How to Become More Virtuous – and Less Like Basil Fawlty
by Tim LeBon
“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, courage, self-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 blog, Socrates Satisfied, and his website.