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. 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.
Here are eight key ideas from Stoicism 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. 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 realize 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. 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.
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 – 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?
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. 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 memorizable 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 favorite maxims in. What sayings do you find inspirational? Where could you put them up to remind yourself of them throughout the day?
Another thing the Stoics got, which modern philosophy often misses, is the idea of fieldwork. One of my favorite 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 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 the movie 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’.
7) Virtue is sufficient for happiness
All the previous main points are quite instrumental and value-neutral, 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?
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?
Those are just some ideas I’ve found useful, and which I’ve found people of all ages respond to in workshops (including teenagers).
Based on the book Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. Copyright © 2012 by Jules Evans. Reprinted with permission from New World Library. www.NewWorldLibrary.com.
Journalist and writer Jules Evans is policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. He helps run the London Philosophy Club, the biggest philosophy club in the world, with over 3,000 members, and is one of ten BBC Next Generation Thinkers for 2013. He teaches and blogs about practical philosophy. His website is philosophyforlife.org.