Our sense of time, and ability to communicate across it with language means that our perspective of existence is lacking in the immediacy of other species. Whilst some animals exhibit a sense of cause and effect, and some degree of planning and even some levels of abstract thinking, it is this sense- and understanding- of our place in the arc of time which, perhaps, created the necessity for humans to understand not just the dynamic of our existence- but the context.
Understanding our context, our place in that context as individuals and as societies has been an ever-present part of our intellectual discourse for thousands of years forming the basis of practically every aspect of our culture.
To understand more about the role of philosophy in our lives, I spoke to Jules Evans Policy Director of the Centre for the History of Emotions at Queen Mary University of London.
Q: Why do we need philosophy?
[Jules Evans] Our ability to do philosophy is one of the things that distinguishes us from other animals- in some ways, it is that which makes us sapiens, ‘wise monkeys’.
Other animals definitely question why they do things a certain way, and try to find strategies that are more intelligent to meet goals (such as developing tools) and whilst you could say this is ‘philosophising,’ only humans seem to have developed this capacity for higher order questioning…. asking ‘to what end are we doing this?’ – ‘why are we doing this at all?’
Philosophy is embedded in everything. We all have philosophies which form the basis for our motivations and what we do with our days. Everyone has their own philosophy of life; every institution has a philosophy. Donald Trump has a philosophy, Walmart will have a philosophy, Playboy magazine will have a philosophy, your next-door neighbour will have a philosophy… but for most of us, those philosophies are unexamined and more or less automatic and instinctual.
Philosophy as a named activity, is quite recent in human history- and is the attempt to examine these instinctive and automatic motivations and say, ‘is this definitely wise?’, ‘is this coherent?’.
We can date the origins of this type of philosophy to Socrates 2500 years ago which is very recent in the history of homo sapiens. This was the period when humans changed from ‘we do this because this is the way it’s always been done, this is the way the gods told us to do things, this is the way your elders did it so therefore that’s just how it is and you’ll be punished by the gods if you don’t do it that way’, to an active, conscious rational way of thinking: ‘Why?’, ‘Why like this?’, ‘Is this definitely the best way?’ and that’s a radical moment in human history… Socrates didn’t last very long when he started doing this kind of questioning and was sentenced to death.
Q: Can philosophy help us understand our public institutions?
[Jules Evans] If you dig deep enough into the history of any public institution, you uncover some kind of philosophical ideal, or a response to a particular kind of cultural problem- the reason for the institution, and what it was formed to do. Aristotle calls this telos, or its end.
Over time, this purpose gets drowned in habits and in bureaucracy- things just run on automatic pilot for decades or centuries, and people can easily forget what the point of that institution was. It’s useful to try and uncover what institutions were set-up to achieve philosophically to understand if they’re still doing what they were intended to.
I’ve been looking at universities, and the idea of what a university is for which is actually not a question that is asked that often. We’re now in the era of mass Higher Education where close to 40% of the population goes to university. It can cost people a huge amount of money, and yet there’s not always a clear understanding either in students’ minds or in the institutions’ minds of what they are actually trying to do here, what is the university for?
Coming from my interest in ancient philosophy, I love the idea that university can be a place to help people to flourish and to think about how to take care of their souls and how to set their goals for life. How to find a useful life philosophy. Within the context of Higher Education, people might think ‘that sounds very strange, a new wishy-washy idea’ but when you look back at the history of Higher Education, and the history of universities going all the way back 2400 years to Plato’s academy or the university of Nalanda, India, which was even earlier – it’s been an accepted that one of the roles of universities is to help people flourish, and to develop their character. It’s only really in the past few decades that that idea has rather declined, and been marginalised.
Q: What is the role of ancient philosophy in our well-being?
[Jules Evans] I first became interested in Ancient Greek philosophy in my 20s, at a time where I was receiving cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) which helped me a lot when I had some emotional problems.
I went to interview the people who invented CBT, two psychologists called Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, and found that their inspiration for this therapy, which now helps millions of people, was Ancient Greek philosophy, and particularly the ideas from Stoic philosophy, Socrates, and the Epicureans.
The Ancient Greeks believed philosophy was a medicine for the soul. Socrates said ‘I teach my student how to take care of their souls’, which is where the word psychotherapy comes from. Cicero said, ‘there’s a medical art for the soul, and its name is philosophy’. Most of the ideas in contemporary cognitive therapy come directly from Ancient Greek philosophy and it gives us three simple ideas which I can describe to you.
Firstly, our emotions are connected to our beliefs and opinions. Epictetus said what causes men suffering is not events, but their opinion about events. That piece of wisdom is very useful because it gives you some ability to have control over your emotions. When you recognise that your emotions attach to your beliefs, your opinions and your interpretations, then you can start examining your beliefs and your interpretations using what is called in cognitive therapy the Socratic method. Just asking yourself questions, ‘why am I reacting so strongly to this?’, ‘what’s going on?’, ‘what’s the belief or opinion underlying this strong emotional reaction?’ and ‘is it definitely true?’ can change your beliefs or opinions or your attitude, and that will change your emotions.
Secondly, Stoicism notes that you can’t control what happens to you, you can only control how you react to it. So, focusing on what’s in your control and accepting for the time being what’s beyond your control is a really useful therapeutic idea.
Thirdly, habit. Greek philosophers had this idea that philosophy has to be a daily practice. It can’t just be this kind of French existentialist idea of a nice conversation once a week in a café. It has to be a kind of, daily practice. With practice, your philosophy becomes automatic habit, it becomes ingrained. We’re not just critical, reflective agents, most of the time we’re on automatic pilot. You’ve got to practice your principles daily so that they become ingrained into what they call your automatic, self-talk and actions. They (in CBT) have loads of great techniques for turning your philosophy into automatic habit- like maxims for example, just repeating little, almost sound bites. Greek philosophy is full of these little sound bites which you repeat over and over until they become part of your automatic self-talk. This also involves going out and practicing in real life situations. Like Epictetus says, it’s no good if you just do philosophy in the classroom, you’re kind of shipwrecked when you head out into the street.
Ancient philosophy almost hasn’t been bettered as a kind of therapeutic toolbox in 2400 years, and have a certain aesthetic to them which makes you feel part of a long tradition, not just some therapy invented 10 years ago.
You’re part of a three millennia old tradition of wisdom that you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of people have read the same book that you’re reading, and found it therapeutic in very dark times. So that’s an empowering thing, to feel part of this long, great tradition of wisdom.
Q: What is the role of ecstatic and extreme experiences in our lives?
[Jules Evans] As humans, we often have experiences which- by their nature- put us into a state that is difficult to describe in words.
People sometimes talk about these being religious experiences (which is how William James described them), but that’s not quite right because they don’t always happen within a religious context, and they don’t always involve encounters with Gods.
Abraham Maslow called them peak experiences, that doesn’t quite work either because sometimes these experiences happen to people not when they’re totally sorted, but actually the opposite when they’re a real mess. So sometimes they’re more like trough experiences.
I use the word ecstasy, which people think means being very, very happy- but in Ancient Greek it means ecstatic, which means standing outside. It’s a moment where you go beyond your ordinary sense of self and feel connected to something great and new; that could be god, it could be nature, it could be some kind of deeper state of mind, it could be other people.
We, as humans, can get stuck in loops of self-rumination and negative thoughts about ourselves and about the world. We get cocooned into this rumination, and I think there are two ways to get out.
One is through rational philosophy. Examining these beliefs and saying, ‘is that definitely true?’ and kind of unpicking that cocoon.
The other is through ecstatic experiences which shift your consciousness somehow through a kind of shock. And you just break out of that loop.
Both of them are important, and both of them are healing.
Ecstasy gives you that ability to break out when you’re stuck in a negative toxic mood. It gives you the ability to step out of it, and that can be extremely healing, it can be extremely connecting because you suddenly feel deeply connected to other people that you’re sharing this ecstatic experience with.
Throughout history, ecstatic rituals and ceremonies have been important ways in which people have bonded, particularly in cities where they might otherwise feel rather alienated. You go to some kind of festival, or ritual at church, together and you feel bonded at a sub-rational, emotional level.
Ecstatic experiences are also important for inspiration. People find a sense of meaning, a sense of connection to the universe, a sense of connection to something beyond death.
People, artists and scientists have sometimes used kind of ecstatic techniques for their muse or inspiration.
In our culture, particularly in the last 300-500 years in Western culture, people have become much, much more ambivalent (if not hostile) to ecstatic experiences.
The idea of losing control is seen as dangerous and shameful and ignorant… the idea of connecting to some kind of spiritual dimension has become seen as ignorant and embarrassing. We’re a culture that’s very much about individual autonomy, and ecstasy is (in some ways) the opposite of that – it’s about surrendering control.
There has been a shift in our culture to marginalise ecstatic experiences, turning them inti pathologies. Psychiatry in particular has tended to be very hostile to ecstatic experiences and to interpret them as disorders or illnesses. It’s called things like hysteria, psychosis, enthusiasm (which was a kind of bad thing in the enlightenment, it meant an accident).
The 60s changed something in Western culture and there was a kind of explosion of ecstatic practices- things like psychedelics, rock and roll, Eastern practices.
Today, I think we are trying to integrate these kinds of ecstatic experiences after that shock of the 1960s where I think we realised that often these new ecstatic practices were dangerous as well. We’re aware that a lot of people who joined communes ended up brainwashed in toxic cults. We’re aware that people harm themselves on psychotropic drugs. We’re aware that some ecstatic movements are kind of violent and toxic like football hooliganism or Islamic extremism or the far right. So, I think where we are as a culture, and what I was asking in my book is, the question is not should humans have outlets for ecstasy? because I think humans always do. The question is does our culture has enough outlets for healthy ecstasy? For healthy transcendence that’s good for individuals and that’s good for their culture. Do we have places people can go for healthy ecstatic experiences rather than toxic experiences? And part of that is destigmatising the ecstatic and the transcendent and recognising this is a fundamental human urge and not something backwards or regressive or shameful.
Q: What does it mean to have a good life?
[Jules Evans] I’m from a tradition called virtue ethics in philosophy, which is this idea that philosophy can help people flourish, and that in some sense, the aim of human life is flourishing. Individual flourishing, flourishing societies and also flourishing nature. I try to build it as a big church for people who believe that that flourishing involves god or some kind of higher power, and people who don’t. British culture now is extremely kind of secular, but I try to kind of develop a model of the good life which is a meeting place for both theists and atheists and agnostics.
For me as an individual, having messed myself up quite early in my life, philosophy definitely helped me get out of a hole. It definitely helped me when I really wandered off into the bogs and marshes of life. I guess I’m still searching now.
I think it is useful to remind ourselves sometimes that we’re not sure why we’re here, and we’re not sure about the nature of being human, or the nature of reality. It’s disconcerting to remind ourselves of that. Humans tend to want to feel certain, to know who we are and why we’re here. And I think philosophy helps to keep us wondering and to remind us about what we don’t know. It’s not just about helping you to be happy, but also this kind of slightly discomforting thing of reminding us of what we don’t know.
I suppose I’m more like a Platonist or a mystic in the sense that I think we are part of something much bigger that we barely understand. I think there is a point to human life, which is not something just invented by humans but more like a kind of cosmic point- perhaps to develop consciousness and wisdom.
We can sometimes think we’re very late in human history, but we’re still just at the beginning. There’s an end of history fallacy where you can take this kind of secular humanism as the end point of human history. We’re in the very early chapters of a long journey and we’ll be constantly surprised on that journey. We should keep reminding ourselves of what we don’t know, because we’re going to be hugely surprised along the way.
Jules is the Policy Director for the Centre for the History of the Emotions, and co-editor of the History of Emotions Blog. He writes regularly about the politics and philosophy of wellbeing on his blog.
His research interests cover therapeutic practices from ancient philosophies and wisdom traditions, how individuals and organisations use them today, and how they inform public policy ideas of well-being, resilience, flourishing and transcendence.
His first book, Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations, explored how people are rediscovering ancient Greek and Roman philosophies and how Greek philosophy (partiularly Stoicism) inspired Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). It was a Times book of the year.
Jules has talked about philosophy on BBC 2’s Newsnight, the Culture Show, on BBC Radio 3 and 4, RTE-1 and ABC Australia; and am a BBC New Generation Thinker. Alongside this, he has written for publications including the Financial Times, The Times, the Guardian, the Spectator and WIRED.
He has spoken at events including the Month of Philosophy in Amsterdam, the Hay-On-Wye festival, the Galway Arts Festival, the Faculty of Public Health, Latitude, the Sunday Assembly, the British Museum and the RSA. My TEDX talk on practical philosophy has over 120,000 hits.
Jules also helps to run the London Philosophy Club, which is the biggest philosophy club in the world, with 6,000 members.