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17 May 2007

The future of Stoicism

It's about teaching young people to think for themselves

By Jules Evans

Stoicism has had a huge influence on European thought. It was the de facto religion of the Roman ruling class, and included among its distinguished supporters the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius, whose Meditations are perhaps the most beautifully written expression of Stoic thought.

It then exerted a powerful influence over Christianity, particularly over the Gospel According to St John, whose memorable opening lines asserted that Jesus was the Logos made flesh – the Logos was a Stoic term for the divine law that orders the universe.

It was Stoicism that gave us the idea of natural law, which would have such a profound influence on liberalism, inspiring everyone from Cicero to John Locke, Grotius, Thomas Paine or Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

It’s a very radical and even dangerous idea – that there is a natural law that exists regardless of conventions or traditions, and if a government disobeys that natural law, we no longer have to obey that government. It’s inspired everyone from the French revolutionaries to the neo-Cons.

Stoicism’s central idea that humans possess a unique capacity to be rational and self-autonomous remains a powerful defence of democracy and human rights, and has helped inspire dissidents and non-conformists all over the world, from Moscow to Burma.

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Today, Stoicism remains in excellent health. Over the past two decades, it has returned to prominence in the form of cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT, which is now the most popular and credible therapy for emotional disorders.

The founder of CBT, the psychologist Albert Ellis, told me in a recent interview that he was directly influenced by Stoicism. Many other leading practitioners of CBT acknowledge its debt to Stoicism, though few have actually taken the trouble to read Stoic texts, regrettably.

So what is the future of Stoicism?

What we are seeing with CBT is a gradual move beyond the confines of medicine, and into the province of education.

The idea is that teenagers and young adults are particularly vulnerable to mental illness, which often first occurs in late adolescence, and can be a terrifying experience for youngsters (as it was for me when I fell victim to an anxiety disorder at the age of 18).

Our educational system is very efficient at preparing us for exams, or for jobs in the market-place. But should it do more? Should it also prepare us to cope with the ups and downs of life, to manage our thoughts and emotions, to be able to recognize and deal with emotional disorders if and when they occur?

The ancient Greeks certainly thought so. Just as important as teaching young people how to do maths or gymnastics was teaching them how to think for themselves, how to tend to irrational thoughts or emotions, how to become autonomous, self-governing agents.

If we don’t teach our children that capability, then we are not raising free adults, but consumer-robots, who are not in control of themselves, who are slaves of conformity and convention, and victims of emotional problems and mental illness.

Some modern thinkers, such as the neo-Stoic Martha Nussbaum, have started to call for a broadening of the focus of our education, so that it includes at least a few classes that give our young some grounding in ‘skillful thinking’, so that they can recognize and stand up to negative or irrational thinking, so that they can tend to their own thoughts and emotions.

I believe Stoicism could be an important part of this new subject, which I would call ‘cognitive management’. But it would also be important to include other, similar philosophies and faiths, such as Buddhism, Taoism, Sufism or Epicureanism.

If you just taught one philosophy or psychology, you would be contravening the principle of separation of church and state.

But if you taught a range of different cognitive approaches, including secular ones like Epicureanism or CBT, then it could give a young person with cognitive skills, while also providing them with a respect for the common wisdom shared by different approaches to the mind from around the world.

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