I think, therefore I am in need of Socrates

Move over Carole Caplin. The new gurus of self-help are philosophical counsellors from beyond the grave

By Jonathan Thompson
Sunday 21 July 2013 06:59

Philosophical counselling, where people needing a new way of thinking about their lives are guided not by someone peddling the latest theories but by some of the biggest brains in history, is booming.

Hundreds of Britons have undergone this form of therapy, where they are helped to resolve their issues by studying the works of some of mankind's greatest thinkers.

A philosophical counsellor - and there are now thought to be around 20 practising in Britain - listens carefully to the person's problem before applying the insights and methods of any number of great philosophers. The client is then given relevant reading to do before the problem is debated further, and hopefully resolved. Socrates would describe it as "the examined life"; in America, it's been called "therapy for the sane".

One of the country's leading philosophical counsellers, and chairman of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP), Tim LeBon, said it typically took around six 50-minute sessions for a client to move from confusion to resolution.

"Philosophical counselling facilitates someone thinking through a difficult issue or situation," he said. "They might be suffering from anxiety, stress or depression, and what's their response? They may well take medication primarily - but they will still be left with the situation."

Mr LeBon, who has published a book on the subject, Wise Therapy, said philosophy was perfectly suited to this type of therapy, dealing as it does with timeless human issues such as love, purpose, happiness and emotional challenges.

Another London-based philosophical counsellor, David Arnaud, said this approach was particularly useful for people with life decisions to make.

"I see a lot of people who have reached a major turning point and are looking for some kind of guidance, clarity or a way forward," said Mr Arnaud. "Our capacity to think about what we really value is overridden by a need to be continually fighting fires. This kind of approach enables people to clarify what is really important to them."

The growth of philosophical counselling is part of a recent broader popularisation of philosophy. Fuelled by the publication of books such as Sophie's World and Alain de Botton's bestselling The Consolations of Philosophy, the discipline has become more mainstream, with Psychologies magazine reporting that university applications to study the subject have risen by 20 per cent in recent years.

But despite its rapid growth, the success of philosophical counselling has been regarded warily by some more traditional philosophers. Adrian Moore, a professor of philosophy at Oxford University, said he was "sceptical" of the approach.

"If philosophy can help people to think more clearly, then it can make a contribution. But if they believe that philosophy is going to be able to provide them with solutions to major crises in their lives, then that would be a mistake," said Professor Moore.

'Plato got me back on track'

This year, Abbie Cohen's life reached a major crossroads - and Plato showed her which direction to take.

The newly graduated 23-year-old from London had no idea where she was going or what she should do for a living. Feeling rudderless and anxious, and under pressure from her father to follow him into banking, she decided to seek advice from a philosophical counsellor. She describes it as one of the best decisions she's made.

"It put things into perspective and gave me the confidence to make the decision I had to," says Ms Cohen. Over the course of six hour-long sessions, she and her counsellor put her life into context, largely through reference to Plato's Symposium.

She decided that a life in the City was not for her. She now works as a professional fashion stylist, and says she hasn't looked back since opening her copy of Symposium.


The 'IoS' asked Tim LeBon, chair of the Society for Philosophy in Practice, for a philosophical counsellor's verdict on five key thinkers:


Socrates (470-399BC):

The unexamined life is not worth living.

LeBon: Socrates saw the definition of terms as the beginning of wisdom.


Aristotle (384-322BC):

To be angry with the right person at the right time... in the right way... isn't easy.

LeBon: His notion of practical wisdom is very helpful


Epictetus (AD55-135):

It is not events that affect us, but our interpretations of them.

LeBon: The Stoics help clients to deal with difficult emotions such as anxiety and anger.

John Stuart Mill

J S Mill (1806-73):

It is better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.

LeBon: Mill felt happiness is about leading the sort of life that someone well-informed would choose.

Viktor Frankl

Viktor Frankl (1905-97):

Everything can be taken from a man but one thing... to choose one's own way.

LeBon: Frankl helps people to find purpose and deal with suffering.

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