I believe that schools, universities, and adult education should offer some guidance to people, not just for their careers, but for life at its best and worst. That’s what the teachers depicted in The School of Athens once provided: they taught their students how to transform their emotions, how to cope with adversity, how to live the best possible lives. I wish I had encountered their teachings in those difficult years. Instead, I found university to be more like a factory system: we clocked in, handed in our essay, clocked out, and then were left to our own devices. There seemed to be little institutional concern for undergraduates’ well-being or the broader development of our characters.1 Nor was there much hope among students that what we studied might actually be applicable to our life, let alone able to transform society. A degree was simply a preparation for the market, that big factory we were about to enter, the rules of which we were not capable of changing.

I discovered the direct influence that ancient Greek philosophy had on cognitive therapy. Albert Ellis told me, for example, that he had been particularly impressed by a saying of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: "Men are disturbed not by things, but by their opinions about them." This sentence inspired Ellis’s "ABC" model of the emotions, which is at the heart of CBT: we experience an event (A), then interpret it (B), and then feel an emotional response in line with our interpretation (C). Ellis, following the Stoics, suggested that we can change our emotions by changing our thoughts or opinions about events.

Socrates, who lived from 469 to 399 bc, was the first philosopher to insist that philosophy should speak to the everyday concerns of ordinary people. He himself was of humble origins — he was the child of a stonemason and a midwife, unblessed with wealth, political connections, or good looks, yet he utterly bewitched his society, in an age which did not lack brilliant personalities. He never wrote any books. He didn’t have a philosophy, in the sense of a coherent body of ideas which he passed on to his followers. Like Jesus, we only know of him through the accounts of others, particularly his disciples Plato and Xenophon. When the Delphic Oracle pronounced him the wisest person in Greece, he suggested that it was only because he realized how little he knew. But he was also aware of how little everyone else knew too. And what he tried to impart to his fellow Athenians — what he saw as his divine mission to teach — was a habit of questioning oneself. He said he considered it "a good of the highest order" to "examine myself and others," and "spend each day in discussion about the good."4 Most people, he suggested, sleepwalk through life, never asking themselves what they’re doing or why they’re doing it. They absorb the values and beliefs of their parents, or their culture, and accept them unquestioningly. But if they happen to absorb wrong beliefs, it will make them sick.

Socrates insisted there’s a strong connection between your philosophy (how you interpret the world, what you think is important in life) and your mental and physical health. Different beliefs lead to different emotional states — and different political ideologies also manifest in different forms of emotional sickness.

The first-century Roman statesman and philosopher Marcus Tullius Cicero wrote: "There is, I assure you, a medical art for the soul. It is philosophy, whose aid need not be sought, as in bodily diseases, from outside ourselves. We must endeavor with all our resources and strength to become capable of doctoring ourselves."
The optimistic message at the heart of Socratic philosophy is that we have the power to heal ourselves. We can examine our beliefs, and choose to change them, and this will change our emotions. This power is within us. We don’t need to kneel to priests or psychoanalysts or pharmacologists for redemption. Michel de Montaigne, the great Renaissance essayist, put it well. Socrates, he said, "has done human nature a great kindness, in showing it how much it can do of itself. We are all of us richer than we think we are; but we are taught to borrow and to beg…[And yet] we need little doctrine to live at our ease; and Socrates teaches us, that this is in us, and the way to find it, and how to use it."8 Montaigne is right: we are all of us richer than we think we are. Yet we’ve forgotten what power is within us, so we go begging outside of ourselves for it.

some scientists would actually challenge the idea of free will and consciousness, which they would suggest are mystical superstitions. We are material beings, in a material universe, and just like everything else in the universe we are ruled and determined by physical laws. So if you happen to be born with a strong disposition to depression, social anxiety, or any other emotional disorder, then unfortunately for you, the chances are you will always have it. Your one hope for coping with that biochemical disorder is to try to balance it with other chemicals. A material solution to a material problem. Your consciousness and reason don’t come into it at all.

Yet there is growing evidence that Socrates was right. First of all, there is evidence from neuroscience that shows that when we change our opinion about a situation, our emotions also change. Neuroscientists call this "cognitive re-appraisal," and they trace its discovery back to ancient Greek philosophy.10 Their research suggests that we have some control over how we interpret the world, and this gives us the ability to modulate our emotional reactions.

Neuroscientists have a word for this remarkable ability of the human brain to change itself: "plasticity." The ancient Greek and Roman philosophers were early champions of plasticity. In the words of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus: "there is nothing more tractable than the human psyche."14 They understood, as we are beginning to understand, how much of our moral character is made up of malleable habits: indeed, the word "ethics" comes from the Greek word ethos, meaning "habit."

first make the habitual conscious, then make the conscious habitual. First, we bring our automatic beliefs into consciousness through Socratic examination to decide if they are rational. Then we take our new philosophical insights and repeat them until they become new automatic habits. Philosophy is not merely a process of abstract reflection, but a practice. "We acquire the virtues by practice," Aristotle wrote. We cannot "take refuge in theory, like patients that listen attentively to their doctors but do none of the things they are told to do." Philosophy is a training, a set of daily mental and physical exercises that become easier with practice. Greek philosophers often used the metaphor of gymnastics: just as we strengthen our muscles by repeated practice, so we strengthen our "moral muscles" through repeated practice of certain exercises. After enough training, we naturally feel the right emotion in the right situation, and do the right thing. Our philosophy becomes "second nature" and we achieve what the Stoics call "a good flow of life." This is not an easy process. It takes a lot of energy and courage to change our automatic habits of thinking and feeling, and it also requires humility: no one likes to admit their way of seeing the world might be wrong. We cling to our beliefs, even when they drown us. ... The Greeks didn’t claim that humans are born free, conscious, and perfectly rational beings. They suggested that humans are, in fact, deeply unconscious and automatic creatures who sleepwalk through life. But they insisted that most of us can use our reason to choose wiser paths in life, if we really work at our philosophical practice.

Socrates’s idea that philosophy can really change people and bring them happiness has been mocked for centuries, even by philosophers like David Hume, the eighteenth-century Scottish thinker, who was gloriously dismissive of the therapeutic power of philosophy. Hume, who was perhaps being intentionally provocative, wrote that most humans "are effectually excluded from all pretensions of philosophy, and the medicine of the mind, so much boasted…The empire of philosophy extends over a few, and with regard to these, too, her authority is very weak and limited."

Self-help in the ancient world was far more ambitious and expansive than modern self-help. It linked the psychological to the ethical, the political, and the cosmic. And it didn’t offer people short-term fixes to be practiced for a month or two until the next self-help fad arrived. It offered people an enduring way of life, something to be practiced each day for years, to radically transform the self — and perhaps to transform society. Today, many people are looking for a philosophy for life, and have gone back to the philosophers of antiquity to find something they can live by.

The idea of "philosophy as a way of life" is quite far from the contemporary academic model of philosophy, where students are taught a theory and then tested in that theory. For the ancient Greeks, as I’ve said, philosophy was a much more practical, intimate, and communal process. A student had to bring all of themselves to the practice of it, not just their intellectual faculties.

other academics are less dismissive of the contemporary usefulness of ancient philosophy, such as Pierre Hadot, A. A. Long, Michael Sandel, and Martha Nussbaum.

The Stoics and Skeptics ... declared their inner independence from the toxic values of their culture, but didn’t try to evangelize or change other people. They were pessimistic about ordinary people’s interest in philosophy or desire to change. The Epicureans and Pythagoreans took a similarly pessimistic view of the influence of philosophy, and withdrew from society into philosophical communes. But some ... had greater hopes for philosophy, and thought it could genuinely transform society.

The idea that a whole society could be brought under a single philosophy or religion of the good life has been strenuously resisted in Western liberal societies ever since the nineteenth-century philosopher John Stuart Mill insisted that people should be left to pursue "our own good in our own way."22 The two great lions of postwar liberal philosophy — Sir Karl Popper and Sir Isaiah Berlin — likewise warned that the search for a single formula for the good life was a "metaphysical chimera."23 A whole nation will never agree to one model of happiness, so any attempt by a government to impose one philosophy on its citizens would necessarily be coercive and despotic. Governments, Berlin insisted, should protect their citizens’ "negative liberty" — their freedom from interference — while leaving them alone to pursue their own "positive liberty," their own model of personal and spiritual fulfilment.

in the closing years of the twentieth century, and in the first years of the twenty-first, a feeling grew among intellectuals and policy-makers that pluralism and moral relativism had gone too far, and that neo-liberal individualism had left us atomized, disconnected, and lacking a sense of the common good. Aristotle and Plato’s idea that governments should encourage the spiritual flourishing of their citizens returned to the mainstream of Western thought. Indeed, today it has become an overwhelming consensus.

science can and should inform moral debate. The ancient Greeks would entirely agree: their philosophies, as we’ll see, combined biology, psychology, and physics with ethics and politics. Any reliable ethical code should try to fit with the available scientific evidence about our nature and the nature of the universe.

Greek ideas about flourishing and the good life are back in the classroom, in the workplace, and at the heart of politics. But the sheer speed and scale at which this movement is moving into public policy makes me uneasy. The new politics of well-being could easily become illiberal and coercive, if scientists and policy-makers try to argue that they have "proved" a certain model of the good life, and therefore there is no need for democratic debate or consent. There is a danger of leaping too hastily from the Is of empirical evidence to the Ought of ethics and politics, and ending up with a rigid and illiberal dogma of how people must think, feel, and live.

This danger was most apparent to me in the neuroscientist Sam Harris’s recent book, The Moral Landscape. Harris argues that the only reasonable foundation for ethics is a concern for the well-being of all sentient creatures. Science, he insists, can tell us facts about well-being, and therefore science — and only science — can tell us what the good life is.

Then Harris takes a bold leap into political philosophy. If science can tell us precise facts about human well-being and morality, then it should be used to guide national and international politics. We should use it to design better social, legal, and political institutions, and to construct a universal moral framework in which the customs and morals of all individuals and societies can be weighed, measured, and judged. Harris looks forward to the day when an international committee of scientific experts watches over us and gives us clear and precise guidance as to the morality of our actions. This vision reminds me of the power and authority once assigned to the Vatican, where a committee of theological experts, guided by the "moral science" of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, watched over Christendom and dispatched moral judgments on the rulers within it. More recently, it is reminiscent of Positivism, the strange philosophical cult invented by Auguste Comte in the nineteenth century. Comte insisted he had finally turned the wisdom of ancient philosophy and Catholic theology into a cast-iron science, and that governments simply had to hand over power to a committee of scientific experts.27 John Stuart Mill, an early enthusiast for Positivism, came to see the danger of this vision. If it became a reality, he warned, it would lead to "a despotism of society over the individual, surpassing anything contemplated in the political idea of the most rigid disciplinarian among the ancient philosophers."

And yet Harris’s Positivist vision is already becoming a reality. In late 2010, British prime minister David Cameron ordered the Office for National Statistics to define and measure national well-being (a poisoned chalice if ever there was one).29 The ONS created an "expert committee" who quickly arrived at an official government definition of well-being. The committee was entirely made up of economists and social scientists, without a single philosopher, or artist, or priest. There was no real democratic debate over how well-being should be defined, other than a whistle-stop "national conversation" tour by ONS officials around the country. The ONS reported that, to their surprise, many people who attended these events said that religion was important to their idea of well-being.30 But naturally God didn’t make it into the ONS’s scientific formula for wellbeing. How could science measure a person’s closeness to God? Despite the absence of God, the ONS insisted it had found an objective definition of well-being, and could measure it in the population using questionnaires. Critics of the initiative say the ONS is only measuring happy feelings, a purely Utilitarian or Epicurean definition of well-being. But the ONS says it also measures "eudaimonic" well-being, from the ancient Greek word eudaimonia, by which Aristotle, Plato, and the Stoics meant "virtuous happiness." The ONS says its questionnaires measure a person’s eudaimonia by asking them "How worthwhile is your life on a scale of one to ten?" The data from this question, the ONS says, will give us an accurate scientific measurement of the nation’s spiritual flourishing. Really? The answers might, perhaps, give us some very crude idea of a person’s own assessment of their flourishing, but it can’t tell us how they actually live, how they treat others, or the wider impact and moral value of their life. Do we really think a brief questionnaire can measure the virtue, meaningfulness, impact, and cosmic value of a person’s life, assign them a number, and then rank them in a global moral hierarchy? That would ascribe skills to statisticians normally reserved for omniscient deities.31 In the words of Aristotle: "It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things only so far as the subject admits."