Philosophical Counselling and Philosophy as a Way of Life: Wide Conception of Wisdom
Abstract: The main theme of this article is that Philosophical Counselling needs to integrate deeply with the idea of philosophy as an orientation that is characterised by certain values and attitudes towards life. The concept of wisdom refers to many moral virtues as well as to the means of achieving personally satisfying states such as tranquillity. Counsellors should act in the light of such a value-based understanding of wisdom, and seek to determine what a wise person would do in the counsellee's situation. Our philosophical traditions help us in answering this question, and in most cases the counsellor's task is to find the historical ideas and practices that best suit the counsellee's unique circumstances of life.
It has often been said that the goal of philosophical practice is wisdom (Achenbach, 1998 and 2002; Lahav, 2001 and 2006). This is of course not a surprising view, given the original conception of philosophy as love of wisdom. But wisdom is a philosophically challenging concept: it is by no means obvious what we mean by it. Since we do not wish to be ignorant about our aims, some conceptual explication is necessary. I will also try to elucidate the practices of counselling as they appear from the point of view of wisdom.
We cannot know whether the concepts and conceptions of wisdom of different people overlap each other without examining them together. This article can be seen as a contribution to such an effort. On the one hand I do not see any reason to assume a priori that all readers have the same conception of wisdom. Philosophy as love of wisdom may correspondingly mean different things to different people. On the other hand I do not believe that agreement of conceptions is impossible; and perhaps there are even now more similarities in our conceptions of wisdom than one might initially assume.
The great majority of my remarks are intended to apply independently of whether the counsellor wishes to receive monetary compensation for his time. Payment might generate expectations and feelings of obligation in the clients and their counsellors, but I think that these are not essential in the present context. For instance, a paying client might expect not to have his views of life to be called into question. My standpoint is that if Philosophical Counselling is seen to include the possibility of such criticism, this client must either modify his expectations or seek help from non-philosophers.
World view interpretation
If I speak for myself and—I believe—for most people who define themselves as philosophers, wisdom surely contains self-understanding and self-knowledge, and this is reflected in the fact that philosophical practice means examining one's concepts and conceptions. Ran Lahav (1995) formerly spoke of 'world view interpretation' as the kernel of counselling, and still believes that clarifying the content of the beliefs and attitudes by which we live our lives is an important part of what philosophers do with their discussion partners (for instance Lahav, 2008a). Considering the practical nature of the questions of most counsellees, it might often be preferable to speak of interpreting views of life than of 'world view' interpretation. Michael Schefczyk (1995) sees counselling as an examination of 'life-directing conceptions'. Since these conceptions are life-directing, they define our sense of who we are and frequently intermingle with our emotions.
The primary role of the counsellor in world view examination is to suggest ways of self-reflection. The paradigmatic speech act is asking questions: 'Do you think that...' or 'What do you mean by...' Furthering another person's process of self-examination and self-explication may involve unearthing hidden presuppositions, tracing out logical implications and noticing contradictions between beliefs. Interpretation can also include an attempt to change the counsellee's views by arguments from premises that he assents to. The historical source of this critical approach is the Socratic elenchus. Even today we can scarcely call philosophical any activity that does not contain the possibility of criticism, and Philosophical Counselling should not be too counsellee-friendly in the sense of refraining from all criticism of the counsellee's choices and views of life (Fastvold, 2006; Tuedio, 2008). I do not of course mean that we should be aggressive or present criticism for criticism's sake, but sometimes a critical question or remark is in order.
Confusions, uncertainties and contradictions in the way we use concepts and express our views in counselling—difficulties in clarifying what we believe—may reflect problems in our lives: interpreting views of life can help us identify existential and moral sore spots. For example, we express contradictory beliefs in counselling because we feel torn in our lives.
One limitation in the idea of counselling as world view interpretation is that wisdom also means connecting with the world around us and with our own volitional, emotional and bodily dimensions in a way that makes our views true. We cannot confine ourselves to explicating and elucidating our world views in a manner that entirely brackets the question of how things really are (Ryan, 2007). Sometimes one finds oneself counselling people who appear to have distorted beliefs about the society they live in. It is even more common to meet people who seem to entertain either wildly optimistic or unrealistically pessimistic notions concerning the motives of the people they live with—although such matters are difficult to judge correctly from a distance. In addition there are people who do not seem to be able to arrive at satisfactory accounts of their own motives of action.
It is not uncommon that one feels compelled to try to gently question the truth-values of the counsellee's beliefs. But I think that such questions of truth enter these discussions only insofar as accuracy of representations constitutes a part of our efforts to live well. Knowledge—whether of astronomy, political institutions or our own bodies and emotions—has no claim to being a part of wisdom unless it somehow helps us to live satisfactory and morally acceptable lives (Nozick, 1989). In our time, knowledge of ecological threats and disasters, for example, could have such a claim. I am not convinced that a wise person could entirely insulate himself from these important issues.
Noticing the value of truth in the philosophical quest for wisdom leads us to see further limitations in the idea of philosophy as world view interpretation. Suppose we gain a good overview of our life-directing conceptions, and suppose we identify problems in them. If our present way of understanding our lives is unsatisfactory, how should we modify our understanding, what kinds of conceptions should we adopt? And how do we succeed in realizing these conceptions in our lives? Changing the way we live and use concepts is not merely a matter of understanding but one of will; and our will must have a direction. What kinds of guidelines do we have for finding this direction? I believe that only a wider conception of wisdom can help us with these questions.
I am not saying merely that wisdom requires us to be open to new ways of understanding ourselves and our world (Lahav, 2001 and 2006; Mattila, 2001b; Tukiainen, 2000). It is quite true that philosophy must not degenerate into self-centred conservatism with the sole interest of examining one's present views: sometimes we need radically new perspectives and novel concepts. It is also true that counsellors should try to enrich their counsellees' world views by suggesting ideas that perhaps cannot be inferred logically from their present conceptions.
My point is that openness to new ideas and attitudes is in fact a very sterile and unproductive conception of wisdom unless we have some notion of the goals or values that should guide our efforts to enrich our conceptions of life. In order to be able to find fruitful concepts and ideas, we need to have a sense of the direction which our life should have. For instance, exposure to new kinds of making sense of our experiences could be important because it can shake us free from paralysing thoughts or modes of behaviour that bring us pain. Truth is an important value, but there are many other values that a wise person will also recognise.
It is not sufficient to say that wisdom means the availability of a multitude of perspectives to reality, or that a wise person 'gives voice to the many voices of reality through his entire way of life' (Lahav, 2008d, p. 20; see also 2008c). According to this view wisdom is simply the ever-receding endpoint of being open to new ways of understanding ourselves and our world. This is still a quite formal, abstract conception of wisdom. What is it precisely that we need to understand about reality? Since this view does not give any answers, it does not guide us either. Our account of wisdom should be concrete enough to have orienting power. Wisdom of course could be an extremely empty concept that cannot provide us with that kind of power; but I do not think that this is the case.
Wide conception of wisdom
Robert Nozick captures the basic idea of the wide conception of wisdom (1989, p. 267): 'Wisdom is what you need to understand in order to live well and cope with the central problems and avoid the dangers in the predicament(s) human beings find themselves in.' He says that a wise person needs to understand many things: the most important goals and values of life; what means will reach these goals without too great a cost; what limitations are unavoidable and how to accept them; knowing when certain goals are sufficiently achieved; how to tell what is appropriate at a given time. John Kekes (1983), Sharon Ryan (1999) and Gerd Achenbach (2001) similarly emphasise that wisdom has to do with knowing how to live well.
The conception that wisdom is concerned with knowing how to live well—and I agree with this view—means that philosophers have to set emphasis on the skills, dispositions and mental states that make living well possible. While self-knowledge, knowledge of the world, an attitude of openness and the possibility of defending one's beliefs dialectically can be important and even necessary, I do not think that they are sufficient. We have to approach our subject matter from a broader perspective, and the concept of virtue should occupy a central position in our account.
Virtues are essential in any effort to live well. Self-knowledge and openness to new points of view can be regarded either as virtues or as states that virtues necessitate. But philosophical practitioners should be able to see a wider vista which includes virtues like foresight, moderation, patience, mercy, justice and greatness of soul. Lahav (2008b) says that wisdom excludes being petty and self-involved, and there seems to be no reason to count many other vices among philosophically repulsive character traits. Cruelty, thoughtlessness, recklessness, ingratitude, greed, gluttony and hubris surely do not fit our conception of wisdom. Attachment to virtues has been a part of the philosophical self-understanding from the very beginning, and I do not see any reason to sever this link. Let me take a few more examples.
The virtue of objectivity means distancing oneself from one's immediate concerns and seeing them in a larger context of human and non-human life, or even from a cosmic perspective. Plato's lofty view that human things seem puny from a 'satellite perspective' of soul's flight is a good imaginative-pictorial representation of this virtue (Hadot, 1995, pp. 238-250). The virtue of justice may presuppose, or at least benefit from, an objective view of things. And as Plato remarked, the aerial perspective gives rise to greatness of soul (Hadot, 2004, p. 68). Bertrand Russell (2006, p. 159) says that a person with greatness of soul sees 'himself and life and the world as truly as our human limitations will permit', and realizes 'the brevity and minuteness of human life'. Russell also writes in a rather Platonic and Stoic manner that a person 'who has once perceived, however temporarily and however briefly, what makes greatness of soul, can no longer be happy if he allows himself to be petty, self-seeking, troubled by trivial misfortunes, dreading what fate may have in store for him.'
Disinterestedness is a related virtue. I believe that any genuinely philosophical attitude involves a dimension of disinterested perception of life and the universe. Many therapeutic approaches to counselling seem to put quite a lot of stress on the individual and his concerns, and by the same token they appear to disregard the idea that the world ought to be experienced as it is in itself, not only as it is for us and our projects (Hadot, 1995, p. 254; see also Curnow, 2000). The world is not a mere background. Disinterestedness requires that we are able to disengage ourselves from our everyday cares and motives of action, and this means that we have to let go of an evaluative attitude towards our experiences and the world.
Our conceptions of wisdom and virtue should have room for skills and dispositions that are oriented towards avoiding dangers to our personal well-being and enabling us to cope with difficulties in our own lives. Some practical virtues like flexibility in one's aims and hopes are not so much moral virtues as ways of securing a personally tolerable or even satisfactory life. This does not mean that moral virtues do not enhance our sense of personal well-being. Often they do; and in many cases one and the same virtue—forbearance, foresight, moderation, carefulness or courage, for example—has both moral aspects and aspects that have more to do with the health of our own souls (von Wright 1963, ch. 7).
To take some historical examples of these self-regarding virtues and their objectives, Stoicism, Epicureanism, and Cynicism deepened our understanding of the ideals of ataraxia (tranquillity) and euthymia (a steady, contented state of mind); and of course they were also concerned with the practical means of attaining these ideals. Autarkeia (self-sufficiency), for example, was valued because it was seen to lead to a calm state of mind without disturbing emotions. I think that these movements suggest the following general description of a wise person (and here I draw freely from all three schools). He does not get agitated over small matters, or allow himself to be depressed by unsatisfactory external circumstances. His expectations of success are not so strong that he cannot accept failure, and he is able to develop new plans in case his original hopes are frustrated. He does not desire fame, wealth or power at the expense of his peace of mind, and he maintains his mental independence from unreasonable social conventions and expectations.
Peter B. Raabe (2000, p. 171) points out that philosophical thinking may enable us to prevent problems of life from arising. This is true; but I wish to add to his view that some problems cannot be solved, eliminated or avoided but only tolerated and endured; and from the Stoic perspective we need philosophy precisely when we cannot solve our problems—when we run against something that will not yield and that cannot be circumvented. According to Epictetus (2005) the basic philosophical problem is our attitude towards things that are not in our power: the starting point of philosophy is the awareness of our own weakness and helplessness. Philosophical ideas may offer consolation and enable us to 'take a kindly view even of misfortunes' (Seneca, 2004, p. 98). Endurance is a virtue, and philosophy can help us in realizing it.
It is important to bear in mind in this connection that philosophy does not always mean any kind of reflection, discussion or lecturing—and still less academic research. It is also a way of life and an 'existential attitude' (Hadot, 1995 and 2004). Philosophers do not necessarily write anything, and some of them do not even discuss our concepts and lives in way that could be characterised as philosophical (Hadot, 2004, p. 173). But they show their love and understanding of wisdom by their acts and manner of living. We have to speak of virtues as a part of philosophy in this spirit. In Philosophical Counselling virtues of course enter as topics of discussion, but the point is not merely to know what these virtues are, but to live differently and to become a different kind of person. Philosophical discussions do not only express and justify a way of life but also modify it.
We must always ask ourselves and our discussion partners: what are the virtues that have relevance today, in our time and in our situation? There is no point in discussing virtues that cannot help us in the life we actually lead and that do not address the situation we are in. Different eras emphasise different virtues. Different social environments and situations of life may also require and highlight different virtues (Fleming, 2000). For example, military virtues like being prepared to kill are not relevant in the lives of the majority of contemporary Europeans, and neither do they appear to believe that silent submission to political authorities is a virtue.
Even if there is no exhaustive, final list of the virtues that counselling explores and encourages, we should not assume that the virtues we need must be invented anew on a case-by-case basis. This would amount to forgetting that the worries and difficulties of different people are often the same, and that very similar virtues apply to a great number of individual cases. It would also amount to overlooking the fact that the human condition is in its main features much the same as it was two thousand years ago. The major world religions seem to get along through centuries with the same old virtues, and to a certain extent this is also true in philosophy.
An emphasis on the importance of virtues could create a too mind-focused impression of wisdom. Let us not forget to mention that wisdom is also concerned with ways of preserving bodily health and attaining pleasure. (Some of these ways could perhaps be regarded as examples of the virtue of taking care as opposed to neglecting.) For instance, Schopenhauer (1995, p. 50) counsels physical exercise as a means of preserving good health, and Seneca frequently gave the same piece of advice to his counsellees. The centrality of the notion of 'living well' in philosophy appears to make their advice quite understandable. Bodily pleasure was the objective of the Cyrenaics, and I think that we must also have some place for this notion in our philosophical thinking. Even Seneca—generally a defender of an austere way of life—writes to Serenus that we should occasionally relax properly and drink ourselves 'to the point of intoxication' because this will wash away our cares (2004, p. 105).
Counselling is not value-neutral
One way of understanding Philosophical Counselling is this: we seek to clarify what a wise person would think and do in the counsellee's situation. The counsellor has an obligation to try and give voice to his own perception of what 'Lady Wisdom' would counsel. This is what Seneca did in his letters, and I believe that this is what contemporary counsellors should do. Seneca's letters have not made anyone wise, and neither does our counselling; but counsellors can suggest new points of view and offer encouragement—perhaps better than Seneca's letters, because we meet our counsellees face-to-face and hear them explain their worries. Seneca's letters were probably intended for large audiences despite seemingly being addressed to a friend, but philosophical counsellors tailor their proposals to each individual case.
Counselling is an invitation to a philosophical way of life with its inevitable emphasis on wisdom; and wisdom is deeply evaluative. An attempt to separate philosophical practice from values—or more precisely from noble values—leads to an impoverished and unnatural image of counselling. Impoverished, because without them philosophical thinking loses much of its power to reduce our sufferings and to guide our lives. Unnatural, because philosophy has always been inspired by life-orienting ideals, and if philosophers are asked to remain as value-neutral as possible, they are quite simply asked to be something else than they are.
The idea of keeping to world view interpretation and effacing one's own thoughts and personality—thereby making counselling in the true sense of this term impossible—is perhaps partly motivated by fear of harmful influence. But sensitivity and context-awareness should not lead to inertia. There is no reason to be afraid of influencing the people we meet, or to protect their autonomy by not expressing what we think. In fact, a philosopher's understanding of what he considers important in life is revealed to the counsellee even if he tries his best to hide it. For instance, simple questions to counsellees may inadvertently betray a counsellor's views on value-related matters.
However, counsellors should avoid imposing their value-related views on counsellees. In other words the counsellee's goals and ideals should correspond at least to some extent to those of the counsellor: fruitful reflections require some common ground. In some cases the counsellor's values might be present in the counsellee's mind and heart only in a nascent form to be encouraged and amplified; but the possibility of 'beneficial criticism' (Achenbach, 2002; Tuedio, 2008) that does not alienate or discourage the counsellee depends on such an initial agreement of attitudes. The idea that counsellors should suggest to their counsellees notions that have no connection whatever—logical or associative—with their present way of seeing things, or views that they cannot really understand and adopt as their own, is surely misguided. We have to start from the understanding we have and strive to find and foster what is good within us. This is to me the essential content of Socratic maieutics.
Let me explain what I mean by a value or virtue being 'nascent'. It is my experience that most people have thoughts and attitudes that are not a part of their mainstream self (see also Lahav, 2008d). For instance, the necessities of work in modern offices, factories and schools tend to bring to the fore our industrious and efficient side; but most of us are not like that all of the time. Some of us may declare that industriousness and efficiency are not virtues at all unless they serve some genuinely useful purpose. Similarly, a person might not have given much thought to virtues like patience and greatness of soul, but this does not mean that he does not or cannot understand their meaning and importance. If he begins to hope that these virtues could help him towards peace of mind, he may want to accord them a larger role in his life.
Since a counsellor cannot be value-neutral or refrain from expressing his own understanding of life, he should perhaps formulate in written form—or by using audiovisual techniques—the views and attitudes he has so that the counsellee will know in broad outline what he can expect from his sessions. This is especially advisable in case the counsellee has to make financial sacrifices in order to be able to meet the counsellor. The fact that Philosophical Counselling involves value-grounded attitudes towards life might entail that the kind of counselling one wants to offer is not suitable for all those who are interested in personal philosophical reflections. For example, I do not hesitate to express to counsellees my attitude that worrisome toiling for wealth may not be rational after some suitable level of material welfare has been reached, and neither do I hide my conviction that personal autonomy is an important value. It may be futile to see a counsellor whose values are quite different from one's own, because his questions and comments might not articulate one's own sense of what counts as a good reason for action—even if we allow for that sense to be hidden and merely potential.
Philosophy as therapy?
Recognising the wide meaning of wisdom means that the distinction between Philosophical Counselling and therapeutic alleviation of suffering is not as sharp as Lahav (2006) says. If we allow counselling to involve value- and especially virtue-related interests and pursuits, it can help counsellees either to avoid or to accept many sources of anxiety and irritation. For instance, a capacity to take a distant, objective look at our lives is a therapeutic philosophical virtue because it enables us to see the smallness of our worries. Mercifulness with respect to our own shortcomings and those of others soothes our feelings of anger and disappointment, and indifference towards external matters makes us readier to accept our circumstances even when they appear distressing. Forward-looking virtues like prudence protect us from many sorrows and causes of resentment, and a realistic appreciation of all the contingencies that can ruin us will enable us to maintain our composure when we actually end up with disasters.
I agree with Lahav that philosophical counsellors should avoid a pampering attitude that causes them to refrain from questioning their counsellees' wishes and desires. In particular, the consumer ideology of trying to find the means of reaching the client’s goals irrespective of their specific nature is unsuitable for philosophy. I also agree with Lahav when he says that counsellors should try to help their counsellees to escape from narrow conceptions of their lives by encouraging them to open their minds to new sources of understanding. His metaphor of the self with its habits and patterns as Plato's cave is illuminating, not least because it warns us against the dangers of self-absorption (Lahav, 2006). But I do not think that these points justify a complete break with the concept of therapy. Philosophy as love of wisdom is therapeutic in essence, not through a clever add-on for marketing purposes. This view accords with the age-old analogy between medicine and philosophy: while medicine treats our bodily ailments, philosophy heals our souls (see for example Nussbaum, 1994, pp. 13-47).
Virtues do not seem to belong to the vocabulary of psychological theories and psychotherapeutic techniques in any essential way, and this is an important difference between philosophy and these therapies. But the difference does not imply that philosophy is not therapeutic. Virtue is the distinctively philosophical contribution to therapeutic activities.
However, regarding philosophy as a therapy among others—cognitive behavioural, psychoanalytic, art therapy, etc.—would be an obvious error, because wisdom as the goal of philosophy necessitates many enquiries that therapeutic aims neither require nor justify. For instance, understanding the place of mental phenomena in a seemingly material universe may not offer any therapeutic gains, and even if some therapists might be interested in politics, the dominating professional attitude appears to be one of exclusion; but politics and the ontological status of mental events can be seen as philosophically important issues. The philosophical emphasis on moral and intellectual virtues, even when cultivating them does not heighten our sense of personal well-being, also appears to be foreign to the notion of philosophy as a therapy. In sum, we have to avoid the simplistic view according to which philosophy either is or is not therapy. In some ways it is, in some others it is not.
There is no simple way of dividing philosophical enquiries into those that can have therapeutic value and those that cannot. Philosophy of mind in particular can have a therapeutic dimension even if it may initially seem like a very abstract and theoretical pursuit. For example, the idea that our minds and selves are not separate from what we usually think of as external reality can have a calming effect, because it leads us to let go of self-centred thoughts. If we do not stand opposite to the world, we do not have to assert our will against it. The distinction between the subject and the object of thought and perception can become either blurred or obliterated; and this is not always merely a theoretical insight but also an experience, an aspect of life. Wittgenstein has a concise description of this experience: 'The world and life are one' (2001, remark 5.621). Although Lahav makes a sharp distinction between philosophy and therapy, he has presented similar statements that could be regarded as potentially therapeutic. For instance, he says that 'you are in everything there is, and everything is in you' (Lahav 2008e).
The importance of traditions
Personally I believe that many, or even most, of the basic ideas and practices that contemporary philosophical counsellors need were developed and published before Boethius' death in the sixth century. Therapists like Albert Ellis use ancient Stoicism as a fountain of practical advice (Ellis, 1975), and why should philosophers decline to use these sources? In the philosophical practice movement Gerd Achenbach (2000), Elliot Cohen (2003, 2008) and Antti Mattila (2001a, 2001b), among others, have written about the ways in which ancient philosophical thoughts and exercises can be useful in our own age. Pierre Hadot (1995, 2004) and Trevor Curnow (2006) are not to my knowledge counselling philosophers, but both are clearly sympathetic to the idea.
I am inclined to think that my approach to Philosophical Counselling includes Cohen's Logic-Based Therapy. We have a common background in Stoicism and emphasise Epictetus's concept of reframing as well as the idea that our emotions are frequently a function of our value judgments. But I believe that Cohen's outlook is unduly narrow in the sense that we also find much useful material in other ancient schools, including Platonism, Epicureanism, Cynicism and Skepticism. Even within Stoicism Cohen tends to put quite a lot of emphasis on its active, voluntaristic tendencies, and fails to fully appreciate that acquiescence to inevitable states of affairs is equally important from the philosophical point of view.
Writing reflections down in order to clarify one's thoughts and to encourage oneself is an example of ancient philosophical exercises that can be useful. Such reflections may be public and open to comments—on the Internet perhaps, or in counselling sessions—but their primary intention is to form one's own beliefs, attitudes and behavioural patterns. Marcus Aurelius's Meditations seem an instance of such an exercise (Hadot, 1995, pp. 179-225). One might for example remind oneself of the view that desiring fewer things is conducive to peace of mind, because one is then less dependent on the world. The Epicurean distinction between natural desires (or genuine, satisfiable needs) and unnatural desires is relevant in this connection (see Nussbaum, 1994, pp. 105-115). Ancient Cynicism, with its emphasis on independence and its rejection of socially produced fantasies of fulfilment, is an extreme example (Branham et al., 1996). One might also reflect on Plato's idea that we seldom know in this life whether something will in the end be good or bad for us, and that it is therefore wise not to get overjoyed about seemingly good things or to feel wretched because of seemingly bad things (see Hadot, 2004, p. 67). Someone might find comfort in the Eckhartian (1981) view that disappointments and hardships are opportunities for liberating ourselves from an exaggerated sense of the importance of our own will. Different people find different kinds of reflection useful, and different ages of life may also require different orienting ideas.
I do not deny the contributions of post-Boethian thinkers, but, like Hadot, I tend to read their works from an evolutionary perspective. How do they comment on these earlier movements? How do they carry on their philosophical legacy? For example, Meister Eckhart's (1981) exercise of will-less detachment is clearly an evolutionary step beyond the Stoic idea of agreement with nature: reaching Gelassenheit (calmness, composure, equanimity) not by willing the actual but by ceasing to evaluate and will. And Schopenhauer's pessimistic spirit of resignation can be regarded as a further development of the Stoic practice of premeditation of evils and of being in agreement with whatever has happened or will happen: the Stoic finds peace by saying 'yes' or by being indifferent, Schopenhauer by rejecting the world and by moderating his will to participate in its inevitable shortcomings and sufferings. In any case Schopenhauer's Counsels and Maxims is essential reading for ideas that can be used in counselling, just like Seneca's letters and Epictetus's Enchiridion.
Even if other philosophers may not have as much confidence in the ancient world as I do, the fundamental idea seems clear: we should not proudly imagine that we cannot find valuable help from our philosophical traditions. I do not mean temporally distant currents of thought only—Russell's Conquest of Happiness from the year 1930, for instance, could be seen as a good resource in counselling. In fact most of our philosophical problems have been thought of before, and it would be arrogant to ignore the answers that other philosophers have arrived at. (I believe that many counsellors agree on this point and that I am not saying anything extraordinary here.) Everything we have read about the history of philosophy belongs to our counselling sessions, because this history has formed our thoughts, and our counsellees come to see us. The traditions are of course diverse, and differences of emphasis between counsellors can be considerable.
The length of historical perspective in philosophy suggests the view that there is 'nothing new under the sun' when it comes to written and published sources of help and edification; and in this respect Philosophical Counselling is similar to the spiritual counselling offered by priests. In both cases the counsellor is a contact point and a channel between an individual seeking help and a long history of spiritual life. The history finds its expression in the counsellor, and it backs up his words. In both forms of care of the soul the central question is: what kinds of advice and means of orientation can we find in these traditions in order to help this person in his unique circumstances?
Hadot (1995, p. 35) says that the many-sidedness of life requires that we adopt an attitude of tolerance and eclecticism in our relation to the history of philosophy and its exemplary individuals and movements. My references to the Stoics, Epicureans, Cynics and other schools are intended to suggest not only that many of their ideas (when stripped of metaphysical and cosmological speculations) are relevant today as sources of inspiration, but also that strict adherence to any particular line of thought may be futile or even damaging. I have found that the best policy is to use ideas from these sources as seems useful and reasonable at any given moment, both in counselling and in my own life. Some might object that such eclecticism may lead to logical incoherencies in one's world view. Perhaps it may, but we cannot know this in advance; and this far I have not run into problems with logical incompatibility. Were one to use the metaphysical views of Stoicism and Epicureanism, such incompatibilities might arise quite easily, but I am mainly interested in their practical aspects. For instance, the Stoic notions of acceptance and indifference are not incompatible with the Epicurean emphasis on reducing one's desires and finding pleasure in simply existing.
Besides, Hadot (2004, pp. 220-223) has shown that the images of the sage of the major Hellenistic schools bore remarkable similarities to each other. Independence and self-sufficiency formed the nucleus of the philosophical self-understanding. Peace of mind in changing and often uncontrollable circumstances was a highly appreciated feature. Indifference or even aversion to luxury was likewise shared by most Hellenistic thinkers, and a carefree attitude to one's personal material welfare was widely recommended. All schools stressed the fact of human finitude and exhorted us to live fully in the present without regrets or fears. A commitment to consider human affairs from an objective, impartial viewpoint characterised all these movements. I do not see why contemporary philosophers could not share these conceptions of wisdom.
The idea of philosophy as a way of life does not imply that philosophical counsellors should or could have in store any specific answers to mundane questions regarding one's diet, profession, marital status and so on. Some of the ancient schools or at least a few of their influential proponents may have had recommendations with respect to concrete issues of this kind, but I think that we should assume a fairly open and autonomous stance. Should one for example retire from political preoccupations as the Epicureans tended to do, or dedicate one's energies to civic duties in the spirit of mainstream Stoicism? Should one prefer idleness to paid work, as many Cynics did? In practice the answers depend on so many contingent factors that there is no point in trying to formulate an answer that suits all circumstances. The lasting value of these philosophical movements lies at a more general level of attitudes towards the multifarious joys and grievances of human existence.
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