Modern philosophies as therapy?
I'm interested, as are many of you, in the ancients' conception of philosophy as psychotherapy (or 'care of the soul', as Socrates put it). What interests me about the ancients' version of self-help is that, in contrast to the more narrow and atomised modern self-help, ancient self-help combined both techniques for personal fulfilment, and a theory of politics (man's relationship to society), and a theory of the cosmos and man's place in it (man's relationship to God). If you compare that to, say, Chicken Soup for the Soul, you'll see how far self-help has become privatized and atomized in modern times, and how much we have to learn from ancient sources.
But what about modern philosophy? Could any of that also be considered a therapy or 'way of life'? The most obvious candidate for this sort of non-academic, practical, therapeutic philosophy is existentialism, which had a direct impact on modern psychology through the works of psychologists like RD Laing, Rollo May, Viktor Frankl and Erich Fromm.
I was moved by Viktor Frankl's Man and His Search for Meaning, which recounted Frankl's experience as an inmate of Auschwitz, and impressed by his insight, won from bitter experience, that even in such terrible conditions as Auschwitz, we always retain the freedom to choose our attitude to the situation we're in. He finds meaning, even in Auschwitz, in his ability to endure the suffering of the camp, and to rise above it. This is Stoic as much as it is existentialist - it recalls Epictetus' insight that the essence of mental health is to know in what things we are free and in what things we are constrained. It is a powerful refutation of Aristotle's assertion that the Good Life depends on fortunate external conditions, such as being a citizen of a free democracy. As the Stoics insisted, and as Frankl's story shows, the good man can live a good life, a life of meaning and virtue, even amid evil conditions.
The therapy which Frankl eventually set up was called logotherapy, in reference to the Stoic concept of the Logos, the universal law of the universe. Frankl himself didn't seem to believe in the Logos, or in any cosmic meaning to human existence. Like the Greeks, he believed we have an inherent 'will to meaning', but unlike the Greeks, Frankl believed it's up to us how we satisfy this will. There's no cosmic plan to be fulfilled. We might find meaning through a deed, a creation, through love, or through enduring some awful experience with lofty detachment. In the modern world, we create meaning, rather than discovering it in the cosmos as the ancients did.
I think there is a lot of practical value in Frankl's logotherapy. If someone is depressed, sometimes it helps if they simply find a project to get their teeth into. First, it keeps them busy, keeps their mind occupied, gives an outlet for their energy, stops them going round in circles. It can also connect them to other people, give them a sense of working on a joint enterprise in the world. Then, having put some work in, they can see their efforts actualised in the world, they can see the impact they have had, and this helps them overcome their sense of meaningless and alienation.
As theorists like Clay Shirky have noted, this is one of the reasons the internet relieves suffering - because it gives people an outlet for their Will To Meaning, whether it be writing a blog, creating a LOLcat, adding to an entry on Wikipedia, or posting some deranged comment on the Guardian's Comment Is Free site.
And yet I wonder if logotherapy is entirely satisfactory. Typically of modern psychotherapies (Positive Psychology, for example), it says 'the really important thing in life is to find meaning'. OK, so what is the meaning of life? 'Oh, whatever you want it to be'. This just doesn't seem very meaningful to me. It makes meaning meaninglessness. What then shall I do? Write a book? Eat a peach? Build a castle from match-sticks? Sure, what the hell, give it a go. None of it really matters. Or maybe I'm just nostalgic for the days of ancient philosophy, when personal meaning was grounded in a sense of cosmic meaning. Aristotle and the Stoics would ask Frankl: 'Why do you think humans have this inherent will to meaning? Who put it there?'
Anyway, have a look at this video of Frankl discussing the will to meaning.
Existentialism managed to escape academia to a greater extent than many other modern philosophies, largely because of the literary skill of its champions - Sartre, Camus, Iris Murdoch and others - who embedded its ideas in narratives. That's really the key to making any philosophy take root among ordinary people. But even existentialism gradually became lost once again in thickets of jargon impenetrable to all but the specialist. So it failed to become a practical social philosophy - and when it tried to become more political and mobilised, it became sucked up by the vortex of Trotskyism (in Sartre's case) and Nazism (in Heidegger's case).
Another candidate for a modern 'philosophy as therapy' is Wittgenstein's philosophy, which I confess I've never read. Have a look at this paper by Alan Parry on Wittgenstein's philosophical therapy (kindly sent me by Cathal McCabe) and also at this new book by Eugen Fischer of UEA, which draws links between Wittgenstein's thought and cognitive psychotherapy. Wittgenstein's philosophy succeeded even less than existentialism in becoming anything like a non-academic social movement, though he is, as far as I know, the only modern philosopher to have a film made of him - script by Terry Eagleton, directed by Derek Jarman. The first scene, below, features the Milky Bar kid in a gladiator costume. Why?