Skip to content


The philosophy of…Alexei Sayle

I might start doing a regular feature looking at people’s life-philosophy. This week, it’s Alexei Sayle, pioneer of alternative comedy, former member of the Communist Party, and one of the stars of the Comic Strip. Here he tells me about his fondness for Stoic philosophy, and why Alcoholics Anonymous is his ideal model of a philosophical community.

How did you come across Stoicism?

I think it was initially through Tom Wolfe’s Man In Full, where one of the characters gets into Stoic philosophy when they’re bankrupted and thrown in prison. I’m also a devotee of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and Albert Ellis’ Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, both of which were inspired by Stoicism. In a way, Stoicism is just common sense – there’s a lot of it in the philosophy of Alcoholics Anonymous as well.

What’s the most useful idea in Stoicism?

I think it’s the idea of control, the idea that we should focus on what we can control without going mad over what we don’t control. Capitalism fosters the illusion that you’re in charge, that if you buy enough stuff you’ll be happy. It depends on fostering a state of permanent dissatisfaction in us, so we buy more stuff. Stoicism is contrary to that. And capitalism also gives us the illusion of control – that if we just get enough money, we’ll be able to control everything and everyone around us. Stoicism is contrary to that too. It’s based on acceptance of the limits of our control – like the Serenity Prayer in Alcoholics Anonymous.

Have you found Stoic ideas useful in your own life? For example, your comedy persona is quite angry. Do you have…er…anger issues?

I try very hard not to lose my temper. You have to let go of self-pity, which is what anger is, basically. Why is my latte not hot enough, why is my train late. Fucking hell, what difference does it make? People get angry because of a sense of entitlement. But I’m not exactly a role model – my comedy now is about how wrong I often am, and that I’m not someone to be admired or revered.

The ancient Greeks thought of philosophers almost as licensed truth-tellers – they had a mission to ‘tell truth to power’ (or parrhesia, as it was called in Greek). Like Diogenes the Cynic, for example, telling Alexander the Great to stop standing in his light. Do you think that social role is now fulfilled by stand-up comedians?

Diogenes the Cynic, the stand-up (or lie-down) philosopher

Yeah, at their best, they’re licensed truth-tellers. They’re a bit like court jesters in that sense, they were licensed truth-tellers too.

Like Russell Brand, for example. Sometimes he gets away with it, and sometimes he gets a punch in the face from the king.

Yes, he’s attempting to speak truth to power, which is a noble endeavor. That’s why comedians can’t get into politics. Like Eddie Izzard running for mayor of London. If you get into power, then you lose the freedom to castigate everybody. I got a letter recently saying Ken Loach was setting up a new socialist party. I’m broadly sympathetic to it, but I can’t be part of it.

So you were raised in Marxist philosophy, both your parents were members of the Communist Party. Do you think Marxism and Stoicism are opposing tendencies – Stoicism is about inner revolution and outer acceptance, while Marxism is about focusing your energies outwards, changing the institutions of society?

Well, people have tried to ally psychology and Marxism over the years, so that you have both inner and outer revolutions. I wonder if there is some synthesis you could build. The problem is that systems inevitably go wrong, and psychopaths take them over. The problem with Marxism-Leninism is that the Bolsheviks, as an organisation, were perfectly suited to being taken over by a psychopath.

I think in some ways Alcoholics Anonymous is the perfect organisation. Most organisations are based on the two premises that mankind are noble and leaders are heroic. AA is based on the premises that everyone is nuts and there shouldn’t be any leader.

On this question of political systems – do you think the state could play a role in educating people in Stoic wisdom? Through free CBT for example (as is happening already through the NHS), or by teaching a bit of Stoicism in schools? 

Yes, you could give it a go. It’s worth remembering, human beings have an infinite capacity to fuck things up. If you tried to launch it in every school, you’d probably get opportunists calling themselves Stoics and trying to make money off it. You’d get schisms. It might be better to let people discover it for themselves. It’s like AA – people are doing it for themselves, for free. But I don’t know, you could try teaching it in schools, yeah.

Thanks a lot Alexei. We should do a London Philosophy Club event on philosophy and comedy one day!

Definitely. I’m a philosopher by marriage – my wife studied philosophy at Birkbeck.

You can get involved in Stoic Week in the last week of November. Find out more here.

This week’s highlights in philosophy, psychology and the politics of well-being

My book is finally being published next Thursday, which is very exciting. I’ve now gone through the ‘this is all so weird’ phase of feeling a bit self-conscious on the public stage, and am getting more used to it. You adjust to the weirdness. This week, for example, a commenter on an article of mine on the Guardian declared me to be mentally ill (for suggesting God might actually exist), and I found it funny rather than annoying.

What concerns me is less the prospect of bad reviews, and rather the prospect of no reviews. There are quite a few books out at the moment either on philosophy in general or on the philosophy of the good life in particular, so my book may well slip under reviewers’ radars. Well, if that’s the case, hopefully it will be a slow-burning firework that will eventually go off just when you least expect it (not sure where I’m going with this metaphor, sounds dangerous). Anyway, if you enjoy this blog, and you buy the book and enjoy it, do please tell your friends. In fact, my readers are really good at spreading the word, so thanks for that.

The good side of this situation is that there are some great books on the philosophy of well-being out now. Michael Sandel, probably the best-known philosopher at the moment, has a book out on the commodification of everything, which criticizes market ideology from an Aristotelian perspective, suggesting we need to reflect on the limits of what we are prepared to sell. Here’s a great article he wrote in the Atlantic on this topic.

Robert Skidelsky and his son Edward also have a book out on the politics of the good life, which also calls for a move beyond market fundamentalism and a return to Aristotelian virtue ethics, while ridiculing politicians’ present obsession with happiness measurements. The Archibishop of Canturbury, Rowan Williams, wrote a fantastic review of these two books in Prospect magazine, do give it a read, he’s my favourite contemporary Marxist.

By the way, two conferences coming up look at the rise of Neo-Aristotelianism, and the contemporary importance of notions of well-being/ eudaimonia in politics (particularly from the perspective of the philosophy of Alasdair MacIntyre). Details here.

The  trend of national well-being measurements continues apace: Japan has apparently reported the first results of its national happiness measurements. And it’s… 6.6! Ha, we’re happier than you Japan, in your face. Still, Japan is happier than last year, when it was only 6.5 (though I thought this is the first year it’s done the survey? Oh well.)

Elsewhere, charities are learning to get on the well-being bandwagon. Oxfam Scotland has launched a ‘humankind’ index to help the Scottish government ‘focus on what really matters’. It constructed its definition of ‘prosperity’ through discussions with 3,000 Scots in focus groups, community meetings, street stalls, a YouGov poll and other stuff, and has come up with a weighted indicator based on what people said mattered to them. No reference to God in the index, I see, or football. All seems a bit nebulous – wouldn’t it be more useful not to conflate the various life-factors into one number but to give us all the separate measurements?

This is more interesting: charities are getting better at using well-being measurements to measure the impact of smaller local interventions, says the Guardian. I think this is where well-being measurements could actually be useful – at the local rather than national level, to measure the impact of smaller interventions. I can imagine myself using well-being measurements for this, to try and dazzle funders if nothing else.

Harvard’s Jerome Kagan, a wonderful and humane neuro-psychologist, has written a book called Psychology’s Ghosts, which explores four simplifications and distortions contemporary psychology is prone to. The first is the neural correlate fallacy – that human experiences can be simplified to bits of the brain lighting up on fMRI scans. Carol Tavris’s review in the WSJ notes:

If we can find which area of the brain lights up when we think about love or chocolate or politics, we assume we know something. But what, exactly, do we know? Sometimes less than we think. “An adolescent’s feeling of shame because a parent is uneducated, unemployed, and alcoholic,” Mr. Kagan writes, “cannot be translated into words or phrases that name only the properties of genes, proteins, neurons, neurotransmitters, hormones, receptors, and circuits without losing a substantial amount of meaning”–and meaning is as fundamental to psychology as genes are to biology. Many psychological concepts, he notes, including fear, self-regulation, well-being and agreeableness, are studied without regard to the context in which they occur–with the resulting implication that they mean the same thing across time, cultures and content. They do not.

The importance of meaning, value and cultural context in human psychology is also very emphasised by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, as I discussed last week. Bruner is critical of cognitive scientists being so over-attached to a computational model of the brain that they end up ignoring people’s values, beliefs, culture and even their free will. In other words, they ignore the reasons people give for doing what they do, dismissing it as ‘folk psychology’. Here’s a great example of that sort of thinking – arch-computationalist Patricia Churchland, being interviewed by Julian Baggini.

Jonathan Haidt is one psychologist  who pays attention to the role of culture and values in human psychology. Yet, while his evolutionary account of the adaptiveness of religion may tell us that religion binds societies together, it fails to help us distinguish between ‘good’ forms of group-bonding and ‘bad’ forms like, say, fascism, argues John Gray in this excellent review in the New Republic. That’s the problem with evolutionary psychology as a moral guide – it’s descriptive rather than normative. It tells us what is, not necessarily what should be.

And when Haidt tries to decide what positive values he’d actually prescribe for a society, he is dishearteningly utilitarian, says Gray:

When Haidt considers what the normative element in morality should be, his conclusion is simple-minded to an extraordinary degree: “When we talk about making laws and implementing public policies in Western democracies that contain some degree of ethnic and moral diversity, then I think there is no compelling alternative to utilitarianism.” There is no sign that he is aware of the difficulties of utilitarianism as a moral theory. He cites Isaiah Berlin’s defense of pluralism in ethics without seeming to grasp that, if true, this pluralism was fatal to utilitarianism (as Berlin intended it to be).

Haidt assumes a connection between utilitarianism and the values of liberal democracy that dissolves with a moment’s critical reflection. Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism, believed that utilitarian ethics applied universally, and advocated enlightened despotism throughout much of the world. Haidt’s belief that utilitarianism offers an effective way of making public policy in ethnically and morally diverse societies is equally unfounded. One of the problems of morally diverse societies is that utilitarian understandings of harm may not be widely enough shared to form an agreed basis for public policies. This is nowhere more clearly true than in the United States. Issues such as abortion and gay marriage are not bitterly disputed because legislators have failed to apply a utilitarian calculus. They are bitterly disputed because a substantial part of the population rejects utilitarian ethics.

I have to say, I’m surprised to hear Haidt comes out with such a utilitarian position. When I met him at the RSA a fortnight ago and asked him how we could find the right balance between liberal individualism and a more collective sense of the common good, he replied: “The first thing to do is make sure you keep rational utilitarians far away from public policy, because they have no understanding of human nature.” Well, quite…

Talking to yourself helps you achieve tasks, says a new experimental study that was widely reported. It found people who spoke to themselves while looking for an object were more likely to find it. Personally, I passed my driving test on the third time by talking to myself out loud while I was driving (though I think this may have so unsettled the examiner that he gave me a pass out of sheer terror).

I didn’t see Louis Theroux’s documentary about a ‘dementia village’ for the elderly in Arizona, but I was moved by this article he wrote about the two weeks he spent there.

Here’s an interesting article suggesting that botox may reduce people’s ability not just for facial expression of emotions, but also for actually feeling emotions. Yikes. Talk about affective flattening.

My colleagues at the Centre for the History of the Emotions wrote most of the articles in this issue of Wellcome History, including pieces on the politics of happiness, the history of crying in public, and other great stuff.

Meanwhile I started a column / blog on the Huffington Post UK site this week, with this first attempt, exploring how universities are not going nearly enough to care for their students’ mental health and well-being. I suggest universities need to embrace the liberal education mission of educating the whole person, not just their pre-frontal cortex.

Finally, here’s comedian Jon Stewart’s very funny take on this week’s revelations from the Murdochs at the Leveson Inquiry.

See you next week, wish me luck!