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How the ancient Greeks can help with the trials of modern life

In times of trouble or difficulty - or just when seeking answers to everyday issues - many people turn to psychology. Now research funded by the AHRC shows that philosophers from ancient Greece and Rome have just as much, if not more, to offer.

We practice ancient philosophy every day of our lives. We just don’t call it that. The so-called British “stiff upper lip”, for example, is not really British but is based, usually unknowingly, on ancient philosophical ideas about Stoicism. With the growth of philosophy clubs, increasing numbers of people are taking more interest in classical philosophy. An AHRC-funded project has been seeking to quantify this, and to find out how philosophy can help people to lead more fulfilling lives.

Funding to examine the growth of interest in philosophy was granted to Jules Evans from Queen Mary, University of London. When Jules had a breakdown after graduating, he sought answers as well as treatment. Upon taking a course in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), he discovered much of it was underpinned by ancient philosophy. He then went on a personal mission to find out more and, in 2012, began researching the rise of grassroots philosophy clubs. His findings are contained in his book Philosophy for Life And Other Dangerous Situations. He now runs philosophy workshops, and was one of the AHRC’s 2013 New Generation Thinkers.

Jules is Policy Director for The Centre for the History of the Emotions. Launched in November 2008, this is the first research centre in the UK dedicated to the history of the emotions. One of its key objectives is to provide a focus for interactions between social and cultural historians of the emotions on the one hand, and historians of science and medicine on the other. AHRC follow-on funding was awarded to the centre to examine how ancient philosophy is applicable to modern life.

With Dr. Thomas Dixon, director of The Centre For The History Of Emotions, as his co-investigator, the follow-up funding was used to run eight-week courses in everyday philosophy with an analysis before and after people took the courses to see what, if any, difference they made. “Ancient philosophy has of course been around for thousands of years. What we wanted was evidence to see how accessible it is today,” says Jules.

His own experiences of depression left him with a very strong interest in how the mind and emotions affect life. He found much in ancient philosophy to help him from the Stoics, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and other philosophers. “I was depressed at college and I felt guilty about it - both of which are very common. CBT definitely helped but what underpins it helped me more. The ancient wisdoms contained in philosophy can teach us resilience and well-being; how to accept things you cannot control while trying to control what you can. Essentially, we’re disturbed not by things that happen to us but our opinions about them. And that can be changed. And we can change our opinions.”

Jules designed and ran his courses for three strikingly different organisations: The Saracens Rugby Club, Low Moss prison in Glasgow and Manor Gardens mental health charity in north London. “The results were very positive — coaches of Saracens said the philosophy club was ‘the most popular thing we’ve done this season’; participants at Manor Gardens reported feeling more socially supported, more capable of coping with adversity, and much more interested in philosophy and inmates at Low Moss said they preferred it to CBT courses offered by the prison.”

Saracens’ Personal Development Manager David Jones says his colleagues did find it a bit odd at first as they’d never done anything like this before. “Professional world-class rugby players aren’t the easiest audience to work with but Jules won them over. We didn’t bring him in to make us more successful. It’s about personal development for our players as they won’t be able to play professional rugby all their working lives.

“The course was very popular because it made them think about something other than rugby. It gave our players time and space to discuss some big issues. Attendance was entirely voluntary and we had a very big take up. We like to think we’re forward thinking in offering this to our players. It’s part of our investment in leadership but it’s also part of our offer to prospective players - we take care of them.”

Likewise Nita Upadhyay, Project Manager of The Mental Wellbeing Service at Manor Gardens, said the philosophy course helped clients think about themselves and their issues in a different way. They too had a high take-up of the courses. “We looked at different philosophers each week so learned about what could be called a ‘stiff upper lip’ approach, a way to let things pass, a different way of looking at issues and dealing with them. Mental ill health still carries a huge stigma and people find it hard to talk about it. Philosophy is an interesting way in because people don’t think it’s about mental health but of course it is.”

Feedback from the courses allowed Jules to measure how effective they had been. Many participants said it had sparked an interest in philosophy. At Manor Gardens, this feedback showed that the participants felt 28% more optimistic about the future and 27% more able to deal with adversity.

At Saracens 83% reported the courses had improved their on-field performance with the same number saying it had improved their understanding of teammates. And 100% said the philosophy club had improved their self-awareness.

At Low Moss 66% said they found philosophy more useful and enjoyable than CBT courses. When asked what they liked about them participants emphasised knowledge, wisdom and community. “They liked learning about ancient philosophers and their relevance to modern life. They liked learning coping skills to help with the stress of being inside (Stoic philosophy was particularly popular). And they enjoyed the community of meeting up each week with the same people to hear each other’s views.

“The course worked particularly well with a demographic that is traditionally wary of group therapy — young men. Opening up about your inner life does not come particularly naturally either to rugby players or long-term inmates. However both Saracens and Low Moss philosophy courses were places men could talk about what really mattered to them and share life-strategies for coping with stress and adversity without feeling ashamed or broken,” adds Jules.

People with mental health needs often find it hard to seek help - Jules says he was resistant until he had no choice. It is, however, much easier to engage people with philosophy as - unlike seeking psychological cures or explanations - it carries no stigma. So from a mental health project to a tough male prison in Glasgow, ancient wisdom was found to be enormously beneficial.

This is how philosophy was always meant to be, says Jules. An everyday dialogue everyone can engage in. Thanks to these projects, many people who might never have had the chance had their eyes opened to philosophy and experienced how accessible, useful and practical it can be to their lives.

Article by Laura Marcus

Jules continues to run the philosophy club at Saracens, and has also started running philosophy workshops with companies. He is currently helping to organise a conference on ‘Stoicism Today’, taking place at Queen Mary, University of London on November 29. Tickets are available via Eventbrite.

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