Hugh D Reynolds interviews Antonia Macaro in advance of ‘Ancient Wisdom for a Sceptical Age’, an event with Macaro, Edith Hall and Julian Baggini on 12 June 2018.
Hugh D Reynolds: Philosophers are sometimes characterised as rather gloomy, melancholic figures – yet in your work and writing, I understand you’re putting philosophy to a really positive and practical use. Just what is existential psychotherapy?
Antonia Macaro: Existential philosophy does indeed have a reputation for being gloomy, but a psychotherapy inspired by it has long been developed and practised by the likes of Irvin Yalom in the US and Emmy van Deurzen in the UK. Far from being a discussion of the finer points of Heidegger’s philosophy, this kind of therapy is about exploring existential themes in clients’ lives, such as living between human limitations and freedom, taking responsibility and creating meaning in a meaningless universe.
You’ve been at the forefront of the ‘philosophical counselling’ movement in the UK. Developing your career, what did you do to forge those connections between therapy and philosophy?
Philosophical counselling can be different things to different people. For me it is less about passing on philosophical nuggets or discussing philosophy and more about using philosophical tools, methods and ideas (especially about ethics and the good life) to guide an exploration of people’s worldview, bringing to light inner conflicts and clarifying values.
Does the philosopher’s urge to see the world as it is get in the way of the therapist’s role to help us feel better about being in that world?
I think there is indeed a tension between the goal of understanding the world and that of ameliorating a person’s lived experience in some way, and that is why I believe philosophy to be of indirect rather than direct use in psychotherapy. Of course, some philosophers are more useful than others in this respect, and Aristotle has been particularly inspiring for me. The answer also depends on what we mean by ‘psychotherapy’ – whether we believe that its aim is solely to help people to feel better or whether it should also help them to get to know themselves better and see things more clearly.
In your book ‘More Than Happiness’ (Icon, 2018), you mine the Eastern tradition of Buddhism and the teachings of Ancient Greek and Roman Stoic philosophers for gems that might enrich our modern lives. Are there historical connections between these schools of thought or have they converged on ‘the good life’ independently?
There is an intriguing possibility that Ancient Greek philosophers were directly influenced by Buddhism. For instance we know that the Greek philosopher Pyrrho travelled to India with Alexander the Great not too long after the time of the Buddha, and there are records of him coming back with ideas that have parallels in certain strands of Buddhism (such as advocating letting go of all views). But we don’t really know.
One of the Stoics you feature in the book is Epictetus who advises us to always distinguish between what is and isn’t in our power. How is this 2000-year-old wisdom linked to modern practices like Cognitive Behavioural Therapy?
It was Epictetus who came up with the famous sentence ‘people are disturbed not by things, but by the views they take of things’, which is often quoted in relation to CBT, and both Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis (founders of different types of CBT) were influenced by his take on things. But when we unpack that sentence and start looking at the how and why of changing the way we look at things, we see that in Stoicism there is a whole metaphysical structure underpinning an ethical system, and CBT has (rightly) not taken on much of that.
I’m intrigued that Epictetus was born into slavery, something which may have left him with very clear ideas about what is and isn’t in his power. Do Stoicism and Buddhism advise us about resistance? Social progress? Times when we need to make choices – as individuals, and groups – to rise-up against those who would rather we all think it’s not in our power to change things?
Both traditions steer us towards giving less importance to the things of the world, and in both there is a tension between withdrawal and engagement. In terms of what is and isn’t in our power I think that the serenity prayer pretty much captures the kind of wise approach that the traditions might end up advising us: having the courage to change what we can change, the serenity to accept what we can’t and the wisdom to know the difference. Of course this is easier said than done, and knowing that difference can be surprisingly difficult.
Forgive me for sticking with my friend Epictetus (readers will have to attend the talk and buy your book for more fascinating characters and thought) but another thing he wrote was: ‘Reason alone is good, the irrational is evil, and the irrational is intolerable to the rational.‘ To what extent do you feel hard, cold, reason should play a role in helping us ‘reframe’ what we think we want from life?
I personally don’t agree with the Stoic view that reason is the only genuine good. Reason is a powerful tool that is central to living a flourishing life, and we should develop and cultivate it. But reason and emotions are delicately intertwined. Emotions can be useful appraisals of good and bad and we ignore them at our peril. They can and do often go wrong, however, therefore we need to use reason to question and rein them in if they are leading us away from a good life.
Something that really struck me in your approach, Antonia, is that it’s selective: we don’t have to embrace an ideology wholesale; instead consider aspects that fit our own particular context. That’s something I find easier to do in the Western tradition – within which I grew up – where I’m not so worried about causing offence and accusations of cultural (mis)appropriation. As someone new to Buddhist teaching what would be a good introductory concept for me to apply in my raucous life?
Two fundamental Buddhist concepts are anicca (impermanence) and dukkha (which means something like ‘unsatisfactoriness’). We can get a lot of joy and pleasure from the things of the world, but I find it useful to bear in mind that they will pass and therefore ultimately will never give us lasting satisfaction. Therefore we should enjoy them in full knowledge of their fleeting nature.
Your book conveys ‘Wisdom for a Sceptical Age’. Huge investment in advertising suggests our age is anything but sceptical about messages cajoling us to fill our lives with stuff. (The Buddha never had to endure the assault on the senses, subconscious and wallet, of a trip to Ikea.) If materialism isn’t the way to go, what are we replacing it with? Expensive experiences (what do they call it now… a sick bucket list?) Lust for possession in the virtual world?
Indeed. In a way, seeking experiences is not too dissimilar from accumulating possessions if done with a grasping attitude. Both traditions are wary of worldly pleasures and encourage us to work on our attitude to things, in particular on becoming less grasping. What we should focus on is acceptance, acting ethically and training the mind. If we do that we can experience more independent forms of joy.
At the Festival of Ideas you’ll be talking with classicist Edith Hall. Are there any key themes, tensions or overlaps around her recent work on Aristotle which you’re looking forward to chatting about?
As I said I have been very influenced by Aristotle, so I imagine we’ll have a lot to agree on. Of course I have also found inspiration in Buddhism and Stoicism, albeit with reservations, so I will be interested to hear her views on those traditions.