An Interview with Donald Robertson

Interview conducted by Dan Lampert of the Orlando Stoics

In September 2017, I had a fascinating interview with Donald Robertson. He is a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, writer, and trainer.  He’s also the author of five books on philosophy and psychotherapy (plus dozens of articles in professional journals and magazines). Three of his books are about Stoicism: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, and Build your Resilience. And he’s currently working on a new book about the Stoicism of Marcus Aurelius. We talked about upcoming Stoic events, his CBT book, and about the worldwide event Stoic Week.

DL = Dan Lampert (Founder of The Orlando Stoics and Editor of Indifferents Quarterly)

DR = Donald Robertson

...Enter Dan and Donald

DL: Good morning. Let’s start by talking about Modern Stoicism (the movement) and Stoicon (the event in October 2017).

DR: I'm one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism, which was founded by Prof. Chris Gill at Exeter University in England in 2012.  (See modernstoicism.com)  I run the Stoic Week and Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT) courses on their behalf.  This year I'm also the organizer of the annual Stoicon conference on Modern Stoicism, and Stoicon-x Toronto.  Stoicon is now in its fifth year and it's been growing annually - we're expecting 400 delegates this year, making it the largest conference on Stoicism ever as far as I'm aware.  Last year, 3,400 people took part online in Stoic Week and this year we're expecting that to increase - at the time of writing 1,900 people have already enrolled.  Stoic Week begins on 16th October this year and you can find out more at learn.modernstoicism.com.

DL: What city do you live in, and what local Stoic group are you a member of?

DR: Halifax, NS, at the moment.  I'm not a member of a local Stoic group, though.

DL: The four cardinal values in Stoicism are wisdom, courage, justice, and temperance. Yet much of the world seems to be heading in another direction: consumerism and superficial values. What Stoic bridge or concept can we (as meetup organizers) use to help people discover the value of Stoicism?

DR: I've been running workshops on Stoicism for about twenty years now.  My experience has been that most people become interested in Stoicism by reading “The Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius or a modern book on the subject like William Irvine's “A Guide to the Good Life”.  Steer people toward good introductory resources to help get them started.  (I wrote Crash Course in Stoicism for that reason.)  Psychological exercises are my area of specialism, and I've also found those important in helping people to discover the personal value of Stoicism, particularly the one we call the View from Above today.  Stoic Week is also designed as an introduction to Stoicism and probably ten thousand people around the world have now taken part over the past five years, so I'd suggest to other newcomers to look into that.  Cognitive therapists know that social proof is important.  People are motivated to explore philosophical and psychological ideas when they see other people just like them persevering and reporting benefits from doing so.  Groups are incredibly valuable in that respect, as they allow people to meet others and learn from their experience.  That's always how Stoicism was meant to be.  There are no gurus in Stoicism.  As Seneca said, rather than a physician handing down prescriptions to his patients, he saw himself as a man undergoing treatment, turning to the patient in the hospital bed beside him and sharing his personal observations on how things have gone so far, what worked and what didn't, etc.  I suspect that was the attitude of the Stoa's founders, as well as none of them claimed to be perfectly wise, and the sect rejected the name "Zenonians" in favour of simply calling themselves the philosophers of the porch.

DL: In your popular book "The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy", chapter 8 discusses how modern CBT includes mindful meditation practices and is similar to Buddhist practices. Where do you draw the line between human conditions that are treatable (or not) with Stoic practices?

DR: For any diagnosable mental health condition, any modern cognitive therapist is duty-bound to recommend assessment by a trained professional and the use of relevant evidence-based protocols as the first line of treatment.  Stoicism can play a part in that as an adjunct to CBT.  Then there are many subclinical problems, which people experience, many of which can be helped with Stoicism, or a combination of Stoicism and CBT.  That's the broad answer.  A more specific response might be to say that Stoicism is useful for subclinical problems.  It's maybe less relevant than CBT: for instance in treating things like specific phobias or panic attacks, where quite particular techniques are known to be most effective.  Individuals with GAD or OCD might not respond well to using something as philosophical as Stoicism, perhaps, although individuals always vary to some extent.  Where there's risk, as in major depression or anorexia, we also have to be more cautious about recommending the use of alternative methods such as Stoicism.  But almost any CBT can be tinged with Stoic ideas and practices if the client is interested in using them.  There are also areas where Stoicism can help, but guidance is often needed.  For example, people with GAD (or who are prone to worry) might easily find that some Stoic techniques backfire if not done in the right way, whereas done properly they can be beneficial.  The main technique I see people having problems with is premeditation of adversity or imaginal exposure.  That's where guidance from a modern therapist can help.  For example, it's well-known that many people fail to benefit from exposure therapy (or even make themselves worse) because they underestimate the amount of time required for habituation to take place, and feelings of anxiety to abate naturally, in a healthy manner.  Our instinct is to cut the exercise short, but that can prevent it from working or even leave us more sensitized to anxiety cues.

DL: In your blog, an entry from 2016 described that your CBT book started as a synthesis of Pierre Hadot's psychological strategies and modern CBT ideas. Can you give us an example of how these two areas merged in your mind?

DR: I'm a "techniques guy" in the field of therapy.  And so I like to systematize and categorize different sorts of techniques in therapy.  When I read Hadot's books, I immediately realized that what he called "spiritual exercises" were essentially psychotherapy exercises -- and in many cases -- they fall into the same categories as familiar CBT techniques.  So, in my first book on Stoicism, I set about trying to provide a comprehensive overview of the relationship and drawing connections between all the different Stoic and CBT exercises that shared common ground.  The key thing is that the Stoics adopted a cognitive theory of emotions, and that fundamental premise is shared with modern cognitive therapy, so they're bound to have arrived at similar conclusions about strategies and techniques.  There's also a considerable direct influence of Stoicism on CBT, mainly mediated through the Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy of Albert Ellis, who had read the Stoics.  For instance, Epictetus repeatedly tells his students not to allow their minds to be swept along by troubling impressions, into rumination or worry, etc.  He tells them to gain respite until their feelings abate naturally by telling themselves that it's not things that upset them, but their own judgements and apostrophizing the impression, talking to it, and saying "You are just an impression and not at all the things you claim to represent."  That's clearly similar to the technique of cognitive distancing in modern CBT and methods such as worry postponement, which are common to multiple treatment protocols, especially in GAD.

DL: You've recently conducted a Stoic class online. What new material did you cover? When will the next class be?

DR: My last course was called “How to Think Like a Roman Emperor” and it's about the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, focusing on how his life can help us to understand his use of Stoic philosophy and psychology.  So my aim was to try to introduce people to Stoicism as a way of life, but from a totally different angle, compared to SMRT or Stoic Week, etc.  Marcus opened “The Meditations” by looking in depth at his role models.  That's how the ancient Stoics thought we should learn virtue.  There's no question they believed that was more powerful than reading books.  So in the absence of a living example, we look at how Marcus' life and character can help us to understand Stoicism.  I think that when you approach a subject from a radically different point of view, it's very valuable.  It often opens up new connections and resolves old problems.  For example, the two most common misconceptions about Stoicism are arguably that the focus on acceptance might make us overly-passive, like doormats, or that it's somehow cold and unemotional, like Mr. Spock in Star Trek.  Well, these misunderstandings can be tedious to address by arguing from the perspective of textual analysis or philosophical exposition. However, when we look at Marcus as a living example of Stoicism, they just dissolve.  He clearly wasn't passive -- quite the opposite.  He also happens to have been an exceptionally warm and affectionate man.  We can take those aspects of his life and character then and show how they're reflections of what Stoicism actually teaches us: the importance of virtuous action, and the central role of natural affection in Stoic Ethics.

DL: In the USA, we know Stoicism is popular with Silicon Valley and people in the military. Why doesn't it appeal to the general population more widely?

DR: Well, I believe it's a bit more diverse than that.  For Modern Stoicism, we have collected huge volumes of demographic data from Stoic Week and SMRT.  So, we can see people from different countries and backgrounds are involved, and that's also reflected in the attendance at our conferences.  I'd say the people who are interested in Stoicism do fall into several discernible groups, though:

  • The military
  • Academic philosophers and classicists
  • Psychotherapists
  • Motivational speakers and corporate trainers
  • People interested in a Western alternative to Buddhism
  • People interested in a more secular alternative to Christianity
  • Sportsmen and people who are interested in self-discipline and endurance

I'm amazed at how many people are interested in Stoicism, though.  I think it helps to view it in terms of the number of people who read The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius -- the most popular book on Stoicism.  My barber loves Marcus Aurelius.  I was talking to my girlfriend about that at a local bar, and one of the young hipster guys serving us beer rolled up his sleeve and showed me his Marcus Aurelius tattoo, then his co-worked overheard and told us that he loved The Meditations as well.  There are Stoics everywhere, in all walks of life, in my experience.  Even with the reach that Modern Stoicism has through the media and events like Stoic Week, we've still only scratched the surface.

DL: What is the future of Stoicism in our world? Specifically, what groups (who know little about Stoicism) could be served by a Stoic education?

DR: It's got a lot of potential to reach a wider general audience in my view.  However, in particular, Stoicism is absolutely ideal as a possible solution to a specific problem in psychology: "stress prevention" or resilience-building.  CBT is designed to be remedial and short-term by nature.  Stoicism is preventative and long-term.  Many features of Stoicism make it more suited to long-term resilience training than CBT, in my view.  Not many people get Albert Ellis tattoos but I've seen plenty of Stoic tattoos now… the point being that people identify with Stoicism at a deeper level and that makes it more suited as a long-term change strategy, compared to conventional CBT.

DL: As an organizer for Stoic Week, tell us the purpose of this global event and when is the next one?

DR: Stoic Week runs for seven days each year, since 2013, and this year it begins on the 16th of October.  It's an international online event, open to everyone, and completely free of charge.  The format is a seven-day course, consisting of reading and practical exercises, designed by a multi-disciplinary team of experts.  We gather detailed information from participants, which has helped us to refine the content over the years.  Tim LeBon's analysis each year consistently shows about a 10% improvement in validated measures of well-being and mood… the same measures used in standard CBT clinical trials or Positive Psychology, etc.  That's a good improvement for such a short period of time: seven days.  Treatment protocols would normally last longer and be more focused on specific skill sets.  Stoic Week is more intended as an introduction to modern Stoicism.  That's why we developed SMRT, which lasts four weeks and is more narrowly focused on skills training.  It produced similar but much larger results, which suggests that there's a "dose effect" to Stoicism.  A little bit of Stoic practice is good, but doing four times as much Stoicism has bigger benefits.  That's still pretty short-term, though, so it would be interesting to see what the long-term effects of using a more long-term protocol would be, as Stoicism itself is really a philosophy and way of life, rather than a set of psychological techniques.  Nevertheless, it's reassuring to know that when we extract the psychological techniques and test them, they do work.