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Stoicism and the Art of Happiness: An Interview with Donald Robertson


It was an honor to interview Donald Robertson about stoicism–as he’s been a selfless and prolific contributor to the world of stoic philosophy for a long time. If you are not yet familiar with his work, you should be. He is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, trainer, and author who specialises in the treatment of anxiety and the use of CBT. He is the author of Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy and several other books. Our favorite piece from him is actually this biographical sketch he’s written about Marcus Aurelius. It’s just one of many examples of his illustrative and helpful analysis.

We had a million questions for him: How did he discover Stoicism? How does he apply it in his practice? What are the most valuable and powerful Stoic exercises? What does his own personal Stoic routine look like? How can Stoicism help with anxiety? What message did he want to give to the Stoic community?

After you read the interview make sure you visit Donald’s site where he offers much more Stoic wisdom and thank him for all his great work.


Before we get into it, can you briefly tell us how did your interest in Stoicism begin? I remember reading that you were exploring Buddhism but found it unsatisfactory and turned to Stoicism? Can you tell us about that?


Well, when I was in my early twenties, I studied philosophy at Aberdeen University.  I also took courses in the history of Indian religions there, and was involved with the Buddhist society.  I had a general interest in things like self-hypnosis, meditation, self-help, psychotherapy, and philosophy.  These things felt like they were all competing for my attention, though, and I wanted to somehow integrate them.  It wasn’t until after I left university and began working as a counsellor and psychotherapist that I discovered Stoicism.  It was one of the few philosophies I knew absolutely nothing about but it turned out to be the one I’d been looking for all along!  I stumbled across Pierre Hadot’s book Plotinus or the Simplicity of Vision and that led me to read another three books by him that deal more with Stoicism.  It seemed to offer a practical philosophy of life that was more familiar to me than Buddhism, more rational, and more down-to-earth.  There’s a sense of déjà vu when you first begin to study Stoicism because our culture is full of things influenced by it.  The first thing it made me think of was the scene about carpe diem from Robin Williams’ film The Dead Poets’ Society.  Of course, that phrase, seize the day, comes from the Odes of Horace, and Horace had studied and wrote about Stoicism, as well as the Epicurean philosophy.  Stoicism reminded me of other tropes familiar from poetry and later authors, such as memento mori, ubi sunt, and the view from above. It seemed like a more practical and down-to-earth alternative to modern academic philosophy; like a more Western alternative to Buddhism; like a more rational and less faith-based alternative to Christianity…  And of course, Stoicism was the inspiration for modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), one of my other major interests.  However, not much had been written about the many parallels between them, so I started writing articles and giving talks on that subject, around 2004, which eventually evolved into my first book on Stoicism: The Philosophy of CBT (2010).

To go back to Buddhism, my father was a Freemason, and his interest in mysticism inspired me to begin studying Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, among other things, when I was a teenager.  I was initially drawn to them all to some extent but slowly became frustrated by the obscurity of some Eastern writings.  The Dao De Jing, for example, says that running a state is like frying small fish.  I had no idea what that might mean!  Likewise, our history of religions class were told how the Dalai Lama had explained the Buddhist doctrine that we have no self, and yet somehow something that’s not a self is reincarnated, as like one stone hitting another stone and causing a chain reaction.  None of us could make head nor tail of that explanation, though.  Stoicism seemed less cryptic to me and many of the ideas and phrases resonated with other things I’d learned from Western philosophy and literature.  Also, I believe that observing our relationship with our thoughts in general, with mindfulness, is far more important than periods of seated meditation.  Whereas many people today believe that “mindfulness” is an ancient Buddhist invention, the truth is the English word was seldom used until the 1970s.  It seemed to me that people were unwittingly Westernising Buddhism, viewing it through the lens of our culture, and perhaps even imposing a concept of mindfulness on it that owed more to Hellenistic philosophies, particularly Stoicism.

Stoicism gave me a philosophy that was consistent with my other interests and with many of the concepts and practices I later came to employ in CBT.  Buddhism is a very mixed bag, and very diverse.  There’s more than one Buddhism, if you like.  However, in general, I felt Buddhist ethics were too focused on the individual attaining subjective peace of mind, nirvana, and not enough about the quality of our actions.  Buddhist virtue is often presented as merely a means to the end of attaining nirvana, whereas for Stoics virtue is the end itself.  To put it crudely, Buddhism, even of the Mahayana variety, seemed a good philosophy for monks but not for heroes.  The Stoics warn us that it’s hypocrisy to accept values ourselves that we wouldn’t find admirable in other people and it seems to me that it’s not very admirable to treat virtues like justice as merely a means to some personal end. Stoicism, on the other hand, values practical wisdom and virtue and seemed to offer a philosophy of life that’s more actively engaged with real life, and other people.


You are a psychotherapist and have a written a fascinating book on the connections between Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy and Stoicism. Can you briefly explain what CBT is and how its origins are rooted in Stoicism?


Well, it may surprise many people to learn that a form of cognitive psychotherapy has actually been around since the start of the 20th century.  For decades, the founder of what was called “rational psychotherapy”, a famous Swiss psychiatrist called Paul Dubois who was influenced by Seneca, represented the main rival to Freud and psychoanalysis.  His approach became completely eclipsed by psychoanalysis, though.  Then behaviour therapy became popular in the late 1950s, scientific research on psychotherapy started to take off, and that led to a resurgence of interest in the use of reason in psychotherapy.  Albert Ellis was the pioneer of the new wave of cognitive therapy in the 1950s and 1960s.  Ellis read Marcus Aurelius as a youth.  He later abandoned his training in psychoanalytic therapy to develop what he called “Rational Therapy”, or later “Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy” (REBT), which he said was inspired by Stoicism.  Indeed, in addition to Ellis’ many references to the Stoics, REBT has many concepts and techniques, which appear to be derived from the Stoic literature.  Then Aaron Beck developed “cognitive therapy” in the 1960s and 1970s, and he also cited the Stoics as the philosophical inspiration for his approach, but said very little more about them.  By the 1990s, the more broadly defined cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which drew on Ellis, Beck, behaviour therapy, and other authors working along similar lines, had become the dominant model of modern evidence-based psychotherapy.

The central doctrine of Ellis, and later Beck, was the cognitive theory of emotion.  This holds that our emotions are a combination of different factors, the main one being our thoughts or beliefs (cognitions).  For example, Beck said that when we feel fear it’s because at some level we believe we’re about to be harmed.  That’s virtually identical to the Stoic theory of fear, recorded over two thousand years earlier.  This was an important innovation in modern psychotherapy because people tend to dismiss their problematic emotions as irrational and involuntary.  People say “that’s just how I feel”, that it’s not true or false.  However, if we focus instead on the beliefs underlying feelings such as fear, well, those are obviously true or false.  “I’m frightened people will think I’m an idiot”; well, what if it turns out they actually don’t?  So we can help people to articulate those beliefs better, and bring them into awareness.  Then we can help them question how helpful they are, to evaluate how rational they are in terms of the evidence, and to carry out experiments in daily life to test out whether they’re true or false in practice.  For instance, people with panic attacks very often (but not always) believe the sensations of pain and tightness in their chest, etc., are symptoms of an impending heart attack.  Therapists nowadays will construct tests to prove to them that they’re mistaken: it’s just harmless anxiety, muscle tension, and nothing to do with having a heart attack.  We now know that panic attack sufferers typically misinterpret their own bodily sensations in a threatening manner.  When the belief is removed, the anxiety tends to diminish, and the same basically goes for feelings such as anger or sadness as well.  Ellis oriented most of his clients to the fundamental concepts of cognitive therapy in their initial assessment sessions by teaching them the famous quote from Epictetus: “It’s not things that upset us, but our judgements about things.”  I think he actually gave them that Stoic saying in writing to take home and read, as part of what we now call the “socialisation” phase of treatment.


I’d be curious to hear from your work experience, what are the Stoic exercises and techniques you’ve found resonate the most with patients? Which ones do you see have the biggest positive impact?


That’s a more complicated question than it might seem at first…  For me the most important aspect of Stoicism isn’t the armamentarium of techniques but the central doctrines of their ethical philosophy.  However, therapists have to be value-neutral, so we can’t really teach an ethical doctrine to clients, although I’ve met many clients who had already read the Stoics and thought that way.  Stoic Ethics and the philosophy as a whole have been very important to my work as a therapist.  Albert Ellis argued that it’s fundamentally having rigidly absolutistic demands about life that make us neurotic, such as “People must respect me!”  That’s quite similar in some ways to the Stoic doctrine that emotional disturbance is caused by the belief that external things are intrinsically good or bad, such as “People disrespecting me is bad.”  The Stoics teach us to think: “I’d prefer it if people respect me, but if they don’t that’s not worth getting upset about.”  That’s what we call “Stoic indifference”, and it’s the centrepiece of their philosophy, but it’s more a value judgement than a technique.  It actually requires adopting a set of moral values that are radically different from those adopted by the majority of people around us.  The Stoics refer to this as undergoing “conversion” to a very different world view and set of values.

On the other hand, when it comes to using Stoic techniques in CBT, well, we already have modern versions of many Stoic techniques, which we usually have to follow closely in evidence-based practice as part of standard protocols.  So the Stoic versions can inform what we do, but mainly as therapists we’re focusing on the modern equivalents of things like role-modelling (the Sage), or imaginal exposure to feared events (premeditatio malorum), etc.  If someone asked me, though. what’s the most powerful technique in modern therapy, I’d say exposure therapy.  It’s arguably the most robustly scientifically-supported technique in the whole field of psychotherapy research.  Exposure Therapy is just a form of behaviour therapy where we ask people to repeatedly face their fears, for longer than normal, in a controlled manner, sometimes in reality and sometimes in their imagination.  The Stoics, especially Seneca, refer many times to doing something very similar, with fears of poverty, exile, death, and illness, etc.  That’s one of the most powerful strategies in modern therapy, right there, and it’s been around in its modern form for over half a century now.  In terms of things that are more uniquely ancient, well, that would have to be the View from Above.  That’s what Hadot called the practice of contemplating life as if it were being viewed from an Olympian perspective, high above, or viewing the present moment from a cosmological point of view, as very small and transient.  There’s not really a common strategy in modern therapy that’s equivalent to the View from Above, unlike most other Stoic techniques.  However, people love doing it, and they find it very powerful.  I’ve created scripted versions of that technique and used it on workshops with hundreds of participants over the years.  What we lack, therefore, is strong empirical evidence from controlled trials showing its benefits.


This is a question we like to ask everyone: Do you have a favorite stoic quote? Is there an exercise you find yourself going back to time and again?


That changes but at the moment I like a story about Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, told by Diogenes Laertius.  One day Zeno overheard an arrogant young man attacking the writings of the philosopher Antisthenes, doing a bit of a hatchet-job on them, to the amusement of a small crowd who had gathered around him.  (Antisthenes was a prolific and accomplished writer, one of Socrates’ most highly-regarded followers, and had died a couple of generations earlier.)  Zeno interrupted the young man and asked him what he’d learned of value from Antisthenes’ writings.  He said he’d learned nothing worthwhile.  Zeno replied that he should ashamed, therefore, to expend so much time and energy picking holes in the writings of a philosopher without having first taken time to learn what he can from him that’s actually of value.  

I like that story because I feel that philosophical debate at its worst is merely nit-picking and destructive.  It’s all too easy, and in fact lazy, to pick holes in a philosophical theory, without first trying to learn what you can of value from it.  That’s similar to what philosophers sometimes call The Principle of Charity nowadays, that where we’re not sure what someone means, because of ambiguity, we should consider the most rational or favourable interpretation first, and give them the benefit of the doubt rather than assuming they’re stupid.

The psychological exercise I go back to most often is probably the one I call The Stoic Fork, which is the first one mentioned in Epictetus’ Handbook, and the one he refers to most frequently in The Discourses.  We’re told to repeatedly remind ourselves of the distinction between our own actions and things that happen to us, or between what’s “up to us” and what is not.  That’s good advice in most situations, but especially when you’re feeling upset about something or stressed.


You’ve been active in the Stoicism community for a long time. You’ve published several books, you run a Facebook group, you’re active on reddit. What do you think about the state of the Stoicism community today? Where do you see it going in the future?


I think the Stoic presence online has surprised everyone by its growth.  When I wrote Stoicism and the Art of Happiness I talked about how there was a Yahoo group with over a thousand members.  Well, now our Facebook group is actually approaching twenty thousand members.  The Stoics, particularly, Epictetus, warn us not to be diverted by trivial philosophical chit-chat and rhetoric.  Well, there’s definitely a tension between that and the way social media works.  People don’t seem to be able to resist the urge to post dumb jokes and snarky comments in response to serious questions about life and philosophy.  That’s okay in moderation, perhaps, but sometimes it seems to predominate and can stifle more meaningful discussion about Stoicism online.  Then at the opposite end of the scale we have  the people who get into long-winded academic quibbles, again something the Stoics keep warning us to avoid.  However, overall, I believe that the Internet is a force for good because it allows people to form communities dedicated to Stoicism whereas twenty years ago these people would perhaps have been isolated in that regard, and left to study Stoicism alone, without the support and good ideas that can come from others.


Going back to therapy, there are now over 40 million adults in the United States who are affected with anxiety. You specialize in anxiety treatment and I would be interested to know what you think more people need to know about anxiety and maybe what role Stoicism can have in helping with some of those issues people face?


Oh boy, where do I start?  I guess the main thing I’d say is very general: that we know so much about anxiety now that it really does feel that we should be teaching more of it to our children.  Then on to specifics: anxiety abates naturally over time, under the right conditions.  That’s been known for over half a century, we call it the “habituation” of anxiety.  If you take someone with a severe spider phobia and put a spider on their hand what happens to their heart rate?  It goes up.  It will roughly double within thirty seconds or so.  However, what happens to their heart rate next?  Most anxiety clients will say “Um, it gets worse?”  Actually, it will very slowly start to reduce back toward its normal resting level or thereabouts.  That normally takes roughly half an hour, although it can vary a lot.  Most people would “escape” the situation long before then, though, by brushing the spider off and running out the door.  So their anxiety will only reduce slightly and will continue to be a problem in the future.  However, suppose you have someone else there encouraging you to persevere a bit longer, usually a therapist, you wait long enough for your anxiety to at least half, and you don’t do anything else that might interfere with the process.  Well then the next time you encounter a spider, your heart rate will still increase, but not as much, and it will reduce more quickly.  And if you keep doing that repeatedly, exposing yourself to your fears for longer than normal, then pretty soon your anxiety will permanently reduce to a fairly negligible level.  Everyone should know that’s how anxiety, in its simplest form, works.  Of course, there are more complex forms of anxiety than simple animal phobias, and so sometimes we need to do other things as well, but exposure therapy of that kind is the basis of most modern forms of anxiety treatment.

How does Stoicism help?  Well, it teaches us a great many things of value in relation to anxiety.  As we know, it teaches us to remember what’s up to us and what isn’t, which I believe is important and can be very powerful.  However, it also teaches a basic strategy that Epictetus tells his students to use first if their emotions are overwhelming. He says we should take a step back from our thoughts and remind ourselves that they’re just impressions in our mind and not literally the things they claim to represent.  Modern therapists call this “cognitive distancing” and there’s growing evidence that it’s one of the simplest and most powerful ways of responding to emotional distress.  Everyone should learn how to do that too.


Do you have a daily Stoic routine? What does it look like if you do? Or is there an exercise that you’d like to incorporate in 2017 that you haven’t already?


Yes.  I spent years studying training methods for psychological skills, and teaching these to other therapists.  So I became more interested in the general format of skills training.  There’s a great book on that, an overlooked classic, called Stress Inoculation Training, written by one of the pioneers of CBT, Donald Meichenbaum, in the 1980s.  It’s good to have a structure, so I incorporated some elements of his behavioural skills training framework into the Stoic Week Handbook and our Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) course.  In the evening, I try to review the events of the day in my mind three times, and to see what I can learn from how things went, how close I came to living in line with my core values, and achieving specific goals.  The next morning, influenced by that, I try to plan the day ahead and to prepare in advance for the possibility of failure or setbacks.  Then during the day, I try to be mindful of other Stoic concepts and practices, and particularly how my value judgements are affecting my feelings, and whether I’m slipping into placing more value on external things than upon my own character and intentions.  That forms a kind of ongoing learning cycle: preparation, application, review, and repeat…

For the future, I’d like to try to focus more on Stoic empathy.  This is an integral part of Stoic Ethics, and heavily indebted to Socrates.  The Stoics try to imagine other people as realistically as possible and to understand how their valued, and errors, are influencing their behaviour.  As a kind of coping statement or maxim, Epictetus taught his students to say “It seemed right to him”, when faced with someone who is upsetting you.  That doesn’t stop us challenging or opposing bad behaviour but it should encourage us to try to understand other people and to see them as mistaken rather than merely wicked.  I think that’s a much more helpful way to deal with conflict.  There are many more strategies recommended by the Stoics for dealing with other people and I’m particularly interested in this interpersonal dimension of their teachings.


What’s next for you?


I’m organizing next year’s Stoicon 2017 conference in Toronto.  So that should keep me pretty busy!  I emigrated from the UK to Canada a few years ago and I’ve been living in Nova Scotia.  However, I’m planning to move on soon and start a new training business, teaching different evidence-based psychological skills to the general public and corporate clients.  I’m hoping to incorporate Stoicism into that too.  I’m also working on some ideas for a couple of new books on philosophy, probably one going into a bit more detail about how to do various Stoic psychological exercises, written in very plain language.  I have a five-year old daughter and I find myself increasingly wanting to write things that she can read.  She’s a big fan of Hercules and Diogenes, and she quite likes Socrates as well.  I turn anecdotes about the Stoics and other ancient philosophers into stories for her, and adults seem to like those too.  So I’m hoping to try out a new style of writing in some of my books.


Finally, is there a message for the Daily Stoic community—or the Stoicism community at large—that you’d like to give?
Yes.  I’d like to remind everyone that Stoicism is first and foremost an ethical philosophy.  It’s a radical theory about the nature of the good, or what’s most important in life.  The psychological techniques are all subordinate to that.  That’s not to say people can’t cherry-pick concepts and techniques from Stoicism but the deeper worldview and set of values is, in my opinion, of much greater value at the end of the day.  I’d also observe that Stoicism is growing in popularity and social media is a big part of that.  Technology is bringing people together like never before.  But our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness.  There’s a temptation to get diverted by academic chit-chat about Stoicism and memes and superficial things. It requires self-discipline to remain focused and to make social media work for us, rather than against us, especially as groups grow larger and larger and risk being flooded with trivia.  Stoicism offers powerful ideas about empathy and community, which can and should guide us in making our online life more harmonious and conducive to wisdom and virtue.

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