Category Archives: Great Thinkers

Jung and Nazism

In the aftermath of World War 2 and since, controversy has raged about Carl Jung’s attitude to Nazism, with some condemning him as a Nazi sympathiser, and others defending him in the strongest terms. After reading Deirdre Bair’s detailed biography of Jung, and following up my recent post (and as yet unpublished book) on Jung and the Middle Way, it seems increasingly clear to me that this is a classic case of a messy Middle Way strategy being misunderstood by polarised interpreters on both sides.

Jung was a citizen of Switzerland, which remained neutral throughout the Second World War. However, throughout the 1930’s he remained the president of an international psychoanalytic society that was based in, and dominated by, Germany. From the time of the rise of Hitler in 1933 this society was subject to Gleichgeschaltung, the regulations by which the Nazi government ensured conformity to Nazi values in organisations of civil society. In many ways Jung was a convenient tool for the Nazis, as they were able to use him as a source of credibility for their gleichgeschaltet version of psychoanalysis, purified of what they considered the corrupting Jewish influence of Freud with his decadent emphasis on sexuality. Although there was ambiguity in this position, because the society was formally international, the Nazis were able to manipulate that ambiguity, and he was only finally able to resign from this presidency in 1940.

It is this involvement, together with a number of incautious public statements about the psychology of races and nationalities (some of which generalised about Jewish psychology as distinct from other races) that form the basis of a case against Jung that has been raised on a number of occasions by his detractors, and even led to one (not very realistic) proposal that he be prosecuted at the Nuremberg war crime tribunals. For his critics, any compromise with Nazism or involvement in Nazi-dominated organisations makes Jung a Nazi sympathiser, and any generalisations about the psychology of Jews make him anti-Semitic.

However, Jung’s position was highly ambiguous. On his own account, his motive in remaining involved with the Nazi-dominated society was to maintain the position of psychoanalysis and to help Jewish psychoanalysts. If he had tried to take a position of purity and refused to be involved, he would have lost the possible opportunity to help psychoanalysis survive in Nazi Germany, and the opportunity to help maintain the status of persecuted Jewish psychoanalysts. After 1940, with the cohesion of the international society destroyed and Freud having fled to England, it is fairly clear that he recognised such hopes as naïve. However, he did manage one substantial achievement, which was to employ an (ironically Jewish) lawyer called Rosenbaum to introduce lots of loopholes into the anti-Semitic regulations being introduced to the society by the Matthias Goering (cousin of the more famous Goering) – who effectively developed political control over it.

As in many such highly charged and polarised political contexts, there is plenty of evidence that can be seized upon and interpreted one way, and also plenty of evidence the other way. Any case thus becomes overwhelmingly a product of confirmation bias. There is also plenty of scope for hindsight bias if we assume that the attitude Jung took to Nazism earlier in the 1930’s should have been based on their later actions – but nobody knew the full horrors to come. Highly unscientific generalisations about the psychology of races were also common currency at the time.

Later in the war, Jung also became involved in support of a plot to get Hitler overthrown, effectively providing advice about Nazi psychology to a US secret service operative working in Switzerland, as well as psychoanalytic support to a close friend who was more directly involved, both of whom were working in support of a German officer involved in a plot to overthrow Hitler. Jung’s support for anti-Nazi activities may have even gone further than this. Allen W. Dulles, the US agent mentioned, is quoted by Bair as saying “Nobody will probably ever know how much Professor Jung contributed to the Allied Cause during the war, by seeing people who were connected somehow with the other side.” Dulles went on to decline to give further detail on the grounds that most of the information was classified.

What makes me think that Jung was attempting to practise the Middle Way in any sense in this complex and ongoing situation? Partly my reading of the Red Book, which mentions the Middle Way explicitly, as I have discussed elsewhere. Partly, however, it also seems the best way of making sense of Jung’s actions. He was not ideologically motivated, though he could often be accused of political naivete. He saw the justification of one action or another in the situation, even when that situation was one dominated by Nazism, rather than solely in the terms of an ideal situation in which Nazism was not dominant. His moral values were those of individuation (as he usually called it) or what I would tend to call integration, the actual practice of which depends on the quality of judgements rather than any pre-formed general rules about the objects of those judgements.

His involvement was thus deeply messy, and he obviously left himself vulnerable to blame from both sides. It was not Nazi or Anti-Semitic, but neither was it Anti-Nazi in a way that would have made his activities less effective at the time by seeking purity from Nazism. However, it does also seem that he could have followed this path more effectively than he did: by developing more politically awareness, by seeking clearer evidence than he had before making racial generalisations, and by making the Middle Way a more explicit basis of action so as to reduce the chances of being misunderstood. Like the rest of us, however, Jung had limited knowledge, limited abilities and limited understanding with which to work, and the path of the Middle Way only requires reconciliation and adaptation to these conditions, not an unrealistic expectation of transcending them, as a basis for responsibility.

I can even find some inspiration in the way that Jung handled this difficult series of situations, not despite, but because of the many human failings that his biography has made me all too aware of. Would I, or any of us, have done better? Adopting the principle of charity seems to be the first requirement for reading the situation – a principle that allows us to appreciate the strength of messy achievement without idealising it.


How to Solve a Problem Like John Lennon

‘Part of me suspects that I’m a loser, and the other part of me thinks I’m God Almighty’.


John Lennon was, with Paul McCartney, one half of the greatest song writing duo in history, and one quarter of the greatest bands in history: the Beatles (as very rare examples of absolute facts these, perhaps, represent the only time when Middle Way notions of provisionality, incrementality and agnosticism do not apply). Nevertheless, some would also have you believe that Lennon was a peace-loving, feminist icon who fought for the rights of the disenfranchised and the oppressed.  A man who declared that ‘all you need is love’ and dared to Imagine a world without war, nationalism or religion.  Others present him in an altogether different hue: as a violent, jealous and chauvinistic bully who abused his first wife, Cynthia and emotionally neglected his first son, Julian.  On one hand we have Lennon the hero and on the other we have Lennon the villain and in many cases he is presented as either/or, with commentators unable, or unwilling to negotiate this juxtaposition.  Sometimes, biographical accounts will even skim over, or ignore these conflicting characteristics entirely and instead focus solely on his musical career.  I remember watching a biographical documentary which, apart from briefly referencing his peace activism (and judging it to be an immature and naive embarrassment) did exactly that.

‘When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out… in’.

There’s a tendency to dehumanise those whom we cast as heroes or villains, creating one dimensional figures to be loved or reviled.  This tendency is apparent with the treatment of exceptional individuals throughout history, such as Saints, military heroes and political activists.  The recent rise of the celebrity (a term which often invites scorn, but is actually an umbrella term covering people with a wide range of skills and achievements, like Elvis Presley, Princess Diana or anyone who appears in any reality TV program) has provided john-lennon-487033_960_720another category.  There clearly seems to be a need for us to create simplified archetypes and doing so does appear to be useful, but to do this with historical people that have lived (or are still alive) can deny us a richer understanding of their, and consequently our own, humanity (and can also create real dangers, as chillingly demonstrated by the recent case of Jimmy Savile).

‘Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy
And I was born with a jealous mind’.

Lennon’s lyrics often seem like raw, unguarded confessions that reek of insecurity and contradiction.  He seemed to be keenly aware of the conflicting aspects of his personality and didn’t shy away from exploring them in the material he released.  He acknowledged both the good and the bad; the hero and the villain.  While he declared that ‘all you need is love’, he also put to song the disturbing words ‘baby I’m determined and I’d rather see you dead’.  Filling the space between these two extremes was a Scared, Jealous Guy who felt in serious need of Help!  A perfect example of this uneasy juxtaposition can be found on the Imagine album.  As well as featuring the well-known title track, which has become something of a secular hymn, it also contains the track How Do You Sleep?, a venomous attack on his former writing partner and friend, Paul McCartney, which couldn’t be any further from the sentiments expressed in Imagine.

‘Hatred and jealousy, gonna be the death of me
I guess I knew it right from the start
Sing out about love and peace
Don’t want to see the red raw meat
The green eyed goddamn straight from your heart’.

He admitted that he had been physically abusive to women – not just Cynthia – and that he had not been a very good father to Julian.  He admitted that he was a bully.  He also described his own experiences of childhood abandonment and later feelings of fear and insecurity, which he concealed behind a mask of buffoonery and violence.  Not that this excuses the behaviour of a grown man, but it does provide us with some sense of a complex human being.  Add to that his later promotion of pacifism, feminism and social justice and the asymmetrical mosaic grows greater still.  In the later years of his life he became a devoted parent to his second son, Sean – with whom he seemed able to attain some sense of atonement.  Unfortunately, his relationship with Julian remained strained and distant.  Maybe the old wounds would have healed, had he not been shot and killed at the age of 40, but perhaps his earlier behaviour had been too damaging.

‘I really had a chip on my shoulder … and it still comes out every now and then’.

There are those that might cry ‘hypocrite’ at such apparent contradictions, but that would be over-simplistic and unfair.  It’s quite possible for Lennon to have been all of these things over time (or even simultaneously), with some characteristics perhaps being the consequence of another.  For instance, it’s likely that his feminism grew, in part, out of a need for redemption.  That’s not to say, then, that the villain of the piece was defeated; forever to be vanquished by the upstart hero and his eye shatteringly shiny armour.  No, far more likely was that the two existed side by side in an on-going (and probably uncomfortable) process of conflict and negotiation.  Acknowledging someone’s flaws does not necessitate that one question the sincerity of their strengths.

‘Although I laugh and I act like a clown
Beneath this mask I am wearing a frown
My tears are falling like rain from the sky
Is it for her or myself that I cry’?

JohnLennon1963A minor deviation here, but I would like to comment on the supposed naivety and immaturity of Lennon’s political views.  First of all, I feel that this is a misrepresentation of what he actually said.  If we look at the two main points that critics tend to pick up on: the invitation to imagine everybody living in peace and the request to give peace a chance.  Both of these notions seem far from naïve to me, in fact they seem like reasonable suggestions for incremental change.  There is clearly no unrealistic demand for overnight change; just a suggestion that we consider an alternative way of conducting ourselves, with the hope that things might start to get better.  In the UK similar accusations are levelled at Jeremy Corbyn, and they grate with me for the same reasons.  I’m not suggesting that anyone has to agree with either Lennon or Corbyn, but the condescending disregard of their, perfectly valid, views strikes me as being unnecessary and spiteful.  Secondly, the generalised criticisms of Lennon’s political views assume a fixed ideology that just doesn’t seem to have been present.  He changed, altered and evolved his ideas all through his life, and was often critical of things that he had previously said or done.

‘My role in society, or any artist’s or poet’s role, is to try and express what we all feel. Not to tell people how to feel. Not as a preacher, not as a leader, but as a reflection of us all’.

imagine-1913561_960_720While I probably wouldn’t go so far as to put Lennon forward as a Middle Way Thinker, I do think he provides a good example of how a Middle Way approach can be useful in the consideration of those whom we admire… and those we do not.  Gandhi (who has featured in Robert M Eillis’ Middle Way Thinker series) could, with some justification, be accused of misogyny and racism, but that doesn’t take away from his achievements or the legacy he left behind.  The medieval Saints of Europe become figures of greater interest and inspiration when their multi-dimensional and flawed humanity can be glimpsed beneath their holy veneers (a principle that, I have recently discovered, can be applied to Jesus too).  Of course, such figures need not be well known.  We also create heroes and villains in our day to day lives too; looking up to, or down upon family members or colleagues, for instance.  If we can recognise the messy middle from which others are composed and accept that people can be both good and bad, in different measures, at different times, then this might just enable us to become more open to those around us and more accepting of ourselves.  This sounds easy on paper, but can be difficult to achieve in practice.  I, for one, have a long way to go but the closer I look, the more complicated the picture becomes and the easier it gets.

‘We all have Hitler in us, but we also have love and peace. So why not give peace a chance for once’?

Songs Quoted (In Order of Appearance)

All You Need Is Love (Lennon-McCartney, 1967)
Revolution (Lennon-McCartney, 1968).
Run For Your Life (Lennon-McCartney, 1965).
Scared (Lennon, 1974).
Loser (Lennon-McCartney, 1964).

Pictures (In Order of Appearance)

Lennon Memorial Plaque, courtesy of
John Lennon Beatles Peace Imagine, courtesy of
The Beatles & Lill-Babs 1963, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Imagine John Lennon New York City, courtesy of

Martin Luther, the dogma breaker

This year is the 500th Anniversary of what is often seen as the decisive act that set off the Reformation: when Martin Luther, a monk and theology professor, nailed ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. A few years ago, I was travelling through eastern Germany and made a point of stopping in Wittenberg to see Luther’s House, and the experience only increased my admiration of this flawed, stubborn, but nevertheless courageous, inspired, and often down-to-earth man. He has gone down in history as one of the great breakers of dogma, though, like many people with that kind of achievement, he was also instrumental in setting up new counter dogmas of his own.Martin_Luther_as_an_Augustinian_Monk Lucas Cranach the Elder

I recently heard a talk about Luther given by church historian Judith Rossall, which also refined my understanding of the key events that led to the Reformation. In some ways, Luther was lucky: he managed to get away without being burned at the stake because of political protection from the Elector of Saxony, and because German national pride rallied people to his support against the trans-national papal bureaucracy. In some ways, then, the Lutheran Reformation resembled an early German version of Brexit. His defiance of the church’s authority also gradually grew as the argument became more polarised and more started being at stake. He started off only protesting against the selling of indulgences (a medieval church money making scheme where people paid for time off purgatory), but it was in 1519, when in a debate his position was compared with that of Jan Hus (a previous reformer who had been burned at the stake as a heretic) that he made his most courageous move, saying that he believed the condemnation of Hus was wrong and thus by implication questioning the church as an absolute source of authority.

It’s at that crucial point that I’d see Luther as moving out of the absolute positions that dominated the church of his time into a more creative and ambiguous zone. In his debate with Johann Eck, he was then asked what authorities he did accept. Only scripture and common reason, he said. From that realignment of authorities so much else in the Reformation followed, because Protestants were thus able to strip away 1500 years of accrued church dogmas dependent on tradition, on Aristotelian metaphysics that had been adopted by the church, or on the authority of the pope or the councils of the church. So much that was previously closed became open for re-examination, and that of course created a huge wave of creativity and thought.

Did Luther in any way achieve a Middle Way? In those heady early days in 1520’s Germany, when everything seemed to opened up, when new thinking spread quickly because of the recent invention of printing, and a whole new set of radical thinkers were further sparked off by him, it’s easy to think that he might temporarily have got somewhere near it. All sorts of customs were re-thought: church governance, the eucharist, monasticism, the marriage of priests, the role of saints, the sacraments. Most of all, the door was thrown open to individual judgement, enabling individuals to bring their own thinking to bear on religious matters rather than simply accepting the authority of the church. In the longer term that emphasis on individual judgement was extremely important in stimulating the enlightenment and the rise of scientific method and democratic politics. If you want to understand why the Middle Way has in effect been practised more in the West than in the East where it was first explicitly formulated, look to some of the effects of Martin Luther.

However, Protestantism today is polarised between liberals who have come to terms with the enlightenment, and much more numerous fundamentalists who take Martin Luther’s invocation of the authority of scripture as a new basis of absolutism. Despite its value in supporting individual judgement, the narrower legacy of the Reformation is the allegiance of individuals who believe that absolute truths can be represented in the words of a book. Until the development of Biblical criticism in the nineteenth century, Protestants continued to ignore all questions about the human origins of the Bible or the ambiguities of its interpretation. While Protestants influenced by Luther thus built the church and its meaning anew, they also rapidly created the new rigidities of puritanism, repression of the imagination, spiritual accountancy and sectarianism. Iain McGilchrist writes disapprovingly about the Reformation because of its degree of dependence on the left hemisphere, and he’s certainly right that much of Luther’s legacy seems to have consisted in people adopting abstracted absolute beliefs that were strongly identified with a limited group who shared them, and were the focus of obsessive loyalty. Along with the enlightenment and individual thinking, another indirect legacy of Luther is ISIS/ Da’esh and the kind of thinking it represents. Fundamentalism was invented by Protestants long before it was adopted by Muslims.

However, to understand the positive aspects of Luther’s complexity more fully, let’s go back to the motivations of the man himself. One of the other crucial conflicts in Luther’s experience that helped to give birth to the Reformation was the question of salvation. The idea of God’s grace, reflected particularly by St Paul in the book of Romans, is central to the early motivation of Christianity and the way that it differentiated itself from Judaism as early Christians perceived it. Luther apparently had a strong ongoing sense of sinfulness, being tormented by the ways that his varied motivations as a human being were inconsistent with his commitments to following God’s will. The Catholic Church of Luther’s time often seemed in practice to have gone back to the legalism that Christians tend to attribute to the Pharisees, in which we have to save ourselves by obeying the rules set by God. The medieval church reconciled this to Christian teaching about grace by saying that God’s grace still requires enough of a response from us to allow us to save ourselves. Even if we save ourselves from mortal sin and avoid going to hell, we will still have to sweat out our lesser sins in purgatory before we can be saved, and it’s this view of how sin is expiated that justified the sale of indulgences.  Luther was still tormented by this, because he could never be sure that he had responded enough to God’s grace to be saved. Re-reading the book of Romans, however, he concluded that the church was wrong to believe that we saved ourselves at all: only God could save us. We were solely justified by faith, not by actions. We could only throw ourselves on God’s mercy.

The positive thing to note here is that Luther went back to his experience. Trying to open himself to God’s grace, he went back to the openness of the brain’s right hemisphere rather than being solely dependent on the representations of the left. Rather than just accepting that he couldn’t be sure of salvation under the church’s model of how it worked, he compared his experience of sinfulness to his experience of God and the experience of what he interpreted as God’s grace working in his life. He found that the church’s teachings didn’t fit his most profound and valuable experiences, so he gave those experiences higher priority, and had the courage to try to make new beliefs that were more adequate to those experiences. Of course, that could only be part of a long journey of developing beliefs that are more adequate to the conditions, and we can look back at it today and are struck by how far he was from any destination. But nor have we reached any final destination today. The Middle Way was a journey for him as it is for us, responding as well as we can to the conditions of each time and place.

Picture: Martin Luther as an Augustinian Monk, by Lucas Cranach the Elder (public domain)

Alexander von Humboldt, synthesist

I’ve recently been reading a very interesting book, ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, The Lost Hero of Science’ by Andrea Wulf, which has made me much more aware of the profound scientific legacy of Humboldt (a figure who seems to be largely forgotten in Anglophone countries). Humboldt (1769-1859) was a towering figure of science, not because he created a massive new theory like Newton or Einstein, but because of the way he linked different spheres of discussion together to recognise new conditions. He can be a new source of inspiration today precisely because science, and indeed the academic world in general, suffers so much from over-specialisation and the narrowing of assumptions that this brings with it.

Humboldt was born into an aristocratic family in Prussia at the time of Prussia’s increasing ascendancy in Germany, but before its unification. Influenced by Goethe and Kant, he treated human understanding as an interconnected whole, developing a concept of nature that recognised all these interconnections at a time when few of them were understood. He was the first to recognise the relationship between animals, plants, geology and climate across the world, and the first to warn of the destructive effects of human activity on the environment, including climate change. He spoke and read four languages fluently and was as equally at home in Paris, London, Washington, or Bogota as he was in Berlin. He travelled to South America and Russia, combining meticulous observation, intrepid exploration, and broad awareness of the relationships between all the phenomena he observed. Back in Paris and Berlin, he wrote books that interwove geology, astronomy, botany, zoology, human geography and politics, describing his experiences with sensitivity and power and illustrating them visually, as well as providing all the data. He spoke to the public and became massively popular, as well as being an inspiration for such varied figures as Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau, George Perkins Marsh, Ernst Haeckel and John Muir. The great strength of Wulf’s book is that she unites an engrossing account of Humboldt’s own life and achievements with one of his influence on all of these figures.humboldt-bonpland_chimborazoHumboldt’s way of doing science united analysis with synthesis in a way that seems to be largely lost today. His general conclusions could be backed up with detailed evidence from observation that was often first-hand, but at the same time he could pan out and make links between diverse fields of study. For example, he noted the effects of the Spanish colonial system on the environment of South America, and the impoverishment of plant and animal life it was already creating in some areas, even whilst abundant life thrived in those less affected by human interference. He also linked human-created deforestation to a feedback loop of climate change, as the lack of trees desiccated a local environment. To make links in this way, across the boundaries of politics, botany, meteorology and geography, is to synthesise, creating new understanding, rather than just to analyse causes and justifications within an accepted field of discourse.

Some of the thinkers I most admire today are synthesisers who have likewise linked together fields that are often falsely separated: Carl Jung, Iain McGilchrist, or Nassim Nicholas Taleb, for instance. But synthetic thinkers today have the odds massively stacked against them, and are typically forced by the academic system to plough a narrow furrow for many years before they can be allowed to synthesise and be taken seriously. ‘The academic system’ here means peer-reviewed journals that take the limited assumptions of a particular specialisation as their sole basis, and expect highly-evidenced work covering a small area that can be fitted into an existing accepted framework of knowledge. Anything in the least synthetic is almost automatically rejected by such journals, and even if they are supposedly inter-disciplinary they are often highly limited in the starting assumptions they will accept. No academic career is possible without the support of these journals, and thus the triumph of analysis over synthesis maintains a stranglehold over the academic world.

But if you read about Humboldt’s scientific world of the early nineteenth century, you find quite a different world. Here a scientist was still largely thought of as an individual thinker and observer rather than someone who had to conform to a massive socially-regulated project. Here synthetic abilities could still be recognised, appreciated and cultivated alongside those of analysis and observation. The scientists were much fewer in number and had much more limited facilities at their disposal, but they still made great breakthroughs, because they were free to reflect on their experience from a variety of perspectives and thus come up with new theories. Humboldt’s recognition of what we now call ecological relationships was a discovery that could hardly be of greater practical importance to us today – probably much greater importance than the relative breakthroughs made today by specialised teams who persist in ploughing a well-ploughed furrow a little bit further.

Of course, it would be easy to idealise that earlier scientific world, and the current one has many other advantages. What seems important to me is not to in any way belittle the efforts of scientists in the current specialised system, but to encourage awareness of the overall limitations of that system and urge it to incorporate more synthesis. It is like a tree that has grown strongly in one direction when the light was available there, but now lacks the flexibility to grow in a new direction when the source of light moves. The scientific system depends on the education system, which gives far too little grounding in philosophical, psychological and emotional awareness which would help people more readily see the limitations of a specialised position. In turn philosophy itself needs root and branch reform, because it has been warped in mistaken imitation of over-specialised science, rather than fulfilling its practical function of a general critical consideration of our widest beliefs and assumptions. Without a recognition of the perspective from which synthesis is so important, we are unlikely to be motivated in changing our institutions to encourage it. Looking back at the strengths of what was done in the past can at least provide a vein of inspiration for that, even if it doesn’t tell us exactly how to act today.


Picture: Humboldt and Bonpland by Mount Chimborazo by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (public domain)

Arguing in the stoa

Several times recently I’ve come across friends mentioning neo-Stoicism as an increasingly popular movement. This is perhaps an aspect of a wider revival of interest in the Hellenistic philosophies of the later Greek and Roman times (Stoicism, Scepticism and Epicureanism) as practical ways of life, perhaps developing out of frustration with the dogmatic limitations of analytic philosophy on the one hand and established religions on the other. Coincidentally, too, I’ve recently been teaching about these Hellenistic philosophies in an adult education class, and finding they raise a lot of interest in the students. This revival of interest may well have a lot to do with a search for the Middle Way, integrating experience and avoiding both positive and negative dogmas. But there are also limitations in the traditions of the Hellenistic philosophies themselves that carry the danger of them becoming new dogmas for the people that adopt them.

Perhaps I’ll write some other blogs in the future about Scepticism/ Pyrrhonism and Epicureanism, but here I want to focus on Stoicism, which seems to be the most popular of the three at present. Stoicism is a long and influential tradition, beginning with Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), popular amongst educated Romans, and marked by such famous figures as Chrysippus, Cicero, Seneca, Epictetus and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius. The term ‘Stoicism’ came from the stoa (porch or colonnade) where the earliest Stoics used to hold their discussions. It also had a major influence on the development of early Christianity. zeno_of_citium

What might be attracting people to Stoicism today? I suspect that the integration of philosophical theory with moral and spiritual practice is a key element. Established modern thinking has suffered so much from the unnecessary disjunction of facts and values, and accompanying impoverishment of ethics, that people would have good reasons for yearning for a philosophical era before the breach occurred. But meaningful ethics is also an activity needing practical support rather than just instruction.

Writers such as Pierre Hadot and Martha Nussbaum have done a great deal to raise awareness of the spiritual and therapeutic practices in Stoicism, which have a great deal in common with Buddhist practice. For someone with a background in Buddhist meditation, the Stoic practice of prosoche sounds very much like mindfulness, and oikeoisis very much like loving-kindness meditation. There is also an attractive meditation exercise called the ‘flight of the soul’ or ‘view from above’, in which you put your life into perspective by imagining a flight into the sky and look down on the circumstances of your current life. For more on Stoic practices, see this excellent booklet by a number of collaborating academics.

It would be quite possible to make use of such practices without necessarily accepting Stoic philosophy, and indeed, I would argue with Stoicism (as with Christianity, Islam or any other tradition) that one is responsible for one’s own interpretation of it, and can always make use of the resources that it offers whilst taking care to avoid its absolutisations. However, I think it is important to be aware that Stoicism is also a dogmatic philosophy. There is always a danger when people adopt such material from another context that they will gloss over the dogmatic elements, which may seem to have a much more limited practical impact than the more obvious dogmas today coming from evangelical pulpits or the propaganda of groups like Daesh/ Isis. Even if we take such dogmas on board only because they seem to be part of the deal in a practically useful package, there is still a danger that they can be used to support unhelpful absolute judgements further down the line after the approach has become more established and enculturated.

The central dogma of Stoic philosophy is the metaphysical belief in the logos or rational ordering of nature. The universe is believed to have a purpose, and human beings to be too easily distracted from that purpose. Nevertheless, Stoic practice is believed to help us develop the orthos logos, or natural order within each of us as individuals, which then fits into the cosmic order. To do this we can use integrative practices and become aware of our biases. There seems to me here an obvious dogmatic leap: because we overcome our biases and become more objective in our judgement, we do not necessarily participate in a natural order. Given that the appeal to a natural order is so frequently the basis of biased assumptions and fallacious reasoning, a dangerous contradiction thus lies at the heart of Stoic thinking.

The links between Stoicism and early Christianity should also be evident here. Christians have often taken the Stoic logos and merely installed God as the overseer of this natural order. But whether or not there is a personality at the head of it, belief in and absolute order of nature raises the same problems, foremost of which is the problem of evil. If the order of the universe is ultimately good, why do we encounter so much evil in it? The same theological arguments found over evil in Christianity are also found in the Stoic tradition, and they seem to me to arise not because there aren’t hidden benefits to what we take to be ‘evil’ that we would do well to recognise, but because the goodness of nature (with or without God) is absolutised. Whatever explanations for evil and suffering we come up with, they are never likely to fully vindicate the extent of it that we encounter. But we have no need to adopt this belief in absolute cosmic good in the first place when it tends to lead us into defending and vindicating evil.

Together with the metaphysics of logos in Stoicism, there is also an epistemological dogma: the phantasia kataleptike. This is the belief that, despite sceptical arguments to the contrary, it is possible to gain certainty in our beliefs about the cosmos, because our language is capable of representing the truth as long as it is fully formed into propositions, justified by experience in normal reliable circumstances and known by a wise man. This is an approach that closely parallels that of scientific naturalists today, who tend to dismiss sceptical arguments that cast doubt on claims to knowledge by assuming the reliability of normal observation and demanding positive reasons to justify doubt. The trouble is, of course, that we have no way of knowing whether or not our observations take place in ‘normal’ circumstances, and all the evidence about the way we process the meaning of language suggests that it does not simply form truth-correspondent propositions that can be reliably verified. Without a wider sceptical perspective we are liable to get stuck in the most basic cognitive bias of them all – confirmation bias. The Stoics may well believe the universe is ordered because they interpret the world they observe in those terms, which then reinforces their belief that the universe is ordered.

I find that when raising issues like this about any tradition of thinking, they are readily dismissed as philosophers’ quibbles. But, particularly when a tradition has been revived or reinterpreted relatively recently, it seems a great shame if people nevertheless adopt dogmas from the past rather than taking the opportunity to correct past mistakes. To do so doesn’t necessarily mean abandoning a tradition one has found fruitful, together with its potentially helpful cultural, practical and social elements, but it may mean going through a rigorous critical process to distinguish what caused things to go wrong in the past and may do so again. Most basically, I would warn that any absolutisation can be used as a shortcut to justifying the use of power. In Stoicism, for example, one can readily imagine someone claiming to be a ‘wise man’ with claimed true representations of the cosmic logos (functionally indistinguishable from religious revelations) starting a neo-Stoic cult. The best way to stop that ever happening is to ensure that absolute beliefs about the natural order are no longer part of Stoicism.

But in the meantime, I wouldn’t want to discourage anyone from engaging with the rich resources of Stoic practice if they find it helpful to do so, provided they do so also with critical discrimination. Indeed, the Hellenistic philosophies in general offer a great field of cultural and philosophical resources that until recently was largely forgotten and misunderstood by Western philosophers. I’d particularly recommend Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life and Martha Nussbaum’s Therapy of Desire to anyone wanting to engage with the Hellenistic philosophies as practice.