“AND…AHEM…HOW ARE YOU…feeling? Do you feel…okay?”
The awkwardness was unbearable.
This was in 1996, my first year at university. My undergraduate studies were going well, my tutors seemed pleased with my essays. But my emotions had abruptly gone haywire. Out of nowhere, I was suddenly beset with panic attacks, mood swings, depression, and anxiety. I was a mess, and I had no idea why.
“I’m doing fine, thanks, sir.”
The head of my department had been called in to check up on me. This was because, in my emotional incontinence, I had careered through my overdraft limit. My bank had contacted my college, who had alerted my head of department, a respected expert on Anglo-Saxon poetry, but not a big one for heart to hearts.
“You’re not gambling, are you? Or doing drugs?”
I wasn’t. But I had experimented rather recklessly with drugs in my last years at school. I wondered, was that
what had messed me up? I came from a very loving family, and had been happy enough until recently. But I’d watched a few of my friends go off the rails, and some of them end up in mental institutions, and now my mental health was falling to pieces too. Had our drug-taking damaged our neural circuitry, condemning us to
lifetimes of emotional dysfunction? Or was I just being a typical neurotic adolescent? How was I to know?
“Oh, I’m fine now, sir, really. Sorry for…the…er…”
There was a pause.
“I’m really enjoying Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,” I offered.
“Yes it is a great book, isn’t it?”
And, with relief, we both fled from the dark cave of the emotional, and headed back to the clearer air of the impersonal and academic.
I had a really good education, and I’m very grateful for it. My degree in English Literature gave me the chance to study wonderful books like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
, and to appreciate beautiful writing. I know I’m very lucky to have had that opportunity. What it didn’t do, however, is teach me how to understand or govern my emotions, or how to reflect on the purpose of life. Perhaps that would be asking a lot of my overworked tutors (they weren’t therapists, after all) but I believe that schools, universities, and adult education should
offer some guidance to people, not just for their careers, but for life at its best and worst. That’s what the teachers depicted in The School of Athens
once provided: they taught their students how to transform their emotions, how to cope with adversity, how to live the best possible lives. I wish I had encountered their teachings in those difficult years. Instead, I found university to be more like a factory system: we clocked in, handed in our essay, clocked out, and then were left to our own devices. There seemed to be little institutional concern for undergraduates’ well-being or the broader development of our characters.1
Nor was there much hope among students that what we studied might actually be applicable to our life, let alone able to transform society. A degree was simply a preparation for the market, that big factory we were about to enter, the rules of which we were not capable of changing.
During the next three years at university, my academic studies went well, while my emotional life got worse and worse. The panic attacks came like earthquakes, wrecking my confidence in my ability to understand or control myself. I didn’t feel I could talk about what was going on inside
me, so I withdrew more and more into my shell, and this created a vicious circle, as my erratic behavior alienated my friends and attracted criticism, which only confirmed my belief that the world was a hostile and unfair place. I had no idea what was happening, and nothing I studied seemed much help in that department. What help could literature and philosophy possibly be to me? My brain was a neurochemical machine, I had broken it, and there was nothing I could do about it. Somehow, after university, I had to plug this broken apparatus into the great steel machinery of the market, and survive. I graduated in 1999 with a good degree and, to celebrate, had a nervous breakdown.
Eventually, in 2001, after five years of fear and confusion, I was diagnosed as suffering from social anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Through my own research, I discovered that these emotional disorders could apparently be treated by something called Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. I found a CBT support group for social anxiety sufferers that met once a week in a church hall near me in London. There was no therapist present, but we followed a CBT course one of the group had bought from the internet.2
We followed the handouts, practiced the exercises, and encouraged each other in our efforts to get better. And for some of us, it worked. In my case, I stopped having panic attacks after a month or so, and started to get more confident in my ability to reason with my violent emotions. It was a long journey back to health. It’s not like you cross a border and are suddenly well again. I’m still getting better.
ANCIENT PHILOSOPHY, MODERN PSYCHOLOGY
When I first came across CBT, its ideas and techniques seemed familiar. They reminded me of what little I knew of ancient Greek philosophy. By 2007, I had become a freelance journalist, so I started to investigate the origins of CBT. I travelled to New York to interview Albert Ellis, who’d invented cognitive therapy in the 1950s. I did the last interview with him before he died, and wrote his obituary for The Times
. I also interviewed Aaron Beck, the other founder of CBT, as well as other leading cognitive psychologists over the next five years.3
Through these interviews, I
discovered the direct influence that ancient Greek philosophy had on cognitive therapy. Albert Ellis told me, for example, that he had been particularly impressed by a saying of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about them.” This sentence inspired Ellis’s “ABC” model of the emotions, which is at the heart of CBT: we experience an event (A), then interpret it (B), and then feel an emotional response in line with our interpretation (C). Ellis, following the Stoics, suggested that we can change our emotions by changing our thoughts or opinions about events. Aaron Beck likewise told me he was inspired by his reading of Plato’s Republic
, and “was also influenced by the Stoic philosophers, who stated that it was the meaning of events rather than the events themselves that affected people. When this was articulated by Ellis, everything clicked into place.” These two pioneers — Ellis and Beck — took the ideas and techniques of ancient Greek philosophy, and put them right at the heart of Western psychotherapy.
According to CBT, and the Socratic philosophy that inspired it, what caused my social anxiety and depression was not repressed libidinal instincts, as psychoanalysis might argue. Nor was it neurological malfunctions that could only be corrected with pharmaceutical drugs, as psychiatry might argue. It was my beliefs. I held certain toxic beliefs and habits of thinking which were poisoning me, such as “I have permanently damaged myself ” and “Everyone must
approve of me, and if they don’t, it’s a disaster.” These toxic beliefs were at the core of my emotional suffering. My emotions followed my beliefs, and I would feel extremely anxious in social situations, and depressed when those situations did not go well. The beliefs were unconscious and unexamined, but I could learn to examine them, hold them up to the light of reason, and see if they made sense. I could ask myself, “Why must everyone approve of me? Is that realistic? Perhaps I can accept myself and like myself even if someone else doesn’t like me.” It seems pretty obvious now, but through this sort of basic self-questioning, and through the support of my CBT group, I managed to shift slowly from my original toxic and irrational beliefs to more rational and sensible beliefs. And, in line with Ellis’s ABC model of the emotions,
my emotions followed my new beliefs. I gradually felt less anxious in social situations, less depressed, and more confident, cheerful, and in control of my life.
SOCRATES AND THE PHILOSOPHY OF EVERYDAY LIFE
Aaron Beck calls this technique of examining your unconscious beliefs “the Socratic method,” because it was directly inspired by Socrates, the greatest figure in ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, and the headmaster of our school. There were people who called themselves philosophers for at least a century before Socrates, such as Thales, Pythagoras, and Heraclitus. But they either focused on the material nature of the universe, or they developed quite elitist and anti-democratic philosophies of life. Socrates, who lived from 469 to 399 bc, was the first philosopher to insist that philosophy should speak to the everyday concerns of ordinary people. He himself was of humble origins — he was the child of a stonemason and a midwife, unblessed with wealth, political connections, or good looks, yet he utterly bewitched his society, in an age which did not lack brilliant personalities. He never wrote any books. He didn’t have a philosophy, in the sense of a coherent body of ideas which he passed on to his followers. Like Jesus, we only know of him through the accounts of others, particularly his disciples Plato and Xenophon. When the Delphic Oracle pronounced him the wisest person in Greece, he suggested that it was only because he realized how little he knew. But he was also aware of how little everyone else knew too. And what he tried to impart to his fellow Athenians — what he saw as his divine mission to teach — was a habit of questioning oneself. He said he considered it “a good of the highest order” to “examine myself and others,” and “spend each day in discussion about the good.”4
Most people, he suggested, sleepwalk through life, never asking themselves what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. They absorb the values and beliefs of their parents, or their culture, and accept them unquestioningly. But if they happen to absorb wrong beliefs, it will make them sick.
Socrates insisted there’s a strong connection between your philosophy (how you interpret the world, what you think is important in life) and
your mental and physical health. Different beliefs lead to different emotional states — and different political ideologies also manifest in different forms of emotional sickness. For example, I placed too much value on the approval of other people (which Plato suggests is the classic sickness of liberal democracy) and this philosophy made me socially anxious. Through CBT, and through ancient philosophy, I brought my unconscious values into consciousness, examined them, and decided they didn’t make sense. I changed my beliefs and this changed my emotional and physical health. My values were to some extent unconsciously picked up from my society. But I couldn’t blame them on other people or on my culture, because I made a daily choice to accept them. Socrates declared that it’s our responsibility to take “care of our souls,” and this is what philosophy teaches us — the art of psychotherapy, which comes from the Greek for “taking care of the soul.” It’s up to us to examine our souls and choose which beliefs and values are reasonable and which are toxic. In this sense, philosophy is a form of medicine we can practice on ourselves.5
MEDICINE FOR THE SOUL
The first-century Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: “There is, I assure you, a medical art for the soul. It is philosophy, whose aid need not be sought, as in bodily diseases, from outside ourselves. We must endeavor with all our resources and strength to become capable of doctoring ourselves.”6
This is what Socrates tried to teach his fellow citizens, through his street philosophy. He’d strike up conversations with whoever he encountered on his walks around the city (Athens had a small population, so most citizens knew each other), to discover what that person believed, what they valued, what they sought in life. He told his fellow Athenians, when they put him on trial for impiety: “I go around doing nothing but persuading both young and old among you not to care for your body or your wealth” but rather to strive for “the best possible state of your soul.”7
Gently, humorously, self-deprecatingly, he would lead people to examine their life-philosophy and hold it up to the light of reason. Conversations with Socrates were the most ordinary, everyday experiences,
and yet they changed you utterly. You were not the same person after you spoke to him. Briefly, you were awake. CBT tries to re-create this “Socratic method,” and to teach us the art of questioning ourselves. During a session of CBT, you don’t simply lie on a couch delivering a monologue about your childhood. Rather, you sit up and engage in a dialogue with your therapist, who tries to help you discover your unconscious beliefs, see how they shape your emotions, and then question those beliefs to see if they make sense. You learn to be Socrates to yourself, so that when a negative emotion knocks you off your feet, you ask, am I responding wisely to this? Is this reaction reasonable? Could I react more wisely? And you take this Socratic ability with you through the rest of your life.
The optimistic message at the heart of Socratic philosophy is that we have the power to heal ourselves. We can examine our beliefs, and choose to change them, and this will change our emotions. This power is within us. We don’t need to kneel to priests or psychoanalysts or pharmacologists for redemption. Michel de Montaigne, the great Renaissance essayist, put it well. Socrates, he said, “has done human nature a great kindness, in showing it how much it can do of itself. We are all of us richer than we think we are; but we are taught to borrow and to beg…[And yet] we need little doctrine to live at our ease; and Socrates teaches us, that this is in us, and the way to find it, and how to use it.”8
Montaigne is right: we a...