In a lesser known book of Plato, we find Socrates in the Athenian Agora coming across Euthypro – a soothsayer he knew well – and the two men engage in a short conversation just outside the Royal Stoa. After sharing their news, the two men engage in an argument about morality.
Their conversation ended abruptly after Euthyphro felt a bit cornered and found an excuse to leave Socrates with the promise to finish their discussion some other time. Well… Can you blame him? It’s not just that Socrates wouldn’t let go easily… It’s also that the challenge Euthyphro was facing was a difficult one and remains so up until today.
Socrates asks Euthyphro whether something is moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? This simple question of Socrates has exercised tremendous influence in the history and study of morality.
The Euthyphro dilemma is technically an argument against the divine command theory, aimed at disproving God’s existence by raising an issue of morality. This isn’t of course explicitly declared by Socrates but I’m sure people like Epicurus would smile and nod when reading this part of the book. On the other hand, some religious people reject it as a ‘false dichotomy’ (google that) but this is actually up until today a persisting problem which also applies to meta-ethics.
Relax… We’re not going to embark on this now. I’m going to focus on an interesting detail that is somewhat irrelevant: the place that this conversation took place. Would you believe that we can pinpoint today the spot that Socrates was hanging out when he met Euthyphro?
Let’s see how the dialogue starts…
Euthyphro: Why have you left the Lyceum, Socrates? and what are you doing in the Royal Stoa? Surely you cannot be concerned in a suit before the King Archon, like myself?
Socrates: Not in a suit, Euthyphro; impeachment is the word which the Athenians use.
Euthyphro: What! I suppose that someone has been prosecuting you, for I cannot believe that you are the prosecutor of another.
Socrates: Certainly not.
Euthyphro: Then someone else has been prosecuting you?
Euthyphro: And who is he?
Socrates: A young man who is little known, Euthyphro; and I hardly know him: his name is Meletus, and he is of the deme of Pitthis. Perhaps you may remember his appearance; he has a beak, and long straight hair, and a beard which is ill grown.
Euthyphro: No, I do not remember him, Socrates. But what is the charge which he brings against you?
The conversation goes on. So, as we read, this dialogue takes place just outside the ‘Royal Stoa’ (Basileios Stoa). Guess what. -This stoa was excavated by American archaeologists and the traces of the building are there today! The first steps of the stoa have been unearthed.
Few passers-by today notice that quiet corner next to the busy Adrianou street but -unknowingly- countless people have had their drinks next to those same steps that Socrates was sitting, waiting for his turn outside the Royal Stoa.
HOW EMOTIONS CAN DECIDE THE COURSE OF HISTORICAL EVENTS
The inglorious end of Cicero had always been a stain in the pages of Roman political history. He met his end out in the Italian countryside (near modern-day Gaeta), slaughtered by Roman sword. Marc Antony saw the return of the proscription as an opportunity to eliminate his most powerful enemy. In the end, he had Cicero’s hands cut off and nailed on the rostra (the speakers’ platform) at the Forum. A symbolic but utterly barbaric act. Such was the end of the last honest defender of the Roman Republic and her democratic principles.
Escape or surrender?
The tragic events of that winter of 43 BC have been discussed quite thoroughly over the centuries. But there’s one detail that is overlooked:
-Oddly enough, most scholars ignore the fact that Cicero had the option to escape but in the end he didn’t. He could actually have saved himself by resisting arrest. Still, it was his decision to stay, even though he was in the act of fleeing! He offered himself to be put to death. -Why?
This appears to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision… Cicero knew that Antony was coming after him and he planned his escape beforehand. So it’s easy to understand that his aim was to continue his political struggle, defending the Republic.
Sadness and grief
What made him change his mind and decided to give up after he was tracked? The most obvious answer is that he felt (for different reasons) so disappointed that he decided to give up. His bad psychological state can only be explained if we take into account an -otherwise neglected detail of Roman history of the period: the unexpected death of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia. Just a year earlier, in the winter of 47–46 B.C.E. he went through a painful divorce with his wife, Terentia. He re-married but his new wife was pathologically jealous of Tullia, a reality that saddened Cicero even more. The loss of his daughter in the following summer, was an event too tragic for him to cope with.
He was so grief-stricken that he couldn’t find comfort in anything. His two most favorite things in the world- books and friends- failed to provide him with any consolation. He tried very hard. His friends were worried. They tried to help as best as they could. Cicero threw himself into a sea of philosophy and books. Yet, nothing could ease the pain in his heart. His childhood friend, Titus Pomponius Atticus, tried to comfort him the best he could by inviting Cicero to his estate that included a huge library. All was in vain. Cicero declared, “my sorrow defeats all consolation”.
A moment’s decision?
The loss of his only daughter, his dear Tulliola as he liked to call her, made him care less and less about all the other things that he was passionate in the past. It’s easy to understand why he decided to finally give up. His whole perception of life had changed. For him, it made no sense to resist being arrested and to survive. ‘What’s the point?’ he must have asked himself when Antony’s executioner found him. His life had little purpose now, that’s why he ordered his servants not to resist and he let himself to be put to death.
His life had recently lost all meaning. How do we know? Cicero himself tells us in one simple phrase. He wrote to Atticus: “I have lost the one thing that bound me to life”.
Euripides. The last of ‘The Marvelous three’ Athenian theatre play writers. The most rebellious one. His criticism on religion -and the Olympian Gods in particular- and his attacks on traditional, social and moral values were infamous, earning the dislike of many of his fellow citizens. Even one of the most open minded audiences of the ancient world, the Athenians, had trouble understanding him.
Later he became immensely popular. Theatre goers and play writers alike since then, bow before his talent and unprecedented boldness.
As Oscar Wilde explains:
“For though Euripides has not the Titan strength of Aeschylus, that Michael-Angelo of the Athenian stage, nor the self-restraint and artistic reserve of Sophocles, yet he has the qualities that are absolutely and entirely his own. His broad acceptance of the actual facts of life, his extraordinary insight into the workings of the human mind, his keen dramatic instinct for scene and situation, and his freedom from theological prejudice, make him the most interesting of studies. He was a poet, a philosopher and a playwright……..
…….He saw indeed that men and women as they are, are more interesting than men and women as they ought to be. He never tried to make humanity real by exaggerating its proportions. He cared little for giants or for gods. the sorrows of mortals touched him more than all the gladness of Olympus”
…when a friend stopped him and said “My friend, I must tell you something bad I heard about one of your students.”
Plato said, “First answer me the three tests of knowledge. One, have you personally checked if this thing is true?” “No” the friend answered. “Then two,” said Plato, “Will this knowledge make me happier?” “No”. came the reply. “Then there is one final test to determine if I need this knowledge my friend.” said the master. ” Is it to my students’ advantage that I know it?” “Alas no.” came the reply.
“Then pass on your way my friend and do not tell me this thing.” said Plato and walked off smiling. This is why he was the greatest Philosopher of all, and also why he never found out that Aristotle was shagging his wife.
“Difficulties are things that show people who they really are!”
A slave born in Hierapolis that was to become a saint-like figure for the Greeks and the Romans. Poor, homeless he struggled with super-human energy and dedication to ease the pain of the sufferings of humanity through his teachings. One of his gratest fans was Marcus Aurelius himself!
Centuries later, the US Navy Admiral James Stockdale was able to retain his sanity during capture in a Viet Cong POW camp by relying on the philosophy of Epictetus…
Crippled by social anxiety and burnt out after a decade of hedonism, Jules Evans eventually found inspiration from the ancient Greeks. Here he tells how 2,000-year-old words of wisdom transformed his life and equipped him to help others solve their modern-day problems
Growing up in the Nineties, my friends and I were amateur neuroscientists. Every weekend, we conducted experiments on our brains with various chemicals, to see what happened: marijuana, LSD, MDMA, amphetamine, mushrooms, all tossed into our system like ingredients in a cauldron. We had some hilarious, beautiful, even spiritual times. Then I noticed my friends beginning to burn out.
My best friend had a psychotic breakdown when he was 16. He’s been in and out of mental care homes ever since (he’s now 35, like me). Other friends developed paranoia, bipolar disorder, depression and anxiety. In my first year at university, I started to get panic attacks, too. My body would be filled with mortal terror, in the most un-mortal of situations. I lost confidence in my ability to know myself or to steer a coherent course through life. I started to distrust myself, to avoid social situations. I was terrified that I had permanently damaged myself before the age of 21.
After graduating, in one of the universe’s little jokes, I got a job as an intern at Tatler magazine. This is not the best place to work if you have social anxiety. I was surrounded by a pashmina mafia of glamorous society ladies, unimpressed by my atrophied social skills. The only other boy working there was Ben Fogle, and his radiant charm further illuminated my social inadequacies.
Then I hit rock-bottom: I became a financial journalist. I got a job reporting on the German mortgage bond market. My life had truly gone awry. By that point, an expensive therapist at the Priory had diagnosed me as suffering from depression, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder (I think he was paid per diagnosis). I investigated these disorders on the internet, and found they could apparently be treated by something called cognitive behavioural therapy, or CBT. I also found there was a CBT support group for people suffering from social anxiety, which met every Thursday in the Royal Festival Hall (not on the stage). One Thursday I went along.
I found 10 people sitting in a circle, eyeing one another nervously. One of them had bootlegged a CBT audio course from the internet. For 10 weeks, we listened to the course, practised the exercises, and did the “homework”. And for me, it worked. The panic attacks stopped after a few weeks, and I gradually got back my confidence in my ability to steer a course through life. I steered a course to Russia, where I worked as a foreign correspondent for four fun, vodka-soaked years.
When I came back to the UK in 2007, I decided to research CBT. I went to New York to interview the psychologist who’d invented it, Albert Ellis, and asked him where he’d got the idea for it. He told me he’d been directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy, particularly by a line from the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: “Men are disturbed not by events but by their opinion about events.”
Ellis, like the Greeks, suggested that our emotions always involve beliefs or interpretations of the world. Our interpretations may often be inaccurate, irrational or self-destructive, and this will make us emotionally sick. In my case, I had a value system that put a huge emphasis on popularity and social performance (I went to one of those schools where popularity is practically a religion), and this flawed belief system had caused me to suffer.
We might not be conscious of how we interpret the world, because our beliefs are ingrained and habitual. Our beliefs are like a pair of glasses we have worn for so long, we forget we’re wearing them. But we can learn to bring our unconscious life philosophy to consciousness by asking ourselves questions. In CBT this is known as the “Socratic method”, from Socrates, who tried to teach his fellow Athenians the art of asking themselves questions. Then, if we decide our life philosophy is no good, we can choose to think differently.
That might sound incredibly simplistic and over-optimistic. Some philosophers, psychologists and neuroscientists would argue that our capacity to choose a path in life is severely constrained by our genes, our childhood, our circumstances. They might insist that we’re not the “captain of our soul” as the Stoics suggested – we’re helpless spectators.
The Stoics were aware of how little we control in life. None more so than Epictetus, a Stoic philosopher of the first century AD, who grew up a slave in the Roman Empire (his name means “acquired”). He divided all of life into two categories: the things we control and the things we don’t. We don’t control the economy, the weather, other people, our reputation, our own bodies. We can influence these things, but we don’t have complete control over them. The only thing we do have control over is our own thoughts and beliefs, if we choose to exercise control.
Epictetus suggested that emotional problems arise when we try to exert complete control over something external. When I had social anxiety, for example, I rested all my self-esteem on others’ judgments of me. This made me feel very helpless, anxious and paranoid. The antidote to this self-enslavement was to stop trying to manage others’ opinion of me (which is impossible), and instead to focus on controlling my own thoughts and beliefs (which is possible). Then I immediately felt stronger and more in control, and eventually people started responding to me differently.
Sounds easy, right? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. The problem, as the Greeks well knew, is that we’re incredibly forgetful creatures. We sleepwalk through life, as Socrates put it. We might read a book or hear a lecture and have a light-bulb moment, but then a few days later we forget and go back to our old way of seeing things. We are creatures of habits. Aristotle wrote: “It makes no small difference, then, whether we form habits of one kind or of another from our very youth; it makes a very great difference.”
The good news is that we can change our habits. Epictetus said “there is nothing more malleable than the psyche”, and contemporary neuroscience agrees. Every day, we have a choice to either reinforce a habit, or challenge it. The Greeks understood the importance of habits to the good life – their word “ethics” comes from “ethos”, meaning habit – and they developed some great techniques for habit-formation.
One technique is the maxim, which is the condensation of an idea into a short, memorisable phrase, like “everything in moderation”, “know thyself”, or “the robber of your free will does not exist”. Greek philosophy was designed to be memorised. Students would repeat these maxims over and over, even sing them, until they became neural habits. They’d also write maxims into little handbooks (enchiridia), which they carried around so they were always armed against their old bad habits.
CBT uses a similar technique. In the social anxiety audio course, we would read out handouts for half-an-hour every day for 10 weeks, and listen to them on tapes. I also had a little handbook with useful maxims in it – if I was having a bad day at work, I’d retreat to a nearby park and repeat some of its phrases to myself.
Another technique the Greeks used was keeping a journal. This is an important way to track your progress in strengthening moral habits. Epictetus recommended that, if you want to improve your temper, “count the days when you were not angry”. CBT also recommends using journals to keep track of unconscious habits and follow your progress.
Philosophy needs to be more than theory, it needs to be practice too. Epictetus warned: “We may be fluent in the lecture-room, but miserably shipwrecked when it comes to practice”. I couldn’t get over social anxiety purely by challenging my thoughts in the safety of my bedroom. I also needed to go out and practise, and make myself go to parties even when I was nervous. Every situation we’re in can be an opportunity to practise philosophy. Seneca, the Stoic philosopher and politician, wrote: “The Stoic sees all adversity as training.”
Today, CBT is available free on the NHS. It has brought some of the Greeks’ ideas to millions of people. Many people have used it to learn to “take care of their souls”, as Socrates put it – which is where the word “psychotherapy” comes from. I hope some of them might go back to the original source in philosophy, because CBT leaves a lot out – Greek philosophy wasn’t just a feel-good therapy, it was also a road map for the good life, and the good society.
I now live in London, and help to run the London Philosophy Club, which is the biggest in the world with more than 3,000 members. My book, Philosophy for Life, is being published in 19 countries, and I have taught in universities in the US and South Korea.
For someone who used to have crippling social phobia, I do a lot of talking – this summer I’m talking at CampBestival, at the School of Life in London, and at a “festival of happiness” in Holland. In November, some other Stoics and I are organising a week of events around the world, called “Live Like A Stoic Week”.
I’ve realised that philosophy can heal suffering and save lives. But it’s not necessarily the last word. Now, after 10 years of practising philosophy, I wonder if it leaves something out, if it’s too rational, self-controlled and unemotional.
I work at the University of London, at a place called the Centre for the History of Emotions, where this year I have started researching ecstatic experience, and how people can achieve euphoria through music, dancing, drugs or the passionate love of God. As a friend put it recently: “Back on ecstasy, eh?”
Five coping techiques from Stoic philosophy
1 Accept the limit of your control over externals
The Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrote: “Some things are up to us, others are not”. We don’t have complete control over externals, despite our best efforts, but we do have control over our thoughts and beliefs – so concentrate your energy there without driving yourself crazy over things you can’t immediately influence.
2 Focus on the present moment
Seneca, another Stoic, wrote: “What is the point of dragging up sufferings that are over, of being miserable now, because you were miserable then?” We can go through life walking backwards, constantly ruminating on past injuries or on how things were better in the past. Likewise we can worry endlessly about the future. Or we can simply choose to make the most of the present.
3 We are what we repeatedly do
It’s not enough to have occasional epiphanies. The key to the good life is good habits. We can create habits by memorising and repeating certain maxims, and by seeing every situation as an opportunity for training.
4 Contemplate the universe
If ancient philosophers were feeling particularly stressed by everyday concerns, they would find a quiet place and imagine the vast expanse of the universe. On such occasions the Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius told himself: “Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous… Expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe.”
5 Let love lift you up
We don’t always think of philosophers as great lovers, but Plato claimed that the secret to philosophy was learning to love. He believed that we could lift ourselves out of egotism by passionately loving other people, or beauty, or goodness, and through love we could even connect to God.
The revival of stoicism
Stoicism was invented around 300BC, but it’s enjoying a revival today. Here are some contemporary Stoics:
Albert Ellis, the inventor of cognitive behavioural therapy, was inspired by the Stoics’ therapeutic ideas.
Derren Brown, the magician, is a big fan of the Stoics. His TV series, Apocalypse, was inspired by the Stoic technique of imagining the worst that can happen to you.
Elle “the body” Macpherson named her son Aurelius, after her favourite book: Meditations by the Stoic and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius.
The former prime minister of China, Wen Jiabao, claims to have read Meditations more than 100 times.
James Stockdale used Stoic philosophy to survive seven years in a Vietnam POW camp. He went on to become vice-admiral of the US Navy.
Tom Wolfe “converted” to Stoicism after reading about Stockdale. The hero of his 1998 novel, A Man In Full, discovers Stoicism in prison.