being philosophical about it

A talk for Confer: Confronting Mortal Threat / Oxford Psychotherapy Society
5.9.2020 / 14.10.2020

‘Wisdom is a tree of life to those who lay hold of her; 
fortunate are they who embrace her’ (Proverbs 3:18)


To be ‘philosophical’ or ‘stoical’ is in part to remain calm and able to think in the face of adversity. But how have the sages suggested we achieve this? And how can their deliberations be drawn on in the consulting room without therapy degrading into intellectual discussion? In this talk I discuss the relation of six virtues -
  1. the cultivation of healthy pride (dignity), 
  2. the development of ego strength (inner courage), 
  3. amor fati (getting with fate’s program), 
  4. the will to power (determination, outer courage), 
  5. receptivity to grace (the cultivation of gratitude), 
  6. and seeing life sub specie aeternitatis (the bigger picture) 
- to the life ‘philosophical’ and to the existential anxieties attendant on living a necessarily vulnerable, dependent, human life. Of particular importance for therapeutic practice is the distinction between i) embodying, modelling, and cultivating and ii) merely talking about such virtues. The embodiment of these virtues is what we call ‘wisdom’. The person who’s wise can take a step back and recall the longer-term perspective, can get the true measure of things, remember that anxieties pass, remain self-possessed - and thereby be less anxiously vulnerable in the face of life’s vicissitudes.


As psychotherapists we hear and talk a lot these days about the ‘regulation’ of emotion, affect, and anxiety. We’ve all learned about the importance of mother’s sensitive regulation - through empathic attunement and soothing - of her child’s affective experience. We’ve learned how this regulation is internalised in that healthy emotional development which allows a child to recognise, tolerate, understand, and appropriately guide his behaviour in the light of, his feelings. We’ve learned about how dysfunctional or semi-functional affect regulation strategies - strategies for ignoring or suppressing, projecting or denying, devaluing or converting painful feelings - i.e. superego function and ego defences - cause and maintain psychopathology. And we’ve hopefully also learned something about the significance of psychotherapy for the deactivation of such defences and for the provision of more adaptive affect-regulation strategies.  

What we psychotherapists don’t hear and talk a lot about, though, is the moral life - by which I mean, here, the life of our virtues and vices. Perhaps this is because psychoanalytic psychotherapy’s earliest understandings of that life were all too often of internalised social pressures acting to constrain the id, preventing it from becoming ego, and causing hysterical psychopathology. And not infrequently psychoanalytic psychology has, I contend, simply conflated superego functioning (inner fear-based prohibitions governing the animal soul) with true conscience (our awareness of when we act out of unloving selfishness). Morality, now, becomes equated to something like anti-liberal censoriousness, and psychoanalysis’s job becomes that of combatting it to the end of emancipation from internalised tyranny. A danger of over-reach here is that the emancipation of the psychological ego (i.e. of what psychoanalysis calls ‘ego’) becomes an enslavement to the moral ego (egotism) - i.e. that self-stifling becomes replaced with self-interestedness. At any rate, this is all by way of saying what I don’t mean here by ‘morality’ - I don’t mean governance by oppressive mores - and by way of introduction to what I do mean by it - namely the domain of the virtues. That is, I mean: caring, commitment, compassion, courage, courtesy, dignity, diligence, friendliness, gratitude, honesty, humility, joyfulness, loyalty, moderation, perseverance, reliability, etc. And their vice counterparts - bitterness, boasting, dishonesty, greed, sloth, vanity etc. 

Now, why am I talking, in this Introduction, together about anxiety regulation and the virtues?  It’s because I think that we psychotherapists have long been missing a trick. So focussed have we been on the importance of psychological self-understanding for regulating anxiety that we’ve ignored the power of moral self-understanding for the same end. I don’t mean that the point of the virtues is anything as banal as the regulation of anxiety - but I do mean to make some propaganda for the ideas that a virtuous life is a life in which we’re most fully human and humane, and that this life intrinsically regulates anxiety

Let me give you an example: Orval Hobart Mowrer was an American psychologist, one time president of the American Psychological Association. He suffered from periodic severe anxious depressions. Influenced by Harry Stack Sullivan, Mowrer comes to see these as the result of guilty secrets he carries within himself. On confessing to his wife Molly that he’d had an affair, he experiences considerable relief from his depressions. Rather than being stymied by neurotic guilt, it was - Mowrer concludes - real guilt from which he’d been suffering. That is, he’d been stifling the cries of his conscience, and this prevented the adequate formation of feelings of guilt, and this in turn prevented him from addressing his failings in his life - i.e. by making apt reparation in his marriage. (Integrity Therapy groups - a cross between an AA meeting and an Encounter Group perhaps - sprang up for a while in the 70s.) Stifling the guilt led to anxiety - the charge of the guilty feeling is there but the form which is required to make it truly intelligible as guilt is closed down. The routes for the feeling’s discharge, the paths of action which allow reparation and re-centering to take place, are all blocked. But when he takes the virtuous path, Mowrer can make reparation, orient himself toward the good again, and continue with a life of self-becoming that isn’t such an anxious issue for itself.

[I've just been alerted to another example, from Jung's essay 'Basic Postulates of Analytical Psychology': 'I am reminded of a case which is very instructive in this respect. It concerns a highly intelligent young man who had worked out a detailed analysis of his own neurosis after a thorough study of the medical literature. He brought me his findings in the form of a precise and admirably written monograph, fit for publication, and asked me to read the manuscript and to tell him why he was still not cured, although he ought to have been, according to his scientific judgement. After reading his monograph I was forced to admit that, if it were only a question of insight into the causal structure of a neurosis, he should in all truth have been cured. Since he was not, I supposed this must be due to the fact that his attitude to life was somehow fundamentally wrong, though certainly his symptoms did not betray it. During his anamnesis I had been struck by his remark that he often spent his winters at St Moritz or Nice. I therefore asked him who actually paid for these holidays, and it thereupon came out that a poor school-teacher who loved him almost starved herself to indulge, this young man in his visits to pleasure-resorts. His want of conscience was the cause of his neurosis, and this also explains why all his scientific insight availed him nothing. His fundamental error lay in his moral attitude. He found my way of looking at it shockingly unscientific, for morals have nothing to do with science. He thought that he could scientifically unthink the immorality which he himself, at bottom, could not stomach. He would not even admit that any conflict existed, because his mistress gave him the money of her own free will.']

Maybe I should say something now about how I understand anxiety. If you look this up in psychoanalytic dictionaries you will find something like: an unpleasant feeling produced by unconscious conflict. I think this too narrowly psychodynamic, however, for it seems to me we also sometimes properly describe ourselves as made anxious by that of which we are, at least in some ways, conscious. And also that anxiety can result from unconscious thought which doesn’t involve inner conflict. Nevertheless Freud’s first theory of anxiety gives a central place to the unavailability of routes of discharge for the tension caused by instinctual excitation. Physiologically oriented psychologists tell of how anxiety arises from sympathetic nervous system activation and the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline, and results in fight, flight, and freeze responses. So perhaps we can see anxiety as a ramping up of action-readiness in the absence of clear pathways for action. In the absence, that is, of such structured, meaningful patterns of emotion and behaviour and self-understanding as make for the living of a potent and meaning-making life. (Anxiety which results from being pulled both ways by unconscious conflicts can be seen as a subset of this.) In sum, much anxiety, it seems to me, is caused, in part, by a loss, or absence, of self-possession. Where by ‘self-possession’ I mean the state of knowing your own mind, rather than being in thrall to others. Where by ‘knowing your own mind’ I don’t mean: being aware (as opposed to being unconscious) of what you think or feel or want - but rather, having determinate thoughts, feelings and intentions in the first place - having a mind that’s made up - and taking such aptly decisive actions as naturally follow from that. 

I just talked of knowing one’s own mind, but I should also like to talk about something we could call ‘knowing your own heart’. I have in mind, here, clarity regarding: what it is to live the good life, what it is one truly believes in, clarity about what really matters. Remaining alive to love is, I believe, the crux of this matter, and pursuing a life which discloses everything of human significance by means of love’s lens is the surest routes to healthy self-possession. Without something of a securely installed good internal object, one which provides access to the very idea of love - access to the live sense of its possibility, that is - access to the world as disclosed under its colour-and-life-providing aspect -, one will be able to make little sense of the virtues I talk about today. To gender it: without a mother’s love warming the soil, the seeds of the more masculine virtues I will talk about today shan’t be able to take root. But, having said that, today I’m not going to talk about this crux of love, but will instead consider those latter virtues. For as I understand it, to know one’s own heart is in part to live a life where these virtues can fulfil their function as regulatory ideals for life. (I will spell out what a ‘regulatory ideal’ is shortly). Freud identified a form of anxiety he called ‘moral’ - i.e. a fear of violating the superego’s moral codes. As I implied earlier it seems to me that Freud conflated the superego and the conscience. But, that aside, what I offer today can be seen as a near-opposite of Freud’s suggestion, in that my thought is that anxiety can stem not from fear of the self-punishment resulting from not living up to one’s moral codes, but rather by having a lack of clear moral understanding in the first place. On this view, unless we clearly understand the virtues and attain something of wisdom (i.e. ‘ethical self-regulation’), we can be left adrift when facing anxiogenic situations. 

So - in what follows I hope to recover - that is to say, make newly perspicuous - six key moral concepts the clear grasp of which makes for the life less troubled. I’ll now turn to the first of these virtues which is: 

1. Dignit

Dignity isn’t something one reads a great deal about these days. In particular it’s not a concept which makes much of an appearance in psychotherapy texts. However, we do find it, in that form in which I’m here interested, in inspiring literature - embodied in Elizabeth Strout’s character Lucy Barton, say, or in Walter Mosley’s tough black detectives like Easy Rawlins. And we also find an emphasis on dignity in the pop-psychological writings and videos of Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson. Yet even in these settings it’s rarely called by name (Peterson, for example, mainly talks about the value of taking personal responsibility, taking up the challenge of shouldering life’s burdens, and standing up straight with your shoulders back).

Perhaps the principal aspect of ‘dignity’ we meet with today marks how we feel we ought to be treated by others (we respect another's dignity if we treat her as possessing ‘intrinsic value’, i.e. as being - to use Kant’s term - an ‘end in herself’). But the (related) aspect of ‘dignity’ I want to focus on today is that which concerns our way of conducting and evaluating ourselves. In part: Do we act in such a way as we can hold our heads up high, or do we act in such a way that prevents that and instead feeds low self-esteem? But more than this: Do we so much as call to mind the concept of ‘dignity’ as a regulatory ideal - i.e. as an inner rule for conduct which, when we think on and attempt to act in accord with it, beneficially regulates our action, self-esteem, and anxiety? Consider: Your external life may be in ruins, your friends and parents are dead, you’ve been persecuted and tortured in your country of origin, you struggle to access good housing or appropriate employment in the country you now live in, you’ve very little money. But, here’s the question: how are you going to act today? What can you do that will result in self-pride? What exactly are your values and how, in these limited circumstances, can you act in accord with them, and how can you get the satisfaction that living in accord with them brings? How can you act, today, to bring yourself more in line with your ideal self? For example - and now I’ll borrow some examples of the sort that have made a huge difference to those young men influenced by Peterson to pick themselves up - are you overweight or physically weak in a way that makes it hard for you to feel proud of yourself? If so, have you started, today, to do something about that? Do you wish yourself better educated? Are you finding it hard to respect yourself because you habitually lie, gaslight, manipulate, blame others for your situation instead of taking responsibility for yourself? Do you let yourself be lied to or gaslit by others? It may not be your fault that your flat is decrepit, but have you made your bed and tidied your room? Have you decorated your home, thereby bringing order and beauty into your world? Have you stood up to bullies and to those who might manipulate or gaslight or take advantage of you? If you don’t know how to do these things: have you worked on learning how - i.e. how to do DIY, cultivate your taste, and stand up to such bullies? Have you tried looking others in the eye? Figured out what you can and what you can’t take responsibility for, and truly taken responsibility for the former? Do you treat yourself as someone worthy of respect, worthy of having the pleasures of a tidy home to come back to, someone who has as much of a right as anyone to the happiness that comes from a healthy body and an attractive environment? 

Jordan Peterson
Someone who's dignified can take pride in herself. This isn't pride as a vice, pride as vanity. It’s instead one of the few non-corrupt forms of self-love we have. And true love - I’d say - is an essentially anxiolytic force; knowing yourself as respect-worthy because you've done your duty to yourself: this is truly inwardly settling. Developing such dignity is a matter of two things: i) installing what person-centred counselling calls an ‘internal locus of evaluation’ into the psyche (i.e. you know and judge yourself according to your own values, so don’t keep taking to heart the value judgements of others), and ii) now actually taking such actions as make it possible for you, using this new locus of evaluation, to evaluate yourself positively. And all this already entails becoming less anxious about what others think, less anxious about how the world will affect you, and more ‘self-possessed’ or ‘sovereign’. I mentioned person-centred counselling just then, but we find this ambition too in the ‘commitment’ component in ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy): becoming clear about your values and using them to guide your action. And it’s of course there in the background, implicitly, of any decent psychoanalytic therapy. But I think there are good reasons to foreground it today, so that’s what I’m doing.

Now, I said I’d look today at what wisdom the philosophers have to offer us - so let’s briefly consider their thoughts on the value of dignity - especially of knowing you’ve acted rightly. So, the Stoics thought virtue to be the only true good, and therefore sufficient for happiness. The Socratic idea that ‘a good man cannot suffer any evil either in life or after in death’ is a hyperbolic expression in the same ballpark. The philosopher Wittgenstein too (in A Lecture on Ethics) talked of a feeling of ‘absolute safety’: a state of mind in which one is inclined to say ‘I am safe; nothing can injure me whatever happens’. What on earth can they mean?

One interpretation would have them believe superstitiously in the idea that God or the gods will protect the good man from harm. That seems facile though - so let’s let it pass. Another has it that by identifying solely with virtue, and withdrawing all attachment to worldly matters, one can’t be hurt by the depredations to which the body and our relationships are vulnerable. Yet while that might make sense to certain Stoics, I think it leaves us with a deeply impoverished life: anyone who follows a philosophy that leaves them emotionally immune to, say, the death of a friend is, I think, not really living. 

A third interpretation of the Socratic claim finesses the sense of ‘harm’ into ‘moral harm’: a good man cannot be morally harmed. The thought here is that the soul - i.e. one’s moral character - is only harmed by the commission of evil (Here I’m drawing on thoughts of the philosopher Mikel Burley). It seems to me that there’s something in this, but taken literally it seems implausible, since, in the ordinary sense of the terms, the suffering, as well as the committing, of evil - the suffering of torture for example - can lead to soul-destroying, morally harmful, consequences - the loss of the ability to hope and love for example. A final interpretation (also from Burley) has it that the ‘absolute safety’ of the good man has to do with his so loving the world as it is and will be that he has no sense of his own good amounting to anything other than: whatever actually happens. I’ll return to this in the next section but one; here I just note what an extreme ambition it is. 

Leaving aside for now such metaphysical considerations, that being virtuous somehow guarantees our happiness, let’s remind ourselves of what nevertheless appears the empirical fact that having clear values and living in accord with them, and taking an ordinary healthy (non-self-satisfied...) pride in so doing, is very often a potent source of well-being. Having a clear sense of one’s duty to oneself and others, and acting in accord with this sense: this, I suggest, is one of the greatest salves there is for both existential anxiety and loneliness. I’ve recently had the privilege of seeing one of my younger ‘borderline’ patients radically transform his life through the pursuit of dignity: truth-telling, being respectful, and relinquishing manipulation. Such a pursuit of virtue, amongst other things, simply knocks on the head much of our conscious and unconscious interpersonal and existential guilt. But also, by inwardly relocating the source of judgement, it means he’s no longer so enduringly fretful about the feared or actual judgements of others.

Having now considered the concept of dignity, a concept which I take to be the backbone of wisdom-in-action, let’s now go on to examine some other relevant virtues.

2. Ego Strength (Inner Courage)

Here’s what I tell some of my more neurotic (i.e. conflict-anxiety-riddled) patients near the beginning of their therapy:

“Your conscious mind is, we might say, a ‘container’ for your thoughts, wishes, and feelings. When these conflict with one another - as when, say, you’re angered by your mother whilst also valuing her love and respect - you naturally feel anxiety. Without sufficient capacity your mind can only contain one of these states at a time. The other remains unconscious, but threatens to break through: the structure of the mind trembles. Our job is to work together to help you expand this ‘mental container’ so there’s space for all your thoughts and feelings. The work will be hard, and you’ll have to face plenty of anxiety. By facing it, though, you’ll grow as a person, become more self-possessed, ultimately become less anxious, and enjoy better relationships. Are you ready for this?”

You perhaps tell your patients something similar. In doing so we’re introducing them to the essential role of inner courage - the capacity to steel oneself - in the search for psychological health. (We’ve also set up therapy in such a way as to make clear the relation between the method and the goal, and this provides a vital marker to be appealed to whenever we encounter resistance.) Here I want to highlight three essential features of this psychological learning:

The first concerns tough love. Yes, the talking cure is a cure by love. And yes, meaningful therapy is tough and requires a willingness to confront the monsters of inner space: it requires courage. But many patients haven’t had a chance to learn how these two attitudes - of tough exhortations, of love - can be of a piece with one another. They haven’t learned that true love is in this sense necessarily tough love: love that, because it has the genuine long-term wellbeing of the other in mind, invites her to courageously face suffering for the good of developing valuable ego capacity. The particularly important part of this has, ultimately, to do not with the therapist’s (tough) love for the patient, but with what the patient can internalise (into dignity). The therapist holds the attitude: “you can face this; facing this is the way to reduce suffering; greater ego capacity makes for greater dignity”. And the patient can internalise this into dignity; can come to trust in the superability of her conflicts; can see the project of overcoming them as manifesting healthy self-love; can know this project for the way a worthy mind is built.

Jean-Paul Sartre
The second feature of inner courage I want to highlight concerns the fact that courage has to be taken. ‘OK, that all sounds good, but how do I become more inwardly courageous?’, asks the patient who actually just doesn’t yet get it. Perhaps they’re after a technique, something they should think, something they can do. But what they’ve missed is the existential truth that right now they’re being invited to step up. Courage doesn’t just passively grow like a muscle after exercise (i.e. exposure) and from nutrition (i.e. loving care). Instead: To develop courage, decisions must be made. The will must be actively put in play, not as a wish, but as a chosen moment of self-creation, as the fashioning of a new commitment. This step of will itself inaugurates a new ‘political order’ (as it were), a new ‘economy’, within the psyche. When I describe this as an ‘existential’ step, what I mean is that it’s self-creating. In the existentialist’s jargon for a moment, we ‘pour-soi’ (for-itself) beings are not fated to facticity; to think we are is to succumb to ‘mauvaise foi’ (’bad faith’). Instead we’re ‘condemned to be free’: it’s our fate to be self-creators. Leaving aside the jargon now: As soon as I grasp that I could here think and act other than I do, I’m faced by an unavoidable choice - which I can either step up to and take, or decline and now live in guilty misery. Taking the step - of growing the mind - is temporarily anxiogenic. Yet declining it, hiding under the mental duvet, is to fate oneself not only to the prolongation of anxiety, but also now to existential guilt: to knowing that one’s not now living authentically, not doing one’s duty to oneself, asking others for help which one can only give oneself, feeling sorry for oneself, and so on. So: the patient needs to step up and be willing to suffer all her feelings and thoughts and wishes. It is this decision to step up, along with the learning from experience which follows it, which constitutes that growth in her ego strength and ego capacity which makes for a readier accommodation of all her emotional life. 

The third feature of the growth of inner courage I’d like to note is that we need it before we can hope.Here I don’t mean ‘hope' qua ‘being optimistic’. I mean your willingness to populate the future with potential meaning despite the fact that you won’t be able to cash all the cheques you’re now writing. A willingness to not crawl into your shell, to allow yourself to anticipate more than what’s under your control. A willingness to be open to life. A willingness to mourn our losses. (‘Hope deferred maketh the heart sick: but when the desire cometh, it is a tree of life.’ Proverbs 13: 12) By shirking the task of developing inner courage we deprive ourselves of that anti-depressive hope which functions as that tree of life.

Now, having considered 1) dignity and 2) inner courage, I’ll move on to consider some more distinctly ‘philosophical’ virtues.

3. Amor Fati (minimally, an acquiescing to fate)

Reinhold Niebuhr
I’ve just been talking about the significance, for overcoming conflict anxiety, of stepping up and making changes. But there are many situations in life where, beset instead by existential anxiety, we experience a clash between how we wish things to be and how they inevitably are. Perhaps I’ve washed my hands plenty, worn a mask, and so on, but even so: I might well contract this new coronavirus. My preventative actions may help a little - but probably not that much. This brings us to the fundamental Stoic choice that makes for wisdom. Epictetus put it like this: “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” This is also the message of Reinhold Niebuhr’s well-known serenity prayer: "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight [wisdom] to know the one from the other.”

Now there’s plenty of silliness purveyed in (the name of) Stoic philosophy. Here’s a bit from the website: “It [the stoic serenity prayer] is a reminder not to get angry and upset by things which we cannot influence such as other people and external events and to only focus on ourselves, our own behaviour. This makes things a bit easier, doesn’t it?”, it blithely states. And here’s something that’s face-value daft in Epictetus: “Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in a word, whatever are not our own actions.” But, let’s face it, our own desires, opinions, aversions, etc. are often not ‘in our control’. And ‘reminders’ to ‘not get upset about things’ are famously both fatuous and ineffective (which is just as well or us lot would be out of a job…). And, come to think of it, the actions of others are precisely what we sometimes should get angry about, since a well-controlled anger, expressed in assertive thoughtful action, is precisely what can help us control the actions of vexatious others, as well as inform our own sense of whether we do well to engage with them. None of this, however, touches the essential point: that it’s essential for our wellbeing to both get clear about when our wishes conflict with what’s inexorable, and then to work to relinquish such wishes. Adjustment, acceptance, mourning, accommodating ourselves to the facts: this is discomforting, and so we automatically avoid it and cling onto such wishes as have hitherto defined us. Self-consciously acquiescing to fate enables us to overcome this hurdle. This, I note, has nothing to do with generically ‘lowering our expectations’, with ‘not getting our hopes up’ (… hope is important!…), with ‘relinquishing all desire’ so one can’t get hurt (…as a hack nihilistic version of Buddhism might have it). Instead it’s got everything to do with living a life which, because it’s in contact with actual reality, stands a chance of being nourished by it.

Now let’s consider the various further twists to this Stoic idea that one finds in the wisdom literatures, ones that both aim at installing more deeply into the psyche the disposition to not tilt at fate, and also ones which transcend it in developing an alternative positive attitude:

Think first of the Arabic saying “Insha’Allah”: “if God wills it” (God willing). The Koran would have us add this as a postscript to any statement about the future. In this way we help dismantle those omnipotent defences against existential anxiety - our knowingness, our taking-for-granted-ness - which end up causing more trouble than they’re worth. (Used corruptly, of course, ‘Insha’Allah’ merely ‘justifies’ not making an effort, or provides a recipe for fatalism!) Think next on these lines from the Christians’ ‘Our Father’: ‘Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done…’. Or how Jesus, knowing his end was near, prayed “Father, if Thou be willing, remove this cup from me: nevertheless not my will, but Thine, be done.” Here we find not merely an acceptance, but a positive attitude, toward the happening of that which is not under our control. Non-believers often reduce all prayer to its petitionary form and in turn see such petitionary prayer as effectively but a magical attempt to influence fate (or ‘God’s will’). But what we see here, in these more truly religious (rather than superstitious) statements, is prayer as precisely the opposite of this: as the difficult cultivation of an attitude of acceptance of matters beyond one’s will.

I will come back to these considerations later when we consider the notion of grace. For now I want to note that it was Nietzsche, no friend of either stoicism or Christianity, who took this attitude to an admirable extreme: “My formula for greatness in a human being”, he says, “is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it … but love it.” Elsewhere he offers us this: “I want to learn more and more to see as beautiful what is necessary in things… Amor fati: let that be my love henceforth! I do not want to wage war against what is ugly [we may also add: painful]… Looking away shall be my only negation. And all in all and on the whole: some day I wish to be only a Yes-sayer.”

Nietzsche offers us the thought experiment of the ‘eternal recurrence’ as a way to try to make vivid this attitude’s cultivation: Imagine that you were fated to live this very life of yours an infinite number of times over, so that what happens to you and what is done by you today will in a future iteration of this life happen again, and again, and again… With that in mind, can you still find your way to saying ‘yes’ to this day and to all the days preceding it? Can you, in this way, by cultivating a courageous attitude in which you love fate, transcend your anxieties about external threat?

(Before moving on I also want to note the importance of learning to give lovingly - instead of anxiously focusing on whether the world will give you what you need. This involves cultivating an outward, self-to-other, form of attention; what Victor Frankl called ‘dereflection’: What can I give you today? rather than the fearful one of: How do you see me? By focusing on being loving we answer our own question about whether we are lovable, but we also dismantle it.)

4. Will to Power

So far we’ve considered the second half of the Stoic decision tree: work to accept that which is anyways out of your control. The first half, however - which has to do with taking action where action can be taken - still awaits our consideration. Again, I take the lead from Nietzsche - and his idea of the ‘will to power’, an idea which later found its way into psychotherapy through Adler.

Let’s start with an anecdote. A fatherless undergraduate who was due to take his final exams sought consultation with me. He was bright and diligent, but overwhelmed by anxiety, and fearful of not being able to sit the exams on this account. He’d gone to counselling and to a mindfulness class to try to learn how to calm down and develop some inner distance from his overwhelming thoughts and feelings. Unfortunately the counselling and the class had no effect. So I told him that what he needed was not to calm down, but instead to power up. What he needed was to actively embrace, rather than shun or inwardly watch, all that valuable energy and strife and bind it together using his will so that it come be directed at its proper end, namely: vanquishing the examiners’ questions. The advice somehow made a marked change to his psychology, and he went on to get a 1st. What my patient had done was to embrace his Will to Power.

What I want to highlight here is the value of the very ideas of courageous determination, incisive action, firm and tough resolve, and a fighting spirit carefully honed by a clarity of ideals. My patient had, I believe, been trapped in an ideological space we might cautiously stigmatise as a form of ‘toxic femininity’: one where assertiveness and striving for personal success had somehow become bad things; where soothing and inwardly-focused self-care were promoted as obviously the apt salve for all anxiety; where ‘being understanding' and ‘showing understanding’ were proffered as superordinate values; and where a kind of covertly masochistic self-dismantling had prevailed, one that encouraged his becoming a mere inner onlooker onto what actually were his ownmost thoughts and feelings. Trapped in that psychological milieu my patient’s dynamism of energetic, world-vanquishing, self-becoming was utterly deactivated, and with no telos (no directive) to be attached to, his unharnessed drive energies were simply shaking him apart.

As with the other values I’m treating of today, what I want to sell to you is not simply the importance of the value itself, but the importance of having a live idea of the value, an idea that can, now it’s live, function as a regulatory ideal for the living of a good life. Our patients need a clear sense or template of this - the kind provided, for example, by a potent exemplar, of the value in question. They need to be reminded of it - and I say ‘reminded’ rather than ‘taught’ because everyone has already experienced the occasional benefit of wisdom, has had humbling moments when they realise they’ve lacked it, when it becomes apparent in recollection what was wanted of them, after they’re become restored to themselves - for today the value of the Will to Power as an essential driver of responsible self-becoming so readily gets swamped by corrupt ethics and corrupt psychologies, leaving our patients vulnerable to helplessness and self-pity. (Hence the value of Robert Bly’s Iron John, say, or Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey; hence the value of the martial arts.) But with a live sense of it, it can start to function as a regulatory ideal in one’s own life, thereby bringing relief from existential anxiety. And it’s through enacting this value, developing a confident assertive thrust, that one can also come to feel that healthy sense of pride and dignity I’ve been talking about today.

5. Receptivity to Grace

I want now to come back to the other side of Epictetus’s decision tree which has to do with our relation to that which is not under our control. In his acceptance speech for an honorary doctorate at the University of Western Australia, Tim Minchin the musical comedian urges us to: “Remember, it’s all luck. You are lucky to be here. You are incalculably lucky to be born. Understanding that you can’t truly take credit for your successes, nor truly blame others for their failures, will humble you and make you more compassionate.” Yes, you may say, but does that make you any less existentially anxious? Well, that will be my claim: that a receptivity to grace is intrinsically anxiolytic, where by ‘receptivity to grace’ I mean the willingness to see one’s life and the boons within it under the aspect of an undeserved gift freely given.

The concept of grace is easy to grasp in a theological context where we know to whom the thanks is due. Today, though, I’ll assume a non-religious audience, and ask if we can make sense of the idea of existential gratitude - a gratitude for life itself - without believing in a giver to whom thanks is properly owed. In a paper on this topic a philosopher friend of mine my friend Michael Lacewing offers the examples of a young mother being “grateful for a moment’s quiet after looking after the kids all morning” and of a man out walking “thankful to find a stream on a hot day”. These are forms of gratitude that “don’t raise the question of to whom one is grateful. Instead, they emphasise the welcoming receipt of that which is good from a source outside oneself”. The question now is: might these attitudes be cultivated more generally, so that one lives in a constant awareness of how dependent one is on good fortune, on other people, on nature and its provision of food and air and light, on one’s parents and ancestors?

G K Chesterton
Well, let’s say we do that. For the religious person it may be easier - one can say prayers such as ‘saying grace’ before meals, for example. (Or, if you’re G K Chesterton, also “say grace before the concert and the opera, and grace before the play and pantomime, and grace before I open a book, and grace before sketching, painting, swimming, fencing, boxing, walking, playing, dancing and grace before I dip the pen in the ink.”) Even so it’s surely also within the wit and power of the existentially alive atheist to cultivate that sense of existential gratitude and humble acknowledgement of dependency. (Dawkins professes this, for example.) But the question remains: why should anyone think such a grateful acknowledgement of luck and dependency would decrease, rather than increase, existential anxiety? For don’t our defences (at least) against such anxiety typically involve our indulging fantasies of enjoying more rather than less control?

Well, one source of calm, here, comes from that sense of orderedness that comes from acknowledging our place in a wider set of relations that support us. We become attentive, for example, to the beauteous bounties of ‘mother’ nature, attentive to how deeply we’re supported by her. Our hearts usually beat, our stomachs typically digest, our cells inexorably metabolise, all as they should, all outside our ken and control. Again, religious sources provide the clearest articulations of the sentiment, but we may be forgiven for thinking that, rather than the sentiment depending for its sense on a theistic outlook, it’s rather our independent grasp of its meaning which gives content to the idea of a ‘theistic outlook’. Thus: ‘Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin’ (Matthew 6 / Luke 12). ‘Behold the fowls of the air: for they sow not, neither do they reap, nor gather into barns; yet your heavenly Father feedeth them.’ Or, to borrow from Julian of Norwich, as T S Eliot did (Little Gidding): ‘And all shall be well, and All manner of thing shall be well’.

Looked at one way - in a blankly face-value way - that last saying is preposterous! Much in life is not well … and then you die! (The fowls of the air also sometimes starve to death!) But rather than consign it to the category of a ‘futuristic eschatology’ - that is, rather than see it as an expression of a promised future salvation that somehow retrospectively makes everything right… which to a psychoanalyst surely looks like flagrant wish-fulfilment - we might first try to grasp more closely the present-moment sentiment, the ‘realised eschatology’, resonant within it. The believer who feels herself held in God’s arms, the atheist who says ‘Yes!’ to life, the pagan who celebrates the seasons of life and death: they’re all configuring their grace-filled grate-full relation with reality in such a way as to reduce the illusory sense that they need to be in charge. The anxious grasping power-hungry disaster-predicting ego is invited to take a break, to recognise the incoherence, even, of its own ambition. (They all spurn the exhausting and hubristic ‘Pelagian heresy’ - that salvation is earned through works.) The present moment, at least, so often doesn’t need redeeming: ‘Right now I’m fine, I’m breathing’ … as the Oprah-style mantra has it - and why shouldn’t the near future be a continuation of such ‘right now’s?

Another way to express this thought might be with an ‘I’m ok; you’re ok’. Now that’s a message that that’s easy to despise and misuse! (Jordan Peterson, for example, talks of the unhelpful mushy self-esteem messages that tell everyone to basically no avail that ‘Hey, you’re ok just as you are’ when people ‘know damn well that they’re not ok’, that 'their lives are a mess’ and that they truly need to change a lot about themselves!) As with all such sayings, though, its meaningfulness depends on its context. And one context in which it makes sense is that in which one hasn’t yet developed the wisdom to check in with oneself and ask ‘Leaving future-oriented worries aside, how am I in myself right now? Am I ok?’ (For example, I find a helpful mood hack can be to ask myself ‘How am I actually feeling right now?’ Asked at times of ruminatory dejectedness, the question already jolts me out of my miserabilistic daydream and prompts me to notice that, actually, underneath all that, right now, I’m doing just fine.)

Whilst I find these 'I'm ok', 'I'm breathing', thoughts helpful, I think they don't at all give us the whole picture. Julian of Norwich's thought was, to recall, 'All manner of things shall be well', and I think this is really an expression of an ethic which aims to cultivate an attitude of acceptance of, of saying 'Yes' to, of 'blessing', whatever happens. The trials of life - can we be grateful for these too without becoming Pollyannaish? One way to achieve that is, I think, to think of them as fuel for the fire of your own self-becoming. ‘Out of life’s school of war — What does not kill me makes me stronger.’ as Nietzsche also put it (Thus Spake Zarathustra). Which is, note, not offered as an empirical fact, but as an existentialist dictum: given that life is full of hardship, how can you positively relate to it? Well, as spurs to your own individuation, as material to overcome and assimilate. This provides one opportunity to love everything. Yet might we even be able to love 'all manner of things' without thinking of what good we can make of them? In a moment of self-renunciation? That's a question I'm going to leave open for now.

6. Seeing Life “Sub Specie Aeternitatis”

I want finally to expand that theme of receptivity to grace, a theme I spelled out in terms of the anxious ego relinquishing its backfiring efforts at control, into what’s often called: seeing life ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ (the term is Spinoza’s). What is this, this seeing life ‘under the aspect of eternity’?

So think first of that feeling of smallness that comes from walking on the tops of mountains, or from looking out to a vast ocean, or looking out at the night sky. (‘Does not wisdom … standeth in the top of high places…?’ Proverbs 8:1-2) This, I take it, is a species of that 18th century aesthetic concept, coined by Burke and taken up by Kant, called ‘the sublime’: a concept intending to capture something of our awe-filled response to the vasts of nature. A strange thing about this feeling is that, far from humiliating us with a sense of our puniness, we often find it deeply reassuring. Our own lives may be puny, but the ocean waves endlessly tumbling on the shores, and the stars twinkling in the night skies, need no help from us as they endlessly course on with their own momentum. We are, I also take it, here within the ambit of what the Hebrew Bible’s wisdom literature describes as that ‘fear of the Lord’ which is said to be (Psalm 111 and Proverbs 9) both ‘the beginning of wisdom’ and (Proverbs 14) ‘a fountain of life’.

One way to understand what it means to live this ‘life eternal’ is as a matter of: bringing life under the purview of certain values. Experiences of the sublime throw us out of ourselves, and help us evaluate our lives not from the perspective of this or that quotidian, self-centred, concern, but instead from the perspective of ‘the bigger picture’. We start to see our lives as a whole and to see their place ‘within eternity’. This eternity has all of the past, present and future within it, as equally valuable moments. From this perspective, our death is no longer oblivion, but an essential temporal limit that gives shape and meaning to our life. To live this “life eternal”, then, means to participate in life according to whether we are able to honour, help create, and live out of, those values which make for the ‘good life’: truth, beauty, honesty, care, etc., and to leave behind irrelevant matters of personal wealth, fame, prestige, etc. Here the thought is that it’s precisely by putting the 'fat relentless ego’ (Iris Murdoch) on an existential diet that we gain the solace that comes from transcending its nervy preoccupations. (Hence another helpful mood hack, I find, is asking myself ‘But what do I really care about?’)

Conclusion: On Wisdom

We have a word for the attitude of the person who’s able to ‘be philosophical about it’. It’s ‘wisdom’ - the ultimate philosophical virtue. When we think on philosophy as a way of life, and certainly when we think on much Stoic philosophy, we might think of a rather coolly intellectual headset, one that treats passions with suspicion, where one is always reflecting, superciliously poised, or pathologically self-possessed (so can’t ‘let herself go’, be playful, erupt with laughter, etc.). But what we're really talking about, when we’re talking about wisdom, is not someone thinking a lot or feeling a little, not someone who is full of thoughts, but instead someone who’s thoughtful. This person is able to spontaneously make judgements apt to their particular contexts. And the only reason why I’ve stressed the value of here making explicit the values of dignity, inner courage, amor fati, the will to power, existential gratitude, and the life eternal, is not to propose a life spent in contemplation about these things, but to revive and clarify such values as otherwise lie misunderstood, ineffective, and unable to function (spontaneously or reflectively) as regulative ideals for the living of a life. Nowhere have I suggested that all psychotherapy should become what sometimes gets called ‘philosophical counselling’. (By which I have in mind either a rational approach aiming to expose alleged faulty premises or faulty inferences in arguments which make misery for people, or an existential approach looking at issues of mortality, isolation, freedom, and meaninglessness.) Nowhere have I suggested that psychotherapists should become philosophers, nor that we should become self-styled Jungian sages or alchemists of the internal world. Instead I’ve been offering something more like a straightforward homily: an attempt to remind you, and myself, of values and attitudes we may well already hold, some of which condition our very concept of a human life. My thought is that there is enough wisdom contained within the language of the virtues - gathered up there over hundreds of generations - to set us on a good course, so long as it’s properly and clearly understood. And my fundamental suggestion has been that existential anxiety can be perpetuated by a lack of clarity about (what we could call) ordinary dignity, ordinary courage, and ordinary humility, such that these and related virtues no longer function well as what I’ve been calling ‘regulative ideals’ for the living of a good life.


Popular Posts