Reviews Socrates

Socrates versus Roger Stone

Stone's Rules Book CoverNB: This articles a rough draft.  I’m still working on it but I wanted to put it out there on my blog anyway. 😉

This is an article about Greek philosophy and contemporary US politics. Recently, I’ve started looking more closely at the views expressed by certain political figures and comparing them with the ethical teachings of ancient philosophy. They don’t necessarily have to be people whose politics I agree with. My own views are basically centre-left (democratic socialist) but I prefer to look at what people who are politically conservative have written. I don’t hold opinions about politics strongly wherever there’s room for uncertainty and debate, although I do hold some moral values that have political implications. Stoicism has taught me to remain emotionally detached from questions about which external states-of-affairs are preferable to which. For instance, I believe that a broadly state-run NHS is preferable to the privatization of British healthcare services.  Nevertheless, if a health economist showed me solid evidence and a rational argument to persuade me otherwise I’d happily change my mind.

Once, it’s said, Zeno of Citium, the founder of the Stoic school heard a pretentious young man exclaim that he disagreed with everything the (long-deceased) philosopher Antisthenes had written. It’s easy to make yourself seem clever by dismissing something out of hand or doing a hatchet-job on the author. However, Zeno asked him what there was of value to be learned from reading Antisthenes. The young man, caught off guard, said “I don’t know.” Zeno asked him why he wasn’t ashamed to be picking holes in a philosopher’s writings without having first taken care to identify what might be good in his works and worth knowing. That’s not unlike what philosophers call the Principle of Charity today. We arguably gain more benefit from reading a book if we look for the good bits first. Otherwise, if we indulge in criticism straight away, we risk missing what’s most important entirely. So it was with that in mind that I decided to read Stone’s Rules, the latest book from political strategist, and Trump-loyalist, Roger Stone.

Get me Roger Stone!

Stone’s story is now permanently entwined with that of President Trump. Stone claims he started calling on Trump to put himself forward as a presidential candidate back in 1988, although Donald wasn’t interested at first. “I launched the idea of Donald J. Trump for President”, he says. However, he later qualifies this by saying,

Those who claim I elected Trump are wrong. Trump elected Trump—he’s persistent, driven to succeed, clever, stubborn, and deeply patriotic. I am, however, among a handful who saw his potential for national leadership and the presidency.

Roger Stone Nixon TattooStone is a specialist in negative campaigning. His political career began way back in 1972 when, aged twenty, he joined Richard Nixon’s presidential campaign team. Nixon became his lifelong hero. Indeed, Stone collects Nixon memorabilia and actually has a large tattoo of the former president’s face on his back. However, after the Watergate scandal and Nixon’s resignation, Stone was left with a reputation as a professional “dirty trickster”. He successfully turned this into a selling-point, though, and survived to have a long, albeit controversial, career in politics. In the 1980s he worked on Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaign and formed the political consulting firm Black, Manafort and Stone, along with Charlie Black and Paul Manafort.

Black, Manafort and Stone’s first client was, in fact, Donald Trump. Later, in the 1990s, Stone began working with Trump in a variety of other capacities. In 2000, he was appointed campaign manager for Trump’s first, albeit abortive, presidential campaign. Trump sought the nomination for the Reform Party but quit during the presidential primaries. It wasn’t surprising then that Stone later served as an advisor to Trump during the initial stages of his 2016 presidential campaign. He resigned in August 2015, although Trump said that he had been fired. However, Stone continued to support Trump and according to some reports to serve in an informal capacity as one of his political advisors. Stone and several of his associates have now come under the scrutiny of the Mueller investigation, mainly due to Stone’s communications with Julian Assange of Wikileaks and a team of hackers using the online identity Guccifer 2.0, who were revealed to be acting as agents of Russian military intelligence (GRU).

Roger Stone JokerStone’s a difficult man to describe. He revels in controversy. For example, he posed for a photo shoot dressed as the Joker from Batman. I find that, paradoxically, people who aren’t very familiar with him often assume that others are “attacking” him when in fact they’re just repeating his own claims. He became more widely-known outside of political circles in the summer of 2017 when the Netflix documentary Get me Roger Stone was released.  The film is structured around ten of Stone’s “rules” for success in life and politics.

Roger Stone's Rules PosterThis idea was then expanded into his new book Stone’s Rules: How to Win at Politics, Business, and Style (2018).  The blurb compares Stone to a combination of Machiavelli and Sun Tzu. However, the book actually consists of 140 rules, described in a few paragraphs each, written in a fairly casual and often humorous style. There are many short anecdotes about Nixon and other US politicians. As the title suggests, some of the rules are more about succeeding in life, some are more specific to politics. A considerable number of them are about sartorial advice, such as Rule #18: “White shirt + tan face = confidence” or Rule #36, which claims “Brown is the color of shit”. He also includes his mother’s recipe for pasta sauce (or rather “Sunday Gravy”). There are instructions on how to prepare martinis just like Nixon did – who, according to Stone, used to say of them, “More than one of these and you want to beat your wife.”

In the book’s foreword, political commentator Tucker Carlson of Fox News acclaims Stone “the premier troublemaker of our time” and “the Michael Jordan of electoral mischief”. However, Carlson also describes his friend as “wise” and “on the level”. Stone is happy to celebrate his notoriety as the “high priest of political mischief”, “slash-and-burn Republican black bag election tamperer” with “a long history of bare-knuckle politics” and the title “Jedi Master of the negative campaign”.

Why Socrates?

Stone himself believes that “To understand the future, you must study the past” (Rule #4: “Past is fucking prologue”) and that those who ignore history are doomed to repeat it. So I want to approach his rules for life from the perspective of ancient Greek philosophy, which began addressing similar ideas almost two and a half thousand years ago, in the time of Socrates.  Some of the underlying assumptions about the best way to live, or to govern, haven’t changed much. Stone’s Rule #69 likewise acknowledges that “everything is recycled” in the political arena:

All the ideas today’s politicians present to the voters are simply recycled versions of the same basic formulae that have been employed by political hucksters and power-accumulating government careerists for nearly a century.

Indeed, the arguments Socrates and the Stoics deployed against ancient Sophists address difference of value so fundamental that they’re still just as relevant today. Stone’s rules contain several echoes themselves of perennial philosophical debates about the best way to approach life. Sometimes he says things that resemble Socrates or the Stoics and sometimes he sounds more like their opponents the Sophists. So let’s have a look at a few key examples…

Make Your Own Luck

Stone’s Rule #5 quite simply advises “make your own luck”. This is a sound piece of age-old wisdom. Socrates likewise argues, in the Euthydemus, that wisdom is man’s greatest gift because it allows him to turn bad fortune into good. In Plato’s Republic, Book Ten, Socrates also says that unlike the majority of people the true philosopher isn’t perturbed by apparent setbacks. He realizes that we can never be certain whether the events that befall us will turn out to be good or bad in the long-run – there are many reversals of fortune in life. If we stop to complain about every apparent setback, we do ourselves more harm than good. In these passages, Socrates sounds very much like a forerunner of the Stoics. For example, Epictetus, the most famous Roman Stoic teacher would later say that wisdom, like the magic wand of Hermes, has the power to turn everything it touches into gold – he means that the wise man knows how to turn apparent misfortune to his advantage.

Stone’s Rule #60 is his version of the wand of Hermes: “Sometimes you’ve got to turn chicken shit into chicken salad.”

In politics and in life, you play the cards you are dealt. Sometimes you have to take your greatest disadvantage and turn it into a plus. Lyndon Johnson called it “changing chicken shit into chicken salad.”

According to Stone, Donald Trump particularly exemplifies this philosophy of life. Likewise, Rule #13 “Never quit” cites Donald Trump, Winston Churchill and Richard Nixon as exemplars of psychological resilience and persistence in the face of setbacks. Stone quotes Nixon as saying “A man is not finished when he is defeated, he is only finished when he quits.”

Stone also admires G. Gordon Liddy who lived by Nietzsche’s maxim “That which does not kill me can only make me stronger.” Liddy might appear a surprising choice of role model. He was the man who, under orders from Nixon, led the Watergate burglary of the DNC headquarters, and was sentenced to twenty years in prison for doing so. Stone’s right to say, though, that in many cases “Today’s defeat can plant the seeds of tomorrow’s victory.” For example, as a psychotherapist and counsellor, I often heard clients tell me that, paradoxically, losing their job turned out to be the best thing that ever happened to them. Psychological endurance isn’t a virtue in itself, though, as Socrates points out in the Laches and elsewhere. It really only deserves praise when it’s in the service of something good rather than evil. Crooks can be very resilient. Toughness in the service of vice is arguably just another form of weakness.

Hate Trumps Love

Rule #54 “Hate is a stronger motivator than love” appears to be one of the fundamental premises of Stone’s entire political philosophy. It’s the basis of his favourite strategy: negative campaigning. Hatred is, he thinks, the most powerful motive incentivizing voters in US elections:

Only a candy-ass would think otherwise. People feel satisfied when there is something they can vote FOR. They feel exhilarated when there is something—or someone—they can vote AGAINST. Just ask President Hillary Clinton about all of the people who rushed out to vote FOR her.

Stone argues that Trump’s central campaign theme was extremely positive “Make America Great Again” but that he was nevertheless “the beneficiary, and an extraordinarily deft amplifier, of a deep, and frankly much-deserved, loathing” for Hillary Clinton.

Do-gooders and disingenuous leftists who decry the politics of fear and negativism are simply denying the reality of human nature, and only fooling themselves. Emotions cannot simply be erased or ignored, and to believe they can is a suicidally-naive approach to political competition.

There’s undoubtedly some truth in this but is it the whole truth? Stone’s Rule #52 “Don’t get mad; get even” arguably hints at a contradictory observation about human nature:

Be aggressive but don’t get angry. Nixon would get angry and issue illegal orders then reverse them when he calmed down.

So why isn’t the same true of voters?  Hatred and anger are certainly powerful motivators but so are fear and regret. When people act out of hatred they’re not usually thinking rationally about the wider implications or long-term consequences of their actions: it’s more of a knee-jerk response. That often leads to a pendulum swing when the negative consequences of decisions motivated by anger become apparent.  Perhaps, just like Nixon, voters might act out of anger (as a result of negative campaigning) but then come to regret their decision once they’ve calmed down again.

The danger of negative campaigning is that in voting against someone they have been encouraged to hate voters end up electing someone else, not on the basis of merit or competence, but just because they symbolize opposition to the hate figure. That can backfire dramatically, though, if it turns out the winning candidate’s shortcomings have been overlooked. Indeed, as we’re about to see, Stone is quite candid about employing his trademark negative campaigning strategy to create a smokescreen and divert attention away from potentially damaging criticism of his allies.

The Big Lie

Stone’s Rule #47 “The Big Lie Technique”.

Erroneously attributed to Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, the “big lie” manipulation technique was actually first described in detail by Adolf Hitler himself. […] Nonetheless, the tactic of creating a lie so bold, massive, and even so monstrous that it takes on a life of its own, is alive and well all through American politics and news media. Make it big, keep it simple, repeat it enough times, and people will believe it.

Arguably, a classic example of this would be the “birtherist” conspiracy theory, which falsely claimed that Barack Obama was born in Kenya in order to cast doubt on his eligibility to serve as US president. Stone previously stated in an interview that although he didn’t plant the idea of birtherism in Donald Trump’s mind he did encourage him to keep spreading it. However, although Stone proudly advocates this technique it obviously doesn’t serve his interests to place examples of his own handiwork under the spotlight so he doesn’t actually mention birtherism anywhere in his book.

Instead, he focuses on the claim that the Democrats propounded a “Big Lie” by claiming that the Russian state helped Donald Trump win the 2016 presidential election and that Stone himself had played a role by colluding with Wikileaks. So despite  writing about his mastery of this art in this book he’s also claiming that his enemies are the ones really perpetrating it. Of course, you can’t credibly admit that you’re telling Big Lies and then, in the next breath, go on to accuse your opponents of doing so unless you back that up with some pretty compelling evidence. Stone’s assumption, though, is that enough people won’t notice or don’t care about that. In some respects, he may be right.

One of the main reasons Stone gives for using the Big Lie is to create a smokescreen to defend yourself against criticism. Stone’s Rule #41 “Attack, attack, attack – never defend” and #42 “Let no attack go unanswered” hammer home the point that the best form of defence is attack. Stone’s argument is that, in life generally but especially in politics, if you try to defend yourself against criticisms rationally you simply risk educating more people about the accusations against you. Mud sticks. So instead launch a “devastating” counter-attack to divert attention away from the charges against you, and ignore them or at least say as little as possible in rebuttal of them. It doesn’t matter, of course, whether the criticisms you face are actually valid or not. Hence, Stone’s Rule #81 “Never Admit Mistakes”. He mentions briefly in passing that people will probably say that’s what he’s doing in response to the allegations that he colluded with Russia during the 2016 election campaign but he denies this and focuses instead on claiming that it’s all part of a Democrat / Deep State conspiracy against him.

In a nutshell, Stone believes that if someone attacks you in politics you should focus on attacking their character even more aggressively than they’ve attacked yours, and avoid having to defend yourself rationally. This is what philosophers call the ad hominem fallacy, being deployed as a deliberate rhetorical strategy. It’s also similar to the fallacy of “Whataboutism” or changing the subject – Never mind Russian collusion what about Hillary’s email server?! The hope is that everyone will forget about the criticisms made against you and focus on the allegations, true or false, that you’re making against your opponents.  If it works, you’ve thrown them off your trail completely and instead sent them down an endless rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. Of course, that doesn’t prove you’re innocent, it just diverts attention away from the problem by changing the subject. Try that one in court: “Never mind that I robbed a bank what about the judge – everyone knows he’s a Communist and I heard he’s also the head of a weird sex cult!”

However, as Jon Meacham says “Lies are good starters but they’re not good finishers.” The truth usually comes out eventually. Stone is probably right that, rhetorically, it’s a very powerful strategy to attack the character of your critics instead of answering their criticism. However, that won’t keep working forever. Sooner or later your credibility will begin to wane as a result and people will stop taking you seriously, just like the proverbial boy who cried wolf. It might take months, or it might take years, even decades, but the more “Big Lies” you tell the more people will eventually begin to question your credibility.

Worse, although the Big Lie strategy may work quite well in the political arena, at least in the short-term, it has the potential to come back to haunt you in the law courts. For instance, some reports suggest that Stone is likely facing indictment as part of the Russia investigation. What would happen if the prosecution chose to read certain passages from this book aloud before a judge and jury? Once you admit to using deceit on a massive scale to deflect criticism, and never admitting to wrongdoing as a matter of principle, how can anyone ever again trust anything you try to say in your own defense?  What goes around comes around.

Book One of Plato’s Republic features a Sophist called Thrasymachus (literally “fierce fighter”).  Stone sometimes sounds a bit like him.  Thrasymachus adopts the cynical position that justice is for losers and that true wisdom is possessed by those courageous enough to become unjust, by lying, cheating, and getting away with it.  He particularly admires tyrants, who hold absolute political power and can do what they want.  He looks down on the sheep who bleat about morality as naive simpletons.  Might is right, in other words.  The honest and just man, he thinks, is bound to be exploited by the dishonest and unjust.  Socrates claims that the unjust seek power because they want to gain from it.  However, truly good men do not seek political power for its own sake but are more often motivated by the desire not to allow tyrants to rule.

Socrates doesn’t say this explicitly but he strongly implies the view that the motivation of good and honest people to become involved in politics will wax and wane, reaching its peak in response to the threat of tyrants seizing power.  History, in other words, may consist of a pendulum swinging between periods of political complacency, when corrupt leaders are allowed to take power, and periods of moral outrage when the people realize they’ve been duped and become motivated to set things right.

Thrasymachus is convinced that the unjust are always stronger than the just.  However, Socrates argues that injustice breeds division and hostility, creating enemies within and without the state over time.  Justice, by contrast, breeds harmony and friendship, and creates stronger alliances, although we might add that justice often moves more slowly than injustice.  So although the unjust may prevail in the short term, over time their power is bound to crumble as they increasingly find their associates turning against them.  Their problem is that they can’t really trust anyone.

Hypocrisy is Bad

Stone’s Rule #84 says “Hypocrisy is what gets you”, so he actually does recognize the danger of losing credibility. However, throughout the book he refers countless times to the deliberate use of hypocrisy, insincerity and deceit. For example, Stone’s Rule #55 “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em”:

This technique was one of Dick Nixon’s best. The veteran political pugilist would praise his opponent’s sincerity and commend the opponent’s genuine belief in what are, nonetheless, terrible ideas and repugnant ideologies. […] “Praise ‘em before you hit ‘em—makes the hit seem more reasonable and even-handed, and thus more effective,” said the Trickster.

Likewise, Stone’s Rule #39 “Wear your cockade inside your hat” by which he means that it can be advantageous to conceal your true affiliations from everyone except your allies. He writes “sometimes it is best to cloak your real political intentions, so you are able to accomplish more without being under suspicion.”  But once you’ve told everyone that, in a book, you’ve kind of let the cat out of the bag haven’t you?

There’s undoubtedly some truth to the idea that deceit can be expedient in politics and Big Lies can have powerful effects. However, these aren’t qualities we normally praise or admire in other people, which makes it hypocritical to adopt them ourselves. That might work in the short-term but, once again, in the longer-term more and more people are likely to figure out what’s going on and you risk losing credibility as a result.  If your philosophy is based on deceit you also run the risk of surrounding yourself with fair-weather friends who share similarly ruthless values.  So you better hope that when a crisis looms they don’t just decide it’s expedient to throw you under the bus to save their own skin.  For instance, that’s typically what happens when defendants agree to plea bargains and turn state’s evidence against their erstwhile “friends” during criminal investigations.


Stone prefaces his rules by explaining:

To me, it all comes down to WINNING. It comes down to using any and every legal means available to achieve victory for my friends and allies, and to inflict crushing, ignominious defeat on my opponents and, yes, enemies.

I can’t read this without thinking of Conan the Barbarian who, when asked what is best in life, replies: “To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women!” I doubt Stone would object to the comparison. He describes his book as a “compendium of rules for war” and “the style manual for a ‘master of the universe’”.

So from the outset winning is everything. Although, a couple of pages later in Rule #1 he also says “There is no shame in losing. There is only shame in failing to strive, in never trying at all.” That attitude interests me because it’s more consistent with the values espoused by Socrates and the Stoics. If we invest too much value in outward success then we inevitably place our happiness, to some extent, in the hands of fate. The philosophers thought wisdom and resilience came from avoiding that and learning to place more importance on our own character and less on the outcome of our actions. It’s one thing to aim at a particular outcome, such as winning an election. It’s another thing to make it so all-important that we’re willing to sacrifice our own integrity in pursuit of it. That’s a recipe for neurosis because it makes our emotions depend upon events that are never entirely up to us. Stone’s good off to a good start with Rule #1 and it should make us wonder what would have happened if he’d developed that thought further and incorporated it into a more rounded philosophy of life.

That’s how the book begins. It concludes with Stone’s Rule #140 “He who laughs last laughs heartiest”:

I will often wait years to take my revenge, hiding in the tall grass, my stiletto at the ready, waiting patiently until you think I have forgotten or forgiven a past slight and then, when you least expect it, I will spring from the underbrush and plunge a dagger up under your ribcage. So if you have fucked me, even if it was years ago, don’t think yourself safe.

That brought to my mind something his hero Richard Nixon once said:

“I want to be sure he is a ruthless son of a bitch, that he will do what he’s told, that every income tax return I want to see I see, that he will go after our enemies and not go after our friends.”

Those are the words of Nixon giving instructions to his aides about the appointment of a new commissioner of internal revenue, caught on tape in the Oval Office on May 13, 1971. As part of this attempt to persecute his opponents, Nixon later handed his notorious “Enemies List”, containing 576 names in its revised version, to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). He assumed political power was a weapon to be wielded, a way of harming his enemies and helping his friends.

Nixon’s words happen to echo an ancient Greek definition of justice as “helping your friends and harming your enemies”, which Socrates vigorously attempted to refute nearly two and a half thousand years ago. In Book One of Plato’s Republic, Socrates basically points out that to genuinely harm your enemies, by definition, is to make them worse than they are already. Just making them weaker by removing certain external advantages such as wealth, friends, or status doesn’t necessarily harm them deep down. As Stone himself conceded: the wise man can “make chicken shit into chicken soup” and turn setbacks into opportunities. We can only really harm others, according to Socrates, by corrupting their character and turning them into foolish and vicious people, if that’s even possible. He concluded that, paradoxically, the wise man will actually help both his friends and his enemies. That doesn’t mean giving his enemies external advantages, which would be foolish because they’d probably use them against us other others. Rather it means educating them and helping them to become wiser and better individuals, perhaps one day becoming our friends instead of our enemies as a result. Of course that’s idealistic, but it’s arguably a much healthier goal than simple revenge.

I’ll cut to the chase and say that I think the future of American politics should perhaps involve greater bipartisanship.  People would do better to try to understand their political enemies, in my view, rather than simply attack them.  The law of retaliation (lex talionis) is “an eye for an eye” but as Gandhi reputedly said, that leaves the whole world blind. Socrates argues that revenge harms us more than it does our enemies because it degrades our character and tricks us into investing far too much importance in external things. I’ll therefore leave the last word to him:

“Then we ought to neither return wrong for wrong nor do evil to anyone, no matter what he may have done to us. Be careful though, Crito, that by agreeing with this you do not agree to something you do not believe. For I know that there are few who believe this or ever will. Now those who believe it, and those who do not, have no common ground of discussion, but they must necessarily disdain one another because of their opinions. You should therefore consider very carefully whether you agree and share in this opinion. Let us take as the starting point of our discussion the assumption that it is never right to do wrong or to repay wrong with wrong, or when we suffer evil to defend ourselves by doing evil in return.” (Crito, 49c)

Reviews Stoicism

Book Review: The Obstacle is the Way by Ryan Holiday

The Obstacle is the WayThe Obstacle is the Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials into Triumph (2014) by Ryan Holiday is a book about overcoming apparent setbacks and by turning them to our advantage.  It’s not exactly a book about Stoicism but it does contain a great many references to Stoicism, which reinforce the central message that every adversity is potentially an opportunity.

Ryan was the keynote speaker at the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York, where he talked about the profound influence that reading the Stoics had on his life.  The book he subsequently co-authored with Stephen Hanselman, The Daily Stoic, focuses exclusively on Stoic wisdom, presenting quotations from the classics for each day of the year.

Indeed, the title of The Obstacle is the Way is inspired by a famous quotation from The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, which reads:

The impediment to action advances action.  What stands in the way becomes the way.

This is a quote from the Gregory Hays translation of Meditations 5.20, which Marcus begins by reminding himself that in one respect other people are of concern to us and that we have a duty to help them, alluding to the Stoic concept of oikeiôsis, or identifying with the welfare of others.  In another respect, though, he says other people are as indifferent to us as sun or wind, or wild animals, being external to our own mind and volition.  We shouldn’t place too much importance on what they think of us, as long as we’re aiming to do what’s right and acting wisely.

Ryan’s book contains a plethora of anecdotes about historical figures who have persevered in the face of social and material obstacles, under conditions that would make many people abandon hope.  In that respect, it stands in a venerable tradition of self-help books, one that goes back indeed to the Victorian classic Self-Help (1859) by Samuel Smiles.  It also harks back, as Ryan notes, to Plutarch’s Lives, the express purpose of which was to be simultaneously both an ethical and historical treatise by focusing on what can be learned from the characters and virtues of numerous great men.

There’s plenty of good advice in The Obstacle is the Way; it’s an interesting and entertaining read.  It will perhaps also inspire many people to study Stoicism in more depth and also to explore the range of psychological skills and strategies used by the Stoics to overcome such obstacles, and maintain their equanimity in the face of adversity.  That’s something I’ve written about but unfortunately I still don’t think there’s a really good popular introduction that covers the range of Stoic doctrines and practices.

I was pleased that the book made me realise the beautiful simplicity and appeal of the story of Demosthenes, the famous Athenian orator.  I told my five-year old daughter this tale after reading about him in the book, and she made me tell it to her again and again, two or three times the same day.  There were many stories from American political history that I wasn’t very familiar with, which were also fascinating to read.

The most important thing about the book, though, is its message that a formula for turning obstacles into opportunities can be learned from the examples of these great (and in some cases not so great) men and women.  From Marcus Aurelius to Ulysses S. Grant, Thomas Edison, Theodore Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart, Erwin Rommell, Abraham Lincoln, and Barack Obama.  Most of these individuals had their strengths and weaknesses, of course.  (As a Scot, my flesh crawls at the sight of Margaret Thatcher’s name, and Steve Jobs was a notorious bully who exploited his own friends and workers in ways that many people would balk at as unethical.)  However, what Ryan’s doing is trying to model specific examples of resilient behaviour and attitudes from these recognisable figures, not their whole lives and characters, which are inevitably a mixed bag.

That’s something I think he’s achieved admirably and I’m very pleased the book has already become so successful.  Every day, it seems to bring more people into the Stoic community, who say they “got into Stoicism” after reading The Obstacle is the Way, and now have a thirst to learn more.  That’s a good thing.  As the founders of the Stoa taught: the wise man has a duty and natural calling to write books that help other people.  Though none of us are indeed wise, we can help others by writing about the lives of people who exemplify virtues to which we might all aspire.  That’s why I think this is a book worth reading.  It gives people hope that they might be able to learn how to live like that, with admirable resilience and tenacity, and it surely motivates them to engage in self-improvement in the same direction.

Reviews Stoicism

Book Review: The Daily Stoic

The Daily Stoic: 366 Meditations on Wisdom, Perseverance, and the Art of Living is a new book, co-authored by Ryan Holiday and Stephen Hanselman.  The authors generously provided free copies to everyone attending the Stoicon 2016 conference in New York City, where Ryan was keynote speaker.

The book consists of new translations, by Stephen Hanselman, of passages from ancient Stoic authors, with accompanying commentary.  Each month is assigned a different theme, with daily readings on its different aspects.  Although the book is designed to provide material for daily contemplative practice, I read it straight through, mostly on a long flight back from London to Canada.  I found the new versions of the ancient texts very valuable, and especially the technical glossary of Stoic technical terms at the back of the book.  The commentaries were also very readable and worthwhile, and a wide range of literary and philosophical references, especially to famous figures in American history.  These will undoubtedly help to make the Stoic texts appear more relevant and accessible to modern readers.  The passages included are mainly from the philosophical writings of the three most famous Stoics: Seneca, Epictetus (via his student Arrian), and Marcus Aurelius.  However, there are also several gems from the Stoic sayings of Zeno included in Diogenes Laertius, and from the often-overlooked plays of Seneca.

I’ve no doubt many people will find this very-readable collection of Stoic sayings, a great introduction to the philosophy.  It stands in a long tradition: anthologies of philosophical sayings were common in the ancient world.  Indeed, it’s mainly thanks to compilations of philosophical sayings such as those found in the Anthology of Stobaeus and the Lives and Opinions of Diogenes Laertius that passages from the early Greek Stoics survive today.


Review: Stoic Spiritual Exercises by Elen Buzaré

Stoic Spiritual Exercises

Elen Buzaré

Review by Donald Robertson

Available on Lulu.com

Stoic-Spiritual-Exercises-Elen-BuzaréElen’s short book focuses on the practical psychological (or “spiritual”) exercises employed in ancient Stoicism, drawing mainly upon the seminal work of the French scholar Pierre Hadot.  She succeeds eminently in providing a very clear and concise account of a great many Stoic exercises.  These are described in such a way as to allow the average reader to make use of them.  However, those more familiar with Stoicism will undoubtedly find much of value within these pages.

The central part of Stoic Spiritual Exercises contains a superb description to a variety of Stoic techniques, including premeditation, physical definition, contemplation of impermanence, self-expansion, the view from above, action with reservation, and others.  It concludes with a section attempting to reconstruct a Stoic meditation based on the account of a Christian spiritual practice influenced by Stoicism, and drawing on analogies with Buddhist meditation.

According to the account preserved by Stobaeus, Zeno and the other Stoics said that the wise and virtuous “have an affinity to composing books, which can help those who encounter their writings”.  Elen’s book will undoubtedly be of tremendous help to those who encounter the writings of the ancient Stoics and wish to benefit from the Stoic art of living in their own daily lives.


Review of Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009)

A response to James Warren’s review in Polis, 26, 1, 2009

William Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009) is a best-selling popular introduction to Stoic philosophy.  It’s a good book and one I frequently recommend to people who are new to the subject and interested in learning about Stoicism, but who lack a background in academic philosophy.  It’s written in a very readable and accessible style and has many good ideas and interesting personal observations.  However, since I first read the book, I’ve had a few reservations about the way it portrays Stoicism.  Recently, I was sent a copy of James Warren’s review of A Guide to the Good Life, which shares broadly similar concerns, and also a few points that I’m probably well-positioned to comment on as a cognitive-behavioural therapist – CBT is a modern form of “psychotherapy” that originated in ideas derived from Stoic philosophy.  (Thanks to John Sellars for pointing me in the direction of the article.)  While I basically agree with Warren’s review, I feel that there is scope for a more philosophically-consistent and yet “popular” account of modern Stoicism, one which addresses most of these concerns.

Irvine explicitly acknowledges that his version of “Stoicism” departs significantly from any existing form of Stoicism.  For example, he writes:

The resulting version of Stoicism, although derived from the ancient Stoics, is therefore unlike the Stoicism advocated by any particular Stoic. It is also likely that the version of Stoicism I have developed is in various respects unlike the Stoicism one would have been taught to practice in an ancient Stoic school. (Irvine, 2009, p. 244)

The initial draft of this article caused some controversy so let me pause here to emphasise Irvine’s own words above.  At the very least, it’s perfectly reasonable to respond to his claim that his version of “Stoicism” is unlike any previous version by asking “Are you sure it makes sense to call it by the same name then?”  Ancient philosophers, particularly Socrates and the Stoics, placed great importance on the role of accurate definition in philosophical debate because this is the foundation on which our reasoning is necessarily based.

So Irvine describes this as his own version of “Stoicism”, and different from any preceding version.  Crucially, it involves replacing the supreme Stoic goal of “living in accord with virtue” (aka “living in agreement with nature”) with the goal of attaining “tranquillity” or freedom from emotional suffering.  He says that he’s doing this because he believes it is “unusual, after all, for modern individuals to have an interest in becoming more virtuous, in the ancient sense of the word” (2009, p. 42).  That’s odd because the Stoic concept of virtue is essentially a form of practical wisdom and I would have said that people today place as much value on practical wisdom, or “the art of living”, as they did in the ancient world.  In fact, I think it would make just as much, if not more, sense to the majority of people as the alternative goal of “tranquillity”.

Irvine says that “although the Stoics thought they could prove that theirs was the correct philosophy of life, I don’t think such a proof is possible” (p. 28).  This position perhaps has less in common with the ancient Stoics than with Academic Skeptics like Cicero, who appropriated some of the concepts and techniques of Stoicism, while rejecting its philosophical arguments.  What Irvine therefore describes is Stoicism as a therapy of the passions, but without any of its philosophical foundations– a kind of Stoicism-lite.  In particular, Irvine rejects the Stoic ethical argument that virtue is the goal of life and the highest good.  However, this is arguably not a trivial aspect of Stoicism but its core doctrine, which distinguished Stoics from philosophers of opposing schools.  As Warren concludes, what Irvine’s left with is “something which an Epicurean, for example, no less than a Stoic, might endorse without much concern.”  I’d go further and say that ancient Stoics would have found acceptance of this definition of their philosophy deeply problematic, and that, paradoxically, Irvine’s version of “Stoicism” may be more like Epicureanism in some respects.  The supreme goal of life is the most important concept in any school of ancient philosophy, particularly Stoicism.  For example, Cicero’s De Finibus, one of our major sources for ancient Stoic views, systematically distinguishes the different schools of philosophy from one another primarily in terms of their different definitions of the goal of  life.  The most important thing in life is pursued “at all costs”, by definition, so it makes a very big practical difference whether we pursue tranquillity or practical wisdom (virtue) “at all costs”, as the supreme goal in life.

In response to a previous draft of this article, I was asked to include more information on my own background…  I’ve written three books which touch on Stoicism to some degree, particularly in relation to cognitive-behavioural therapy.   Like Irvine, I’m interested in modern approaches to Stoicism, for the purposes of self-help and personal improvement, but I’m a registered psychotherapist by profession whereas he is a professor of philosophy, at Wright State University in the USA, so we’re, perhaps inevitably, approaching the subject from slightly different perspectives.  Nevertheless, most of the doubts I have about Irvine’s book relate to its philosophical basis, its fundamental interpretation of Stoicism, which is also the focus of the criticisms in Warren’s review.  As this is just a brief blog post, I won’t have space to go into the philosophy very thoroughly.  (I’ve already enlarged it considerably to clarify certain points and add quotations, in response to online comments and emails.)  For simplicity, I’ve broken down the key points into several headings below…

The Goal of Stoicism

Irvine clearly states that his book replaces the traditional goal of life in Stoicism, “living in accord with virtue”, with the goal of attaining emotional tranquillity. He claims that this is the central focus of the Roman Imperial Stoics. I would dispute this interpretation of the late Roman Stoics and I see it as a fundamental departure from Stoic philosophy in general. As Warren writes: “this interest in tranquillity rather than virtue is the first sign of what I take to be the major fault of the book.”  As Warren notes, at times Irvine’s account of Stoicism is so far removed from what’s traditionally understood by that term that it bears more resemblance to those opposing schools of ancient philosophy such as Epicureanism (or possibly Skepticism) which did define the highest good as tranquillity (ataraxia), or freedom from pain and suffering.  Ancient critics observed that the Epicurean goal of tranquillity is obviously more passive, whereas the Stoic goal of virtue is more active.  We achieve virtue only by acting in accord with reason but we can achieve tranquillity, the absence of distress, by simple avoidance or not doing certain things.  Hence, Epicurus advised his followers to confine their concerns to a close-knit circle of friends, to live fairly reclusive lives, and to avoid marrying and having children, in order to achieve tranquillity.  In sharp contrast, the Stoics advise us actively to engage with life, through our relationships, and to extend our concern to all of mankind, philanthropically.

The supreme virtue in Stoic Ethics is practical or moral wisdom and traditional Stoic “philosophy” is literally the love of wisdom therefore, not the love of tranquillity. All Stoicism is unquestionably concerned with tranquillity but I don’t think any ancient Stoics made this the supreme goal of their philosophy. Practical wisdom is the highest virtue, according to the Stoics, and indeed the basis of all other virtues, which are all one, being special forms of (moral) knowledge about what is good, bad or indifferent, across various aspects of life, e.g., wisdom takes the form of justice in the social sphere, and the form of courage and self-discipline when one’s irrational “passions” arise as an obstacle to appropriate action. The Stoics are clear that feelings of tranquillity are necessarily attributes of the ideal Sage, because otherwise he would struggle to maintain a life in accord with reason and wisdom.  However, these feelings are the consequence of virtue in the form of self-mastery, or courage and self-discipline.  Virtue leads to tranquillity, but tranquillity alone does not necessarily lead to virtue.  Julia Annas sums up the Stoic attitude toward virtue and tranquillity in her scholarly analysis of Hellenistic philosophies, The Morality of Happiness,

If we are tempted to seek virtue because it will make us tranquil and secure, we are missing the point about virtue that is most important [according to the Stoics]; it is virtue itself that matters, not its results. (Annas, p. 410)

The Stoics clearly considered tranquillity to be important but, for several reasons, it is not as important as virtue. For example, the highest good is synonymous with what is praiseworthy according to the Stoics but we do not normally praise people merely for being tranquil unless they are also virtuous – a serial killer may experience tranquillity while chopping his victims’ bodies up. The Stoics argue that the highest good must be both “instrumentally” good and good-in-itself and that only virtue meets these criteria. Tranquillity may be good-in-itself but it is not (inherently) instrumentally good, it’s something of a dead end as the chief goal in life, compared to practical wisdom and virtuous action. Its precise status in Stoic philosophy isn’t entirely clear, and Stoics may have disagreed over it. However, it seems to me that the early Stoics typically believed that feelings of tranquillity (and joy) naturally supervene upon perfect virtue and are only “good” insofar as they are the product of wisdom and honour. One problem with making tranquillity the supreme goal of life is that it potentially justifies actions that are unwise and unhealthy. For example, if we could achieve lasting tranquillity by having a lobotomy and taking tranquillisers every day would someone not be justified in doing so if their supreme goal is tranquillity at all costs? However, if tranquillity is only valued insofar as it is consistent with our long-term mental health or ability to act wisely and honourably, that implies that virtue is after all being regarded as the chief good in life.

In modern psychotherapy, it’s widely-recognised now that the desire primarily to avoid unpleasant or painful feelings tends to backfire.  A simple illustration of this: People who express strong agreement with the statement “Anxiety is bad” tend to be more vulnerable to developing subsequent psychiatric disorders.  The desire primarily to avoid unpleasant feelings, or to attain emotional tranquillity, is-often called “experiential avoidance”.  There’s a consensus now, based on research, that excessive experiential avoidance is highly toxic in terms of long-term mental health.  For a number of reasons, people whose lives revolve around the goal of emotional tranquillity, or avoidance of unpleasant feelings, tend to achieve the opposite in many cases.  The Stoics, throughout their history, consistently objected to the misinterpretation of their philosophy as endorsing the “absence of feelings”.  Rather, they describe the ideal Sage as someone who engages emotionally with life rather than retreating from it, as the Epicureans sometimes did.  He feels physical and emotional pain but overcomes it, and acts virtuously, with wisdom and justice.

Stoic Determinism

Warren notes that Irvine rejects Stoic determinism and remarks that although this is probably not palatable to many modern readers, it is nevertheless an important Stoic commitment.  He writes: “In its absence, it is unclear to me in what sense it is right to call what is left Stoicism at all.”  That perhaps overstates the objection.  Determinism is an important part of Stoic philosophy but it’s not clear that it’s completely indispensible.  It seems to me that ancient authors, such as Cicero, regard the ethical theory that virtue is the only true good as the core of Stoic philosophy, and the feature which distinguished it from rival schools of thought.  Someone who completely adheres to the Stoic ethical theory might reasonably be called a Stoic, even if they struggle to accept their determinism, or other aspects of Stoic “physics” such as their pagan theology.  Neither can I see any reason to argue that belief in determinism is a necessary presupposition if one is to justify belief in the Stoic ethics of virtue.

However, from my perspective as a psychotherapist, I would also respond to Warren’s review by saying that belief in determinism is probably not as objectionable to ordinary people in the modern world as he assumes.  In The Philosophy of CBT (2010), I wrote at length about an early 20th century psychotherapist called Paul Dubois.  Dubois is largely forgotten now but he was an important precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).  He was also heavily-influenced by the Stoics, not only referring to them frequently in his own writings but also assigning reading Seneca’s letters, for example,  to his patients as therapeutic homework assignments.  In particular, though, Dubois was thoroughly committed to Stoic determinism and felt it was important to educate patients in this view of life because of its potential therapeutic value.  Subsequently, some of the founders of behaviour therapy in the 1950s, Wolpe and Lazarus, also taught their patients a deterministic outlook on life for its therapeutic value.  I would agree with this.  I’ve found that my own clients are able to benefit from a deterministic perspective, in a similar manner.  For example, it helps to moderate feelings of guilt or anger if we can view our own actions and those of other people as the inevitable consequence of our hereditary characteristics and learning experiences during life.

Stoic Theology

For modern readers of Stoicism, who wish to become followers of the philosophy, Stoic theology is probably the most problematic aspect of their philosophical system.  The Stoics were pantheists who believed that the cosmos is a single living organism, an immortal animal called Zeus, who possesses perfect reason and wisdom.  Zeus is the father of mankind and creator of the physical universe.  He  is provident, having created the universe according to a prudent divine plan; he cares for the wellbeing of his creation and children.  It’s true that the ancient Stoics seem very committed to this view, particularly Epictetus.

However, although it is a controversial area, there are some indications that the ancient Stoics considered their ethics, the core of their philosophy, to stand independently of their theological beliefs.  Marcus Aurelius expresses this many times to himself by referring to the dichotomous slogan: “God or atoms”.  Whether the universe is created by a provident God or by the random collision of atoms, either way virtue is still the only true good and Stoicism as a way of life still remains viable.  There are several other indications in the ancient literature that suggest the Stoics may have been able to entertain a more agnostic or even atheistic worldview as consistent with the core of their philosophy, which I’ve surveyed in my article on God or Atoms.  Their predecessors, the Cynics, were considered examplars of virtue by the Stoics, although they did not share their theological beliefs or interest in philosophical “physics”.  It’s true that belief in a provident God makes it easier for Stoics to judge the universe as whole as good, and to accept their fate with equanimity and even joy or affection.  However, even agnostic or atheistic Stoics can view individual external events with the detachment (“indifference”) required by Stoic Ethics.  It also seems plausible to me that a modern atheist might judge the universe conceived in its totality as good, with an attitude of gratitude or even “piety” toward life as a whole, without having to adopt any theological assumptions at all –  certainly without becoming a worshipper of Zeus!

“Negative Visualisation” & Hedonic Adaptation

The Stoics recommend an important psychological technique that involves repeatedly imagining future catastrophes as if they are happening now and viewing them with detached indifference.  Seneca, who refers to this particularly often, calls is praemeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of adversity.  Warren says he has “no sense of the potential efficacy of this manoeuvre.”  That’s something I’m in a position to comment upon.  The most robustly-established technique in the whole field of research on modern psychotherapy is “exposure” to feared event, a behaviour therapy technique for anxiety developed in the 1950s.  This is ideally done in vivo, in the real world.  However, it is also done in imagination, called “imaginal exposure”.  There are many variations of the technique and it activates several different mechanisms of change.  It is also employed differently for different forms of anxiety.  However, in essence, when someone visualises an event that provokes anxiety in a controlled manner and for a prolonged amount of time, usually 15-30 minutes, their anxiety will naturally tend to decline (“habituate”), and when this is repeated every day for several weeks, the reduction tends to become lasting and to spread (“generalise”) to related situations.

The ancient references to this technique can be read as recognising the phenomenon of habituation, e.g., when they refer to anticipation of feared events as a way to blunt their terrors.  The Stoics also make it requirement of irrational passions, such as anxiety, that the impression evoking them is “fresh”.  It’s unclear what they meant by this except that they clearly imply that when impressions (including mental images of feared events) cease to be “fresh” they should no longer evoke the same level of anxious “passion” – that can perhaps be seen as a reference to the process psychologists now call anxiety “habituation”.  However, this natural reduction in anxiety, although seemingly acknowledged by the Stoics, is clearly secondary to the emphasis they place on rehearsing Stoic principles in the face of anticipated adversity, such as the dogma that the good must be under our control and external events cannot be judged “bad”, either in the sense of being “evil” or “harmful”.  Irvine departs from traditional Stoicism, though, in portraying Stoic premeditation of adversity, which he calls “negative visualisation”, as a means of reversing “hedonic adaptation”.  To cut a long story short, this is clearly a means of enhancing sensory pleasure in the present by mentally rehearsing the privation of pleasurable experiences.  As such, it’s not the main rationale for the traditional Stoic technique and would fit much more naturally with the goals of Epicurean philosophy.

Warren objects that “negative visualisation” or rehearsing indifference to anticipated misfortunes might preserve the “status quo” in a way that conflicts with widespread ethical assumptions.  He’s concerned that Irvine’s account of accepting insults, when applied to things like sexist or racist abuse, might be the wrong course of action.  “This is surely wrong, or at best, tells only half the story”, he says.  “I can see why tranquillity might be won by caring less if one is insulted; but why not set out also to prevent or discourage insults?”  I think Warren recognises, though, that this is only a problem for Irvine and not for Stoicism proper.  Traditional Stoics are able to judge insults as fundamentally harmless while, nevertheless, preferring to have the offending person as a friend rather than enemy.  This requires a delicate balance between emotional detachment and commitment to acting appropriately to resolve interpersonal conflict, as Stoics seek to live in harmony with other people and spread friendship and virtue as widely as possible.

The “Trichotomy” of Control

Irvine seeks to replace the Stoic dichotomy between things under our control (or “up to us”) and things not, with a “trichotomy” that classifies most events in a third category, consisting of things “partially” under our control.  Again, this is not a trivial aspect of Stoicism.  It’s an integral element of the whole philosophical system.  Attempting to replace it with a threefold classification introduces many problems.  Are we not thereby committed to the view that things “partially under our control” are “partially good”?  However, this would seem to wreck the conceptual framework of Stoic Ethics.  For example, it would mean that some aspects of Happiness and fulfilment (eudaimonia) are partially in the hands of fate, which would fundamentally doom the Stoic Sage to the experience of frustrated desire and emotional suffering.  In any case, it seems to me that the Stoic dichotomy is more accurate.  To say that something is “partially” under our control is surely just to say that some parts of it are under our control and some are not.  It would be better to spell out which parts or aspects of a situation are within our control and which are not, and that inevitably brings us back to the traditional Stoic dichotomy.

Irvine then reintroduces the simple dichotomy found in Stoicism, perhaps unintentionally, in the form of his distinction between internal and external goals in life.  Strangely, he says he can find no evidence of this doctrine in ancient Stoicism, although I think most modern readers of Stoicism would recognise it immediately as one of the central doctrines of the whole philosophy, famously illustrated by Cicero in the metaphor of the archer whose internal goal (telos) is to shoot straight, to the best of his ability, while his external goal or “target” (skopos) is to actually hit the bullseye.  The former is under his direct control, whereas the latter is not.  In life in general, only our voluntary intentions to act and judgements are under our direct control, and the consequences or outcome of our actions are not.  This is really the essence of all Stoic Ethics, which is the core of their philosophy.


Review – Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (2006) by Keith Seddon

Find Stoic Serenity: A Practical Course on Finding Inner Peace (2006) on Amazon UK and Google Books.

Stoic Serenity is a practical guide to Stoicism as a way of life.  The author, Keith Seddon, describes himself as a freelance academic and author.  It is actually based on a correspondence course, first published in 2000, by an organisation called The Stoic Foundation.  The course focuses mainly on the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius and the Letters of Seneca, probably the two most relevant sources for novice students of Stoicism.  These are “set texts”, which the reader should also have access to, in order to follow the coursework in Stoic Serenity.  Each chapter concludes with some written exercises and at the back of the book examples of answers provided by previous students are given along with tutor feedback.

I thought this was a good introduction to the challenge of applying Stoicism in the modern world, in one’s daily life.  It’s probably going to be more accessible than most other books on Stoicism and provides clearly-described advice and exercises that anyone should be able to engage with.  The whole point of Stoicism is that we should apply it in our own lives and this course gives the reader a good framework for beginning to do that.  It’s also written in a style that encourages critical thinking and self-reflection, rather than merely teaching the theory and practice of Stoicism didactically.  This book doesn’t engage with the comparison between Stoicism and the techniques of modern psychotherapy, which may reveal a wider repertoire of Stoic “exercises”, but it does a good job of helping the student to learn the core principles of Stoicism as a way of life and, as such, it would probably be the best thing for many newcomers to the subject to read first.

Seddon quite rightly observes that for Stoics, “Our responsibility is primarily to ourselves… The idea that the Stoic should promote justice (or any virtue) in others is hard to come by in the literature” (p. 166-167).  However, of course, the many books written by ancient Stoics, and the fact that Stoics lectured and tutored others, suggest that they did seek to promote virtue in others, through education and training.  Further, that seems to be precisely what Seddon’s course is meant to accomplish.  Indeed, according to Stobaeus, the ancient Stoics believed that the Wise Man would naturally write books intended to help others.  Stoic Serenity is such a book and I’m sure that many  people will find it an excellent introduction to practical philosophy, as well as to the classic texts of Stoicism with which it deals.

Table of Contents of Stoic Serenity (2006)

  1. Good, bad and indifferent
  2. What is in our power
  3. “Live simply” and “Live according to nature”
  4. Universal nature, God and fate
  5. Living in society
  6. Impermanence, loss and death
  • Appendix 1: The Stoics on Determinism
  • Appendix 2: Striving to be Free of the Passions
  • Supplement 1: Sample Responses to Assignments
  • Supplement 2: Key to the Stoic Philosophy of Epictetus
  • Supplement 3: Conflict between Stoics and Epicurus

The Philosophy of CBT in BABCP’s newsletter CBT Today (May 2012)

Living it up for death

Patricia Murphy’s Special Feature in CBT Today (May 2012)

The following excerpt from CBT Today mentioned The Philosophy of CBT:

In The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson cogently explains why modern psychotherapists should remain interested in ancient philosophy, not least because it has a ‘broader scope than modern psychotherapy, it looks at the bigger picture and allows us the opportunity to place such therapy within the context of an overall “art of living”, or philosophy of life’. We are reminded that the origins of modern CBT can be traced back to the ancient practices of Socratic philosophy while, according to Epicurus,‘living well’ also requires the individual to ‘rehearse death’.The contemplation of one’s own mortality was viewed by the Stoics as a therapeutic exercise to be repeated daily. The imaginary embodiment of the ideal role model or sage was seen by ancient philosophers as necessary to provide a standard for the ‘art of living’.

Robertson suggests that, unlike Stoicism and most classical philosophies,‘CBT lacks any clear account of the ideal toward which it aims’. That said, he observes how many techniques and concepts found in classical literature, including mindfulness,modelling behaviour, cognitive restructuring and distancing/perspective changing techniques, are well rehearsed in CBT. Meanwhile, individual therapists may use poetry, prose, music, metaphor, imagery, archetypes and historical figures to demonstrate qualities or sentiments that also reflect the qualities of the sage, including wisdom, courage and compassion.

CBT Philosophy of CBT Reviews Stoicism

Review in The European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling

The Philosophy of CBT

The European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling

Another positive review in a peer-reviewed academic journal.  This one by John W. Owen of the University of Manchester and Bolton Primary Care NHS Trust, a clinical psychologist and former IAPT supervisor,

In The philosophy of cognitive-behaviour therapy, Robertson proposes that the connections between Stoic philosophy and CBT deserve deeper consideration.  Within this book, the author offers a detailed comparative analysis of these two schools of thought, and compellingly argues that the origins of CBT are evident in the theory and practice of Stoic philosophy.

He adds,

The philosophy of cognitive-behavioural therapy particularly highlighted to me the extent to which REBT has its origins within Stoic philosophy. […] Being unfamiliar with the details of Stoic philosophy, I was surprised and intrigued to learn of the important practical aspects of this school of thought.  Stoicism does not appear to have been a solely introspective form of philosophy, instead, a range of practical techniques were advocated in the service of self improvement. […] Robertson details an impressive range of Stoic techniques that are analogous to those found in CBT, for example the practice of self-monitoring, the use of coping statements and the practice of journal keeping.

He concludes,

Overall, I found The Philosophy of CBT to be informative and thought provoking. It was both interesting and sobering to reflect upon the possibility that variants of some of the psychotherapeutic techniques that I use on a day-to-day basis in clinical practice may have also been employed to alleviate emotional disturbance in ancient Greece. I would particularly recommend this book for trainee cognitive-behaviour therapists. […] I wonder whether Robertson’s book could serve to foster a broader understanding of the assumptions, philosophical underpinnings and overarching goals of cognitive-behavioural approaches to the alleviation of
emotional disturbance.

See the full review in The European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling,