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Getting practical philosophy into the classroom

I would love there to be more practical philosophy in schools. At the moment, the teaching of ethics and philosophy in schools and universities is almost entirely theoretical. Students learn that philosophy is a matter of understanding and disputing concepts and theories, something that only involves the intellect, not your emotions, actions or life outside of the classroom.

This is a consequence of the splitting off of psychology from philosophy at the beginning of the 20th century. Philosophy lost touch with the central and immensely practical question of how to live well, and that ethical vacuum was filled by psychology, and even more by pharmacology.

Ironically, the most evidence-based talking therapy – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – was directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, and uses many of its ideas and techniques. CBT picked up the baton which modern philosophy dropped, of trying to help ordinary people live happier lives. But it lacks the ethics, values and meaning dimension that ancient philosophy had.

Philosophy and psychology need each other. Philosophy without psychology is a brain in a vat, artificially cut off from emotions and actions and the habits of life. Psychology without ethics is a chicken without a head, focused entirely on evidence without any clear sense of the goal. Practical philosophy is a bridge between the evidence-based techniques of psychology, and the Socratic questioning of philosophy.

I wish that, when I was suffering from social anxiety and depression at school, someone had told me about Stoic philosophy, and explained their idea that my emotions are connected to my beliefs and attitudes, and we can transform our feelings by changing our beliefs. They might also have explained how CBT picked up the Stoics’ ideas and tested them out. Instead I had to find all this out for myself, and it took me several rather unhappy years. When I did finally come across ancient philosophy, it helped me enormously.

And I’m not alone in this. John Lloyd, the creator of Blackadder and QI, was a very bright boy at school, but never learned to reflect on the good life or how his thoughts create his subjective reality. He had to learn that himself, coming to philosophy after a five-year breakdown in his thirties. He now says: ‘I think every child should learn Stoic philosophy.’  Making Stoicism part of the national curriculum is quite a big ask. But wouldn’t it be great if there was at least some practical philosophy, some indication that philosophy can practically improve students’ lives?

Eight Key Ideas To Get Across

Stoicism for Everyday Life is a project bringing together philosophers, psychotherapists and classicists, who are fascinated by the links between Stoic philosophy and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and committed to raising public awareness of Stoicism as a life-improving resource. We’re organising Live Like A Stoic Week (Nov 25 – Dec 1), and trying to get people involved in Stoic events all over the world. We’re preparing a handbook for Stoic Week, with a different Stoic idea and exercise for every day, and we’re inviting people to follow the Handbook for the week, then reporting back to us via a brief questionnaire. It will be released in November.

We’d love it if students at schools and universities got involved too. Last year, several schools around the world got involved for the Week, and some undergrads posted YouTube videos describing how they found the practical exercises. If you’re a teacher, and you want to do a class or philosophy club on Stoicism, here are eight key ideas that, speaking personally, I wish I’d come across at school:

1) It’s not events that cause us suffering, but our opinion about events.


People often think ‘Stoic’ means ‘suppressing your emotions behind a stiff upper lip’. This is not what ancient Stoicism meant. The Stoics thought we could transform emotions by understanding how they’re connected to our beliefs and attitudes. The quote above, from the philosopher Epictetus, is so powerful and useful – and it was the main inspiration for CBT. Often what causes us suffering is not a particular adverse event, but our opinion about it. We can make a difficult situation much worse by the attitude we bring to it. This doesn’t mean relentlessly ‘thinking positively’ – it simply means being more mindful of how our attitudes and beliefs create our emotional reality. We don’t realise that often we are the ones causing ourselves suffering through our thoughts. Have you noticed how people react very differently to exactly the same event, how some sink rapidly into despondency while others shrug it off? Perhaps we can learn to be more resilient and intelligent in how we react to events.

2) Our opinions are often unconscious, but we can bring them to consciousness by asking ourselves questions

Socrates said we sleepwalk through life, unaware of how we live and never asking ourselves if our opinions about life are correct or wise. CBT, likewise, suggests we have many cognitive biases – many of our deepest beliefs about ourselves and the world might be destructive and wrong. Yet we assume automatically they’re true. The way to bring unconscious beliefs into consciousness is simply to ask yourself questions. Why am I feeling this strong emotional reaction? What interpretation or belief is leading to it? Is that belief definitely true? Where is the evidence for it? We can get into the practice of asking ourselves questions and examining our automatic interpretations. The Stoics used journals to keep track of their automatic responses and to examine them. CBT uses a similar technique. Maybe your students could keep a Stoic journal for a week.

3) We can’t control everything that happens to us, but we can control how we react

This is another very simple and powerful idea from the Stoics, best presented by Epictetus, the slave-philosopher, who divided all human experience into two domains: things we control, things we don’t. We don’t control other people, the weather, the economy, our bodies and health, our reputation, or things in the past and future. We can influence these things, but not entirely control them. The only thing we have complete control over is our beliefs – if we choose to exercise this control. But we often try to exert complete control over something external, and then feel insecure and angry when we fail. Or we fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts and beliefs, and use the outside world as an alibi. Focusing on what you control is a powerful way to reduce anxiety and assert autonomy in chaotic situations – you could use the stories of Rhonda Cornum, Viktor Frankel, James Stockdale or Sam Sullivan to illustrate this idea – they all faced profound adversity but managed to find a sense of autonomy in their response to it. The Serenity Prayer is also a nice encapsulation of this idea.

4) Choosing your perspective wisely

Every moment of the day, we can choose the perspective we take on life, like a film-director choosing the angle of a shot. What are you going to focus on? What’s your angle on life?

What’s your angle on life?

A lot of the wisdom of Stoicism comes down to choosing your perspective wisely. One of the exercises the Stoics practiced was called the View From Above – if you’re feeling stressed by some niggling annoyances, project your imagination into space and imagine the vastness of the universe. From that cosmic perspective, the annoyance doesn’t seem that important anymore – you’ve made a molehill out of a mountain. Watch this video interview with the astronaut Edgar Mitchell about ‘seeing the Big Picture’. Another technique the Stoics used (along with Buddhists and Epicureans) was bringing their attention back to the present moment, if they felt they were worrying too much about the future or ruminating over the past. Seneca told a friend: ‘What’s the point of dragging up sufferings that are over, of being miserable now because you were miserable then?’

5) The power of habits

One thing the Stoics got, which a lot of modern philosophy (and Religious Studies) misses with its focus on theory, is the importance of practice, training, repetition and, in a word, habits. It doesn’t matter what theory you profess in the classroom if you don’t embody it in your habits of thinking and acting. Because we’re such forgetful creatures, we need to repeat ideas over and over until they become ingrained habits. It might be useful to talk about the Stoic technique of the maxim, how they’d encapsulate their ideas into brief memorisable phrases or proverbs (like ‘Everything in moderation’ or ‘The best revenge is not to be like that’), which they would repeat to themselves when needed. Stoics also carried around little handbooks with some of their favourite maxims in. What sayings do you find inspirational? Where could you put them up to remind yourself of them throughout the day?

6) Fieldwork

Another thing the Stoics got, which modern philosophy often misses, is the idea of fieldwork. One of my favourite quotes from Epictetus is: ‘We might be fluent in the classroom but drag us out into practice and we’re miserably shipwrecked’. Philosophy can’t just be theory, it can’t just be talk, it also has to be askesis, or practice. If you’re trying to improve your temper, practice not losing it. If you’re trying to rely less on comfort eating, practice eating less junk food. Seneca said: ‘The Stoic sees all adversity as training’. I love the bit in Fight Club where students from Tyler Durden’s school get sent out to do homework in the streets (even if the homework is a little, er, inappropriate, like intentionally losing a fight). Imagine if philosophy also gave us street homework, tailor-made for the habits we’re trying to weaken or strengthen, like practicing asking a girl out, or practicing not gossiping about friends, or practicing being kind to someone every day. Imagine if people didn’t think philosophy was ‘just talking’. Diogenes the Cynic took askesis to the extreme of living in a barrel to prove how little we need to be happy – students tend to like stories about him.

7) Virtue is sufficient for happiness

All the previous main points are quite instrumental and value-neutral – that’s why CBT has taken them up and turned them into a scientific therapy. But Stoicism wasn’t just a feel-good therapy, it was an ethics, with a specific definition of the good life: the aim of life for Stoics was living in accordance with virtue. They believed if you found the good life not in externals like wealth or power but in doing the right thing, then you’d always be happy, because doing the right thing is always in your power and never subject to the whims of fortune. A demanding philosophy, and yet also in some ways true – doing the right thing is always in our power. So what are we worried about?

At this point your students might want to consider what they thing is good or bad about this particular definition of the good life. Is it too focused on the inner life? Are there external things we also think are necessary for the good life, such as friends or a free society? Can we live a good life even in those moments when we’re not free, or we don’t have many friends? What do your students think are the most important goods in life?

8) Our ethical obligations to our community

The Stoics pioneered the theory of cosmopolitanism – the idea that we have ethical obligations not just to our friends and family, but to our wider community, and even to the community of humanity. Sometimes our obligations might clash – between our friends and our country, or between our government and our conscience (for example, would we resist the Nazis if we grew up in 1930s Germany?) Do we really have moral obligations to people on the other side of the world? What about other species, or future generations? A useful exercise here, as Martha Nussbaum has suggested, is the Stoic exercise of the ‘widening circles’, imagining all the different wider communities that we’re a part of.

Those are just some ideas I’ve found useful, and which I’ve found people of all ages respond to in workshops (including teenagers). Feel free to suggest other things I’ve missed out in the comments. If you’re a student or teacher who wants to take part in Stoic Week, or who wants to help get more practical philosophy into schools, get in touch.



In other news this week:

This week I got to take part in a fascinating workshop on spirituality, part of Jonathan Rowson’s spirituality project there. One of the participants was Pippa Evans of the Sunday Assembly – the ‘atheist church’ who are in the process of trying to crowd-fund £500,000 to help launch other Sunday Assemblies around the world.

Another cool initiative: Unbound, the crowd-funded publisher set up by John Mitchinson (the other brain behind QI), has raised £1.2 million to expand.

Scary article: Vice magazine on how hackers hack into people’s computer-cameras, video then when they’re…er…indisposed and then blackmail them!

Everyone’s discussing Russell Brand’s call for revolution in the New Statesman. Persuaded? Sounds incredibly half-baked to me, although the problems he addresses are real enough. And I like his support for meditation. I just find his attack on democracy a bit depressing.

Next week I get to be on a panel with Sir Gus O’Donnell! GOD himself. That’s at the launch of the Legatum Institute’s Prosperity Index. Here’s an article he wrote on improving government, including how to use well-being data more successfully. Talking of which, the ONS published the latest happiness data, showing not much change, and no one paid much attention.

Two philosophers (Jerry Coyne and Eric MacDonald) got in a bun-fight about whether materialism precludes free will, and what it all means for the appreciation of poetry. I think MacDonald has a point – most poets believe in the Platonic theory of the arts (the idea that the best artists get their inspiration from spirits / God) – so materialism is anti-poetry (though for different reasons than he argues).

Tomorrow I’m off to Gateshead for the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival, where the theme is ‘Who’s In Control?’ and I’m talking a talk on ecstatic experiences. Looking forward to it.

Have a good weekend – oh, and if you enjoy the blog, I’d welcome donations – it takes up a day a week, and costs me to run the site and newsletter, so if readers could give £1 a month or £10 a year, that’d be great! Alternately, if you want to advertise your company or product and think there’s a good match with my blog, get in touch.


Can one be spiritual *and* religious?

Yesterday we had the first public event in the RSA’s new project: Spirituality, Tools of the Mind and the Social Brain. It’s the child of the RSA’s Jonathan Rowson, who wants to rehabilitate the term ‘spirituality’ and re-connect it to our public conversation. As he noted, there is a large body of people out there who don’t sign up to any one particular religion, but still have a hunger for a spiritual life – including him. I found it refreshing to hear a public conversation on this topic – as if a window had been opened and we could all breath easier.

The Guardian’s Madeline Bunting was on the panel, and initially made a slightly caricatured dismissal of ‘spirituality’ as self-pampering rather than self-denying, suggesting it’s all scented candles and personal development rather than hair-shirts and soup kitchens. I presumed she was speaking from a superior position of orthodox religious commitment. Actually, no – it emerged later in the conversation that she grew up a Catholic but still went to Buddhist retreats, and has wrestled for years with the question of which tradition to commit to. She, like the rest of us, is meandering down the aisles of the spiritual supermarket.

I found myself meandering down the aisles a few weeks ago, when I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland. Every tradition was thrown in together, as in some heavenly paella – angels, yoga, palmistry, Tarot, aura photos, crystals, more Buddhas than you could shake a joss-stick at. The line from The Wasteland came back to me –

Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe

– and I wondered what TS Eliot would make of the festival. Then I thought, well, Tom, you helped make it, you and your generation.

Don’t blame us, Tom, your generation created the spiritual supermarket

There were some pre-modernist pioneers, like Ralph Waldo Emerson, but I’d suggest that it was the modernist generation who created the spiritual supermarket – artists and thinkers like Wagner, Jung, Tolstoy, DH Lawrence, TS Eliot, Yeats, William James and Aldous Huxley. They ate the apple of knowledge – knowledge of other religious traditions, particularly through their first, breathless reception of eastern classics like the the Dhammapada, the Bhagavad-Gita, the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the I-Ching.  Eliot was as heterodox as any of them, studying Sanskrit and Bergson, and ending The Wasteland with some rousing Hindu chanting.  And they also had a Romantic sense (I’m thinking particularly of William James here) that spiritual experiences could happen outside of any religious tradition, particularly if you’ve done enough nitrous oxide.

Spiritual pluralism was developed by the modernists before passing, via the Beats, into the main arteries of western culture. We all now grow up in the spiritual supermarket – I am fairly typical in having dismissed Christianity as a teenager, and turned instead to Walt Whitman, the Buddha, Rumi, Marcus Aurelius, Lao Tzu and Hunter S. Thompson for spiritual guidance.

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Once you are aware of the spiritual wisdom in many different religious traditions, how can you commit to any particular one? It’s the paradox of choice – we are offered so many paths, we end up going a few steps down each one, before returning the way we came to try out another route.

The free market in religion is the consequence of liberalism, the disestablishment of church and state, the tolerance of multiple faiths – all of which seem to me a good thing. And yet the free market works in strange ways. Holland and the UK, for example, have established churches, and are among the most secular countries in the world. The US, where religion is disestablished, has a much higher percentage of believers.

America’s free market in religion may have spurred innovation and aggressive marketing – like this Mormon cathedral in San Diego

Why is this? It may be that America’s 250-year-old free market in religion has spurred more innovation, new religious movements (Mormonism, Christian Science, Seventh-Day Adventists, Pentecostalists), more aggressive marketing, bolder truth-claims on the part of all those competing churches, while the Church of England always reined in their evangelical wings before they got too ecstatic. Or it may be, as Robert Rowland-Smith suggested at the RSA, that World War II and the horrors of the death camps made it difficult for Europeans to believe in providence.

In any case, some have reacted to the free market by hardening their faith into fundamentalism. This weekend, I chatted to a nice Christian girl about how spiritual experiences seem to happen to people outside of any religious tradition. ‘Oh yes’, she nodded. ‘Spiritual experiences can happen without Jesus. That just means they’re demonic.’ In a similar vein, I read an American pastor recently insisting that anyone who doesn’t accept the divinity of Jesus is going to Hell. ‘Otherwise Jesus would have died in vain’. So he’s happy to consign four fifths of humanity to Hell to preserve the specialness of one life.

This modern fundamentalist reaction to the free market gets nasty when it feeds into the public sphere. There can be no tolerance of other religions – they are demonic. We see the fruits of this attitude across the Middle East and Africa, where Christians are murdered every day by Muslim fanatics. It makes us long for the cosmopolitan spirit of earlier Islamic eras, so beautifully elegized by William Dalrymple, when many different religions rubbed shoulders, mixed together, interbred.

On the other hand, there is a risk in not being committed to any particular path – as I’ve put it before, you end up sleeping with everyone at the New Age orgy, and not marrying anyone. You never really commit to a religious tradition, never allow yourself to be transformed. I’m not saying this is always the case, by any means, but it’s a risk of the ‘spiritual-but-not-religious’ approach.

I wonder if it’s possible to be spiritual and religious: one recognizes that the Spirit connects with people in many different religious traditions, and also with people outside of any religion. At the same time, one also recognizes the value of submitting oneself to a particular religious tradition, its scripture, practices and community structures. As Elizabeth Oldfield suggested at the RSA, perhaps one can recognise many paths to God but still suggest yours is the best (the best you’ve found, anyway).  I wonder if it’s where TS Eliot ended up too – Four Quartets is clearly a Christian poem, yet we also get guest-appearances from the Buddha and Krishna.

What I’m grappling with is this: does the ‘spiritual and religious’ position undermine the specialness of Jesus, and contradict his words that ‘no one comes to the Father except through me’? Can one be a Christian pluralist, or does that basically mean I’m not a Christian, I’m a (gulp) Unitarian? Am I Ba’hai? Ba’how did I end up here?


In other news:

This coming Monday, pragmatist philosopher Robert Talisse is speaking at the London Philosophy Club. Handful of places left.

My book came out in America! Without any media promotion alas, so it’s languishing at #50,000 on Amazon. But anyway, you can get it in the US and Canada now.

Check out the great trailer Donald Robertson made for Stoic Week (last week of November)! Keep November 30 free for a big Stoic event we’re organizing in London.

Talking of Stoics, I did an interview with Jonathan Newhouse, CEO of Conde Nast International, about how he uses Stoicism in his life.

Next weekend I’m speaking at the Radio 3 Free Thinking Festival in Gateshead, about ecstasy. Fuck knows how that will go! Come and find out.

New paper by Kinderman et al showing how psychological processes like rumination predict mental illness. Good to show that mental illnesses aren’t just physical diseases, but involve thought habits that people can change.

Two days left to watch this fantastic Otis Redding documentary on BBC iplayer. You gotta!

Here are my top ten tips for recovering from mental illness.

Finally, do listen to Grayson Perry’s first Reith Lecture, on why democracy has bad taste when it comes to art. Funny and interesting.

See you next week,


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