A Modern Stoic Clinic

Epictetus: ‘A philosopher’s school is a clinic’. 

Stephen J. Costello, Ph.D.

The Dublin Philosophy Clinic Logo

In the split second between stimulus and response lies a small space of freedom, which is our power to choose. That is why the philosopher gets off the bus. That is why Diogenes went looking in the city, carrying a lamp in broad daylight, saying ‘I am looking for a human being’. We must get off the merry-go-round and think for ourselves. We are born once only, twice is not permitted us. Because there is no guarantee or safety-net there for us, our lives are precarious and precious. We hunger for things that will give us sense and security, for meaning and purpose. We stockpile wealth and weapons. We feed on mood-altering substances like alcohol, drugs and celebrity. But there is an alternative path from an ancient pedigree: philosophical practice.

Seneca: ‘The point is, not how long you live, but how nobly you live’.

I founded The Philosophy Clinic in order to address and provide answers to the current crisis of meaning. Drawing on the wealth of worldly wisdom in the Western Socratic and, in particular, Stoic tradition, it aims to bring profound and practical philosophy to bear on issues of everyday life. Modern living has placed a great strain and stress on many people who are experiencing fragmentation and frustration, emptiness, existential distress and ethical confusion. There is a longing for guidance and growth, wholeness and healing. The Clinic aims to cater for such a context.

Cicero: ‘Truly philosophy is the medicine of the soul’.

The Greeks conceived of philosophy as a therapy of the soul and the site of spiritual/existential exercises. This understanding and interpretation reflects that of The Philosophy Clinic and infuses all our work. Courses and classes are offered to all those who hear the call and summons of Socrates to ‘Know Thyself’.

Epictetus: ‘Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering’.

Our aim is to form more than to inform. We understand philosophy to be the ancient consolation and a way of life. Particular attention is paid to the practice of Prosoche, or awareness (attention) as the basis of all meditative practice; experiential exercises; group-work; Socratic dialogue; and journaling, are all part of the format and structure of the Clinic.

Marcus Aurelius: ‘Let your every deed and word and thought be those of one who might depart from this life this very moment’.

I offer Socratic therapy in the form of logotherapy and existential analysis to individuals and groups while philosophical counselling and coaching is offered by Barre Fitzpatrick to individuals, corporate clients and groups. Both members of the team consult to the corporate sector, myself through the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland: School of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (www.logotherapyireland.com) and Barre through Stride (www.stride.ie).

I had invited Jules Evans over to Dublin for a ‘Saturday with Socrates’ day where he spoke on his book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations. I gave a paper on a logotherapeutic reading of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. That was my first contact with the ‘Stoicism Today Team’ in Exeter University. Three Saturday seminars have since followed: both drawing on Stoic philosophy, especially on Marcus Aurelius.

In the first seminar I gave an overview of Stoicism, laying out the core concepts, and introduced the central themes in Marcus’ Meditations. I spent a short time showing some similarities between Stoicism and Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy, which became the basis for a short article on the subject. My co-facilitator led the participants into an experiential exercise of prosoche which became concretised in a philosophy walk later in the day, after which they were introduced to the three disciplines of the soul (desire, judgement and action). The day ended with advice on journaling, a meditation and the Stoic practice of retrospection. The format consisted of group work, a lecture, a walk, and experiential exercises and meditations, as well as writing and questions. We felt the day was a great success and received some incredibly positive feedback.

The second seminar concentrated on the ‘Contemplation of Death’ (a key and recurrent Stoic practice), which is at once a confrontation with the meaning of being, with life itself. I began with a lecture on the meaning of death from Plato through the Stoics to Viktor Frankl, after which we went through relevant passages in the Meditations for reflection and study. I reproduce them here:

1)    ‘To live each day as though one’s last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing – here is the perfection of character.’ (VII, 69)

2)    ‘No man is so fortunate that some who stand beside his death bed will be hailing the coming loss with delight… ‘at last we can breathe freely again.’ (x, 36)

3)    ‘In death, Alexander of Macedon’s end differed no whit from his stable-boy’s. Either both were received into the same generative principle of the universe, or both alike were dispersed into atoms.’ (VI, 24)

4)    ‘Make a habit of regularly observing the universal process of change… for when a man realizes that at any moment he may have to leave everything behind him and depart from the company of his fellows, he casts off the body and thenceforward dedicates himself wholly to the service of justice in his personal actions and compliance with Nature in all else.’ X, 11)

5)    ‘Despise not death; smile, rather, at its coming; it is among the things that Nature wills… Never, then will a thinking man view death lightly, impatiently, or scornfully; he will wait for it as but one more of Nature’s processes. Even as you await the baby’s emergence from the womb of your wife, so await the hour when the little soul shall glide forth from its sheath.

6)    ‘Time is a river, the resistless flow of all created things. One thing no sooner comes in sight than it is hurried past and another is borne along, only to be swept away in its turn.’ (IV, 43)

An experiential exercise followed based on the theme of taking seriously Marcus’ statement: ‘Let your every deed and word and thought be those of one who might depart from this life this very moment’; we asked ‘how would that make you feel?’ ‘What would you do, or say differently?’ After lunch we led participants on a ‘blind walk’ (eyes covered with cloth) – making the point that a fear of the dark is analogous to the fear of death. This was a very powerful experience and brought up lots of interesting issues. The meaning of the experience was later discussed and distilled in small groups with plenary sessions. An obituary exercise followed, as well as a legacy exercise and a dawn meditation inspired by Marcus Aurelius. Again, we found the day to be tremendously interesting and therapeutically helpful for the participants.

I have been in touch with the Exeter team here through this blog: with Jules Evans, who I have had the pleasure of meeting personally and whose book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations I have made required reading for my students; Tim le Bon (who draws on Viktor Frankl in his work in philosophical counselling – actually Frankl can be regarded as a pioneer of this ancient Platonic tradition); Donald Robertson (whose books I recommend to students, especially his Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, which I really enjoyed and from which I hugely profited); and, in particular, Patrick Ussher, with whom a firm friendship is developing and who has done wonders with his work in Exeter University on bringing Stoicism to the general public and a wider audience than academics. I always look forward to our regular email ‘chats’ and I want to express my huge gratitude to him here. I am inspired by the work of these independent and innovative investigators and find it a huge help and support to me personally as well as professionally. I hope my few contributions have likewise initiated some debate and discussion, especially on the commonalities between Stoicism and Franklian logotherapy and look forward in the future to establishing even closer links.

On January 25th, I organised and spoke at a workshop entitled: ‘The Big Picture: Philosophical and Jungian Perspectives’.The morning session was led by a Jungian on: ego, Self, shadow complex, the personal and collective unconscious, masculine and feminine psychology, and individuation. I led the afternoon session on Practical Stoic philosophy – how to deal with negative emotions especially anger. I outlined Marcus Aurelius’ nine counsels for anger management in book xi of the Meditations.

1: ‘Remember the close bond between myself and the rest of mankind’.

2: Consider their characters and the ‘pressures which their ways of thinking exert upon them’.

3: ‘If what they are doing is right, you have no claim to be annoyed’.

4: You may not be so great yourself.

5: Their motives are hidden from you, so at the least delay your judgement until you know more.

6: Life is too short for such squabbles to matter.

7: Not their deeds but your own attitude is what drives your anger.

8: ‘Our anger and annoyances are more detrimental to us than the things themselves which anger and annoy us’.

9: ‘Kindness is irresistible, so long as it be genuine and without false smiles and duplicity’.

(10: Don’t expect bad men to never do bad things to you). We discussed this list in groups and applied it to situations in our lives and asked: which one helped the most?

I then took the participants through a ‘negative visualisation’ exercise, pre-empting the worst case scenario; outlined ‘the overview effect’ (showing a video clip and interview with Edgar Mitchell by Jules Evans); a lecture and a meditation on the ‘View from Above’; and a musical interlude from Space Odyssey, to the accompaniment of Strauss, with which to conclude. It was a great day, and worked really well.

On March 8th we put on a day entitled ‘Freedom versus Fate: What I Can and Can’t Control’, inspired by Epictetus and also by Frankl. I led the morning session, introducing them to Epictetus’ Enchiridion and Discourses and adumbrating some central Stoic themes with a lecture, followed by a short video clip showing Eckhart Tolle talking about Epictetus. I then discussed the ‘Stoic Fork’ – the dichotomy/trichotomy of control (the sovereign precept of Stoicism – its essence) with a lecture and group-work. Students made lists of what was in and outside of their control and after talking about it in pairs they then shared their thoughts in plenary. In the afternoon we led the participants in an experiential exercise which involved their hands being bound and going on a walk with their partners switching roles between slave and master and we discussed their experience of this profound exercise. This was followed by a guided meditation, led by my co-facilitator, Barre Fitzpatrick, on the ‘Contemplation of the Sage’. It was another wonderful day and evoked some powerful emotions around slavery and freedom. And responsibility. Sartre: ‘Those who hide from this total freedom in the guise of solemnity or with deterministic excuses I shall call cowards. Others who try to show that their existence is necessary when it is merely an accident of the appearance of the human race on earth I shall call scum’. Epictetus: no-one can be a thief of your free-will. But some people prefer to live like slaves. Isn’t one of the tasks of philosophy to bring us into the light?

We, in The Philosophy Clinic, which runs parallel to the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland, are active and enthusiastic, committed to continuing the Stoic tradition of philosophy. I continue to be surprised and fascinated by such a meaningful experience as a facilitator and hopefully too as a catalyst of change for others but also as an on-going student of the ancient and noble Stoa, whose inspired teachings I try to follow.

Dr Stephen J. Costello is a philosopher, author and analyst. He is Director of the Viktor Frankl Institute of Ireland: School of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis (www.logotherapyireland.com). Email: stephenjcostello@eircom.net

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2 thoughts on “A Modern Stoic Clinic”

  1. I am fortunate to have been a participant in all of the workshops held by the Philosophy Clinic and have found them extremely rewarding, sometimes challenging also, because I have needed to dig deep and self-analyse in order to rebuild my emotional house. This introduction to Stoicism which I have been able to build on through following this excellent Exeter blog, and by reading recommended and associated iterature means I have found myself on a positive onward journey through life, at one with my fellow travellers in this great universe. I am also a student of Logotherapy and Existential Analysis and I discovered that through practising Stoic techniques I have created the solid foundations I feel are essential to train to be a therapist. Just as REBT and CBT are rooted in ancient Stoicism, LT offers a practical philosophy of existence through finding meaning. For many people getting through life can be as hard as trying to reach a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow. Or it can be easier, as Marcus Aurelius says, “nowhere can man find a quieter or more untroubled retreat than in his own soul”.