In defence of Stoic Week

I was slightly surprised to see that Julian Baggini had used his column in the Independent to make some criticisms of 'Stoic Week', part of a project at Exeter University with which I'm involved. When you think of all the serious things happening in the world at the moment, from extreme weather to the war in Gaza, it seems odd to use your column in a national newspaper to criticise a project which, taken all together, is in my opinion a small but positive thing within the philosophical landscape.

Philosophy is so utterly marginal to British culture, so threatened with irrelevance at school and university level - is it really helpful for prominent philosophers to use what little public space they get to criticise initiatives aimed at broadening the public awareness of philosophy?

The project at Exeter brings together classicists, philosophers and psychologists to engage in a dialogue about the relationship between Stoic philosophy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). As regular readers of this blog will know, CBT was directly inspired by Greek philosophies (not just Stoicism, also Socrates, Plato, the Sceptics and Epicureans...but mainly the Stoics). CBT is now the most scientifically credible and popular form of therapy for many emotional disorders. To my mind it is fascinating that CBT has built up an evidence base to show that the Stoics' ideas and techniques for transforming the emotions genuinely work. It is extraordinary that ideas about the emotions conceived two millennia ago should still be our best guide for healing the emotions today.

I have written about this connection between Stoicism and CBT for five years or so, and all that time I could not understand why more philosophers did not write about it and see it as something really positive and interesting. The exception is Martha Nussbaum, whose 2001 book 'Upheavals of Thought: The Intelligence of the Emotions', explores the scientific evidence for the Stoics' cognitive theory of the emotions (although Nussbaum does not accept the Stoics' normative position, and characterises her own position as 'neo-Stoic').

Now, thanks to the Exeter project and to a series of books in the last two years on the relationship between Stoicism and CBT (including my own book), there is a lot more interest in how ancient philosophies can really help people cope with difficult situations and transform their emotions.

There have always been philosophers who criticise the modern use of Stoicism as a form of practical therapy. When I published an interview with Albert Ellis (the pioneer of CBT) back in 2007, Mark Vernon criticised my article for mistakenly conflating Stoicism with CBT, and ignoring the differences between the two. CBT was, at best, 'Stoicism lite', he wrote. I disagreed at the time, but now I think he makes a fair point - CBT does leave out a lot of Stoicism, not least its cosmology, its theism, and its ethical value system. It instrumentalises it, turning it into a set of techniques rather than a comprehensive moral system.

You can understand why CBT did that. To become a scientifically credible therapy, it had to drop any talk of God or providence, or even of the meaning of life. It teaches people how to transform their emotions, how to steer the self, without telling them where to steer the self to. It leaves people to decide for themselves what the meaning or goal of life is. You could develop a Marxist CBT, or an Islamic, Buddhist, Epicurean, capitalist or Aristotelian CBT. All it teaches you is how to transform the self and its emotions, not what the ideal self looks like.

Many people who have been helped by CBT go on, as I did, to explore the Greek philosophies from which it evolved - they get into 'Stoic CBT' or 'philosophical CBT'. We fill in the bits that CBT left out - about God, society and the meaning of life. That is for us to do, not cognitive therapists working in the NHS. My book shows the different ethical directions that the Greeks took the cognitive theory of emotions, and leaves the reader to make up their own mind.

Baggini, in this latest salvo, suggests that the Exeter project is part of a mass 'therapisation' of our culture. He writes:

Not so long ago, therapy was widely seen as something only for the seriously disturbed or neurotic, overeducated Americans. Now, all that is good is being turned into therapy. Rather than seeking help on Dr Freud’s couch, people are turning to Monty Don’s allotment or Jamie Oliver’s kitchen to soothe their troubled psyches. Ancient philosophy is also undergoing this process of therapisation.

I'm not sure about the first sentence. 'Not long ago' in when? Therapy and self-help have been pretty central to western culture since at least the Sixties. And I don't think that people see Jamie Oliver as a particularly therapeutic figure, do they? And if people do find that gardening or cooking makes them feel good, what is wrong with that? I hardly think that finding gardening soothing to soul is a decadent modern invention.

Baggini's on even shakier ground when he suggests that we are distorting ancient philosophy by trying to turn it into a form of therapy. I'm sure he's read the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics, Sceptics and so on - so he'll know that they themselves very explicitly saw their philosophy as a form of therapy, which heals people of emotional problems. The Greeks' view of philosophy as a form of therapy is explored at length in my book; or Martha Nussbaum's Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics; or Richard Sorabji's Emotion and Peace of Mind: From Stoic Agitation to Christian Temptation, or the Royal Institute of Philosophy essay collection, Philosophy as Therapeia. The therapy of the emotions is there on every page of Hellenistic philosophy.

Baggini may not be into this Hellenistic tradition. He might think it's all a load of sap. He might prefer, I don't know, the modern analytic tradition, or continental philosophy, or British empiricism. That's absolutely fine. But the Hellenistic tradition is very much concerned with the emotions and how to transform them. It's very much concerned with therapy or the art of being doctor to yourself. We're not distorting it.

Baggini writes:

The only good reason to embrace a philosophical position is that you are convinced it is true or at least makes sense of the world better than the alternatives. I’m not a stoic because I do not agree that we are all fragments of an all-pervading divine rationality which is providentially organising the world, or that Epictetus was right to say you should not be disturbed if your wife or child dies or that “my father is nothing to me, only the good”. To become a stoic is to endorse the truthfulness of its world view and accept its prescription for how you ought to live, not just to like how it makes you feel.

Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive-behaviour therapy, and Albert Ellis, founder of rational-emotive behaviour therapy, both appropriated Stoic ideas for their own ends, as does the philosopher Richard Sorabji, who says of Stoicism: “I choose the bits which I find helpful and I don’t take the full theory.” Such cherry-picking is perfectly legitimate. What’s objectionable is praising the joys of scrumping as though it were on a par with the care, dedication and understanding of growing an orchard.

This is the 'all or nothing' argument that I have sometimes been presented with. Don't talk about Stoicism unless you are going to be a 100% Stoic, accepting all their ideas (including belief in the Logos, indifference to all external things, and faith in the periodic conflagration of the universe). Otherwise you're just 'pick n' mixing', not really seriously committing to a particular ethical path.

My response to this is that the ancients themselves pick n' mixed. Marcus Aurelius pick n' mixed from the Epicureans and Neo-Platonists. Posidonius pick n' mixed from Plato and the Stoics. Augustine pick n' mixed from Christianity and Platonism. Cicero pick n' mixed from every philosophy out there. Baggini took some ideas from Hume in his book The Ego Trick. Does he agree with 100% of Hume's ideas? No? Well that's just pick n' mixing! That's just scrumping!

We all, to some extent, construct our own philosophies. What is important is whether our life-philosophies fit with human nature and the needs of our society at this particular time, and whether we actually live by them.

Most of the people I know who are into Stoicism today are fairly heterodox. But they make an effort to understand what the ancient Stoics really meant. They read not just Seneca and Aurelius, but also AA Long, Nussbaum, Hadot, Annas, Sorabji. They are serious about their philosophy of life, even though they're not academics. And I also know a lot of people who have never read AA Long or Sorabji, but who have still read some Epictetus or Seneca, and found it really helpful - even a life-saver. Are they 'pick n' mixing'? Are they 'scrumping'? Who the hell cares. Thank God, they have been helped by the Stoics through life's many difficulties. I don't care if they are a 'proper Stoic' or not. I care if they are suffering, and if they find something that helps them to cope with the suffering.

I personally am not a proper Stoic. I do not think externals are indifferent. I believe in reincarnation. I believe some passions are appropriate. However, I think the Stoics were unrivalled in their understanding of how emotions arise and how we can change them. They were unrivalled in some of their practical ideas for how to stay resilient in chaotic conditions, such as Epictetus' idea of knowing the difference between what you can control and what you can't. These ideas saved my life, and got me through depression and anxiety. I still use these Stoic ideas and techniques today, despite not accepting the Stoics' normative position. I don't think this is illegitimate, nor do I think Ellis and Beck's 'appropriation' of Stoic ideas and techniques is illegitimate: CBT has helped millions of people to overcome suffering, which is more than can be said for most contemporary philosophers.

Baggini wants to keep therapy and philosophy safely apart, he says. Therapy (like CBT) is a set of instrumental techniques for 'coping, not treating the whole person', while philosophy helps us develop 'a comprehensive outlook on life, along with a set of values'. I agree that, if you have an acute emotional disorder, you need immediate coping strategies, not total moral systems. But for the Greeks and Romans, these two things were on a continuum - first the immediate coping with crisis, and then the searching out of a more comprehensive philosophy of life. How can you draw a firm line between CBT and the philosophies from which it emerged...and why would you want to?

I think therapists are increasingly learning that it is difficult to avoid normative questions of value and of what we mean by 'flourishing' etc. And philosophers are learning that it's important to ground ethics in proper working theories of human nature and the emotions. As I put it in my book, ethics without psychology is a brain in a vat, while psychology without ethics is a chicken without a head. So I don't think we can or should draw a hard line between psychotherapy and philosophy  - and I think it's strange that Baggini should want to, considering he writes a weekly column with his psychotherapist partner called 'The Shrink and the Sage'.

Finally, Baggini criticises 'Stoic Week's use of well-being questionnaires. Well, look, I think he is taking too seriously what started off as a small and fun project for Exeter classics undergrads. I know Baggini hates 'happiness measurements' and the attempt to try and use them to draw moral prescriptions (I have some sympathy with him here), and perhaps he sees this as an invidious example of that positivist trend. Of course the Stoic ethos is not about personal happiness - although I think these questionnaires try to measure flourishing or resilience rather than happiness. I personally am taking part in the week without religiously filling in the questionnaires.

In general, Stoic Week was the idea of a young post-grad at Exeter called Patrick, who is part of the Exeter project, and who wanted to give his students a sense that Stoicism wasn't just something to study, but something you could practice each day. That is a fantastic idea, and his students have posted some YouTube videos of their experiences. No one, especially not Patrick, expected Stoic Week to gain international attention, or to attract the criticisms of a prominent British philosopher in the Independent! In general, though, I'd suggest that if the next generation of academics have half as fresh, engaging and practical an attitude to philosophy as Patrick does, then the future looks bright.

As to the questionnaires, no one is saying this is a serious scientific study. But the reason CBT has succeeded in reaching and helping millions of people, is it created an empirical evidence base to show it really worked. Likewise, the reason mindfulness therapy is now accepted in the NHS is it built up an evidence base to show it helped people overcome depression etc. Keeping evidence is not so out of kilter with the ancients' tradition - they would also keep track of their ethical progress in journals. You don't have to measure your daily happiness. You could measure your success at not losing your temper, for example. Epictetus said 'count the days on which you were not angry'. So keeping track of your progress can be a useful part of the philosophical life.

I look at the utter marginalisation of philosophy in our culture today, and I think it is a pity. I personally believe philosophy is an extraordinary thing, something that can transform and even save lives. I wish more people knew that. Philosophy needs all the help it can get right now, so why knock initiatives that succeed in getting people involved and showing them the wonderful riches within our philosophical tradition?

Let me end with my favourite quote from Seneca, an exhortation to all philosophers great and small: "There is no time for playing around. You have been retained as counsel for the unhappy. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?"