Stoic Week Take One: What Happened Last Time?

In the build up to the second international Stoic week (which starts next Monday), Jules Evans looks back on what happened last year when people across the globe all lived like Stoics….

Live Like A Stoic Week

Last November, you may have noticed the 2000-year-old philosophy of Stoicism appearing more than usual in your Twitter feed, Facebook updates or in the mainstream media. This was in part due to an initiative called Live Like A Stoic Week, launched as part of a multi-disciplinary project at Exeter University called Stoicism and Therapy.  Stoic Week proved more popular than the project organisers anticipated, and plans are already underway for Stoic Week 2 later this year.

The Stoicism and Therapy project grew out of a project at Exeter University called Ancient Healthcare and Modern Well-Being, run by Professor Christopher Gill, an expert in Stoicism, and Professor John Wilkins, an expert in Galen (see the video below for more on this project). In 2011, that project ran a two-week experiment in living the Galenic life, which involved Exeter undergraduates practicing Galen’s ideas, and also included a ‘Galen roadshow’ that visited local schools.

An Overview of Ancient Healthcare, Modern Wellbeing at Exeter University

In October 2012, Professors Gill and Wilkins organised a seminar on Stoicism and Therapy, bringing together classicists and psychologists working on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), who are interested in exploring the direct links between CBT and ancient philosophy (particularly Stoicism).

Donald Robertson, psychotherapist and author of The Philosophy of CBT, was one of the participants. He says: “The pioneer of CBT, Albert Ellis, trained as a psychoanalyst but ended up rejecting Freud’s ideas and instead finding inspiration in the Stoics.” Indeed, Ellis wrote, in his first major work on his new cognitive approach to therapy, that his approach “was originally discovered and stated by the ancient Stoic philosophers…The truths of Stoicism were perhaps best set forth by Epictetus, who in the first century AD wrote in the Enchiridion: ‘Men are disturbed not by things, but by the views which they take of them.’”

Aaron Beck, the other great pioneer of CBT, likewise says he was directly influenced by Stoic philosophy. The evidence base that Beck and colleagues built up from hundreds of randomised controlled trials made CBT the most scientifically credible therapy for many emotional disorders, and in this country persuaded the government to put over half a million pounds into making CBT more available and introducing it into the national curriculum.

The main influence of ancient philosophy on CBT is the idea that our emotions are connected to our beliefs and judgements, and that by changing our habitual attitudes we can change our emotions. CBT also emphasises the importance of practice, of changing our behaviour, just as the ancient Greeks and Romans emphasised the importance of askesis (practice). Whether consciously or not (probably not), CBT has also incorporated some of the ‘spiritual exercises’ that the ancients used, including the use of journals, handbooks, maxims and visualisation exercises.

The success of CBT and its roots in ancient Greek philosophy have re-ignited an interest among academic philosophers and classicists in the practical uses of Stoic therapy. Martha Nussbaum, for example, has written that Stoic writings on the emotions “have a cogency unsurpassed by anything on that topic in the history of Western philosophy”. Some classicists and philosophers have also started to explore whether one could live by some or all of the Stoics’ philosophy today. AA Long, who has done more than most to revive the study of Stoicism in academia, has also started giving talks on it to non-academics around the world, including in San Quentin prison!

Christopher Gill says: “The recent currency of ‘guide to life’ writings have made Stoic writings in practical ethics seem newly relevant rather than simply moralising. All aspects of Hellenistic and Roman philosophy – as distinct from the philosophical classics of Plato and Aristotle – are getting a lot more scholarly attention. The shift away from Freudian psychoanalysis towards cognitive modes of therapy has made a significant difference in how we view ancient philosophical therapy. When I first wrote about this topic, in 1985, I was doubtful that we could conceive ancient philosophical therapy as really comparable with modern psychotherapy because it was so different from psychoanalysis. That has now changed.”

Professor Gill adds: “More broadly, in philosophy as a whole there is a lot more readiness to return to the idea that philosophy (at least ethical philosophy) is a first-order enquiry that can tackle major questions and offer guidance or challenges that make a difference to the way we live and think about the world. This is very different from the post-war period when much philosophy confined itself to examining ‘the language’ or ‘the logic’ of ethics (for instance) and steered away from anything resembling substantive claims of this kind.”

Patrick Ussher, a doctoral student of Professor Gill’s, came up with the idea of Live Like A Stoic Week during the Stoicism and Therapy seminar in October. He says: “Originally it was intended to be a voluntary philosophy club, mainly involving Exeter undergraduates, who would each pick a ‘spiritual exercise’ from Stoic philosophy and practice it for a week. Then they would report back how useful and therapeutic they found the exercise. One of our participants, psychologist Tim LeBon, designed a well-being questionnaire that participants could fill in before and after the week, to see what impact the exercise had. We publicised Stoic Week on Twitter and on our blog, but we weren’t anticipating the take-up we got.”

Students from Exeter University posted video diaries during the week

At least 150 participants took part in Stoic Week around the world, including a sixth form philosophy class in London, an undergraduate philosophy class in Ohio, and the Roman philosophy students at Exeter. Some of them also made YouTube video diaries of the week. All in all, 42 participants completed the well-being questionnaires for the project. Psychotherapist Tim LeBon says: “Participants on average reported an 11% increase after the Stoic Week on a Subjective Well-Being and Life Satisfaction (SWLS) scale, and a 9% increase on the SPANE measurement of positive feelings, as well as, on average, a 14% decrease in unpleasant feelings, and an 11% decrease in feelings of fear.”

A Stoic handbook for the project explained various ‘spiritual exercises’ from Stoicism that participants could try, following the scholarship of French classicist Pierre Hadot. These included the Retrospective Evening Meditation, the View From Above (a visualization technique), and the Meditation on Future Adversity. Participants reported finding some exercises more useful and therapeutic than others – the Retrospective Evening Meditation was considered most useful.

Gill Garratt, a CBT psychotherapist and the author of CBT For Work, says Stoicism can teach us useful coping techniques for everyday life: “When we hit adversity, instead of railing at the world and insisting that it must be fair, if we can do a cognitive shift to a point of acceptance, we will steer a calmer path. This is not to say that we roll over and take everything on the chin with a beatific smile, although that is an option. Instead, we accept that sometimes ‘stuff happens’. Having the stability and anchor of our own philosophy will help to ride the storm without creating more turbulence for ourselves.”

Stoic Week attracted a fair amount of media attention, including two articles in the Guardian, and others in the Independent, Huffington Post, and in Germany’s Philosophie magazine. The blog for the project also attracted 15,000 hits during Stoic Week. In general, popular interest in the practical use of Stoicism has grown at the moment, thanks to recent books or TV shows by Oliver Burkeman (The Antidote), Derren Brown (Apocalypse), Alain de Botton (Religion for Atheists) and myself (Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations).

Two articles appeared in the Guardian

However, Stoic Week also attracted some criticisms. Popular philosopher Mark Vernon suggested that Stoic Week did not sufficiently mention the theistic aspects of Stoic philosophy, such as the idea of living in harmony with the Logos. Julian Baggini, founder of The Philosopher’s Magazine, also criticised the reduction of philosophy to therapeutic techniques, and also the use of well-being questionnaires. He wrote in the Independent: “Let’s not reduce all that’s true, good and beautiful to techniques and interventions to cure the blues and put smiles on our faces. Seek first what is true and of value, and then whatever happiness follows will be of the appropriate quantity and, more importantly, quality.”

Dr John Sellars, an expert in Stoic philosophy at Birkbeck and one of the participants in the project, says: “The central idea behind the project was that an ancient philosophy of life might still be able to offer some therapeutic benefit to people today. Stoicism isn’t merely therapy of course, and many of the practical elements highlighted in ‘Stoic week’ involve a range of implicit philosophical claims, especially ethical claims. There is no neat separation between the ‘therapy’ and the philosophy.” He adds: “I think it would also be a mistake to see ‘Stoic Week’ as part of some modern obsession with happiness, as if the aim were to make everyone walk around smiling. Indeed, in Oliver Burkeman’s recent book ‘The Antidote’, lampooning the modern positive thinking / happiness industry, he includes Stoicism as an attractive alternative to that kind of approach.”

Participants in the Exeter project are now working to organise Stoic Week 2 in November of this year, including publishing a new handbook and organising events in Exeter and London. More broadly, we hope to increase people’s awareness of Stoicism and its usefulness today, and also gradually to bring some ideas from ancient philosophy into modern healthcare, personal and occupational therapy and the politics of well-being. We take hope from the success of ideas from Eastern philosophies such as mindfulness, which is now included in CBT and in some schools’ curricula. Donald Robertson says: “Modern CBT practitioners place great emphasis on introducing western patients to Eastern meditation practices.  It might be argued that Stoicism, and the other Hellenistic philosophies, provide an alternative approach and existing philosophical framework that’s more indigenous to western culture.”

This article first appeared in The Philosopher’s Magazine, and is reproduced with kind permission of the author.

Leave a Reply