History Philosophy Podcasts

Podcast: Studying Classical Wisdom is Pointless?

Are the classics only for university professors? Do you need to read ancient Greek or Latin to benefit from texts composed in those languages? Why should anyone give two

hoots about Plato or Socrates today? These are some of the questions I explore in this podcast episode with Anya Leonard from Classical Wisdom Weekly. Let us know your thoughts: have the classics had their day?

Anya Leonard on Why Classics Matter Today Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life Podcast

In this episode, I chat with Anya Leonard. Anya is the founder and director of Classical Wisdom, a website and online community dedicated to bringing ancient wisdom to modern minds. She also recently published a children’s book about the ancient Greek poetess, called Sappho: The Lost Poetess.Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.Highlights* How Anya got into the classics * Why she chose to write a children’s book about Sappho * Why are classics are important today * Should only boffins talk and write about classics* What obstacles do we face teaching people about classics? * What is Classical Wisdom Kids? Links* Check out Anya’s Substack newsletter* And her newnewsletter * Get her book Sappho: The Lost PoetessThank you for reading Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life. This post is public so feel free to share it. Get full access to Stoicism: Philosophy as a Way of Life at donaldrobertson.substack.com/subscribe
History Hypnotism

James Braid’s Hanover Square Talks on Hypnotism (1842)

The Hanover Square Rooms in London, 1843

Editor’s Preface

This is possibly James Braid’s very earliest publication on hypnotism; his letter was dated March 7th 1842 and published in the March 12th edition of The Medical Times. In it he does not use the term “hypnotism”, though elsewhere he suggests it was already in use by him at his lectures. The anonymous report which precedes his letter mentions his use of the expression “neuro-hypnology”, albeit spelt incorrectly.

Indeed, this is one of Braid’s most interesting letters, providing a neat summary of his early theory and practice.  It illustrates how, from the outset, Braid’s work was independently reported, and publicly examined and endorsed by a wide variety of observers, including some of the most distinguished scientists and physicians of his day.  In his first booklet on the subject, published shortly after this letter, a frustrated Braid reminds his critics of the sincere and persistent efforts which he made in order to substantiate his views,

Had I not, moreover, stated the fact that impressed with the importance of the subject, I had, at great personal inconvenience as well as pecuniary sacrifice, gone to London, that my views might be subjected “to a rigid examination” of the most learned men in our profession, to propound to them the laws by which I consider it to act, and above all, to prove to them “the uniformity of its action” and its practical applicability and value as a curative agency, by [my] mode of operating. 

Satanic Agency, etc., 1852

This journalist’s report and Braid’s subjoined letter, show the extent to which, with the limited means available to him, Braid attempted to develop his theory in a credible manner.  In Neurypnology (1843), Braid comments on the role of Dr. Herbert Mayo, one of the most distinguished medical scientists of the period, at the meeting,

I am fully borne out by the opinion of that eminent physiologist, Mr. Herbert Mayo, in my view of the subject, that my plan is ‘the best, the shortest, and surest for getting the sleep,’ and throwing the nervous system, by artificial contrivance, into a new condition, which may be rendered available in the healing art.  At a private conversazione, which I gave to the profession in London on the 1st of March, 1842, he examined and tested my patients most carefully, submitted himself to be operated on by me both publicly and privately, and was so searching and inquisitive in his investigations as to call forth the animadversions of a medical gentleman present, who thought he was not giving me fair play; but which he has assured me proceeded from an anxious desire to know the truth, not being biased by having any peculiar views of his own to bring forward; and because he considered the subject most important, both in a speculative and practical point of view.

In his Electro-Biological Phenomena (1851) Braid describes a successful public demonstration delivered by him in Manchester, adding,

I was equally successful in operating upon a number of strangers together at a private conversazione, given to the profession in London, in March 1842, sixteen out of eighteen having passed into the sleep, simply by maintaining a steady fixed stare and fixed act of attention, whilst gazing at root of a chandelier.  Most of these had never been so tried before.  I never touched any one of them until their eyelids closed.  Mr Herbert Mayo, the eminent physiologist and surgeon, tested them, and ran a needle from the back to the palm of the hand of one patient without his (the patient) evincing the slightest consciousness of pain, or remembrance of it after awaking.

Dr. Mayo subsequently published his own favourable account entitled ‘On Mr. Braid’s experiments’, in the next volume of the Medical Times for 1852.

James Braid
Portrait of James Braid

[Report by Anonymous Correspondent]

Mr. Braid delivered two very excellent lectures on this subject last week, one on Tuesday the 1st of March, at the Hanover Square Rooms, the other, the following day, at the London Tavern.

The lecturer commenced by giving his audience a detailed explanation of the theory and phenomena of animal magnetism, and entered fully into the subject, illustrating the paper by physiological facts, and several interesting anecdotes.  He prefers the term “neuohypnology [sic., an obvious typographical mistake], or the rationale of nervous sleep,” to that of animal magnetism, and thinks that that term is more proper, inasmuch as the effect is produced through the medium of the nervous system. Several experiments performed after the lecture.

The first was a young woman, whom Mr. Braid directed to look at her own finger; in two minutes the face became flushed, the woman sighed, and the eyes closed. She was then requested to sit down, which she did; her arms were raised and also her legs; ammonia was placed under her nose, the galvanic battery applied, pins stuck in the forehead and legs, and without the woman evincing the slightest pain.  The second experiment was upon two deaf brothers, one of them was magnetised by looking upwards, and in three minutes the effect was produced.  Mr. Braid extended both arms, which remained so for some time; he then clapped his hands, and the boy instantly became de-mesmerised.  The experimenter stated that the hearing was increased twelvefold during the time the patient was under the influence of the magnetising process.  The elder brother was then subjected to the same process, and became magnetised in about three or four minutes; a percussion cap was fired at his ear when in this state, but no effect supervened.  It is a singular thing that [presumably at a different stage in the lecture] the pulse in this boy increased from 84 to 140[bpm], and Mr. Braid remarked that such was generally the case.  [Braid repeatedly makes this observation in his writings, which seems to be verified by the reporter.  The induction of rigid catalepsy seems to roughly double the pulse, raising it to a level more typical during intense aerobic exercise.]

The third experiment was upon his own footman [perhaps the young “man-servant” discussed in Neurypnology]. In this case he bandaged the man’s eyes and in three minutes he was asleep; he was subjected to nearly the same experiments as the preceding.  Mr. Braid then recovered him and directed the man to turn his eyes to the side; in a few minutes the eyes closed, and the most curious effect was produced; the man began gradually to turn round, a circumstance by no means uncommon with those who turn the eyes to the side (so the lecturer informed us).  [This phenomenon might be compared to Braid’s later observations on “muscular suggestion.”]

The fourth experiment was upon a young lady, whom Mr. Duncan [who had previously conducted lectures introducing Braid’s work to the London audience prior to his arrival] had been in the habit of experimenting on.  This was a very interesting case; after being magnetised, several objects were placed before her eyes (which were closed), and she distinctly names each article in succession [an illusory feat, later attributed by Braid to the ability to see through eyelids which are not properly closed]; she then walked about the platform, and knelt and arose at the request of the lecturer.

The last and concluding experiment was upon a young woman, who after going through nearly the same operations, finished by singing “off, off, says the stranger,” and it really seemed as if she were about to go off.

[Braid’s Letter to the Editor]

To the Editor of the Medical Times,


I feel obliged by the kind note you have sent me stating your intention of honouring me by a report of my lecture.  I much regret you could not attend the conversazioni, but I shall furnish you with a brief account of what took place on that occasion.  When I had briefly explained to those present my theoretical views, and the ground on which I had come to such conclusions, I expressed my intention to exhibit the phenomena on some of the subjects I had brought with me; some stranger proposed that it might be still more satisfactory and convincing to all present, were I to operate on a stranger, to which I readily assented, provided any one present was willing to become the subject of experiment.  It was then announced that a person born deaf and dumb was present, and had come with the express desire to be operated on, and would now come forward if I chose to begin with him.  I assented, and the patient came forward accordingly.  He was totally deaf, was never known to have heard sound at any time in his life, and was 32 years of age.  In about eight minutes, I evinced to all present the most incontestable proof of hearing being restored.  I then operated on another stranger successfully, and on a third, who was one of my subjects; the varied phenomena intended, and expressed as meant to be exhibited by said patient, were all demonstrated, to the satisfaction of all present.  The next operated on was Herbert Mayo, Esq., so well known to the profession; afterwards my other subjects were operated on, exhibiting these varied phenomena, both mental and corporeal.  As the last experiment of the evening, eighteen were subject to their operation at once, and in ten minutes 16 of the number [89%] were all in a state of somnolency, and some in the cataleptiform state, with insensibility to pain, as tested both by myself and Mr. Mayo [who seems to have shoved a pin straight through his hand].  The other two did not comply with my injunctions.  For the correctness of this statement, I beg to refer you to Dr. [Archibald] Billing [a physician and medical author] and Mr. Herbert Mayo, who tested the patients, and neither of whom I had had the honour of knowing till that evening.  [In Hypnotic Therapeutics, 1853, Braid adds, that of this group, ‘twelve of whom had never been tried before’, the sixteen responsive subjects ‘went into the condition at same time, by gazing fixedly and abstractedly on the root of a chandelier.’]  I should feel obliged by your recording the fact now stated, in addition to what your reporter might see or hear at the public lecture.  In short, the whole of my experiments go to prove, that there is a law of the animal economy by which a continued fixation of the visual organ, and a constrained attention of the mind to one subject, which is not of itself of an exciting nature; a state of somnolency is induced, with a peculiar mobility of the whole system, which may be directed so as to exhibit the whole or greater part of the mesmeric phenomena.

The remarks of your talented correspondent, Mr. Barrallier, relative to Mr. Catlow’s experiments, are quite in accordance with my own views.  I had made experiments to prove this, and had come to the same conclusion as Mr. Barrallier before I was aware of his experiments, and have confirmed them many times since on different subjects.  Mr. C.’s cases on the sense of hearing, touch, taste, smelling, and muscular motion, were nothing beyond natural sleep, at any rate totally different from mesmeric sleep, unless in those cases where the patients had been repeatedly operated on in my way, or through the eye. After a certain time, and frequency of being operated on in this way, the brain has an impressibility stamped on it which renders the patient subject to be acted on entirely through the imagination, and this is the grand source of the follies which have misled Mr. C. and the animal magnetisers.  I feel most confident of this, and shall feel obliged by your publishing this letter to record what I believe to be the fact.

On my return home, I delivered a lecture at Birmingham on Thursday evening, 3rd inst. [3rd March 1842], when I exhibited a series of experiments which were quite conclusive on the subject.  I am to deliver another lecture in Manchester next Saturday evening, when I shall exhibit the same, and many more, illustrative of the imagined transposition of the senses [i.e., seeing with the stomach, and other supposed paranormal abilities called the “higher phenomena” of Mesmerism], and the magnetic power of attraction, a report of which shall be sent to some of our papers, which I shall correct if any mistakes should appear before I send it.

I beg leave further to state, that as I have operated successfully on the blind, it is evident it is not the optic nerve so much as the ganglionic or sympathetic systems and motor nerves of the eye, and state of the mind, which influence the system in this extraordinary manner.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your much obliged and obedient servant,

James Braid.

3, St. Peter’s Square, March 7th 1842

PS. I may add, that last night I was called to a lady suffering the most agonizing Tic Douloroux.  In five minutes by my mode of inducing refreshing sleep, I succeeded in putting this patient into comfortable sleep, from which she did not awake till Sunday in the morning, being five and a half hours, and was then quite easy. By what other agency, I now ask, could such an effort have been induced.

History Stoicism

Lady Stoics #1: Porcia Catonis

Porcia Catonis was the daughter of Cato of Utica, Cato the Younger, the great Stoic hero of the Roman republic.  We know little about her except a few anecdotes of dubious historical authenticity.  However, she appears to be portrayed as a female Stoic, dedicated to philosophy, following in the footsteps of her renowned father.

She lived in the first century BC, several generations before the Roman Stoics of the Imperial period, whose works survive today: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius.  She was a contemporary of Cicero and the Stoic Posidonius of Rhodes.  She was the wife of Brutus, a Roman politician and philosopher also influenced by Stoicism, who was to be the leading assassin of the tyrant Julius Caesar.  Brutus’ mother was the half-sister of Cato the Younger, making him both Brutus’ uncle and later his father-in-law, via his marriage to Porcia.

At the end of his Life of Cato, Plutarch wrote:

Nor was the daughter of Cato inferior to the rest of her family, for sober-living and greatness of spirit. She was married to Brutus, who killed Caesar; was acquainted with the conspiracy, and ended her life as became one of her birth and virtue.

Plutarch’s Life of Brutus contains the following story:

Porcia, being addicted to philosophy, a great lover of her husband, and full of an understanding courage, resolved not to inquire into Brutus’s secrets before she had made this trial of herself. She turned all her attendants out of her chamber, and taking a little knife, such as they use to cut nails with, she gave herself a deep gash in the thigh; upon which followed a great flow of blood, and soon after, violent pains and a shivering fever, occasioned by the wound.

Now when Brutus was extremely anxious and afflicted for her, she, in the height of all her pain, spoke thus to him: “I, Brutus, being the daughter of Cato, was given to you in marriage, not like a concubine, to partake only in the common intercourse of bed and board, but to bear a part in all your good and all your evil fortunes; and for your part, as regards your care for me, I find no reason to complain; but from me, what evidence of my love, what satisfaction can you receive, if I may not share with you in bearing your hidden griefs, nor to be admitted to any of your counsels that require secrecy and trust? I know very well that women seem to be of too weak a nature to be trusted with secrets; but certainly, Brutus, a virtuous birth and education, and the company of the good and honourable, are of some force to the forming our manners; and I can boast that I am the daughter of Cato, and the wife of Brutus, in which two titles though before I put less confidence, yet now I have tried myself, and find that I can bid defiance to pain.”

Which words having spoken, she showed him her wound, and related to him the trial that she had made of her constancy; at which he being astonished, lifted up his hands to heaven, and begged the assistance of the gods in his enterprise, that he might show himself a husband worthy of such a wife as Porcia. So then he comforted his wife.

According to one story, when she later heard of Brutus’ death, Porcia committed suicide by swallowing hot coals.  Although other accounts contradict this, it became a well-known story and inspired several authors, most notably Shakespeare.

Porcia was sometimes referred to as Portia in Elizabethan English literature.  Shakespeare portrays her in the play Julius Caesar and in The Merchant of Venice he wrote:

In Belmont is a lady richly left;
And she is fair, and, fairer than that word,
Of wondrous virtues: sometimes from her eyes
I did receive fair speechless messages:
Her name is Portia, nothing undervalued
To Cato’s daughter, Brutus’ Portia.

Books CBT Diogenes the Cynic Excerpts Exercises History Philosophy of CBT Stoicism

Excerpt: Shame-Attacking Exercises

Diogenes the Cynic Gesturing

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, which is now in its revised second edition, from Routledge.

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.

In certain concrete practical respects, REBT also contains therapy interventions that resemble techniques familiar within ancient philosophical therapy. Ellis was known for what he described as REBT’s “trademark” use of various “shame-attacking exercises”. In order to help clients overcome self-consciousness, social embarrassment and inhibition, Ellis would prescribe changes in behaviour which were designed to forcefully and directly challenge their sense of shame. For example, he refers to the technique of asking clients to repeatedly stop a bus without getting off, or asking strangers in the street to give them money, etc.

I realised, soon after I started REBT in 1955, that what we call “shame” is the essence of a great deal of our emotional disturbance. […] Seeing this, I created my now famous shame-attacking exercise in 1968; and perhaps millions of people, especially psychotherapy clients, have done this exercise and trained themselves to feel shamed or sorry about what they did, and about the public disapproval that often went with it, but not to put themselves down and not to feel humiliated about their personhood. (Ellis & MacLaren, 2005, p. 95)

Ellis further explains the exercise as follows,

Here clients deliberately seek to act “shamefully” in public in order to accept themselves and to tolerate the ensuing discomfort. Since clients do best to harm neither themselves nor other people, minor infractions of social rules often serve as suitable shame-attacking exercises (e.g., calling out the time in a crowded department store, wearing bizarre clothes designed to attract public attention, and going into a hardware store and asking the clerks whether they sell tobacco). (Dryden & Ellis, 2001, p. 329)

This aspect of Ellis’ work is strikingly reminiscent of the practices of the ancient Cynic philosophers who appear to have adopted, albeit in a more extreme manner, controversial lifestyles and behaviours in order to liberate themselves from social conventions.

The Cynics break with the world […] was radical. They rejected what most people considered the elementary rules and indispensible conditions for life in society: cleanliness, pleasant appearance, and courtesy. They practiced deliberate shamelessness – masturbating in public, like Diogenes, or making love in public, like Crates and Hipparchia. The Cynics were absolutely unconcerned with social proprieties and opinion; they despised money, did not hesitate to beg, and avoided seeking stable positions within the city. […] They did not fear the powerful, and always expressed themselves with provocative freedom of speech (parrhesia). (Hadot, 2002, p. 109)

Ellis seems unaware of this precursor to his “shame-attacking” exercises. However, the Cynics themselves specifically refer to the deliberate practice of “shamelessness” (anaideia) as a psychotherapeutic exercise. In the case of Diogenes, this was referred to metaphorically as his “defacing the coinage” of social conventions, which inevitably shocked others. So notorious were the shameless acts of Diogenes that Plato allegedly called him “Socrates gone mad”.

According to the Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius, the famous Cynic, Crates, who trained Zeno the founder of the Stoic school, was nicknamed “Door-opener” because of his habit of inviting himself into people’s houses to lecture them somewhat abrasively on philosophy(Laertius, 1853, p. 250). He also mentions another practice of Crates which sounds like an even more provocative version of Ellis’ shame attacking exercises, ‘He used to abuse prostitutes designedly, for the purpose of practising himself in enduring reproaches’(Laertius, 1853, p. 251). Epictetus seems to imply that Diogenes and the other Cynics, whom he greatly admired, deliberately broke wind in front of people, presumably also as part of their practice of shamelessness (Discourses, 3.22.80). Indeed, I am indebted to Still and Dryden for the following illustration drawn from Montaigne’s account of a quite surprising Stoic anecdote,

In the midst of a discussion, and in the presence of his followers, Metrocles let off a fart. To hide his embarrassment he stayed at home until, eventually, Crates came to pay him a visit; to his consolations and arguments Crates added the example of his own licence: he began a farting match with him, thereby removing his scruples and, into the bargain, converting him to the freer stoic school from the more socially oriented Peripatetics whom he had formerly followed. (Montaigne, in Still & Dryden, 1999, p. 157)

Crates’ exercises in shamelessness, or the overcoming of social anxiety and inhibition, can be seen as a practical training in his maxim, ‘That a man ought to study philosophy, up to the point of looking on generals and donkey-drivers in the same light’ (Laertius, 1853, p. 252). Zeno appears to have assimilated some aspects of his mentor’s philosophy into Stoic therapeutics, although moderated by a greater respect for society than the Cynics allegedly displayed.

Like Crates, Diogenes the Cynic, who was revered as a Sage by some Stoics, reputedly tested prospective students by instructing them to follow him around carrying a salted fish, or a piece of cheese, in their hands. When some refused, out of embarrassment, he would chide them: “See how a piece of salted fish was enough to dissolve our friendship!” (Laertius, 1853, p. 230). Notoriously insolent and iconoclastic, he once asked the Athenians to erect a statue to him, and when asked why he had done so, replied, “I am practising disappointment.” (Laertius, 1853, p. 235). These and many similar popular philosophical anecdotes illustrate the striking parallel between the ancient Cynics’ psychotherapeutic technique of anaideia, or shamelessness, and the “shame-attacking” exercises made famous by Albert Ellis within REBT, precursors of certain more modest “behavioural experiments” used to challenge social anxiety and inhibition in modern CBT. Beck and his colleagues also refer to “anti-shame exercises” and observe that cognitive therapy provides opportunities for clients to deliberately expose themselves to feelings of shame in order to conquer them (Beck, Emery, & Greenberg, 2005, p. 282). Indeed, there are many more parallels which can be drawn between the principles of REBT and those of Stoicism.


I didn’t spot this quotation in time for the book but Diogenes Laertius writes:

Some one dropped a loaf of bread and was ashamed to pick it up; whereupon Diogenes, wishing to read him a lesson, tied a rope to the neck of a wine-jar and proceeded to drag it across the Ceramicus.

The Ceramicus was the busy potter’s district of Athens, as the name implies, but also the location of a major cemetery.  This exercise in shamelessness clearly anticipates Ellis’ “trademark” REBT technique of taking a banana for a walk on a string through a shopping mall, as if it were a dog on a leash.

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, published by Routledge and available to order online from Amazon, and everywhere they sell books.

Philosophy of CBT Cover 2nd Edition