'How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty' by Tim LeBon

How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty

by Tim LeBon

Illustrated by Matt Aldridge
Illustrated by Matt Aldridge

“I’ve heard a lot about virtue and its benefits today”,  commented an audience member at the Stoicism Today event at Queen Mary’s College, London last year. “So please can you tell me more about how in practice I can become more virtuous?  Great question. In this article I aim to answer it.

For many ancient Greeks and Romans, including the Stoics, becoming more virtuous is synonymous with developing the four cardinal virtues of wisdom, courageself-control and justice. Wisdom includes theoretical wisdom – knowledge of ethics, nature and all that matters- and practical wisdom, knowing how to bring about what matters most in a given situation. For the Stoics, a key part of wisdom is knowing the difference between what you can and cannot change and focussing your energies on the former – an idea memorably expressed in the Serenity Prayer. Courage and self-control are the dispositions to overcome fear and desire respectively to do what is right,  whilst justice means being fair regardless of whose welfare is at stake.

These definitions help us know the nature of virtue, but how do we become more virtuous in practice? How do we get to focus our energies only on what we can control,  become fairer and overcome fear and desire when it may lead us astray? My suggestion in this article combines three helpful ideas. The first is to listen to guided meditations.Guided meditations are increasingly a key component  of evidence-based 3rd-wave CBT therapies.  For example, many readers will probably be familiar with the recordings of Andy Puddicombe, founder of Headspace, which help you to develop mindfulness.

The Stoicism Today project has placed guided meditations at the heart of its “Live like a Stoic” experiments.  Donald Robertson has written and narrated some excellent meditations such as the early morning and evening meditations. Listening to Robertson’s early morning meditation, which invites you to imagine your day ahead and how you might  behave Stoically, is arguably more powerful than merely reading about Stoicism You  rehearse practicising Stoic ideas rather than reading about them passively. The second idea to help you become more virtuous is to bring to mind an ideally virtuous person (in Stoicism commonly called “the Stoic sage) and think about what they would do in this challenging situation. This suggestion is at least as old as Seneca who advised us to “cherish someone of good character and keep them always in your mind. Then live as if they were watching you, and order all your actions as if they saw them”.

We can combine these two ideas by thinking of a challenging situation, reflecting on how an ideal Stoic Adviser would respond and  then rehearsing in our mind’s eye behaving as the ideal Stoic Advisor would. This type of meditation  owes a considerable  debt to the work of  third-wave CBT psychologist Paul Gilbert, whose Compassion-Focussed Therapy (CFT)  includes guided meditations contemplating an ideal compassionate other.

The third helpful idea, which I believe has considerable motivational power, is to reflect on the problems we create if we don’t behave virtuosly. I can think of no better example of this than  Basil Fawlty thrashing his car

No-one wants to look as silly as Basil Fawlty, but if we lack self-control, wisdom, courage and justice that could happen.

You can download the Stoic Ideal Adviser Guided Meditation  recording  and script.

The Stoic Ideal Adviser Workshop presentation from the Stoicism Today event at Queen Mary’s College London, 2014 is also available if pdf format.

I hope that these resources prove useful.  Do remember though, that  the only person you can really control is yourself ….

Tim LeBon is a BABCP accredited CBT therapist and UKCP registered existential therapist, an APPA and SPP registered philosophical counsellor and is also trained as a life coach  and integrative counsellor.He is a past Chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP) and the founding editor of Practical Philosophy. He is  the author of Wise Therapy (Sage, 2001) and Achieve Your Potential with Positive Psychology (Hodder, 2014) . You can read more about Tim’s work on his blogSocrates Satisfiedand his website.

7 thoughts on “'How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty' by Tim LeBon”

  1. Thanks Tim,
    I’ve already found the recording from this post interesting and helpful. Its actually great to listen to someone else discussing stoic virtues rather than my own inner voice!

  2. Thank you so much Tim for the information on CFT. The aspect of attention and how we can increase our awareness (prosoche) of not only our own nature but also the nature of our situation to create harmony is extremely interesting. Whilst I’m sure guided meditations can be beneficial to many, I proceed with caution due to a fear of indoctrination. Great to see the classic clip of Basil beating up the car one more time. I think Sybil (Basil’s wife) deserves the award for the best Stoic in Torquay!

    1. Ali
      Thank you very much for your comments. I agree that CFT is well worth a look. It is in many ways a virtues-based psychotherapy. Paul Gilbert calls the central virtue “compassion” and has it include wisdom, kindness, courage and responsibility. CFT uses guided meditations and it is a pretty standard way of helping people to mentally rehearse putting into practice ideas they already agree with. Hope that’s a useful clarification.
      Can I nominate Manuel as another contender for best Stoic in Torquay?
      Tim

      1. Tim,

        I note that the last sentence to the first paragraph above actually was sent out by email as “Hope that’s a useful clarification and I do suggest people have a listen to the recording and see if they agree – I can’t imagine anyone who has listened to it would still be worried.”

        May I suggest a little more imagination. 😉

        I have read the script (I do not listen to such recordings) and it confirms for me that it is little more than hypnosis, just as most such ‘guided meditations’ are. The breathing practice at the start is used to get a person into a suggestive state of mind so as to bypass the rational thinking processes.

        The Stoic approach is to train the rational thought processes to be rational and not to ‘let the judge be bribed’ (to use a Gilbert Murray analogy). The rational mind can have irrational thoughts if its opinions and perceptions are not based on seeing the world as it really is. Stoic practices offer a framework for training oneself to be rationally aware so that one can then make sound judgements and live a virtuous life.

        Having learnt about the whole Stoic philosophy it is then for the individual to apply it to their own lives if it suits them.

        The Stoic approach to training the rational mind is one of learning (self-indoctrination), experience and wisdom. The learning uses such techniques as study of the Stoic ideas, thinking for oneself (not handing such thinking over to someone else in a ‘guided meditation’) and daily reviews (‘meditation’ as practiced by Marcus Aurelius).

        I have seen too many people adversely affected by ‘guided meditations’ because the ideas being put across caused a conflict in their minds or gave them a false sense of ‘freedom’. Group or distant (by way of a recording or the like) guided meditation (hypnosis) can be dangerous.

        Nigel

  3. What on earth do we need ‘guided meditations’ and ‘mindfulness’ for?

    Mindfulness, as taught in the West, is now being challenged because it does not ‘do what is written on the tin’. It can add to a person’s problems. Probably because it is being taken out of the context of the Buddhist teachings and practices from where it originates and is being ‘professionalised’ to a point whereby it’s practice is misunderstood.

    Stoics do not talk of mindfulness. Stoics talk of ‘attentiveness’ that is done within the overall understanding of the Stoic philosophy and not as a stand-alone practice. Attentiveness, like mindfulness, on its own will miss the whole point.

    As to ‘guided meditation’ – this is tantamount to submitting to indoctrination.

    Self-indoctrination is what the Stoic strives for – that is self-training through study, rational thought and practice – summed up in the term ‘self-control’ with the emphasis on ‘self’. A Stoic does not hand over their learning to ‘guided meditation’ – we think for ourselves, we do not have others ‘guide’ us in our thinking.

    Our meditations – that is thinking things over and reviewing events etcetera – are between ourselves and the Divine Fire. No third party is needed

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