Ancient Philosophy Gets Trial-run in Modern Britain

November 27, 2013 Updated: November 27, 2013

An ancient philosophy is being given a week-long trial run at modern life, as academics and psychotherapists use “Live Like a Stoic Week” to sell its virtues and to dispel the notion of the “stiff upper lip”. 

Stoics see life as a journey towards becoming better at living, what they call “the craft of living better”, explained project leader Christopher Gill.

“It’s a matter of making that idea central to your motives, emotions, relationships, and how you view the world,” said Gill, who is professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter University. 

“The key idea is that all human beings have the basis for creating their own happiness. Developing virtues such as justice, self-control, and courage confer happiness that is not vulnerable to circumstances,” he said.

“Going with that is the recognition that things that fall out of our control are relatively unimportant compared with the central importance of ethical character,” he said.

The Exeter team, collaborating with Birkbeck College in London, includes psychotherapists working with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Together, they devised a handbook of week-long exercises and methods to help put Stoic principles into practice.

Guided meditations and reflective journalling are done throughout the day. People are encouraged to adopt what Stoics call “a view from above”, to give a distance to their preoccupations, thus offering a new perspective.

Albert Ellis, the founder of CBT, was heavily influenced by Stoic practical teachings.

Another practical application is “wishing with reservation”, Gill said. “’I hope this train arrives on time, if nothing prevents it’ acknowledges the fact that you as a person can’t make things happen.” 

Suffering the loss of his wife of 30 years, Gill found Stoic principles helped him deal with his grief.

“It’s how you can take someone’s life on because you can recognise the qualities of the person you’ve lost and they can become part of your inspiration that helps you go forward,” he said.

Another visualisation helps bring the Stoic idea of “brotherhood of humankind” to life, the belief that all humanity is connected.

With its roots in ancient Greece, Stoicism flourished in Rome, where writers Seneca and Epictetus, together with Marcus Aurelius offered guidance on how to live well.

Living in an age where traditional frameworks of family, neighbourhood, and religion are less supportive than the past, Stoicism has a place in modern society, encouraging people to get involved in their community, say proponents. 

Participants in last year’s Stoic Week recorded a 10 per cent increase in feelings of well-being, say organisers. 

The Stoicism Today blog has received over 100,000 hits since it opened a year ago.

Funding from the Humanities Research Council allowed this year’s Stoic Week to expand and includes an event at Birkbeck College on November 30th.

Gill’s team hopes the next step will be to set up an online programme of eight sessions using Stoicism as a basis of self-guided psychotherapy.