Skip to content

London Philosophy Club

Can you make a living from ‘street philosophy’?

I’m in Holland again, this time in Utrecht, where yesterday I did a three-hour workshop at the University of Humanistic Studies. It was gratifying to have lots of bright students scrutinising my ideas, though also grueling in so far as the students very intelligently saw the limitations of Stoic philosophy.  The main message I got was that Stoicism is very much a ‘defensive philosophy’, which is all very well if you’re in a crisis, but we also need a more optimistic and expansive philosophy of flourishing, love and politics for the good times. Which I pretty much agree with.

The book, which I wrote back in 2010, is really philosophy ‘for dangerous situations’, and when I think of it, most of the examples in the book are of people using philosophy to survive and endure crises – imprisonment, abuse, life-threatening illness. I wanted to show that philosophy can work not just for bored yuppies suffering from ‘status anxiety’ or ‘affluenza’, but for people in the very worst experiences. As Major Thomas Jarrett puts it in the book, ‘if your philosophy doesn’t work in the worst situations, then it’s a cafe philosophy’. And I also wanted to tell my story – how philosophy helped me (and lots of people like me) overcome emotional disorders like depression and PTSD, to show again how philosophy can really help you when you’re in the shit.

But that focus on crisis-management means the general thrust of the book is pretty ‘defensive’, and the book doesn’t talk enough about flourishing, joy, love, about the importance of relationships and opening yourself up to the possibility of being hurt. I end the book by saying something like ‘we are not, and should not strive to be, Stoic supermen, safely cut off in our self-sufficient fortresses of solitude. We need one another’.  That’s why, since the book came out, I’ve been exploring Christianity as a philosophy of love, relationships and mutual dependence. Though I still find a lot of Christianity weird – the relationship with God is so much more intense and personal in Christianity, compared to the chilly pantheism of Stoicism or the mystic maths of Plato and Pythagoras. As a detached Stoic, I’m like, Dude, not so close!

Joep Dohmen

Anyway, the University of Humanistic Studies is an interesting institution, founded in 1989, making it the youngest university in Holland, and also the smallest with just 400 students. Students take BAs and MAs in ‘humanistics’, which is a combination of philosophy, psychology and social science, and which trains students to consider the meaning of life, the good society, and so forth. A third of the students then become ‘moral counselors’, who are basically like humanist chaplains, in the army, hospitals and so on. Interesting eh? A seminary school for humanists.  The professor of ethics at the University is Joep Dohmen, who is the leading ‘philosopher of life’ in Holland. He was one of the founders of Filosofie magazine in 1992 (it’s grown to a circulation of around 20,000), and has since written 10 very successful books on the ‘art of living’. Now, he tells me he is setting up a ‘Senior Academy’, teaching art of living classes to the elderly. Smart move.

I’m in Holland until Sunday evening, when I am giving a sort of ‘secular sermon’ in a church here. Then next Sunday I’m speaking at Holy Trinity Brompton about my experience of the Alpha course. One Sunday in a humanist church, the next in HTB. I feel a bit schizophrenic at the moment.

Unusually, I’m actually being paid to give the talk tomorrow. Writers are in a slightly tricky position at the moment of being expected to do more and more talks and festival appearances to promote their books, while not necessarily or even usually being paid to do them. There was a line of thinking that, as the publishing industry follows the record industry and becomes more digital, public speaking will become a more and more important revenue stream for authors.

The reality is, as in the rest of the publishing industry, the top-end authors earn big bucks, and the rest get a bottle of wine. So, right at the top of the speaker chart is someone like Tony Blair, who reportedly charges £190,000 for a speech, or Hilary Clinton, who charges $125,000 for a two-hour talk. Then, among professional writers, you have Malcolm Gladwell, who reportedly charges around $80,000, or Thomas Friedman, who charges around the same. In self-help and philosophy, the biggest names – Deepak Chopra, Alain de Botton, Michael Sandel – can charge tens of thousands for talks to corporates (though they might do some talks for free too).

Then there are lots of ‘mid-list’ writers who are happy to do talks for free. A school, a student philosophy society, a regional philosophy club or a festival invite you to talk, and you think, ‘wow how flattering, sure!’ Last year I must have done 40-50 talks, sometimes two a day, mainly to philosophy clubs and festivals. I did it partly out of an evangelical zeal to ‘get the message out’ and support grassroots philosophy, partly because I was flattered to be asked and I enjoyed it, and partly because I thought all the talks would be good for book sales and general publicity. And they were. However, the royalties authors now get from books – around 7.5% per trade paperback – means even if a book sells, say, 10,000 copies in a year, that will only translate to around £4K in annual royalties. So it’s not worth it, from a strictly economic perspective, to do loads of free talks, even if you sell say 20-40 copies after the talk.

I can’t complain too much, as I ask philosophers who are far more experienced and better-known than me to come and give talks for free to the London Philosophy Club (and they do: John Gray, Robert Skidelsky, Angie Hobbs, all happily come and talk for free). I think it’s wise to learn to charge some audiences (corporates, particularly) thereby enabling yourself to give other talks for free (to student philosophy societies for example). What I also need to do, next week, is sign myself up for organisations like The Speakers Agency, which book speakers for corporate audiences. Though I wonder if doing lots of talks to a corporate audience is going to turn me into Tim Ferriss. Well, hopefully not.

More broadly, the question of ‘how should a philosopher make a living’ has always been at the heart of philosophy. There’s a story that Pythagoras struggled so hard to find students, at the beginning of his career, that he actually paid his first student to study geometry! Plato of course famously criticised Sophists for charging for their lessons – but surely he charged students to his Academy? Aristotle raised some eyebrows making a living by becoming tutor to a dictator’s son (it probably contributed to him being exiled from Athens).  19th century authors like Marx and Mill made their living mainly from journalism (and were better writers as a result). Then, in the modern era, the invention of the university philosophy department supported a vast expansion of ‘professional philosophers’, though perhaps the comfier philosophers became, the more boring the philosophy they produced.

In the last decade, we’ve seen the return of the extra-academic philosopher – the pre-eminent example is Alain de Botton, the philosopher-as-entrepreneur. But can the free market support thinkers who have dangerous or difficult ideas? Perhaps it can – two of the most successful extra-academic philosophers are John Gray and Slavoj Zizek, both of whom are sort of professional insulters of free market capitalism. It seems there is market demand for anti-market polemics.

Well, I’ll continue trying to work it out as I go along – I’m trying to create a sort of ‘mixed model’ of academic, media and speaking work. In the meantime, the new edition of my book comes out next Thursday, it is smaller and slightly cheaper than the trade-paperback. It would be AMAZING if all my British readers would pop into their local bookstore and order it – you don’t have to buy it, just order it! The new cover looks so great that it will sell once it’s in the bookstore anyway.


In other news:

Avant garde composer Richard Carrick talks about how his new work, ‘Flow Cycle for Strings’, was inspired by Positive Psychology.

Here’s a little article I did for the Faculty of Public Health’s magazine on the politics of well-being.

Here’s a good review of a new book called Infinite Progress, a prime example of Techno-utopianism, which argues we can banish poverty, ignorance and want by uploading all our details into a global super-computer.

Democracy will fail because the Left is too weak, argues this essay by Henry Farrell in Aeon magazine. I blame critical theory! The Left became fatally seduced by critical theory in the 1960s, and by poseurs like Alain Badiou and Jacques Lacan. No wonder it failed to stand up to Neo-Liberalism. The Right had graphs and data, while the Left had ‘the mirror phase’ and ‘the event’. It was always going to lose.

Talking of critical theory, I’m reading a good book by Simon Critchley, a leading British philosopher (although he lives in New York) and a big fan of critical theory. The book is called Faith of the Faithless, and is all about how modern political ideologies are really re-formulations of the sacred, and quasi-religious fictions. He writes: ‘The return to religion has become perhaps the dominant cliche of contemporary theory’. It has? Who knew! I realised that Terry Eagleton had ‘returned to religion’, I didn’t realise the likes of Badiou had as well. Anyway, I’ll try and write a review of the book for next week’s newsletter.

See you next week – and don’t forget, go to Waterstones and #askforjules !

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