? What was that ecstasy? What is that infinite love that can so transfigure and transform us? How do we access it?

Traherne’s ecstatic wisdom

This brings me to Thomas Traherne. He was a 17th century Anglican parson (his dates are roughly 1636 to 1674), who lived in Hereford. He wrote some poetry and some religious prose. He was never famous or well-connected, like John Donne or George Herbert. He was not some radical outsider, like William Blake. He died young and uncelebrated, and remained almost completely unknown until 1896, when some of his manuscripts were discovered in a wheelbarrow outside a London antiques bookstore, including a book called Centuries of Meditation, which is a contemplative guide made up of 400 brief meditations. It was first published in 1908.

Since then, Centuries has been recognized by a handful of people as a classic. CS Lewis called it ‘almost the most beautiful book in the English language’. Aldous Huxley quoted from it liberally in his Perennial Philosophy. Northrop Frye thought it one of the great works of western literature. Traherne is loved by Thomas Merton, NT Wright,  the Bishop of London. Yet he’s still largely unknown, even among Christians, even among Anglicans.

51lROa35LNL._SY445_There is no major edition of Centuries available, none by a major publisher, none for under £20. Is that not extraordinary, for a spiritual classic of the first order? Thankfully some scholars are working to bring his glory to light, including Denise Inge, the wife of the Bishop of Hereford, who sadly died earlier this year. She published several books on Traherne, including Happiness and Holiness.

Traherne and Greek wisdom

Here’s why I love Traherne. First of all, like all Anglicans of that era, he really knows and loves Greek philosophy. Would that were so today, when Christians are intellectually threatened by anything beyond CS Lewis.

Traherne gets the essence of Stoic wisdom. First, we are imprisoned by our beliefs – he writes: ‘our misery proceedeth ten thousand times more from the outward bondage of opinion and custom, than from any inward corruption or depravation of Nature’. False opinions ‘alienate men from the Life of God’. As Rousseau realized a century later, we are particularly alienated (or enslaved) by our need for others’ approval:

An ambition to please, a desire to gratify, a great desire to delight others being the greatest snare in the world. Hence it is that all hypocrisies and honours arise, I mean esteem of honours…For men being mistaken in the nature of Felicity, and we by a strong inclination prone to please them, follow a multitude to do evil. We naturally desire to approve ourselves to them, and above all things covet to be excellent, to be greatly beloved, to be esteemed, and magnified, and therefore endeavour what they endeavour, prize what they prize, magnify what they desire, desire what they magnify.

This is straight out of Seneca, and also taps into the tradition of Cynic wisdom: humans are ‘grown mad with customary folly’, writes Traherne, echoing Erasmus and before that Diogenes the Cynic.

What can free us from what Blake called our ‘mind-forged manacles’? Wisdom.

Traherne writes: ‘Wisdom is the principal thing, yet all men neglect her.’ True philosophy is a love of wisdom, and this will direct us to happiness, or Felicity. We should strain every sinew to learn ‘the way to perfect happiness’. Yet philosophy and learning has become spiritually dead, pursuing only knowledge:

There never was a tutor that did professly teach Felicity, though that be the mistress of all other sciences…[At university] we studied to inform our knowledge, but knew not for what end we so studied. And for lack of aiming at a certain end we erred in the manner.

Wisdom involves learning to change your ‘frame’, as Traherne puts it. Your perspective, your life-philosophy – what you see, notice and value – is all-important, determining whether you live in Hell or Paradise. We must learn to ‘see aright’, to ‘enjoy aright’, otherwise, the ‘foundation’ of our reality is ‘out of course’ and we will be miserable.

The entire Centuries is really a contemplative manual, a therapeutic course, to try and help us see aright, value aright, and enjoy aright.

True wisdom involves not just theory but practice – this too is very much a Stoic insight. Philosophers ‘are not only those that contemplate happiness, but practice virtue.’ We must take wisdom and turn it into habits through repetitive meditation: ‘Having once studied these principles you are eternally to practice them. You are to warm yourself at these fires and to have recourse to them every day.’

Desire and yearning

So far, so Stoic. But Traherne goes beyond Stoic wisdom, towards more Platonic wisdom. Stoics, like Buddhists, believe desires and passions are basically bad. We should learn not to want. Plato, by contrast, thought that desire, love, wanting, yearning, was a good thing, it just needed to be steered to its proper goal. Desire is actually a yearning for our spiritual home – for God. We just need to follow this yearning and be true to it rather than narcotizing it with worldly comforts.

'I want! by William Blake
‘I want! by William Blake

Wants are good. Wants are ‘the bands and cements between God and us’. ‘Want is the foundation of all His Fulness’. Want is ‘a treasure in heaven’. ‘You must want like a God, that you may be satisfied by God’. We are lifted to God on the wings of desire. ‘The Desire satisfied is a Tree of Life.’

So we must follow the yearning of our soul, rediscover our heritage, rediscover the treasure within, and realize how blessed, how rich we are. We often feel like homeless exiles in this world, lonely, deprived, cut-off, scrabbling for a living, begging for approval, desperate for love.

If we could just learn to ‘see aright’, we could realize we are the heirs of God, we are inheritors of the kingdom, we have God within us – an infinite consciousness filled with infinite love. We have forgotten how rich we are.

Traherne recognizes that the key problem, the key false idea that is poisoning our reality, is a lack of self-esteem. We feel unloved, and unworthy of love, and this poisons our relationship with God and brings us to a depressed atheism. So what he does in Centuries is to try and teach us self-love, that we may learn to love others and to love God. ‘Self-love is the basis of all love…That pool must first be filled that shall me made to overflow.’

The way to self-love is to realize we are special. We are not mere machines in perpetual struggle with one another, as Traherne’s contemporary Thomas Hobbes insisted. We are the heirs of God.

All the World is yours…Though art the sole object of His eye, and the end of all His endeavours…the heavens are the canopy, and the earth is the footstool of your throne.

Enjoying aright

God created ourselves and the world solely that we should enjoy it. That’s the main purpose of life, according to Traherne. That should be at the top of our to-do list every morning: enjoy existence, enjoy creation. That’s the main thing God wants of us, that’s all we really need to do to live well. Everything else is secondary.

There’s a kind of mystical Epicureanism to Traherne – we have perfected the art of making ourselves miserable through our beliefs, now we can choose to give ourselves up to the pleasure of communion with God and nature. We can choose to be happy by seeing the richness of the moment, rather than choosing to be miserable by chasing after false goods:

Your enjoyment of the world is never right, til every morning you awake in Heaven; see yourself in your Father’s Palace; and look upon the skies, the earth, and the air as Celestial Joys: having such a reverend esteem of all, as if you were among the Angels….You never enjoy the world aright, til the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world.

God and the infinity of our souls

The evidence for God’s existence and for His love of us is, firstly, the wonder of nature, including ourselves, our bodies – ‘the greatest treasures of all’. We must learn to prize the things of nature rightly, to give thanks for them, treat them justly. But beyond that, the greatest evidence for God’s bountifulness is our infinite souls.

Traherne is part of a mystic tradition of English metaphysical poets, that stretches from Shakespeare to Donne, Herbert, Vaughan and Blake, all of whom had the ability to use language and metaphor as catapults to propel themselves beyond language,  beyond rationality, beyond the little walls of the self, towards the infinite.

Like these poets, and like Whitman later, Traherne sees God illuminated in nature. ‘The infinity of God…magnifieth all things.’ ‘Every spire of grass is the work of His hand.’ ‘An Ant is a great Miracle’, the ‘sweetness and unusual beauty’ of trees makes his soul ‘almost mad with ecstasy’.

When we’re children, we have a capacity to be ravished by the wonder, beauty and liveliness of the natural world, but then we lose our amazement through custom and familiarity. Poetry and philosophy help us to wonder like children again – here Traherne anticipates Rousseau, Blake, Wordsworth, CS Lewis and the Romantic (and very English) idea that children’s souls are closer to God than those of adults, and that imagination can bring us back to that secret garden we lost.

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Chief among the wonders of nature are our own souls, the infinite dimensions of which are proof to Traherne of God’s existence and our inheritance: ”I will in the light of my soul show you the Universe.’

here the dimensions of innumerable worlds are shut, up in a centre. Where it should lodge such innumerable objects, as it doth by knowing, whence it should derive such infinite streams as flow from it by Loving, how it should be a mirror of all Eternity, being made of nothing, how it should be a fountain or a sun of Eternity out of which such abundant rivers of affection flow, it is impossible to declare. But above all, having no material or bodily existence, its substance, though invisible, should be so rich and precious. The consideration of one Soul is sufficient to convince all the Atheists in the whole world.

Would that it were so. Instead, we have come to deny consciousness as an embarrassing outlier in the mechanistic model. Either it doesn’t exist, or it doesn’t do much. Not so, says Traherne. It shows us our true divine nature: ‘The true exemplar of God’s infinity is that of your understanding, which is a lively pattern and idea of it…The WORLD is but a little centre in comparison with you…Souls are God’s jewels, every one of which is worth many worlds.’

Next time you’re on a bus, look at the people round you. Each one is a miracle of consciousness. Each one is a universe. Yet we have forgotten this, and feel small and worthless, and God feels like an old and fanciful idea. We Measure GOD by our selves’, when we should measure our selves by God. ‘Every man is alone the centre and circumference of it. It is all his own, and so glorious, that it is the eternal and incomprehensible essence of the Deity. A cabinet of infinite value, equal in beauty, lustre and perfection to all its treasures.’

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Infinite Love

When we think of something, our minds stretch towards it, and transform it into apprehension. But even more so when we Love something. Love is a reaching, an attending, a stretching of the boundaries of the self. In love we discover the infinite nature of the soul, which can reach towards and take into itself even the infinity of God.  ‘By Loving a Soul does propagate and beget itself. By Loving it does dilate and magnify itself. By Loving it does enlarge and delight itself…But above all by Loving it does attain itself.’

‘Love is deeper than at first it can be thought. It never ceaseth but in endless things. It ever multiplies.’ ‘God is Love, and my Soul is lovely!’ ‘By Love alone is God enjoyed, by Love alone delighted in, by Love alone approached or admired. His Nature requires Love, thy nature requires Love.’

God’s Love is infinity multiplying itself in the souls of all beings. This Love spreads not just through all the beings in this world, but perhaps through infinite worlds: ‘The Earth is too poor a cottage, too small a centre, to be the Single and Solitary object of his care and love’, Traherne writes in Kingdom of God. ‘What if beyond the Heavens there were Infinite Numbers of Worlds at vast unspeakable distances. And all Those worlds full of Glorious Kingdoms? and all those Kingdoms full of the most Noble and Glorious Creatures…Would this Abolish Heavens? Verily in my Conceit, it Enricheth it.’

Occasionally, Traherne attains a vision of God’s plan completed, when all beings are realized and filled with love for God and for each other, and the universes have become a network of conscious souls blazing with light. All are connected to God, and become God: ‘All are happy in each other. All are like Deities. Every one the end of all things, everyone supreme, every one a treasure, and the joy of all, and every one most infinitely delighted in being so.’

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Grace and Jesus’ Love

This sounds great. How lovely for Traherne to have such an ecstatic nature. But the rest of us find it a little harder to tune our souls into Love FM. We are a little more insecure, a little more distracted by worldly cares, more besieged by adversity, more trapped in ugliness and cruelty, more imprisoned in our need for material consolations.

And yet sometimes we have experiences where something helps us, beyond our own efforts. Love picks us up. That was my experience – I had messed up my own life, I had become lost in a labyrinth of false beliefs. And Love lifted me out of it. Strange but true. The Stoics say nothing of such experiences. Nor does CBT. Yet they happen. So what are they?

Perhaps they are our souls revealing themselves to us. Perhaps in moments of heightened consciousness – including life-threatening accidents – we get glimpses of the Atman within us.

For Traherne, such moments are gifts from God, and the ultimate gift was his own Son, giving himself for Love of us. Jesus’ love and sacrifice, Traherne believes, opened up a new connection between God and humans, that can break through our prisons. The Cross is a ‘Jacob’s Ladder by which we ascend to the highest Heavens’. It is a spear piercing time and space: ‘Had the Cross been twenty millions of ages further, it had still been equally near.’

road_to_the_cross_jekelThe Cross is ‘the abyss of wonders, the centre of desires, the school of virtues, the house of wisdom, the throne of love, the theatre of joys, and the place of sorrows; It is the root of happiness and the gate of Heaven’. It teaches us the way to the kingdom within us, by giving ourselves up to Love: ‘Teach me, O Lord, these mysterious ascensions. By descending into Hell for the sake of others, let me ascend into the glory of the Highest Heavens.’

Non-Christians may struggle with the Christology of this. Is Traherne saying the only way to God is through Christ, because Christ paid the debt of Original Sin? Anglicans would argue that he does say this – certainly in other books he is more dogmatic, less ecstatic. But I’m not sure Centuries argues this. It makes no mention of the Devil, nor much mention of Adam and Original Sin.

For Traherne, our fall comes after childhood, when we take on the opinions of the world. And we are freed from that fall when we become as children again and learn how much we are loved by God, and reciprocate that love. But Christ’s sacrifice made that liberation much easier. I don’t think I would necessarily have got better if Love had not lifted me out of the pit.

Does that mean The Only Way to God is through the worship of Christ? Traherne writes, intriguingly: ‘There are exceeding few such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who imparted His own soul unto us. Yet some may doubtlessly be found.’ So perhaps there are, in other cultures and other worlds, such Heavenly Lovers as Jesus was, who beat a path through our folly back to God.

Giving praise

When we see aright, when we enjoy aright, when we discover the fountain of infinite love in our souls, and see it in others too, then we give praise and thanks, and sing like King David: ‘Are not praises the very end for which the world was created?’

‘Praises are the breathings of interior love, the marks and symptoms of a happy life, overflowing gratitude, returning benefits, an oblation of the soul, and the heart ascending upon the wings of divine affection to the Throne of God.’

Traherne was an extraordinary writer. He uses prose as a sort of poetic incantation, spilling clause after clause, image after image, until we are astonished. He repeats certain words like ‘frame’, ‘foundation’, ‘magnified’, ‘prized’, and certain images – the eye cleansed, the throne of God – until by frequent repetition they become fixed in the reader’s mind.

And Traherne was an extraordinary soul. The rest of us have our ups and downs, our good days and bad days. Traherne seemed peculiarly in touch with the Divine, and saw our ‘customary folly’ peculiary clearly. He is a prime example of what William James called ‘the once-born soul’, brimming with an almost bumptious optimism and certainty that he is loved by God, and through his certainty making us wonder if (could it really be?) we are also loved by God too.

I can barely remember what it was like to see that light on the mountainside and to feel connected to an infinite love. Fifteen years on, I remain the same lazy, petulant, misanthropic and egotistical person as ever. But when I read Traherne, very briefly, I seem to remember what I felt. This unknown country parson was, you could say, the richest man in the world, and he left his inheritance to all of us.

Here are some beautiful Traherne quotes I gathered together. And here is a very good speech by the Bishop of London about why Traherne is so vital for our own times.

Philosophies for Life pilot: the results

11-10-13-mwc-1-1This year I’ve developed and trialled an eight-part course in practical philosophy, called Philosophies for Life. The pilot was financed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council via Queen Mary, University of London.  I trialled the course with three partner organizations: Saracens rugby club; New College Lanarkshire and HMP Low Moss prison; and Manor Gardens mental health charity.

The results were very positive –  the coaches of Saracens said the philosophy club was ‘the most popular thing we’ve done this season’; the participants at Manor Gardens philosophy club reported feeling more socially supported, more capable of coping with adversity, and much more interested in philosophy. And the participants of the prison philosophy club said they found the club more enjoyable and useful than the prison’s CBT courses, and became more interested in philosophy as a result.

I now plan to launch commercially, working with businesses, NHS mental health services and other organizations, and also developing an online course for the retail market.

The wisdom approach

I tried to develop a model of well-being education that balances evidence-based techniques with ethical discussion, approaching questions of the meaning of life in a pluralistic way.

At the moment, well-being courses in schools, mental health services, and businesses tend to be purely scientific / psychological. They teach evidence-based techniques for well-being, usually from Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). This is very useful from a practical perspective. However, a purely scientific approach either leaves out any questions of values or the meaning of life, or it simply assumes one definition of the meaning of life (for example, individual subjective well-being), and then imposes it uncritically and scientistically on participants. A purely scientific approach to well-being education easily becomes ethically illiberal and culturally insensitive.

On the other hand, the ‘critical enquiry’ method used by most philosophy clubs (and by organizations like SAPERE and the Philosophy Foundation in schools) is very good at facilitating group discussions of values and meanings, engaging people and respecting their perspectives. But it is perhaps too open and undirected –  it ignores the fact that ancient wisdom and modern psychology have discovered reliable hypotheses about how the mind and our emotions work, which it’s helpful to learn from the point of view of wisdom and cultural literacy. It leaves people adrift to rediscover wisdom from scratch, and does not teach any spiritual practices people can use.

And both the scientific and the critical enquiry approach to well-being education fail to teach people about the history and cultural variety of the pursuit of the good life, and how different wisdom traditions from various cultures have come up with differing answers to the question of the meaning of life. The Religious Education curriculum in England and Wales ticks this box – but RE tends to be entirely theory and dogma, rather than teaching spiritual practices people can use in their lives.

Philosophies for Life tries to combine the best of all these approaches. It teaches people evidence-based coping skills from modern psychology, and explores their roots in ancient wisdom traditions (Stoicism, Taoism, Buddhism, Sufism, humanism etc). Rather than just teaching instrumental ‘thinking skills’ emptied of ethical content, as CBT does, it gives people space to consider and discuss the original philosophical context for these skills, and the higher ethical goals they were designed to reach, such as inner peace, happiness, justice or oneness with the Tao / Logos / God.

Each session focused on a different ancient philosopher (Socrates, Epictetus, Epicurus, Plato, Aristotle, the Buddha, Lao Tzu and others), exploring one or two key ideas of theirs that we can use in modern life, and also whether evidence from modern psychology supports or undermines this idea. The session on the Buddha, for example, explores the importance of habits and training to the good life, and how CBT supports the Buddha’s claims about human nature and how to change it.

Then the second half of each session is a group discussion, both of the practical usefulness of the techniques we discussed, and of the philosopher’s broader ethical philosophy and the moral goal they were trying to reach (happiness, Nirvana, justice etc). The group discussion enables participants to accept or reject aspects of each philosophy, and to share their own stories and wisdom strategies. And it enables the course to cover various ethical life-goals and meanings without imposing any particular meaning onto participants.

I call my method the ‘wisdom approach’ and use the ‘wisdom tree’ as a symbol, because the course explores various wisdom traditions and how they share certain ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature, while then ‘branching out’ into various different life-meanings (happiness, social justice, Nirvana etc).

Tree_CM

Psychology now has good evidence for some of these ‘trunk’ ideas about human nature (like the belief we can use our reason to know ourselves and change our habits). However, when it comes to higher life-meanings, science can’t prove them or disprove them. It can’t prove that happiness is the proper goal of life, for example. That’s why we need philosophy to help us reflect, discuss and choose our own life-philosophy.

Results

Manor Gardens philosophy club

Manor Gardens Welfare Trust is a charity that works for the well-being of people in Islington. Our club met every Tuesday evening throughout March and April, initially attracting 15 people, which dropped to 12. Three quarters of the group were women, from their 30s to 50s, and were mainly Anglo-African and Anglo-Caribbean. The participants were mainly ‘mental health champions’ who do volunteer work for the charity.

I gave the participants a well-being questionnaire before and after the course, which asked them the extent they agreed to various questions, scoring their answer on a seven-point scale (with one being ‘strongly disagree and seven being ‘strongly agree’). This allowed me to get some sense of the impact of the course, however imprecise. It found the following

‘I lead a purposeful and meaningful life’  +12%
‘My social relationships are supportive and rewarding‘    + 21%
‘I am engaged and interested in my daily activities‘      + 6%
I actively contribute to the happiness and well-being of others   0%
I have control over my life and can move towards my goals   +6%
I am optimistic about my future  + 28%
When bad things happen to me, I can take steps to deal with them  +27%

The most significant impacts seemed to be in participants’ sense of social support, in their optimism, and their belief in their ability to cope with adversity.

I also asked participants for their own comments about what they liked and disliked about the course. Their comments can be grouped under four headings. Firstly, community: comments included ‘Tuesdays have been the highlight of my week for two months’, ‘a great sense of community, sharing, friendship’, and ‘great subjects taught and discussed in a very conversational manner that encouraged everyone to get involved.’

Secondly, the participants said they enjoyed learning about practical wisdom which they could use in their life. Their comments included: ‘I will take time to think about the bigger picture’, ‘relating theory to practice is what makes this course powerful’, and ‘the tools I have learned in this course and my belief in God will enable me to make major changes in my life’.

Thirdly, participants enjoyed the pluralism of the course – they felt they could learn about differing philosophies of life, without feeling their own faith or philosophy was threatened or undermined. This was a key aim of the course – to give participants a respect for various wisdom traditions, whether they are theistic, atheistic or agnostic. Participants’ comments included ‘Variety works well. It was interesting to hear how different people use different ideologies to guide their lives and how these ideologies can work well for different problems.’

Finally, all the participants said the course made them much more interested in philosophy – most of them having never read any before the course. Comments included: ‘I found the entire course inspiring; this motivated me to include more philosophy books in my reading list.’

Participants said they would have liked more of a range of philosophers, including black philosophers and female philosophers. They also said they would have liked the course to be longer, and to have a way to stay in touch with the other participants. Finally, they would have liked more materials to take away with them.

HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I taught the course over four Fridays in March to a group of 11 inmates in HMP Low Moss prison outside Glasgow. They were all male, mainly in their 30s and 40s, mainly white Scottish, and mainly long-term prisoners. The participants were already in a philosophy club run by Nikki Cameron of New College Lanarkshire, and my course benefitted from the thinking culture Nikki has created over the last year and a half. Nikki’s philosophy club explores questions through philosophical enquiry. I tried more of a ‘wisdom approach’, teaching practical ideas for life, and exploring their connection to modern psychology, particularly CBT.

CBT courses are already widely available in Scottish prisons and in other prisons around the world. However, these courses are usually compulsory, and either leave ethics out or include them in a quite dogmatic and non-criticizable form. I was interested in whether the participants would respond better to similar ideas presented in the context of philosophy, in which participants are not treated as malfunctioning brains to be fixed (low status), but as autonomous free-thinking philosophers (high status), who were not there just to take onboard ancient wisdom, but also to share their own wisdom. My sense was this made it more likely participants would engage with the course.

Feedback from HMP Low Moss philosophy club

I gave participants a questionnaire after the course, which gathered quantitative and qualitative feedback. It found that 66% of the participants said they found the course more useful and more enjoyable than the prison CBT courses (some of the group hadn’t done the CBT courses). When asked what they liked about the course, participants emphasized knowledge, wisdom and community. They liked learning about ancient philosophers and their relevance to modern life. They liked learning ‘coping skills’ to help them with the stress of being inside (Stoic philosophy was particularly popular). And they enjoyed the community of meeting up each week with the same people to hear each other’s views.

While I was doing the course, Kristine Szfiris, a University of Cambridge criminologist who is doing a PhD on philosophy in prisons, interviewed some of the participants. Here are a couple of quotes from them. The first shows one of the coping skills participants learned from Epictetus:

Jules Evans was in doing something about philosophy and he was talking about how we can jump to conclusions, and I do that when I play chess. I just look at the board and I’ll jump to conclusions and then I make a move and it’s been the wrong move kinda thing. I think it gave me a better understanding. I think it’s just about focusing on things I can control and not focusing on things I can’t control. I find philosophy really interesting and worthwhile being taught in prison.

And the second shows the benefit of a pluralist approach which doesn’t impose any particular ethical philosophy onto participants:

With Jules coming in, his views and opinions are set one way but he talks about all the different philosophers which we can disagree with or we can agree with if some of their points are valid. It allows you to take  snippets from each one and take something away from it. It’s impossible to take it all in, not in such a short space of time but if you can take a little bit of it away and practice it for yourself, it benefits you greatly.

Participants said they’d like more materials to take away and study in their own time, as well as suggestions for further reading that is available in the prison library. It’s also interesting to think about how ideas from prison philosophy clubs can be extended out into the rest of the prison, and also beyond the prison walls once prisoners are released (via probation organizations and community groups). Sometimes the group discussions were fractious, and discussion topics could sometimes have been better picked and facilitated by me.

Saracens philosophy club

Saracens FC are one of the world’s best rugby clubs. This season, they broke the record for most points scored in the Premiership, but sadly lost the Heineken European Cup final and the Premiership final in back-to-back weekends.

I ran the Saracens philosophy club as part of Saracens’ ‘personal development programme’. Saracens is unusual among professional sports teams in having an explicitly ethical mission, of focusing not merely on external results, but also on the internal goods of the well-being and character of players and staff. Saracens also have a willingness to try the new and unusual, hence the remarkable feat of getting 12 players and staff to attend and enjoy monthly philosophy sessions.

In fact, ancient philosophy seemed to me very applicable to professional sports – if you search ‘philosophy’ or ‘Stoicism’ in Google News, most of the results will be from sports. While many people in education are wary of talking about values, coaches are more prepared to do it. However, there can be a culture clash between an internal focus on character and virtue, and an external focus on ‘winning at all costs’. One even felt this clash at Saracens, despite their unusually ethical culture.

The timing of the sessions and the participants in the sessions were all somewhat fluid, due to the team’s schedule and fixtures. The philosophy club regularly attracted 12 or so participants, including first-team players and coaching staff.

Feedback from Saracens philosophy club

Feedback was quite haphazard from Saracens, as the players were very focused on two cup-finals at the end of the season (both of which they sadly lost), and then immediately went on holiday. However, the coaches, when interviewed in the Telegraph before the Premiership final, were kind enough to speak at length about the philosophy club. Alex Sanderson, the forwards coach, said “it has been the most popular thing we’ve done this season”.

Paul Gustard, the defence coach, said: “We spoke about the art of friendship, a higher calling – that could be faith or family – and it was nice to hear people speak openly about how they have changed along the journey that we are all on and where they sat on the ‘Golden Mean’. It was pretty cool.”

Kevin Sorrell, the backs coach, said: “It was an open forum for players to bounce ideas around. It was pretty enlightening to hear about how players felt individually about certain incidents over the last 12 months. Everyone left the room with a better understanding of what made that person tick and how they react to certain situations.” And Neil de Kock, Saracens’ scrum half, said: “I took an enormous amount of value out of Philosophy Club by having open and having frank discussions with colleagues on various topics very applicable to our game.”

As an organizational method, the philosophy club improved communication within the team, and also improved communication between the players and the coaches, helping them to see each other’s perspectives.

Again, the course would benefit from having more developed teaching materials, such as a handbook which participants could take away with them. Within an organization that has a very strong team-culture, like Saracens, it’s interesting to think of finding ways not just to reinforce that culture, but also to let people challenge it – otherwise group discussions just become ‘group-think’, rather than enabling people to think and speak for themselves.

Conclusions and next steps

The pilot was more successful than I expected. I initially wondered how philosophy would go down in these various communities (particularly the rugby club), and also how I would go down, as a plummy-voiced southerner. I think I went down OK, because I was open about my own vulnerabilities and flaws and didn’t claim to have all the answers. And the wisdom of ancient philosophies turned out to be very accessible to people from varying educational backgrounds, for many of whom this was their first exposure to philosophy.

The group discussions in the second half of each session worked well – people don’t want just to listen, they want to share their own ideas and experience. However, I think these group discussions were balanced well by the wisdom teachings of the first half of the course – people don’t just want to hear each other’s opinions, they also enjoyed learning about the ideas of Aristotle, Lao Tzu, Buddha, Epictetus and others.

The course worked particularly well with a demographic that is traditionally wary of group therapy – young men. Opening up about your inner life does not come particularly naturally either to rugby players or long-term prison inmates. However, both Saracens and Low Moss philosophy clubs were places where men could talk about what really mattered to them, and share life-strategies for coping with stress and adversity, without feeling ashamed or broken.

I now plan to launch the course commercially, by selling it to companies, to individuals, and to charities. It could either be sold as a full eight-part course, or as a one-day workshop, or as a two-hour session focusing on, say, Stoic wisdom.

There are two questions I need to answer: where would the course make the most money, and where would it do the most good?

Clearly, the most profitable way forward is to sell the course to businesses, business-people and entrepreneurs. Since the courses finished, I ran a workshop at a conference of business coaches in Spain, and the very positive feedback from that strengthened my sense of the commercial potential of running workshops on practical philosophy, resilience and flourishing for organizations. I’ve also joined the faculty of a school for entrepreneurs in London, called Escape the City School.

However, it would be an ethical mistake if the course was only taught to affluent businesspeople. I also think it has great potential to help people in schools, in prisons, in mental health services, and in the general population. I can afford to work with these groups if I subsidize it by working with business-people, and if I use technology to increase my impact.

The next steps, then, are firstly, building a strategy for the commercial launch of the course. I plan to work with a mentor and business coach to develop this in the next two months. Secondly, design and create teaching materials, such as online videos, handouts and activity sheets, and a website. I also plan to do this by September. Thirdly, expand my roster of clients and improving the course as I go on.

The best way to reach the biggest number of people is via the development of an online course. It will be important to find a technological infrastructure that can support this and take payments from participants. I may need to raise capital to design an online course and will discuss this with technology partners and possible funders in the coming weeks.

To read the 13-page report on this project, click here. If you’re interested in me running Philosophies for Life at your organization, as a workshop, a one-day event or as the full eight-part course, get in touch at jules dot evans @ mac.com