Stoicism meets CBT

By Geoff Harris

There’s been a big upsurge of interest in Stoicism, an ancient school of philosophy which, put very simply, teaches us to focus on the things we can control – eg, or own thoughts and emotional reactions – rather than to obsess about people, places and things beyond our sphere of influence.

It also encourages ‘negative visualisation’ as a way of learning how to handle the inevitable disappointments that life throws us, and build emotional resilience. One of the leading lights in Neo-Stocism is Donald Robertson, therapist and author and How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, who combines some of its its principles with that of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT). We caught up with Donald (below) for a chat.

It is interesting that you push back a bit against Buddhism (one source of mindfulness) in some of your other interviews. Do you think as westerners that we are maybe more culturally 'attuned' to the concepts of Stoicism, as classical philosophy and culture have shaped western civilisation so very profoundly?

I studied history of Indian religions for a couple of terms at the University of Aberdeen as part of my first philosophy degree, including Buddhism, and I was the secretary of the Buddhist society and went on several retreats over the years. However, when I discovered Stoicism I realized that was much more appealing to me because it fitted more into the Western philosophical tradition, and other ideas that I liked. Then I started to notice that other people were also much more drawn to Buddhism and they often described it as a "Western alternative to Buddhism". They see it as more consistent with familiar Western cultural norms and values.

I spoke to a Buddhist abbot from Sri Lanka once who mentioned eating meat, like many Buddhists in Asia do. Because I was studying Buddhist thought I asked him how eating meat was compatible with the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of ahimsa, not harming any living creature. He said that it was okay as long as the Buddhist only ate the meat and didn't slaughter the animal themselves - if a butcher kills the animal that's okay. I said that Westerners would find that contradictory, like saying it's okay to pay someone else to commit a crime as long as you don't do it yourself. They'd assume you're complicit, to some extent, and therefore morally responsible for the action. He said that just wasn't how Buddhists saw things - the person killing the animal gets the bad karma, not the person who buys the meat from them. Conversations like that made me turn more and more toward Western thought. His ethics were based on a supernatural theory of karma, which had practical implications incompatible with most Western morality.

A statue of Marcus Aurelius on the Piazza del Campidoglio in Rome

Stoicism appealed to 'men of action,' notably the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (above) who spent more time fighting Germanic tribes and dealing with the senators back home than he did sitting around discussing philosophy. Does this 'practical' side of stoicism appeal to you?

Yes. We have to live in the world, without becoming corrupted by the world. The Stoics were known for advocating engagement with political and family life, rather than retreating from the world.

As a CBT therapist/specialist in anxiety, how do you think Stoic philosophy can help with the growing tide of mental health problems in the west?

I think Stoicism holds promise in particular as a form of long-term emotional resilience building.CBT is mainly constructed as a remedial or therapeutic approach, for specific diagnosable problems. It can be adapted for preventative training, to reduce the risk of people developing mental health problems in the future. I co-authored an article about this recently with Trent Codd, an editor of The Behavior Therapist. We need to do more research on the long-term preventative value of Stoic skills training (not just reading the books) for mental health problems. Early indications from data collected using the Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) online protocol, show substantial improvements in established measures of mood and emotional wellbeing that hold up surprisingly well at six month follow-up.

How do you react to accusations that Stoicism is just a new fad, like the new mindfulness - the repackaging of a lot of classical philosophy, but devoid of its cultural and historical context in order to make a few bucks, and sell a few books...

Stoicism flourished for nearly five centuries in ancient Greece and Rome.Marxism and psychoanalysis, in modernity, didn't last anywhere near as long. And the influence of Stoicism has endured, in some shape or form, such as through its influence on Christianity or on Latin poetry, right down to the present day. It permeates our culture and never really went away. Most modern forms of self-help are ultimately indebted to the Stoics, as is cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of psychotherapy.

I don't know of anyone today who's making a fast buck from Stoicism. There's probably only one author, Ryan Holiday, who sells enough books to make a significant amount of money that way and he could be earning a lot more, presumably, if he spent his time just doing marketing rather than writing books to help other people. If you want to get rich quick, writing books about Stoicism seems like the last thing you'd choose to do. Stoicism thrived for many centuries because it addressed very fundamental and universal issues that people still find to be at the heart of their problems today, such as the distinction between what's under our voluntary control and what merely happens to us, or the role our beliefs have in shaping our desires and emotions.

The historical context of 3rd century BC Greece was quite different from 2nd century AD Rome but Stoicism translated perfectly from one culture to the other, and it's still relevant today, because at its heart it's a perennial philosophy that addresses emotional problems in terms of very universal principles.

The world feels a scary, negative place at the moment. Do you think people are drawn to Stoicism at the moment as they feel so powerless about what is happening around them?

We know why people are drawn to Stoicism because they keep telling us. They give several reasons typically but one is that they feel bombarded by global news about issues over which they have little or no direct control. The media make sure the news is in our face as much as possible, and that it's as attention grabbing and emotive as possible. We're not empowered to take action so people vacillate between nihilism - throwing their hands in the air and giving up - or driving themselves crazy with frustration. Stoicism is fundamentally about a middle way that teaches us how to continue to care about life, and take ethical action in sofar as that's within our power, while not allowing events to upset us excessively.

If you had to recommend one book on Stoicism, apart from yours, what would it be?

The Daily Stoic by Stephen Hanselman and Ryan Holiday because it contains a great introductory selection of quotes from the ancient sources, with modern commentary.

Finally, do you worry that it can lead to a certain passivity about the world.... "I can't change external circumstances such as global warming or political corruption, so I will just focus on changing myself and my reactions to all this scary stuff...”

That's a misinterpretation of Stoicism that's obviously in total conflict with the historical facts about the lives of famous Stoics such as Cato of Utica and Marcus Aurelius.Several famous Stoics died or were exiled for their direct opposition to political tyranny, something few of us today would have the courage to emulate. The Stoics believed that we should dedicate every action to serving the principles of moral wisdom and social justice, insofar as possible.

We should, they said, engage in public life, if nothing prevents us, or failing that we should teach or write books to help others who may improve society as a whole. They were not passive, in any sense. Stoicism, in fact, is a philosophy of action, and was known as such throughout the ancient world. However, in order to take action effectively, we have to follow reason, and our healthy passions, without allowing irrational and unhealthy emotions to get in the way.

For more on Donald and his work, see here.

Geoff Harris

I am a journalist and photographer and currently work as the Deputy Editor of Amateur Photographer (AP) - the oldest weekly photographic magazine in the world. Before that I served as the editor of Digital Camera, Britain's best-selling photography magazine, for five years. During my time as editor it became the UK's top selling photo monthly and won Print Publication of the Year at the 2013 British Media Awards. As well as being lucky enough to get paid to write about photography, I've been fortunate to interview some of the greatest photographers in the world, including Elliott Erwitt, Don McCullin, Martin Parr, Terry O'Neill and Steve McCurry. This has been a wonderful learning experience and very influential on my photography. Beyond writing, I am a professional portrait, travel and documentary photographer, and reached the finals of the 2016 Pink Lady Food Photographer of the Year competition. I am a Licentiate of the Royal Photographic Society and hope to take my Associateship whenever I can find the time. In addition I write about well being/personal development and antiques collecting for a range of other titles, including BlueWings, the in-flight magazine of Finn Air.

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