Next week has been designated Stoic Week by a group of academics and therapists associated with the University of Exeter. It is intended to offer an opportunity to reflect on and experiment with Stoic ideas and techniques to see if they can make a positive difference to our lives.
It’s well known that the fathers of cognitive behaviour therapy and rational emotive behaviour therapy, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, drew on aspects of Stoicism in the development of those techniques. In particular, they championed Epictetus’s point that it’s not the things themselves that disturb us but our judgments of those things.
There is much more to discover in the Stoic philosophers. They encourage us to get into the habit of asking ourselves what matters and what doesn’t. They advise us to avoid placing too much importance on wealth, status and other people’s opinions of us, as well as to question an excessive attachment to possessions. “If you are fond of a jug,” says Epictetus, “say [to yourself] ‘it is a jug that I am fond of’; then, if it is broken, you will not be disturbed.” Many of the things we get attached to – cars, MacBook Airs, iPads – are ultimately “jugs”.
The Stoics also advocate questioning excessive optimism and the expectations of others, and being prepared for bad things to happen. But it’s important not to confuse Stoicism with therapy in the modern sense. The Stoic philosophers used therapeutic language but their path was about developing our character, rather than just helping us to feel better. It was a prescriptive and demanding philosophy, which took a dim view of emotions and prioritised our rational faculty above all else.
I advise unashamedly cherry-picking. We live in very different times and it would be unreasonable to take on chapter and verse of Stoic philosophy. The broad message is to think rationally, examine our emotions and challenge our assumptions about what has value.
For anything more specific, we should engage creatively with the literature and decide for ourselves what is likely to enhance – or diminish – our life experience.
When it comes to adopting any kind of philosophy, the lower case is king. Small-c conservatism has a far wider appeal than its upper-case cousin, while the virtues of scepticism, realism and humanism become doctrinaire vices once transformed into proper nouns.
So, if asked to describe my broad position, I’d have to be ungrammatical and say I’m a small-a aristotelian and small-h humean.
It is just not philosophical simply to adopt a fully formed world view in its entirety. The only followers philosophers should have are the kind that follow up and through, and not simply after.
Given that more than two millennia have elapsed since the Stoics developed their ideas, it would seem especially odd to relight their torch and carry it through the streets of our modern cities. The idea that the driving forces of the universe are reason and fate, for example, should have been exploded by the discovery of the Big Bang.
Perhaps that’s why all of the Stoics’ most energetic resuscitators are emphasising the school’s therapeutic value, rather than its cosmology and metaphysics. Indeed, so strong is the belief that Stoicism can make us happier and healthier that some are attempting to conduct trials to provide an evidence base for its curative powers.
It is true the Stoics believed their ideas promoted tranquillity of mind, but that was because they thought adopting their world view enabled us to live a life in accordance with our nature. Feeling better was thus the consequence of living in the truth, not the reason for adopting something as your truth.
Of course, we can adapt and borrow any particular Stoic methods that work. But that no more makes you a Stoic than practising meditation makes you a Buddhist. Like any philosophical position, Stoicism itself stands or falls – or more likely limps along – on the soundness of its arguments, not its effect on our psychological wellbeing. Philosophy is first and foremost the pursuit of truth, albeit without a capital T.
The Shrink & the Sage live together in southwest England and will be appearing on a panel at Stoic Week