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How philosophy can help us get unstuck in work and life

Ancient Greek Philsophy
Ancient Greek Philsophy

If you’re trying to carve out a better career and life for yourself, you face obstacles. Some of those obstacles are external – finding the right job opportunity, testing your idea, choosing your partners and investors, balancing the books. But a lot of the obstacles are internal – cognitive, emotional, ethical. Fear of failure. Fear of loss of status. Fear of letting down your parents. Fear of not being able to support your family. There’s also the fact that we are creatures of habit and inertia. It’s easier to keep on in our habitual groove. It takes energy and focus to change.

One life-hack that a lot of entrepreneurs and business people have found useful is ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly a philosophy called Stoicism. Fans of Stoicism include Tim Ferriss, self-experimenter and champion of the ‘four-hour work-week’, who says Stoicism is ‘the perfect operating system for thriving in high-stress environments. For entrepreneurs, it’s a godsend’.

Another fan is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, investor and author of Black Swan and Anti-Fragile – the latter book is a celebration of how Stoicism makes us less exposed to the ‘slings and arrows of outrageous fortune’. Other Stoic entrepreneurs and business-people include Luke Johnson, chairman of Risk Capital Partners; Jonathan Newhouse, chairman of Conde Nast International; and Ryan Holiday, author of The Obstacle is the Way, which is about how to apply Stoicism in business life.

The more forward-thinking businesses are running courses in practical philosophy or wisdom to help their employees be more resilient and to help build a more value-driven culture. Personally, I’ve run workshops in practical philosophy for everyone from Premiership-champions Saracens rugby team (they have a regular monthly philosophy club for their players and coaches); to blue-chip corporates like PricewaterhouseCoopers and Allianz; to mental health charities and prisons. Alain de Botton’s philosophy shop, the School of Life, also creates humanities-based courses for companies, as does a new US consultancy, Strategy of Mind.

The philosophy club at Premiership champions Saracens RFC. Spot the philosopher.

This might not be to everyone’s taste. Hard-nosed businesspeople might think this sounds like a waste of money, while humanities academics might turn up their noses at what might sound like the dumbing-down, instrumentalization or commodification of philosophy.

But the idea that philosophy should offer practical help to people in their daily lives goes back to the origin of philosophy in ancient Greece and Rome. Socrates thought philosophy taught people how to ‘take care of their souls’. Cicero thought the humanities ‘enhance prosperity and provide solace in adversity’. Indeed, Stoicism was the main inspiration for the two inventors of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, and also inspired self-help writers like Dale Carnegie and Stephen Covey.

At its best, ancient philosophy is not just a ‘life-hack’, a short-cut to conventional goals of status or wealth. Rather, it’s a value-hack – it wakes us up from the rat-race so we can think for ourselves and discover what flourishing means to us.

So what practical advice can Greco-Roman philosophy offer to help us get unstuck? Here are seven ways.

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

This is a quote from Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD. It inspired the psychologist Albert Ellis to invent cognitive therapy in the 1950s. What it means is, nothing is good or bad in itself, but thinking makes it so. The way we interpret what happens to us dictates how our emotions react. You will face ups and downs in your journey, but you make the journey a lot harder if you catastrophize when adversity happens. We can modulate our emotional reactions by learning to take a more philosophical perspective when the sea turns choppy. Charlie Munger, vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway investment, says he learned from Epictetus that ‘your duty is not to be submerged in self-pity, but to utilize the terrible blow in constructive fashion’.

2) Recognize traps in your habitual thinking

Socrates suggested we sleepwalk through life, following an automated programme of beliefs and values which we picked up from our parents or society and follow blindly, even if it leads us down cul-de-sacs or off a cliff. We may be particularly prone to misreading reality in a certain way – so that certain events push our buttons and trigger strong emotional reactions. When that happens, we can notice our strong emotional reaction, and ask if we’re falling prey to the same habitual misinterpretation. For example, I have a habitual tendency to be over-sensitive to perceived slights – by now, at age 38, I’ve learned that’s a habitual bias of mine, so I’m wary when I jump to that conclusion.

3) Focus on what’s in your control, accept what isn’t

Derren Brown says Stoicism helps him accept the uncontrollables
Derren Brown says Stoicism helps him accept the uncontrollables

This technique, which is at the heart of Epictetus’ philosophy of resilience, is hugely helpful for people trying to manage very complex situations. If you fixate on the uncontrollables, you will feel helpless, frustrated, and the slave of circumstances. Bring your attention back to what Stephen Covey called ‘the circle of response-ability’ – your own thoughts, beliefs and actions. Derren Brown, who is writing a book about Stoicism, told me: ‘For me, that’s become a mantra. If something is frustrating you, what side of the line is it on? Obviously, it’s always on the side of things I can’t control. And then you can go, ‘it’s fine’ and let go. It makes me feel like a kid when it’s Saturday and you realize you don’t have to go to school. It’s just a very visceral feeling of relief.’

4) Avoid ‘tilting’

Tilting is a poker expression, when people lose emotional control and their decision-making becomes irrational and error-prone. If you’re in business, you can try to set speed-bumps or decision-checks to make sure you’re not on the tilt, but are staying rational. For example, the investor Sir John Templeton would set investment rules, so that he automatically bought shares if the price tanked too low, and automatically sold if the price rocketed too high. He knew that, in the grip of a stock market boom or bust, his decision-making would be clouded by the crowd hysteria, so he set controls to defend against his automatic irrationality. Many other top investors use similar techniques to maintain rationality in the midst of crowd-hysteria. Following your heart / gut isn’t always the best method in business.

5) What’s the worst that could happen?

Sometimes, our fears about the future keep us stuck in a mediocre present. Entrepreneurs, or potential entrepreneurs, can be crippled by the fear of failure. It can be useful to ask oneself, ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’. The Stoics practiced a technique called ‘rehearsal of bad things’, where they imagined a check-list of what could go wrong in a situation. That can be useful in itself as a form of ‘defensive pessimism’. And it’s also useful to practice saying ‘so what?’ You do a talk and it goes badly. So what? You make a pitch and you don’t get the deal. So what? Life goes on. Philosophy can teach us how to shrug, to accept mistakes and imperfections and ‘keep buggering on’ as Winston Churchill put it.

6) Memento Mori

Get on and do what you need to do.
Get on and do what you need to do.

The ancient Greeks and Romans, like Buddhists, practised the ‘memento mori’, or remembrance of death. This can be very useful if we’re feeling anxiety, disappointment or shame – you can zoom out and see the bigger picture, which is that everything passes, and no one is going to remember your failed ethical cupcake business in 10 years anyway. But the memento mori can also be a spur to action. Don’t assume you’ve got 10, 20, 30 years left. If there’s something you want to do, get on and do it. Never mind the risks, do the things you need to do while you are still functioning.

7) We are what we repeatedly do

The Greeks understood that we’re creatures of habits, so if you want to change, you need to practice repeatedly, to weaken old habits and strengthen new habits. ‘If you want to be a writer, write’, said Epictetus. The only way humans get anywhere is by repeatedly practising an action. There’s no short-cut. Get into daily rituals – a 10-minute morning meditation, say, or 10 minutes at the end of the day to ‘recollect’ and think about what you did well or badly. Or assemble your own storehouse of maxims to remind yourself of, over and over, until they become internalized. Or get out and practice in real life situations – practice networking, practice writing, practice public speaking.

These are mind-hacks to help individuals change, but philosophy is just as helpful for groups – it helps groups to reflect on their shared values and culture, and ask what’s important to the culture and whether the organization is living up to that.

If all this sounds interesting to you, come to a one-day conference on practical philosophy on November 7 in London, called STOICON, where you can hear from some of the leading figures in the revival of ancient philosophy in modern life. It’s only £30, which is a bargain considering how much companies spend on learning the same lessons. You can also enrol for a free week-long online course, called Stoic Week, which is running from the 2nd to the 9th of November.

What the Stoic account of the emotions leaves out

socrates dionysusAt the end of Philosophy for Life, I asked what the Socratic-Stoic tradition of philosophy misses out, and suggested there is an alternate approach to life and to emotional healing, which I called the Dionysiac tradition:

The virtues of the Socratic tradition are self-control, rationality, self-consciousness and measure. The Socratic tradition typically puts forward a hierarchy of the psyche, in whcih the conscious, reasoning parts of the psyche are highest, and the intuitive, emotional and appetitive parts of the psyche are lowest. The Dionysiac tradition celebrates a very different way of life. Where Socrates preaches self-control, Dionysus urges us to lose ourselves in sex, music, dancing and ecstasy.

The Socratic approach uses conscious reasoning as the means to emotional healing and virtue. Our emotions are caused by – or in some sense are – our beliefs and judgements. Sometimes our beliefs are unwise or wrong, which causes us suffering. But we can use our reason to re-appraise, to think differently, believe and behave differently, and this will bring us healing and wisdom.

This is the idea at the heart of Socratic philosophy, and the Neo-Stoic or cognitive theory of the emotions which is found in cognitive psychology, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, and in the philosophy of Martha Nussbaum and many other virtue ethicists.

It’s true to an extent, and it can bring people a lot of healing. But it’s not the whole story. It is a partial account of the truth. It misses stuff out. If that’s all you know about the psyche, your philosophy of life will be over-rationalistic, and less effective than it could be in helping people heal and flourish.

Emotions and the Autonomic Nervous System

What I call the Dionysiac approach has a different theory of the emotions. It suggests that some forms of emotion – we might prefer to call them moods or feelings – are not primarily forms of cognitive appraisal. Instead, they are non-cognitive and physiological.

The Autonomic Nervous System
The Autonomic Nervous System

Our body, our Autonomic Nervous System, our limbic system, reacts automatically to a stimulus with powerful physical reactions (gut feelings, skin tingling, heart palpitations, heavy or shallow breathing, involuntary limb movements and so on), which our neo-cortex may then appraise and turn into an emotion.

William James, the most famous defender of this theory, described it thus. We see a bear. Our heart starts pounding, our hair stands on end, our body is flooded with adrenaline, we jump out of our skin and start running away, and as we’re running, we think to ourselves ‘this is fear, I’m afraid of that bear’. The bodily reaction comes first, and then the mind recognizes the body’s reaction and categorizes it as an emotion. The emotion, James suggests, is the physiological response.

This more non-cognitive account of the emotions focuses particularly on the Autonomic Nervous System, also known as the visceral or involuntary nervous system, regulated by the hypothalamus and running through the ganglia to our pupils, hair, skin, heart, lungs, stomach, groin and limbs.

The ANS also seems to be involved in trance states or altered states of consciousness. Music, poetry or cinema, for example, appears to have the power to send us into trance states by operating directly on our ANS rather than through our conscious rational reasoning – we feel it in our gut, it makes our skin tingle, our pupils dilate, our heart pound, and before we know it we are crying or euphorically dancing, almost involuntarily (see particularly Judith Becker’s Deep Listeners: Music, Emotion and Trancing). Our cognitive rationality is suspended, we go into a trance state, and are absorbed in the moment and the feeling.

The Stoics were aware of involuntary physiological reactions to shocks – they called them ‘first movements’. For example, a Stoic philosopher might be on a ship in a storm, and might turn pale and start shivering from fear. However, the Stoics insist it’s only an emotion if the philosopher gives their conscious assent to their physical reactions and thinks ‘this really is a scary and terrible situation’.

Seneca writes:

Emotion does not consist in being moved by the impressions that are presented to the mind, but in surrendering to these and following up such a chance movement. For if anyone supposes that pallor, falling tears, sexual excitement or a deep sigh, a sudden brightening of the eyes, and the like, are evidence of an emotion and a manifestation of the mind, he is mistaken, and fails to understand that these are just disturbances of the body.

So according to the Stoics, our ANS system may react powerfully to things – our toe may start tapping, our teeth may chatter, our heart may pound, our skin may tingle, we may even go into some kind of trance state or dissociative fit. The Stoic may feel all these things, but as long as the neo-cortex does not give its assent to these physical disturbances, it’s not an emotion, it’s ‘just disturbances of the body’. It’s a strange dualist separation of mind and body for a supposedly materialist philosophy.

On the one side, then, are the Stoics and Neo-Stoics like Martha Nussbaum, who defend a rationalist and cognitive theory of the emotions, in which any emotion must involve an evaluation or judgement of value. On the other side – the side which Nussbaum calls ‘the Adversary’ – are James, Damasio, Joseph LeDoux, Jonathan Haidt, Pascal and other ‘intuitionists’, who challenge the cognitive theory of the emotions and insist that sometimes our moods, feelings and emotions don’t involve conscious rationality primarily or indeed at all. The ANS has its reasons of which the neo-cortex knows nothing, as Pascal almost put it.

Primary and secondary emotions

It’s a fault line that runs right through modern thinking about the emotions and the best way to heal them. Which is true?

It seems to me that both accounts are true, both capture something important about the emotions. Perhaps, as Antonio Damasio argues, there are two different ways we can feel emotions – primary and secondary. Primary emotions are mainly autonomic and physiological. These occur in all animals, and perhaps to some extent in plants too. Secondary emotions, by contrast, involve some cognitive evaluations or re-evaluations, both of our physical response and of the stimulus that prompted it. Secondary emotions involve the neo-cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain.

The Stoic or Neo-Stoic account tends to focus entirely on secondary emotions. As a result, Stoic therapy, or Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, tends to focus mainly on cognitive re-appraisal and re-thinking as the best method for emotional regulation and healing.

But that is not enough. It does not give an adequate account of our powerful emotional and visceral responses to, say, the arts, or sex, or nature, or drugs, or some forms of meditation or ecstatic religious experience. It gives an account of rational consciousness (probably involving the neo-cortex), but not of other states of consciousness which are more hypnagogic or trance.

Stoics and Neo-Stoics are suspicious of these sorts of visceral emotional states because they are so powerful, and because they seem to by-pass or over-throw our rationality (which they insist is the sovereign or divine part of us). That’s why Plato is so suspicious of poetry – it creates a form of ecstasy in which we are no longer master of our self, and Plato’s philosophy is all about becoming master of your self.

Dilated pupils: one of the classic somatic responses of the ANS

But here’s the key point. Our Autonomic Nervous System is not entirely Autonomic. We can consciously engage in practices which operate through the route of ‘primary emotions’, that’s to say, directly into our ANS. This can be very healing, helping us to alter the ‘milieu’ or baseline of our daily moods in a way that the cognitive appraisal of CBT does not always do.

And such ANS-targeted practices transform our consciousness, giving us different ways of being and knowing beyond rationality. These different ways of being and knowing can sometimes give us the sense of connecting with the sacred or the divine. So they’re not necessarily ‘lower’ or more ‘bestial’ than conscious rationality, as philosophers have sometimes insisted. They are important parts of our psyche, which philosophy often leaves out.

ANS-targeted practices

What sorts of practices work directly on our ANS system?

Certain forms of meditation, like Transcendental Meditation or mindfulness, work not with our conscious rationality or logic, but instead work on our ANS to alter our consciousness and our emotions. That can be tremendously healing, as the evidence from 40 years of research into meditation shows. The repeated practice of meditation alters our baseline emotional state and our automatic reaction to potentially stressful stimuli. It alters our heart rate, our immune system, our breathing – and that all feeds into our thinking style, making us less likely to make anxious or depressed appraisals of events.

Likewise, we can consciously engage with the arts as a form of healing and emotional release. That’s precisely why dance is so important to human beings – it gives us a form of emotional catharsis that is more direct, more primary and non-cognitive than conscious rational deliberation. Philosophers (not traditionally the greatest dancers) have singularly failed to appreciate the power of dance to heal us, beyond a few brief statements in Plato or Rousseau.

J.M.W. Turner
We don’t calmly process Turner’s Snow-Storm, we’re astonished by it

The emotional impact of the beauty of nature and art cannot be adequately explained by the Stoic or Socratic account of the emotions – this is why Nussbaum’s attempts at aesthetics are so tepid. As Burke understood, the sublime and the beautiful operate not on our reason, but on our nerves, our stomach, our guts. Burke wrote: ‘In every one of its modifications the sense of the sublime has its nervous basis, due to changes which are in some degree painful, and an analogous nervous basis may be discovered for the sense of the beautiful.’We don’t calmly and rationally process sublime scenes. On the contrary, we’re astonished by them – they overwhelm us, defy our ability to process them.

DH Lawrence and other Dionysiacs would also say, quite rightly, that sex is a powerful form of emotional catharsis, one unfairly denigrated by Stoics as ‘a rubbing together of bellies’ in Marcus Aurelius’ unhappy phrase. Erotic love gives us a form of knowing deeper and more visceral than conscious rationality. Our bodies, our ANS systems, intertwine. That can also be very healing.

And collective religious experiences are also a way of consciously manipulating and altering the Autonomic Nervous System. The music, the incense, the dancing, the singing, the prayer, the wine, the invocation of a Higher Power – all this by-passes our rationality and works directly on our primary emotions. And that can be tremendously healing and transformative. Of all philosophers, William James understood best how healing the altered states of consciousness attained through stimulation of the ANS could be. His classic book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, challenges the Stoic idea that healing only comes about through conscious reasoning. Sometimes people are healed and released from their old emotional habits through profound visceral or trance experiences.

Of course, we may get a temporary healing or release through a night of passion, or dancing, or religious ecstasy, or ayahuasca. Still, I think the Stoics were right that if this temporary release is going to become permanent transformation, it also needs to involve our conscious rationality. A spiritual life that is all about feelings and not at all about rational beliefs will not have very deep roots. Nor would a spiritual life that is entirely based on rational beliefs and not at all on bodily feelings. There needs to be a connection between the mind and the heart, in popular parlance.

It would be unfair to say Stoic therapy is entirely rational and that it misses out completely the non-cognitive and the non-rational aspects of emotions. A defender of Stoicism would point to the role of visualization meditations in their therapy, and their sense of awe in nature – both of which are rational but also non-rational / visceral. Certainly, Pythagoras and his follower Plato understood the power of music, dance, poetry and incantation to transform and heal our emotions.

sacred_heart_byzantineBut in general, Greek philosophy is rather suspicious of non-rational or Dionysiac approaches to the emotions. I think Christianity has a greater sense of the healing and transformative power of music, architecture, poetry, liturgy, dance and trance states (although of course it steered well clear of any drugs besides incense and wine). Judeo-Christianity speaks not just of reason or logic, but of knowing God through the heart or even the bowels – we are often told in the New Testament that Jesus reacts to suffering in his splagchnon, his bowels. How different to a Stoic, who would dismiss such visceral reactions as ‘just disturbances of the body’.

At its best, I think, Christianity can sometimes combine the rational ethical wisdom of Stoicism with the more non-rational, sublime or Numinous emotional experiences we have discussed. Though, I’m sure like a lot of you, I find my reason and my heart aren’t always in agreement.