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New World Library Unshelved

New World Library Unshelved

Positive news and inspiring views from the New World Library community

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What’s your book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations about?

It’s about how people are rediscovering ancient philosophy today and putting it to use in their lives. People are realizing that philosophy for the ancient Greeks and Romans was not some abstract theoretical exercise but a very practical and accessible form of therapy for the emotions. Cicero, the Roman politician and philosopher, said, “There is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy.” Socrates said that all he taught his students was how to take care of their souls — which is the origin of the word psychotherapy, which literally means “care of the soul.”

The book has twelve chapters, each introducing a different philosopher who teaches us an art or skill we can use in our lives. And each chapter has three or four stories of people I met and interviewed who say that ancient philosophy transformed their lives. Over five years, I met astronauts, former gangsters, therapists, magicians, Marines, convicts, people from every walk of life. Their stories are extraordinary, and together they add up to a body of practical evidence that philosophy is much more powerful than we sometimes think of it. It can really save lives — as it helped save my own life.

How did philosophy help you overcome depression?

When I was twenty-one, I was diagnosed as suffering from social anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which I think I triggered through a couple of bad trips on LSD. All the way through university, I was terrified I had permanently damaged myself, ruined my life, and there was nothing I could do about it.

Finally, after university, I researched these emotional problems on the internet and found they were often successfully treated by something called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). I found a CBT support group for sufferers of social anxiety that met near me in London every Thursday evening. One Thursday I went along. There was no therapist present — one of the group had bootlegged a CBT audio course from the internet. We listened to the course, practiced the exercises, and did the homework, and I started to feel better and to learn how I was causing my emotions.

I then became fascinated by CBT, this therapy that I felt had saved my life. I went to New York in 2007 to interview the person who invented cognitive therapy — Albert Ellis — and did what turned out to be the last interview he gave before he died later that year. I asked him what had inspired cognitive therapy, and he told me he’d trained in psychoanalysis in the 1940s but became frustrated with the lack of results. So he looked around for other ways to understand the emotions and turned back to his first love: ancient Greek philosophy. In particular, he was inspired by a line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinions about events.” That line inspired the cognitive revolution in psychotherapy.

So what exactly did CBT take from ancient philosophy?

A lot. The main thing it took is the cognitive theory of the emotions — the idea that our emotions are tied to our thoughts, beliefs, judgments, and values. Hamlet said, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so,” and that’s true when it comes to our feelings, which are really a type of thinking. Our emotions contain judgments about the world, such as “That person was rude to me, and they shouldn’t have been. How unfair.” When we realize that our emotions arise from our perspective on the world, it gives us the ability to modulate and transform our emotions. We can choose to see the world differently. We could say to ourselves, “Was that person definitely being rude to me? And if they were, so what? Do I definitely need to get annoyed by that?”

Sounds easy.

Well, of course it isn’t that easy. The problem is that our way of seeing the world is often unconscious, habitual, and ingrained. We’ve been telling ourselves a certain story for so long — perhaps our whole life — that we’ve forgotten it’s just a version of reality. We’re convinced it’s the truth. The risk of not examining our life-philosophy is that if it’s wrong or unwise or toxic, it will make us suffer, and it may make the people around us suffer too. This is why philosophy is not some abstract academic exercise — there’s really nothing more important you could do, for yourself and the people around you, than to think occasionally about the beliefs and values by which you live.

The first step in philosophical therapy is using the “Socratic method,” which basically means asking yourself questions, to get yourself to think about your instinctive, habitual interpretations and to see if they’re accurate or wise. That’s what a cognitive therapist will do if you go to see one. They will basically play Socrates, asking you questions and engaging you in a dialogue to get you to think about your unconscious way of seeing things.

Do we really have control over how we see the world?

This is a controversial question. It appears genetics play a big role in our temperament and personality. However, the success rate of CBT and other behavior-changing therapies like Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that we can alter even very deep-seated habits of thinking and behavior, like depression, anxiety, and alcoholism. In my own case, for example, I will probably always be prone to moments of anxiety or melancholy, but I no longer get full-blown panic attacks or long periods of deep depression, so I have learned to manage my personality to try and get the most from life (and I’m still learning).

Epictetus suggested we actually control very little in this life. We don’t have complete control over other people, the weather, the economy, our bodies, or our reputations, and we’re all ultimately going to die. The only thing we do have control over, according to Epictetus, is our own beliefs — if we choose to exercise this control. The problem is, we often try to exert complete control over something external, like our body or our career, and then we feel helpless, insecure, and angry when things turn out differently from how we wanted. Or we fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts, using something external as an alibi (“I’m justified in having a drink because I had such a terrible day”). We need to accept what we don’t control, while taking responsibility for what we do control.


Journalist and writer Jules Evans is policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary, University of London. He helps run the London Philosophy Club — the biggest philosophy club in the world, with over 3,000 members — and is one of ten BBC Next Generation Thinkers for 2013. He teaches and blogs about practical philosophy.


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