Plato is my agony aunt

It was the end of a love affair that broke her heart. Could the wisdom of the great philosophers show her how to be happy again? Claire Smith tries a novel form of therapy
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

"The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates said. Nor is the life you're left with after your boyfriend has left you for another woman - at least, that's how it felt in October last year when mine broke rank and went off with an art student from Cleveland, Ohio. We were over there for the opening of his new art exhibition. He'd flown over four days before me and had met her at a party. Supposedly, they "connected".

"The unexamined life is not worth living," Socrates said. Nor is the life you're left with after your boyfriend has left you for another woman - at least, that's how it felt in October last year when mine broke rank and went off with an art student from Cleveland, Ohio. We were over there for the opening of his new art exhibition. He'd flown over four days before me and had met her at a party. Supposedly, they "connected".

The five months that followed were a roller-coaster of confusion, vitriol and despair. I knew there'd been problems in our relationship. We saw the world very differently; he delighted in the charm of the ordinary, I wanted maximum divinity. He walked; I galloped. He drank tea; I loathed the stuff. But, along the banks of the Thames, we'd made a promise to always stick together. Our love was something unique: "transcendental", I called it. And besides, we recycled. Surely a commitment to save the world would save our relationship? Alas, no.

So there I was, a woman scorned. Hell truly hath no greater fury. And what made it worse was that I still believed in our transcendental love. If I wanted to change the way I was feeling, I needed to alter the way I was thinking. But how? A few bottles of wine and a sharp blow to the head might have done the trick. Fortunately, there's an older, more trusted way of turning your head on its head that counsellors are starting to use: philosophy.

The idea of employing Plato as an agony aunt was begun in 1981 by the German philosopher Gerd Achenbach. Although philosophy spends a lot of its time asking real-life questions that affect real-life people - What is happiness? And is it always wrong to lie? - most of the debate goes on in ivory towers. What Achenbach and subsequent philosophers including Tim LeBon, the chairman of the UK's Society for Philosophy in Practice, wanted to do was "give practical application" to this gigantic library of great thoughts.

So how does it work? Like most types of therapy, you sign up for a set of sessions. "Two would give you a new perspective on one issue; six would help you to make a major life-decision, like a career change; with 12 you can start to rethink your entire life philosophy," explains LeBon. Each session lasts 50 minutes and costs £50 - and, no, you don't have to have any previous knowledge of philosophy.

"If you think of Friends, it would suit Ross and Chandler more than Joey," LeBon says. "It's for anyone who wants to make their emotions more intelligent. Or for those who have tried other kinds of therapy, and want something more cerebral."

The first session begins with the patient venting off about whatever's troubling them. The rant over, the counsellor then picks out some key concepts that are crucial to the problem - in the case of heartbreak, it is love and happiness that come hurtling to the fore - and then gets the patient to define what they mean. So, what is love? What is happiness?

To kick-start the patient's thinking, LeBon describes what a great philosopher had to say about it. In my case, he tells me what Plato wrote about love in his Symposium: that to stop man fighting the gods, Zeus decided to cut each human in two, so they would lose their strength. "This, then, is the source of our desire to love each other," Plato said. "Each of us is a 'matching half' of a human whole, because each was sliced like a flatfish, two out of one, and each of us is always seeking the half that matches him."

This method of probing what we might think are "obvious" ideas, such as love and happiness, was devised by Socrates in the squares of Athens. "The only I thing I know is that I know nothing at all," he boasted. What Socrates showed was that although many of the thinkers of his time thought they knew what justice, happiness and goodness meant, their understanding was tied in to their personal agenda and world view, and, what's more, when pushed, their ideas often contradicted themselves.

A bit like me on love. Whereas part of my understanding of love was something that gave life meaning, made it worth living and bound us together, I also believed that true love was "transcendental": that it was out of this world, and it didn't matter if the two people who loved each other couldn't get along in the day-to-day. Love was bigger than the mundane.

But when it came to the next stage of the therapy, critical thinking - "to check out whether your assumptions stand up to examination" - I walked head first into a contradiction. If I think love's purpose is to make life worth living, but then say it's irrelevant to daily life, surely my two ideas of love are not compatible?

As the cogs in my brain start to creak into motion, I feel myself taking a step back from my predicament: thinking about how I've been thinking. This idea I had of transcendental love might have started off as a romantic dream. But when the relationship stopped working, and I found myself feeling trapped and frustrated, I used it to justify the mechanics of a relationship that just didn't work in the daily grind. I used it to lie to myself.

In the final stage, LeBon gets me to start thinking about how to go forward. "You can't change what has happened," he says. "You can't change that he's left you, or how you behaved in the relationship. So, as the Stoics did, let's work on controlling the controllables: the things that you can change."

To work out what can be changed, he gets me to try out a thought experiment, a method often used in philosophy to imagine other worlds where people can have different codes of behaviour. Thought experiments shatter your preconceived ideas of how the world should be and let your imagination run wild to how the world could be. "I find Viktor Frankl very useful here, the Austrian psychiatrist and concentration-camp survivor who actually believed that everything in life happens for a purpose," LeBon says.

"Suppose this break-up did happen for a reason that will work to your benefit," he suggests. "What might that be? The answer might be that you can now focus on something important that was denied in the relationship. Or - the Hollywood version - so you'll meet someone who is really right for you."

Temporarily freed of any sense of responsibility for the relationship that was, and its sorry demise, the list came fast. I could now travel more; he didn't like me travelling on my own, but too often he didn't want to go anywhere, preferring to stay in his studio and make art. I'd love to meet someone with a similar sense of adventure to mine.

For the first time in two years, I was being honest with myself about what I really wanted - listening to those voices that we all have inside our heads, and too often try to muzzle.

So did philosophy save me? Well, I'm now dating a travel writer I have to run to keep up with. I still haven't got over the fact that my replacement came from Cleveland, Ohio. But I guess I never will.

Tim LeBon can be reached by e-mail at timlebon@aol.com

A FEW WORDS FROM THE WISE

Compiled by Ed Caesar

* "At the touch of love, everyone becomes a poet" - Plato

* "There is always some madness in love. But there is also always some reason in madness" - Friedrich Nietzsche

* "That man shall live as his own master and in happiness who can say each day 'I have lived'" - Horace

* "The good of man is the active exercise of his soul's faculties in conformity with excellence or virtue... Moreover this activity must occupy a complete lifetime; for one swallow does not make spring, nor does one fine day; and similarly one day or a brief period of happiness does not make a man supremely blessed and happy" - Aristotle

* "There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than friendship" - Thomas Aquinas

* "Whatever you do... love those who love you" - Voltaire

* "Happiness is not an ideal of reason but of imagination" - Immanuel Kant

* "Happiness is a state of which you are unconscious. The moment you are aware that you are happy, you cease to be happy" - Jiddu Krishnamurti

* "Love is an ideal thing. Marriage is a real thing" - Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Comments