Despite what you may think, Stoicism depends upon profound emotional intelligence, an is a great way for men to learn and grow. Jules Evans tells his story.
When I was 18, I traumatized myself through doing too many hallucinogenic drugs. I had some terrifying experiences, but what compounded my suffering was that, for years, I didn’t talk to anyone about how wounded I felt.
I was clinging to an idea that I should always be strong, popular and successful, and this identity left no room for feelings of weakness, hurt and anxiety. So I buried them out of a deep sense of shame. This didn’t work – the buried feelings kept on coming back, like zombies.
Eventually, I found healing through a support group for people who suffered from social anxiety. There was no therapist at the group, but we all followed an audio course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Among these fellow-oddballs, I finally felt able to talk about my shameful feelings of anxiety and weakness – and to realize they weren’t that shameful after all.
I then started to research CBT, and went to interview the American founder of it, Albert Ellis, in what turned out to be the last interview Ellis ever gave before he died in 2007. He told me that CBT had been inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly by a line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said ‘men are disturbed not by events, but by their opinion about events’.
This inspired Ellis’ radical idea that what causes us suffering are our beliefs, our attitudes, our thinking, our values. We often think in very irrational or self-sabotaging ways, and that causes us suffering. For example, my suffering was caused by a very simple yet very foolish belief: ‘Everyone must like and admire me, and if they don’t, it’s a disaster’. This ‘life-philosophy’ put far too much value on other people’s approval. It was a toxic philosophy.
As I read Stoic authors like Epictetus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, I realized how we have come to misinterpret the word ‘stoic’ as meaning ‘never talking about your emotions’. In fact, the Stoics had a profound emotional intelligence – they thought philosophy was a cure for the soul (which is what the word ‘psychotherapy’ literally means) which helps us transform our negative emotions by transforming our habitual attitudes and behaviour.
Stoics claimed that mental resilience lies in focusing on what we can control – our own beliefs – while accepting the limit of our control over the outside world. This Stoic idea is at the heart of the US Army’s $180 million resilience training programme.
In my case, I had to accept that other people’s opinion about me was ultimately beyond my control, there would always be some people who didn’t like me. However, my own beliefs were in my control – I could always accept and respect myself.
The Stoics understood the importance of habits – as Epictetus said, ‘it’s difficult for a man to form a judgement unless he should repeat an idea over and over, and at the same time practice it’. The Stoics devised many techniques for creating habits, from keeping a spiritual journal to repeating maxims, many of which are now part of CBT.
I was fascinated to discover that CBT – a therapy which has helped millions of people overcome emotional problems – was so directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy. I then spent several years meeting and interviewing people who tried to follow ancient philosophy in modern life.
I found that Stoicism, in particular, is enjoying a modern revival. I interviewed Stoic marines, Stoic firemen, Stoic former-Mafiosi, Stoic astronauts, Stoic CEOs, and Stoic politicians. Modern fans of Stoicism include some celebrities – Tom Wolfe, Bill Clinton, the magician Derren Brown – but mainly it’s ordinary people who say that philosophy helps them cope with the bad and move towards the good.
None of the people I interviewed for my book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, had an academic grounding in philosophy – they simply picked up a book, and followed its teachings.
Slowly, academic philosophy has come back to the idea that philosophy can be a way of life rather than just a theory. I’ve tried to help connect academic philosophy to more ‘grassroots philosophy’. For the last two years, I’ve been involved with a project called ‘Live Like A Stoic For A Week’ , in which people all over the world follow Stoic therapeutic practices for a week.
This year, I’ve been trying to take ancient philosophy into new territory, by teaching a course in wisdom inside a Scottish prison, and also in Saracens rugby club – who are presently the league leaders in the English rugby premiership. The format is that I talk about an idea from ancient philosophy for half-an-hour, and then we have a group discussion, covering such topics as ‘how much do we control?’ or ‘accepting adversity’.
I’ve found that, in both these contexts, tough and normally emotionally-reticent men find an outlet in philosophy for talking about adversity and the best way to cope with it. Philosophy, unlike CBT, is not built around an illness model – it’s not necessarily trying to ‘fix’ you. You bring your own experience and wisdom to it, and can always disagree with a particular idea. Philosophy gives men permission to talk about their inner lives without feeling like they’re in a ‘group therapy’ session.
Above all, ancient philosophy seems to help men move from ‘bad stoicism’ – burying your feelings and refusing to show weakness – to ‘good Stoicism’ – in which you are willing to discuss different philosophies and coping strategies for living a good life.
I’ve ended up with a different idea of what it means to be a strong man – strength doesn’t mean never showing weakness to others. That means you’re putting other people’s approval before your own well-being. Strength means being real, it means putting self-compassion before the approval of others, it means having the strength to be vulnerable and to admit that sometimes you don’t have all the answers and you need help. It means taking responsibility for your own faults, rather than taking them out on those around you.
Finally, I would like to explore ancient philosophy as a common resource in both atheist humanism, Islam and Christianity.
Many modern atheists have come to embrace Stoicism as a way of life, but Christians tend to see ancient philosophy as a rival or threat. This is a pity – as Proverbs tells us, ‘wisdom is supreme. Get wisdom’. There is much wisdom in ancient philosophy, and it blossomed in the Christian wisdom of Augustine, Justin Martyr, Christian humanists like Erasmus, and Christian mystics like Thomas Traherne. All these writers were deeply versed in Stoic wisdom.
Despite this, there are hardly any books exploring the link between CBT and Christian wisdom, and many Christians seem to see therapy as secular and even anti-Christian. It’s not. As I said, psychotherapy literally means ‘taking care of the soul’, and that’s the responsibility of every Christian.