Friday, November 22, 2013

World of Writing, Interview



World of Writing

*Shout out to Monique Muhlenkamp of New World Library who put us intouch with today’s featured author.
Journalist and writer Jules Evans (http://philosophyforlife.org) is policy director at the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London. He helps run the London Philosophy Club, the biggest philosophy club in the world, with over 3,000 members, and is one of ten BBC Next Generation Thinkers for 2013. He is the author of: Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.

Q: What’s your book about?

A: It’s about how people are rediscovering ancient philosophy today, and putting it to use in their lives. People are realizing that philosophy for the ancient Greeks and Romans was not some abstract theoretical exercise, but a very practical and accessible form of therapy for the emotions. Cicero, the Roman politician and philosopher, said: “There is a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy.” Socrates said that all he taught his students was how to take care of their souls - which is the origin of the word ‘psychotherapy’, which literally means ‘care of the soul’.

The book has 12 chapters, each introducing a different philosopher who teaches us an art or skill we can use in our lives. And each chapter has three or four stories of people I met and interviewed, who say that ancient philosophy transformed their lives. Over five years, I met astronauts, former gangsters, therapists, magicians, marines, and convicts. Their stories are extraordinary, and together they add up to a body of practical evidence that philosophy is much more powerful than we sometimes think of it. It can really save lives - as it helped save my own life.

Q: So what can we learn from ancient philosophy?

A: A lot. The main thing it took is the cognitive theory of the emotions - the idea that our emotions are tied to our thoughts, beliefs, judgments and values. Hamlet said ‘There’s naught but thinking makes it so’, and that’s true when it comes to our feelings, which are really a type of thinking. Our emotions contain judgments about the world, such as ‘that person was rude to me, and they shouldn’t have been, how unfair’. When we realize that our emotions arise from our perspective on the world, it gives us the ability to modulate and transform our emotions. We can choose to see the world differently. We could say to ourselves: “Was that person definitely being rude to me? And if they were, so what? Do I definitely need to get annoyed by that? 

The problem is that our way of seeing the world is often unconscious, habitual and ingrained. We’ve been telling ourselves a certain story for so long - perhaps our whole life -  that we’ve forgotten it’s just a version of reality. We’re convinced it’s the truth. The risk of not examining our life-philosophy is that, if it’s wrong or unwise or toxic, it will make us suffer, and it may make the people around us suffer too. This is why philosophy is not some abstract academic exercise - there’s really nothing more important you could do, for yourself and the people round you, than to think occasionally about the beliefs and values by which you live.

The first step in philosophical therapy is using ‘the Socratic method’ - which basically means asking yourself questions, to get yourself to think about your instinctive, habitual interpretations and to see if they’re accurate or wise. That’s what a cognitive therapist will do, if you go to see one. They will basically ‘play Socrates’, asking you questions and engaging you in a dialogue to get you to think about your unconscious way of seeing things.

Q: Do we really have control over how we see the world?

A: This is a controversial question. It appears genetics play a big role in our temperament and personality. However, the success rate of CBT and other behavior-changing therapies like Alcoholics Anonymous suggests that we can alter even very deep-seated habits of thinking and behavior, like depression, anxiety and alcoholism. In my own case, for example, I will probably always be prone to moments of anxiety or melancholy, but I no longer get full-blown panic attacks or long periods of deep depression, so I have learnt to manage my personality to try and get the most from life (and I’m still learning).

The Roman philosopher Epictetus suggested we control very little in this life. We don’t have complete control over other people, over the weather, the economy, our bodies, our reputations, and we’re all ultimately going to die. The only thing we do have control over, according to Epictetus, is our own beliefs - if we choose to exercise this control. The problem is, we often try to exert complete control over something external, like our body or our career, and then we feel helpless, insecure and angry when things turn out different to how we wanted. Or we fail to take responsibility for our own thoughts, using something external as an alibi (‘I’m justified in having a drink because I had such a terrible day’). We need to accept what we don’t control, while taking responsibility for what we do control.

Q: What did the ancient philosophers say about habits?

A: The ancients understood that it’s not sufficient to have a golden insight into the right way to live - because we’re very forgetful creatures, who ‘sleepwalk through life’ as Socrates put it. We’re usually on auto-pilot, just following habits. So if our philosophy is really going to change us, we have to make it habitual and second nature. That’s why the Greek word ‘ethics’ comes from ‘ethos’, which means habits. We are what we repeatedly do, so character is not an act so much as a habit.

The good news is our habits are changeable. ‘There is nothing so malleable as the human psyche’, said Epictetus. Each day, we can choose to strengthen a habit, or weaken it. And, over time, this will change our character and how we naturally respond to things. Neuroscientists call this malleability of the mind ‘neuroplasticity’.


Q: What is the role of community in the philosophical life?

A: That’s a good question. The Greeks understood that the best way to change yourself is to do it with other people. It’s like paddling a boat through a rapids - it helps if other people are paddling in the same direction. We’re very social creatures, and we tend to imitate the habits of the people round us, so we need to be careful who we surround ourselves with. That’s why Aristotle wrote two books on friendship, and suggested that the most important choice a philosopher can make is who their friends are.


Q: Some governments are now trying to help their citizens become happier, and to measure ‘national happiness’. What do you think of that?

A: Yes, I call it ‘the politics of well-being’. It’s a return to Aristotle’s idea that the aim of governments should be to enhance the flourishing of their citizens. It’s become sort of a new mission statement for many politicians and policy-makers, like the economist Jeffrey Sachs for example. Martin Seligman, the founder of Positive Psychology, has suggested governments should use their budgets to spread the science of happiness to their citizens, like the Medici used their money to spread Platonic philosophy to Florentines. And the president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, also suggested that well being should be the central focus of public policy. So it’s a growing movement.

There are some aspects of the politics of well being that I really applaud. In the UK, the government has committed to training 6,000 new therapists in CBT, to provide free CBT on the NHS, and over a million people have accessed the new service since it was launched in 2008. I think that’s fantastic - the state providing free talking therapy, though obviously private-sector therapists have not welcomed all this competition.

I also like the idea of trying to teach people how to take care of themselves and their emotions, in schools, universities, the work-place, retirement homes and so on. There are some simple techniques that everyone can learn, that make a big difference. We need to be careful, however, when we start trying to claim we know exactly what ‘well-being’ or ‘flourishing’ is, that we have discovered the scientific formula for it, and all people need to do is follow our advice. It’s also dangerous when we claim we can measure precisely how much well being a person has. You can measure how happy they feel at the moment, but you can’t measure how ‘good’ a person’s life is scientifically.


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