Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Donald Robertson

We continue our series of interviews with the speakers for the upcoming virtual STOICON, which will be taking place virtually this year on October 17. Here is the link where you can register and view the schedule of events. Our next interview is with Donald Robertson.

How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?

I’m a cognitive-behavioural therapist and I write books about philosophy and psychotherapy.  I’m hosting the Stoicon virtual conference this year.  I began studying Stoicism, and then writing articles about it and giving talks, etc., about 20-25 years ago.  I wrote a book about Stoicism and CBT in 2010 and then became involved with the Modern Stoicism organization in 2012 when Christopher Gill put together the first group of people responsible for running Stoic Week.  At the moment, I’m in the middle of writing a graphic novel about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius.

How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?

I’ve used Stoicism for many years now as part of my coaching, CBT, and training work.  CBT was originally inspired by Stoicism and every therapist knows the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us but our opinions about them.”  That encapsulates what came to be known as the cognitive theory of emotion.  So I draw on the parallels between Stoicism and CBT not only in therapy but also in (preventative) emotional resilience training.  Although, at the moment most of my time is spent writing books and articles on Stoicism, and giving talks, or rather, due to the pandemic, online webinars.

When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?

After leaving college, I studied philosophy at Aberdeen university in Scotland, way back in 1992.  I studied Plato and Aristotle, history of Indian philosophy, and was particularly interested in the concept of ancient philosophy as a way of life.  However, Stoicism wasn’t part of the undergraduate curriculum.  So it was only after graduating, when I began my postgraduate studies in philosophy and psychotherapy at Sheffield University that I began reading Pierre Hadot’s excellent books on philosophy as a way of life and realized that the Stoics were pre-eminent in this tradition.  I quickly also realized that Stoicism encapsulated an ancient model of psychotherapy.  At the time, some academics were strongly opposed to this idea: that ancient philosophy entailed a form of psychotherapy.  However, to me that showed a profound ignorance of the historical evidence — and it’s anachronistic insofar as it stems from their tendency to view ancient philosophy as if it were comparable to modern academic philosophy, i.e., something more bookish rather than a whole way of life.  The medical (or therapeutic) metaphor for ancient philosophy was extremely common, particularly in the Socratic dialogues of Plato, and in Stoic writings.  Philosophy is repeatedly described as resembling a medicine for the mind and doctors as physicians of the soul.  Epictetus says the philosopher’s school is like a doctor’s clinic and Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoa, wrote a famous, but now lost, book On Therapeutics, which we know described Stoic “therapy of the passions”, or psychotherapy, in detail.  So it seemed obvious to me that Stoicism was relevant to my research, and clinical work, in the field of psychotherapy.

What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?  

Stoic virtue ethics.  That’s the cornerstone of ancient Stoic philosophy.  It’s also the basis of Stoic psychotherapy.  The Stoics have the advantage of being able to go somewhere that modern psychotherapy dares not tread: into the realm of moral values.  However, it also seemed intuitively obvious to me that if irrational and unhealthy ways of thinking underlie most of our emotional problems that these beliefs, in turn, are rooted in toxic values.  For instance, placing too much rigid importance on what other people think of you obviously plays a role in social anxiety disorder, and some forms of depression. Those are the sort of toxic and incoherent values the Stoics sought to question, through their use of philosophy and the Socratic Method.  The Stoics believed that “virtue (or moral wisdom) is the only true good” — someone (the Sage) who firmly grasps that, on the basis of rational argument, and lives consistently in accord with those radical values is, I think, going to be profoundly emotionally resilient as a consequence.  

In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?

Resilience is the Holy Grail of mental health research.  By “resilience”, psychologists today mean the ability to endure stressful life events, such as bereavement, divorce, job loss, sickness — or a pandemic! – without suffering lasting psychological damage as a result.  Resilience literally means the ability to “bounce back” from misfortunes, or setbacks, and perhaps even grow stronger as a result.  Cognitive-behavioural therapy, like all psychotherapy, as the name implies, is “remedial” – it treats emotional damage that’s already happened.  Resilience training is “preventative” (prophylactic).  As everyone already knows: prevention is better than cure.  Stoicism offers a way of expanding CBT into a framework of psychological skills, and a broader philosophy of life, that’s preventative of long-term emotional distress or psychopathology.  Stoicism, in short, offers us this Holy Grail of a method of training in in lasting, or even lifelong, emotional resilience.

How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?

My full-time job for several years now has basically involved talking and writing about Stoicism.  Stoicism has also helped me work with clients, and train groups, in a broader range of philosophical concepts and psychological methods for achieving resilience.  It’s also helped me profoundly.  I’m a much happier and more resilient person today, I think, than I ever was in the past, and that’s certainly due to my love of Stoic philosophy.

What’s one of your favourite Stoic quotations and why?

Ha! I like the passage in book 1 of The Meditations where Marcus explicitly states that his Stoic mentor Junius Rusticus introduced him to the need for undergoing philosophical psychotherapy or, as he calls it, “therapeia”.  (At least, that’s helped me make the case for everything I mentioned above.)  My favourite quote really is Marcus’ description of the Stoic ideal, as exemplified by another tutor, Sextus of Chaeronea, as being “free from passion and yet full of love (philostorgia)”, by which he means free from irrational/unhealthy passions and full of rational/healthy ones. 

What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?

Read the ancient sources, starting with Plato’s Apology, and including Xenophon’s Memorabilia and other Socratic dialogues, and Cicero, as well as the famous three Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  Follow Modern Stoicism on social media, read the Stoicism Today blog, attend the virtual conference, and participate in Stoic Week.

Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?

Yes, I think that we need Stoicism now, in particular, because the Sophists have taken over the world.  By that I mean politicians, the news media, and social media, are dominated by political propaganda and sensationalism, designed to create fear, provoke anger, and cloud people’s judgement.  We live in the Information Age.  The Sophists have evolved from men talking to groups of students in the agora, or the Athenian gymnasia, and saying whatever evoked the biggest round of applause.  They’ve been superseded by sophisticated algorithms that reward content that gets the most likes, or provokes the most comments.  We have a moral duty to ourselves, and to society in general, to arm ourselves with philosophical reasoning and challenge misinformation, and sophistical rhetoric, that harms the interests our loved ones, our nations, and the common welfare of mankind.  I think the key to this is the Stoic philosophy of anger.  We need to learn to wise up and see through the many ways we’re being manipulated today, especially the ways in which we’re baited by the media into responding to their propaganda with anger and hatred, e.g., by scapegoating particular groups of people.  Socrates and the Stoics took the philosophy of revenge very seriously because they clearly understood its toxicity.  The Stoics excel at what I call “counter-rhetoric”, learning to step out of the vicious cycle of emotive rhetoric by gaining “cognitive distance”, i.e., separating value judgements from objective facts.  That’s the essence of Stoic wisdom

4 thoughts on Interview with STOICON 2020 Speakers – Donald Robertson

  1. Roberto says:

    Love it ! Donald Robertson has been a hero to me, I think he is the most important person in the modern
    Stoicism movement, and the man who has done most to preach this philosophy outside an academic niche. Great interview. Looking forward to Stoicon 20 and stoic week.

  2. Kevin White says:

    Thank you Donald. Wonderful interview. I particularly appreciated your comments on today’s modern Sophists – the politicians, news media, social media, etc. Far too many ill-willed individuals within these groups and organizations have used these to foster and promote hateful, selfish, and anger rhetoric to facilitate their own personal agendas. If I had my druthers, it would be mandatory for every politician, every civil, every legislative and corporate leader; anyone in a position of authority and power, to read the Stoics.

  3. Pat says:

    Thank you you helped me find questions to my answers

  4. Lizette says:

    I love reading these interviews and I think Donald has summed up the need for Stoic study and practice perfectly with “We need to learn to wise up and see through the many ways we’re being manipulated today, especially the ways in which we’re baited by the media into responding to their propaganda with anger and hatred, e.g., by scapegoating particular groups of people.”
    I am really looking forward to my first (and maybe only) StoicCon later this year.

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