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PoW newsletter: philosophy festivals, army psy-ops, and other curious phenomena

The Roman philosopher Epictetus declared we should “enjoy the great festival of life”, and that’s exactly the direction philosophy is moving these days: back to its roots in outdoor events, street performance, multi-media mash-ups and, yes, festivals.

The best known philosophy festival in the UK is How The Light Gets In, run by the Institute of Art and Ideas at the Hay Festival in the UK in late May, but How The Light Gets In runs other events, including one at the Roundhouse in Camden next month, which will mix Mary Warnock with rock music and stand up comedy. HTLGI co-hosts events with the School of Life, another pioneer in mixing philosophy with performance and music. The School has run events at the Port Eliot festival in September, and at the Latitude festival in July. Then there’s the Modena Philosophy Festival in Italy; the Philosophy in the City festival in Liverpool in October; the Bristol Festival of Ideas, which runs throughout the year; the Battle of Ideas in October; the public talks throughout the year at the RSA and Intelligence Squared; the Thomas Hobbes festival at Malmesbury, which recently declared itself a ‘Philosophy Town‘; and my favourite of the bunch, the David Hume festival at Chirnside village in April, which includes an event at the local pub where you can buy a pint of the new beer, ‘Enlightenment’. Who said Britain was an anti-intellectual society?

So where is philosophy going next? Well, it’s increasingly moving into theatre – Nigel Warburton of Philosophy Bites put on a show at the Oxford Playhouse this month, and there’s also a theatre company, Living Philosophy, that enacts 18th century Enlightenment texts. Philosophy is also becoming increasingly animated – think of the excellent RSAnimate videos, or of graphic books like Logicomix, Couch Fiction, or the Philosophy for Beginners comics.

And perhaps the movement towards ‘philosophy-as-event’ will begin to create tailor-made philosophy holidays. Some holiday companies already do ‘culture tours‘ of the Mediterranean and beyond, where the meaning-hungry are taken round ruins in the company of an impecunious academic; the Philosophy Shop runs weekend courses on the Good Life in the Cotswolds, the School of Life recently signed a partnership with Morgans Hotel Group; and Alain De Botton also launched a series of designer homes you can rent for the weekend. I’m going to launch Stoic-Cynic weekends – for £250 a night, you can wear rags and sleep in a designer barrel.

One of the big psychology stories this week is Rolling Stone‘s revelation that the US Army has been deploying its ‘psy-ops’ unit on its own people, demanding that they use all their Jedi mind powers on visiting dignitaries to try and get them to support the Afghan war. It doesn’t actually say what the ‘psy-ops’ involve, I suspect because it sounds much more sinister and nefarious if you leave it to the imagination, when in fact, ‘psy-ops’ is probably just the latest fancy new word for the 2,000-year-old art of rhetoric. You want to learn Psy-Ops? Read some Cicero.

Another debate in the psychology media this week is over ‘mind wandering’. Is it good for us, or bad for us, or good for us sometimes and bad for us at others? Psychology can’t seem to make up its mind. Dan Gilbert, author of Stumbling Upon Happiness, brought out a study at the end of last year which suggested that day-dreaming is bad for our happiness. But now a new study, highlighted by Jonah Lehrer in the WSJ , discovers that people in college with ADHD are more successful than those with better powers of attention. My own two-pence-worth? Good to have both capacities – the ability to open your mind up to all kinds of stimuli, and also the ability to narrow your mind into a laser-like focus when you’re turning all that raw data into art.

The Royal Society’s excellent series on the policy implications of new research in neuroscience continued with a brief report on the implications for education. It highlighted the growing body of research supporting the efficacy of cognitive training in improving young people’s working memory and capacities for self-control and self-regulation. The best new research on emotional self-regulation explicitly draws on Stoic philosophy, by the way. The ancients have a lot to teach us on education and training. Plus they wrote well.

A big week for the ‘well-being agenda’. Here in the UK, the Office of National Statistics announced which questions it would use to assess the nation’s subjective well-being. The news led to a lot of media coverage – my favourite was the blog by BBC Home Affairs editor Mark Easton, a long-time supporter of well-being measurements, who noted the strong negative correlation between well-being and commuting. One reason that ‘work-from-home Fridays’ is a good idea that a lot of corporations are introducing.

And the well-being agenda is spreading beyond the West. The think-tank China Dialogue has devoted this week to studying the state of happiness in China, noting that the Chinese government recently declared the province of Guangdong ‘Happy Guandong’. Perhaps we could twin it with Chirnside. The well-being movement is also taking root, very slowly, in Russia where the government named its $32 billion sovereign wealth fund the ‘fund for national well-being’. And the OECD is doing a lot to drive it forward in other parts of the world, including co-organizing a conference on the topic in Mexico City in May.

Well, it’s Friday, Spring is in the air – to start you up for the weekend, here is a spotify playlist I have put together, called ‘Push here for subjective well-being‘. Enjoy.


PTSD ‘surprisingly low’ in UK troops in Iraq

The Institute of Psychiatry hasjust published the resultsfrom the first survey of post-traumatic stress disorder in UK troops serving in Iraq, and found that only around 3% of troops reported suffering from the symptoms of PTSD – lower than the incidence found in police officers or doctors working in casualty.

The incidence of PTSD is also, apparently, significantly lower than that found in US troops in a 2004 survey by the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, which found 16-17% of troops serving in Iraq to be suffering from depression and PTSD symptoms.
Why the difference between the UK and US survey results? Simon Wessely, one of the authors of the IoP report, suggested on the Radio 4 show All In The Mind, that one factor might be the longer length of US tour – US soldiers serve 12-15 month tours, while British soldiers serve six month tours. The US also use more reserve soldiers, who are more vulnerable to mental illness and trauma. And, he suggested, the US health service may simply be less good at helping veterans cope than the NHS.
It’s also worth mentioning that fighting in Iraq was far, far more severe in 2004 for US troops than it was in 2009 for UK troops.
One interesting thing that Wessely mentioned is that “nine out of ten times” the problems for which soldiers seek support from counsellors and chaplains are domestic problems. He says:

Today, with email and satellite phones, it’s much easier to communicate with loved ones back home. But you can have too much of a good thing. I’ve listened to many soldiers talking to their families, and problems are often presented to husbands, like ‘little Johnny’s refusing to go to school’, which he is powerless to do anything about. That is not good for people.

I have heard the same thing from Major Thomas Jarrett, a resilience counsellor in the US Army – who tells me that a lot of soldiers’ emotional problems on tour come from anxieties about their home life, and a sense of powerlessness to intervene there.
Jarrett tries to teach people the Stoic idea of knowing what you can control and what you can’t, and learning to accept (for the time being) that there are some things over which one’s control is limited. It’s the basic therapeutic technique you meet in the Serenity Prayer:
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.It’s also a technique which Stephen Covey teaches in chapter one of his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, in which he talks about recognizing what elements are in your ‘circle of influence’ (where you can genuinely influence how they turn out) and what elements are in your ‘circle of concern’ (you might worry about them, but there’s not much you can do about them right now).
Covey writes:

Instead of reacting to or worrying about conditions over which they have little or no control, proactive people focus their time and energy on things they can control. Gaining an awareness of the areas in which we expend our energies in is a giant step in becoming proactive.

Or, as the US Army’s Ultimate Leadership Manual puts it: “It is critical for leaders to remain calm under pressure and to expend energy on things they can positively influence and not worry about things they cannot affect.”

Learned helplessness in action at Guantanamo Bay

It makes me sick to read about some of the interrogation techniques used at Guantanamo Bay, where the CIA applied Martin Seligman’s theory of ‘learned helplessness’ to try and break the spirit of the inmates (most of whom have still yet to be charged with any crime).

Seligman didn’t know his ideas were being applied there. Ironically, his theory of ‘learned optimism’ is now being imparted to every US soldier through the Pentagon’s Comprehensive Soldier Fitness programme, this time with Seligman’s active participation. Build us up, break them down. That’s the spirit.

Here is a Huffington Post article by Peter Jan Honigsberg, professor of law at the University of San Francisco, and the author of Our Nation Unhinged: The Human Consequences of the War on Terror:

“The first day I was at Guantanamo, they put me in a little cage. There was a toilet hole and I thought this is the bathroom and they will then take me to my cell. Later, they brought me food. ‘Why food?’ I thought, ‘This is a bathroom.’ Only the next day did I realize this was my cell where I was to stay.” — Ayub Muhammed
On August 22, 2009, the Witness to Guantanamo Project completed its first round of 16 in-depth filmed interviews of former Guantanamo detainees in five countries: Albania, Bosnia, France, Germany and England. Each in-depth interview was 2+ hours in length. Three men did not want their faces shown. We hope to film hundreds of interviews of former Guantanamo detainees. We are determined to document the systematic human rights abuses and rule of law violations at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
The empirical evidence we gathered during this journey confirmed information found in the recently released CIA Inspector General’s Report and memos regarding CIA’s strategies and techniques of torturing and otherwise mistreating detainees.
It was very difficult to hear each man’s story. The narratives were mesmerizing, powerful, compelling, unnerving and heartbreaking.
The CIA’s intention to create a climate of “learned helplessness,” that is, of shattering the men’s spirits, emerged throughout the interviews. For example, the guards and interrogators did their best to try to break a detainee who was a fourth level black belt karate expert and another detainee who was a former boxer. The US personnel forced a hose down the throat of the karate expert and poured water into the hose. They hung the former boxer by his wrists for five days. On the other hand, a detainee who “went with the flow” and was not a “physical threat,” had a relatively easier experience. He had already learned the value of “helplessness.”
The complicity of the medical profession was a reoccurring theme. The boxer who was hung by his wrists for five days was let down periodically to be examined by a doctor. Then he was hoisted up again. He passed out on the third day, but they continued to hoist him up for two more days. Two other men described how they were interrogated during surgery. Each man was under a local anesthetic. Any detainee who wanted medical care needed to go through his interrogator. One man refused to ask for dental work because he did not want to ask a favor from his interrogator. Some prisoners who expected to have cavities filled, had their teeth pulled instead.
While brutal treatment was always intense at Bagram and Kandahar air bases, Guantanamo was described by many of the men as a “psychological prison.” Some men were held in isolation for nearly the full time that they were at Guantanamo — over four years in isolation for one man. Initially, prisoners were placed in isolation for five days. But, when the military learned that people could easily tolerate the relatively short periods of isolation, the military increased the length to weeks, months and even years. One man, who was afraid of isolation and willing to say anything that the interrogators wanted to hear, was advised by other inmates that isolation became less frightening with each return visit.
The prisoners responded to the treatment that they received in different ways. Some resisted. One beat up a guard, others spit at guards. Still others threw feces. One prisoner told us that when he was treated unfairly he resisted in order to make himself feel better. There was a community of spirit among some prisoners. If one person was mistreated, others would refuse to eat or strike in support of him. Several detainees used the word “solidarity” to describe their relationship with other prisoners.
Some men endured detainment in Guantanamo by reflecting on their families, their religion, stories in the Koran, and the value of patience. Others accepted their “fate,” believing that they could not change it. Still others relied on “hope,” expecting that they would ultimately be released because they knew they were innocent.
When we asked people to describe their worst experiences, we were surprised by several of the responses. Two people told us that their worst experience was observing others beaten while they could do nothing about it. Another person’s worst experience was the unknowing of what would happen in the future. A Uyghur described his feeling of betrayal by the United States. The Americans had assured him that any information he gave to U.S. officials would not be passed on to the Chinese. When he was later interviewed by Chinese officials in Guantanamo, the Chinese diplomats repeated to him all that he had told the Americans.
The men did not only lose years of their lives while being held in Guantanamo. Their lives going forward are also, for many, similarly lost. Many of the detainees told us that they have been unable to obtain employment. Once a prospective employer hears that the men are former detainees, the opportunity for employment disappears. In addition to not finding work, the Uyghurs in Albania are also facing the prospect of losing their homes. Albania, with a grant from the U.S., has been paying their rents for the past two years. However, the payments are up in October, and it is not clear whether Albania will continue to pay their rents. If not, the Uyghurs may be out on the street or back at the refugee center.
The men agreed to be interviewed for different reasons. The reasons included speaking for history (that is, assisting us in creating an archive) and hoping that others who are still in Guantanamo will soon be released. One man participated because he wanted to “plant a tree for the next generation.” He also told me that “the world is one hand with many fingers.”
If there is a term that best describes the experience of interviewing these men, it is witnessing their humanity. Guantanamo is about people. Their humanity is what I will remember best.

Facing death stoically

Tom Daley joined the US Marine Corps in 1978, when he was 17, and retired in 2008, having served 30 years on active duty, and having completed tours in Beirut, in Grenada, in Panama, in the two Iraq wars, and in Afghanistan. He has been injured and evacuated five times while fighting for his country, including during the second battle for Fallujah, in 2004, when he was hit by shrapnel in the chest.

He first encountered Stoicism when taking an introduction to philosophy course as a young military undergraduate. “I wasn’t that impressed by it”, he says. When he was 27, he took a graduate degree in the Humanities, which included a class in existentialism, and through that, Tom encountered Marcus Aurelius, and read his Meditations. He says:

Once I read Marcus Aurelius, I felt like I understood Stoicism. I liked the fact he was a soldier. I liked the fact he was writing for himself. It wasn’t an outreach programme. He was trying to work out how to conduct his own life. I think people should show how to live by example, not by forcing other people to believe what you believe.

Through Aurelius, he encountered and read the other Roman Stoics: Seneca and Epictetus. He took them with him on tour, and read them when he had a spare moment to himself, while training a troop of fighters in Central Asia in 2008. He says:

I never said to them ‘I am a Stoic’. It’s not something I bring up. It’s something I try to show by how I act, by how or who I am. I’ve had people ask me about my belief system, for example when I was in Central Asia and was grouped with people who were all Muslim. They assumed I must be a Christiansince I’m American, but I’m not. I didn’t deny it though, because they would be horrified to think I was an unbeliever. They would ask me what I was reading, and of course, they wouldn’t have had the slightest idea what a Stoic was. But I tried to show them, by example.

It wasn’t easy, being posted in the mountains for a year, “among people of far different principles to one’s own”, as Aurelius puts it.

Tom remembers:

At my age [he was 47 in 2008] physical conditioning is much more difficult than when I was a teen. Nevertheless, I was asked to perform a job and I did that job to the best of my ability. Most of the young Central Asianmen I spent my year with spent their whole lives fighting in the mountains. They knew those mountains like we know directions to our favorite restaurant. And just like any bored city boy would run an outsider through false directions and unmarked speed traps, they wanted to have their fun with me.

I was asked to lead a patrol, being told it was a singular honor for an outsider. So I led them to our objective along perhaps the most difficult path I could have possibly chosen. This was not intentional, but they didn’t correct me like I calculated they would. I am pretty good with terrain analysis and finding a good position. But if you don’t know the land, finding that position is much more difficult than you might think. On one trail (and I use the term quite loosely), there was a large rock formation jutting out on one side and a sharp turn to the right when you passed it. Just as I was reaching the crest, I was distracted by the members of the patrol coming up behind and I looked back to see what was happening. It was then that I should have made the sharp right turn, but instead slid down a fairly steep slope which had a small landing at the bottom followed by a cliff of nearly 30 feet. My sliding, of course, tumbled small rocks and debris over the cliff, and right down to a small enemy campsite of approximately 10 persons. They had not been aware of our presence and I was completely unaware that they were in the vicinity.

As you can imagine, adrenaline is pumping when you think you’re falling to your death or at least to serious injury, but I was not injured other than scratches and a few bruises, not the least of which was my ego. My patrol ran up the incline leading to where I fell, presumably to laugh at my corpse at the bottom of the cliff, and were immediately met by enemy fire. I somehow managed to take a few poorly aimed shots before the enemy retired. From my standpoint, I was nearly killed, was sloppy in the execution of my job, and caused no harm to the enemy when I encountered them. From my patrol’s standpoint, I had seen the enemy, charged down the slope to engage them, and run them off before they could cause casualties to the patrol. Funny how one person’s perceptions can differ from another’s.

Probably the most challenging situation he has been in, and the one where he has most used his Stoic beliefs, was the Second Battle for Fallujah, in Iraq, November 2004, which is widely considered the most intense urban fighting involving US forces since Hue, Vietnam in 1968.

During that month, elements of the US Marine Corps and the US Army fought to re-gain control of the ‘city of mosques’, in the centre of Iraq. The city’s initially good relations with US forces had soured after soldiers from the US Airborne Division had shot dead 17 protestors in April 2003, reportedly after being fired on themselves.

In February 2004, control of the city was handed over from the Airborne to the Marine Corps. Then, in March 2004, four American private contractors for Blackwater Security were killed, and photos and video of their mutilated bodies were widely circulated. Within days, the Marine Corps launched Operation Vigilant Resolve to take control of the city back. The Operation caused heavy civilian casualties, and ended with a ceasefire.

Then, over the course of 2004, insurgents built up strong positions within the city, positioning snipers and improvised explosive devices (IEDs) around the city in preparation for another showdown with the Marines. The Pentagon believed the city had become the stronghold of around 5,000 Al Qaeda forces, led by Abu Musab Al-Zarqawi, the leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq.

In November 2004, the Marines began a new assault on the city, codenamed Operation Phantom Fury. The US Army moved in first in Bradley Fighting Vehicles, then Marines followed on foot supported by artillery and heavy weapons. They entered in the north of the city, and worked their way south house by house. Tom says:

It was pretty intense. I was responsible for quite a lot. I was a weapons specialist, and advisor to the battalion commander. It was a very dangerous environment. In such situations, it’s very obvious you are mortal. I would honestly tell myself, in some of those hairy situations, that everybody dies sometimes, and that sometimes, for the good of the whole, you have to put yourself at risk, or send others into risky situations. As Marcus Aurelius says, soldiers are assigned a place – it’s better to stay and die there than to retreat.

Of course, a lot of one’s thinking in such situations is automatic: “You act without thinking, that’s why you train so intensely, to instill automatic responses, so that you see something that needs to be done, like crossing a street, and you do it, automatically.”

He adds:

I would describe Fallujah as like driving in a car, and then the car hits a patch of ice and starts to spin out of control. So you turn the wheels into the skid. It’s instinctual.

It’s after the intense fighting is over that some people develop psychological problems, he says, “when they have time to sit around and think about it”. But he himself seems to have avoided deep psychological wounds, although he was physically wounded and had to be evacuated. He says:

I feel a strong sense of duty, it’s one of the key reasons I’m into Stoicism. People who have served, who have been in conflict, they know what it’s like. They don’t want to go into conflict, and they don’t want to have been there. They know it’s not like the movies, that there’s no glory in it. They’re just doing a job. Sometimes you’re in situations you don’t like, but you have a job to do. Most soldiers love to complain. I try not to complain about what I’m asked to do.

He retired from the Marines in 2008, and recently returned from security work in central Asia. He came back to his wife, and to his newly purchased home – six and a half acres near Dallas, in Texas. He says:

I want to come back, settle, and live a peaceful life. I’ve been unemployed since I’ve been back, though I have been doing some work with the New Stoa community, which I’d like to see expand.

But Tom’s plans didn’t work out like that. He tells me, at the end of the interview, that he had discovered the previous day that he has a brain tumour. He says:

The doctors confirmed it yesterday. I haven’t told my wife yet. I’m going to tell her after Christmas [the interview took place on December 22]. I don’t want to spoil her Christmas. She might not like me keeping it from her, but that’s just how it is. Then the doctors want to operate on me as soon as possible, so that will be first week of January.

I am somewhat stunned, and say how sorry I am to hear it. I ask him how he feels about it. He says:

Well, it’s not what you want to hear. That’s why I was thinking about the house: will my wife be provided for, if something happened to me? In fact, the mortgage is insured, so if something happens, my wife would get to keep the house.

I ask how serious the tumour is. He says:

It’s difficult to get a straight answer from the doctors. They say they want to operate first, and then see. They also want to put a radioactive pellet in my brain.

I’ve done several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. There have been several situations I’ve been in where it’s been likely I would be hit. And I have been injured, five times in my career. But I still never believed I would die in those situations, somehow.

With this situation, it’s different. For one thing, it’s not immediate, while in war death is probably immediate. I also know I’m likely to be injured. I’ve already suffered the loss of some language skills. Like, sometimes I can think of the word I want to say, but for some reason my lips can’t form it. I’ve also had some memory issues. Fortunately, I haven’t lost control of my reason.

A friend of mine passed away in 2007, it was almost exactly the same thing. He had surgery on a tumour in December, and by August he had gone. So I may have around six months left.

I ask him, tentatively, what his attitude is to the prospect of dying. He says:

A part of me thinks ‘this is your fate’, like Socrates facing his death. Another part of me thinks the doctors are here for a reason, that they could help me. Marcus Aurelius says something like, you could have a day left, or 10 years left, but everyone has to go sometime. That’s not being courageous, it’s just accepting the inevitable. Statistically, it doesn’t look good – if everyone in history has died, then it’s pretty likely it will happen to me too. I would prefer it not be tomorrow, but it’s not something I have control over.

Does he believe in an afterlife?

I think so, but there might not be. Again, Marcus Aurelius says, as I remember it, ‘if there is a God, be comforted. If we’re just atoms, then you won’t feel anything anyway’. If there is a God, I am sure he will understand the way I think, and why I think like I do.

Would he say the news has changed him, or changed how he thinks?

I guess people should think constantly about the life they lead. Am I the kind of person I’d like to be? Have I misled anyone? There are things I have no control over – the past, or the future. I get caught up in life like everyone else. I don’t always think first, but I try to review myself and my actions. I am a work in progress. Whether I get to complete that work in progress is not up to me. But I will try now in a more expedited fashion. I would like to have time to write my own version of the Meditations, with advice on how to live, for my son to read.

So, as a Stoic, should he fight his situation, or accept it?

The two aren’t mutually exclusive. It’s like going into battle. I accept that I might die, but it doesn’t mean that I won’t go down without a fight. If it’s my time, then I’ll go without crying. If it’s not my time, then I’ll have fought through it.

Tom went into surgery on January 4, two weeks after our interview. After initially making a good recovery, he underwent complications, and went into a coma. He passed away on the morning of January 26.

The Pentagon’s new spiritual fitness training programme

How does the army of a liberal, multi-cultural and often secular society develop in its soldiers the spiritual resilience to cope with war, to face trauma, death and bereavement, and to fight opponents who have the advantage of a strong and common religious faith?

That’s the question the Pentagon has been grappling with, as it tries to cope with the record numbers of veterans returning from the front line of Iraq and Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, drug problems and other emotional disorders. In October, it came up with a response, called the ‘Comprehensive Soldier Fitness’ programme, which will aim to strengthen the emotional, psychological and, yes, spiritual resilience of each of the 1.1 million soldiers serving in the US army.

The programme is being organised and rolled out by Brigadier-General Rhonda Cornum, who was kind enough to give me an interview. She told me:

The US Army has never provided training to soldiers for their emotional and psychological strength. We thought that being in the Army, and adhering to the Army’s values of ‘mission first’, ‘never quit’, ‘never leave a fallen comrade’ and so on, would lead to emotional and psychological strength simply emerging. But after eight years of war, with much of the Army going to the front-line every other year, we’re very stressed. So we realised we would probably be better served if we had a preventative programme for psychological and emotional strengthening, rather than a reactive one that only began after someone had developed a problem.

Brigadier-General Cornum is herself an example of emotional resilience. She was captured and sexually assaulted during the first Iraq War, but seemed to have come through the experience with her powers of agency strengthened rather than traumatised. She says: “When you’re a POW, your captors control pretty much everything about your life: when you get up, when you go to sleep, what you eat, if you eat. I realised the only thing I had left that I could control was how I thought. I had absolute control over that, and was not going to let them take that too.”

In other words, she approached a situation in which she had minimum control not from the perspective of being a passive victim, but from the perspective that this adverse situation was actually an opportunity to exercise her agency, to assert her autonomy.

She says:

There are people who are just naturally resilient, who look at problems as challenges to be overcome. Some people even see adversity as opportunities to excel. I recognised that I had those skills, and others didn’t. What we have learnt since then, mainly thanks to the work of Penn University’s psychology department, is that these thinking skills that lead to resilience can be taught. And that’s what we’re trying to do with the new programme: teach resilience.

The Penn psychology department’s pioneering work began in the 1950s, when professor Aaron T. Beck developed ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ – a type of therapy that taught people to become aware of how they interpret events through their ‘self-talk’ , and how their habitual interpretations of the external world lead to their habitual emotional responses.

In other words, our beliefs about ourself and the world lead to our emotional responses. We choose what we believe, so we also choose what we feel – though often our beliefs are unconscious and highly irrational. CBT tries to make the beliefs that colour our world-view more conscious, and more rational.

CBT sounds simple, but it’s based on the 2,000-year-old philosophy of Stoicism, which taught its students that ‘it’s not events, but our interpretation of them, that causes suffering’, in the words of the philosopher Epictetus. Stoics taught their students resilience – the ability to cope with exile, imprisonment, bereavement, torture, death, and all the other occupational hazards of a political career in the Roman Empire, without losing their cool.

Stoics could cope with adversity because they constantly reminded themselves that the world was an unpredictable and often frustrating place, and the only thing truly in our control was our own thoughts and opinions. They took an attitude of indifference to externals – it didn’t matter if you were emperor of Rome or a prisoner in a cell, what mattered was using each situation that came your way as an opportunity to exercise your moral agency, your ability to rise above your circumstances.

Epictetus said:

It is circumstances which show what men are. Therefore when adversity falls upon you, remember that God, like a trainer of wrestlers, has matched you with a rough young man…that you may become an Olympic conqueror; but it is not accomplished without sweat.

Stoic resilience didn’t mean just ‘sucking it up’. It didn’t mean just repressing your emotions behind a ‘stiff upper lip’. It’s far more subtle than that. It’s about learning how your beliefs lead to your emotions, and then learning to challenge and dismantle any beliefs that don’t make sense and are leading to destructive and pointlessly negative emotions.

CBT drew on many of the ideas and techniques of Stoicism. Both Beck and the other founder of CBT, Albert Ellis, were directly influenced by Stoicism, as they’ve told me in interviews. What CBT showed was that the therapeutic techniques of Stoicism could be used even if one didn’t share the religious beliefs of Stoicism. Indeed, Albert Ellis was a rabid atheist. You might not accept the Stoic idea that all externals are morally indifferent and the only thing worth pursuing is the development of your moral agency, but you could still use Stoic techniques to overcome emotional disorders, by becoming aware of how your habitual interpretations of the world lead to your emotional responses, and you could still learn how to change those interpretations when they were irrational or self-defeating.

So CBT adapted Stoic therapy to the needs and requirements of a multi-faith society. It used the techniques of Stoicism, but without Stoicism’s moral dogma – although it still retained some of the vestiges of Stoic ethics, in the idea that our emotions are our responsibility, and that the ‘good life’ is ultimately a life of Socratic self-knowledge and Stoic moral autonomy.

But most of the people who use CBT, and most of the people who teach CBT, have little or no idea of the connection of CBT to Stoicism. It’s been kept quiet, because Stoicism is a religious philosophy, and anything that smacks of religion wouldn’t go down well in the public sector. So CBT’s Stoic roots had to be kept slightly quiet for the psychotherapy to gain widespread acceptance.

A colleague of Beck’s at Penn University, Martin Seligman, then took the ideas and techniques of CBT and showed how they could be taken from the hospital or psychiatric ward, and taught to healthy individuals, such as children in schools, in order to strengthen their health and resilience before they ever developed an emotional disorder. So he made what was originally a therapy into an educational course. This, of course, is what Stoicism always was: an educational course, for young leaders.

Both CBT and positive psychology managed to gather a large body of evidence that showed that CBT was the most successful therapy at combating depression, social anxiety, PTSD and other emotional disorders; and that positive psychology, if taught in schools, reduced the likelihood of children developing depression in their teens.

The results started to impress government officials, and to make an impact on public policy. The UK’s government developed a particular enthusiasm in the last few years, thanks to the public support of government advisor Lord Layard for all things CBT. He was sufficiently impressed by CBT’s success at treating survivors of the Omagh bombing, that he successfully lobbied for the government to ear-mark around £150 million to train over 1,000 new CBT therapists to work in the NHS.

Layard also campaigned to get Seligman’s team to create a pilot ‘resilience programme’ in UK state schools. Some aspects of CBT are already included in the new curriculum subject, Social and Emotional Aspects of Learning.

Meanwhile, in the last couple of years, the Pentagon has, independently, become interested in the work of Penn, and its possible uses in helping it cope with the stress of eight years of war. It had already, controversially, used Martin Seligman’s theory of ‘learned helplessness’ to inform its interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay. Now, General George Casey, Chief of Staff of the US Army, decided to contract Seligman and his team to teach the entire army ‘learned optimism’. The Pentagon began working on the programme in August 2008, and launched it in October 2009.

The $125 million programme will mean that every American soldier has to take a questionnaire, every two years, which will assess his or her cognitive skills in five domains: physical, social, family, emotional and spiritual. The results are only shown to the soldier. If the soldier is below optimum in a domain, he or she is encouraged to take classes to strengthen their cognitive skills in that domain. The junior soldiers will be “required” to do the training. Most of the classes are online – they use hand-outs and videos to show different ways of thinking about and approaching difficult situations.

So how can a publicly-funded programme improve the ‘spiritual’ strength of an army, without conflicting with the pluralist ethos of a multi-faith society in which the government is supposed to be secular?

Brigadier-General Cornum says: “The spiritual strength domain is not related to religiosity, at least not in terms of how we measure it. It measures a person’s core values and beliefs concerning their meaning and purpose in life. We assess their self-awareness, their sense of ownership and responsibility, their self-regulation of thoughts and feelings which they can control, that those things don’t randomly appear, that self-motivation is important, and social awareness is important. It’s not religious, although a person’s religion can still affect those things.”

She adds: “Spiritual training is entirely optional, unlike the other domains. Every time you say the S-P-I-R word you’re going to get sued. So that part is not mandatory. The assessment is mandatory though, and junior soldiers will be required to take exercises to strengthen their other four domains. Because there’s no question that the most vulnerable populations are the younger people, whether we’re looking at stress or drug use. That’s partly because they’re ’emerging adults’, with all the problems that go along with that. And it’s also because they’re the people we’re asking to do the most difficult things.”

So the spiritual training is not mandatory, but the other aspects of the course will still teach the country’s soldiers the techniques and ideas of CBT and Stoicism, and so are, in a sense, spiritual training (or what the Greeks called askesis).

This sort of spiritual training isn’t totally new to the US Army. The military elite have already been trained in this way for some time. West Point’s Cadet Leader Development System, for example, trains its students in six domains – intellectual, military, physical, social, moral-ethical and the domain of the human spirit’, the latter of which models itself on Plato’s education of the elite Guardian class. It regularly invites top philosophers such as Martha Nussbaum to come and lecture to the cadets on Aristotle, the Stoics and other ancient ethicists.

The US Navy has also used ideas and techniques from ancient Greek philosophy in its officer training programme – indeed, the inaugural holder of the Distinguished Chair in Ethics at the United States Naval Academy, Nancy Sherman, went on to write a book called Stoic Warriors, discussing how Stoicism continues to inform the ethos of the American military.

She paid particular attention to the example of Vice-Admiral James Stockdale, who famously used his knowledge of Stoicism to survive seven years of imprisonment and torture during the Vietnam War. Stockdale learnt first hand, as a POW, the value of the Stoic idea that most things are not in our control, but one thing is in our control – our thinking, our moral purpose – and no one can take this from us, even if they kill us.

Stockdale’s experience, and his use of Epictetus, is still taught to US Special Forces cadets at the Green Berets’ survival school in Fort Bragg. Michael, a 47-year-old major in US Army Special Forces, tells me:

We were taught how to survive prisoner-of-war experience, and one of the things we were taught was James Stockdale’s experience in Vietnam. Afterwards, I found out more about him online, and gradually became more and more interested in Stoicism. Eventually, I thought we should change our Special Forces training to simply a course in Hellenic philosophy – because so much of Stoicism is about understanding humans and why they make the decisions they do, which is a crucial part of Special Forces operations.

So the elite of the US military have often drawn on the ideas and traditions of ancient Greek philosophy, particularly Stoicism, to train and develop themselves. But this is the first time such ideas and therapeutic techniques have been rolled out to the entire army, from the bottom to the top.

Of course, other armies, which have the benefit of a common religion, can draw on that to teach their own recruits resilience. Take the example of the Lebanese guerrilla movement Hesballah’s training of its soldiers. I’m quoting from Alaister Crooke’s recent book, Resistance:

Hesballah’s strengthening of the individual comes from contemplation within him or her of the concept of God’s attribute of ‘power’, and through a personal ‘drawing’ of this attribute, the acquisition of an inner mental ‘strength’, a Hesballah Sheikh explained. This quality enables a person to contrive the willpower and spirit with which to confront and overcome disproportionate force used against him or her…From this same attribute of ‘mental strengthening’, the Sheikh suggested, it was possible to cultivate a steadfastness and resilience that ‘will drive a superior adversary to despair at being able to inflict a psychological defeat’.

At times, indeed, the Hesballah resilience training programme sounds positively touchy-feely: “Building individual self-esteem is seen as an element of developing resilience…one activist described is as ‘a process of personal coaching of individuals’.”

But of course Hesballah has the advantage of a common religious faith. In a liberal, democratic, multi-faith society, in which the government is secular, it is a thorny question as to how far the state can go in the development of character and virtue, before it steps over the line and is interfering in an individual’s personal moral choices.

I personally think CBT has done our society a great service by allowing us to draw on the spiritual traditions of western culture, particularly Stoicism, without getting into dogmatic debates over metaphysical beliefs in the after-life, providence, the existence of God and so on.

This, to me, is what Richard Dawkins and others miss in the debate over the value or vice of religion. Religion isn’t just dogma, though of course millions of people have been killed over disagreements about religious dogma. But at its most useful, religions are the ancient storehouses of knowledge of the human mind, the human spirit, and knowledge of the techniques one can use to strengthen the mind and spirit. Many of these techniques can be used even if one doesn’t believe in God. This is what CBT has discovered through its debt to Stoicism.

At the same time, I think the public sector (whether schools, armies, prisons or the NHS) have to be careful not to be too prescriptive in their assertion of what makes one ‘happy’ or ‘resilient’ or any of the other virtues and character-traits that positive psychology teaches. There is no one scientifically-proven path to happiness and virtue. All the great spiritual traditions – Stoicism, Buddhism, Islam, and also secular traditions like Epicureanism – have important points of disagreement. I don’t think positive psychology should paper over those disagreements and pretend that ‘science’ can arrive at some perfect and unarguable path to happiness and resilience. We can’t escape that we live in a pluralist society, and we always will.

And you can never force people to be free, or happy, or resilient. You can lead the soldiers to the revitalising water of ancient philosophy. But, unlike the theocratic states of the Middle East, you can’t force them to drink.