IT’S ALL GREEK TO ME!
MENTAL HEALTH AND HOW ANCIENT PHILOSOPHERS ADDRESSED IT
Following the UK's 2019 mental health week (13th to 19th May 2019) it is apparent that a growing number of us struggle to deal with the myriad of strains and stresses in our lives. Whether it is pressure at work, physical insecurities or addiction to social media it is becoming clear that we are not as equipped to deal with these issues as we need to be. Despite this, a number of the issues we face are not new. Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers for one spent their lives creating theories and practical solutions for dealing with these problems. A number of which have been adapted by psychologists today into modern methods of dealing with both depression and anxiety.
One of these methods is ‘cognitive behavioural therapy’ (“CBT”). CBT is currently available through the NHS and is based on the ‘stoic’ school of philosophy. Stoicism itself was initially pioneered by Zeno of Citium, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca the Younger and Epictetus and has been championed by the likes of FDR, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama. In this article I will run through three aspects of stoicism with the intention of sparking an interest in both philosophy and the proactive management of your mental wellbeing. However, should you be interested in actively participating in a CBT programme I would highly recommend visiting the NHS’ website here.
1) “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters…” - Epictetus
Epictetus was born a slave and through a mixture of hard work and luck he managed to win his freedom and establish a successful school of philosophy in Nicopolis, Greece. As a former slave, whose master had allegedly crippled his leg for life, Epictetus could arguably be seen as an expert on keeping happy and mentally healthy during long periods of over work and mental fatigue. His quote therefore encapsulates one of stoicism’s chief mechanisms for dealing with stress and anxiety.
This mechanism is popularly known as the dichotomy of control and is the concept of separating the events in our lives into those we control and those we do not. Those in our control should be approached with as much effort and will power as we can muster. For example, ensuring we go to the gym after work or that we keep our office space tidy. Those events out of our control should then be both recognised and accepted as exactly that, out of our power to change. This could be in the form of a train being delayed, a colleague’s/boss’s opinion of us changing, or our work computer crashing. By recognising that in that exact moment there is nothing in our power to change our situation, then we can change our reaction from one of stress and anxiety to one of realisation and acceptance. If adopted regularly and correctly such an approach should ‘in theory’ see a calm reaction to the majority of life's events. The stoics for example believed that anger was the result of mental illness and a lack of emotional education as opposed to a legitimate or effective response to a problem. An opinion I am inclined to agree with!
2) “You can rid yourself of many useless things among those that disturb you, for they lie entirely in your imagination; and you will then gain for yourself ample space by comprehending the whole universe in your mind...” – Marcus Aurelius
Marcus Aurelius is a unique figure in history. Imagine a world in which you are the most powerful person in existence. You could kill, have sex with and steal from whoever you wanted and nobody could stop you. The temptation to stray from an ethical path would be enormous. Yet despite this Marcus Aurelius managed to maintain a stoic mindset throughout his 19 year reign. An approach to life he encapsulated in a book he wrote for himself (who writes a book for themselves?) now known as his Meditations.
The above quote from Meditations represents the ‘view from above’ mental exercise. The idea is to envision ourselves in the third person. First from the room we are in and then zooming out to the building, city, country and then continent we are on. From this position we gain a better perspective of the insignificance of our problems. We will subsequently be in a better mindset to more easily overcome emotional hurdles such as a fear of public speaking or the stress of our annual review.
3) “Let us prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.” - Seneca
Memento Mori. Or in Latin ‘remember (that) you will die’. This phrase and the above quote from Seneca may appear alarmingly depressing, however that is not how the stoics would have seen it. To them a constant reminder of their mortality was both humbling and invigorating. It is believed that during a Roman triumph (military parade) the General the event was held for would have ‘momento mori’ whispered in his ear by a slave throughout the day in order to keep him grounded and appreciative. It is this daily appreciation for every minute, moment and event that the stoics looked to enshrine with the aim of recognising time as an individual's most precious commodity. Similar phrases in popular culture that encapsulate this mindset are YOLO (You Only Live Once), Carpe Diem (seize the day) and Game of Thrones’ ‘valar morghulis’ or ‘all men must die’.
In conclusion, ancient philosophy has a plethora of practical advice on how to approach life in a virtuous and happy way if you have the time to learn about it. However, each person is different and therefore different philosophers, or none at all, may appeal to you. Personally I am a fan of stoicism but there is also hedonism, rationalism and existentialism to name a few. Therefore, as the world gets more complicated it is now as important as ever that the individual, medical profession and society as a whole make effort to help one another find the healthiest and most logical means of managing our mental well-being.
Examples of further study on the subject can be found below:
1) Letters from a Stoic: Epistulae Morales Ad Lucilium – by Seneca
2) Meditations – by Marcus Aurelius
3) Overview of CBT – by the NHS
4) How To Be A Stoic: Ancient Wisdom for Modern Living – by Massimo Pigliucci
5) The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life – by Mark Manson
Vice Chair of NGIN and Forensic Accountant at BTVK Advisory