Q&A: What Would Plato Have Done?

Aristotle called it "phronesis," or practical wisdom. Lou Marinoff calls it therapy for the sane. A philosophy professor at the City College of New York, Marinoff believes that those struggling to cope with modern living should delve into the accumulated wisdom of the world's great thinkers and writers.

"You can't always change your circumstances," Marinoff writes in his newly released book, "The Big Questions: How Philosophy Can Change Your Life." (Bloomsbury 2003.) "[B]ut you can always change the way in which you interpret them." Aside from his teaching, Marinoff has been a philosophical counselor and consultant for the last 12 years. The founding president of the American Philosophical Practitioners Association (APPA), he also presides over philosophy cafes in New York and at the World Economic Forum's annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Marinoff spoke to NEWSWEEK's Arlene Getz about life, love and the battle of the sexes.

NEWSWEEK: Your book is billed as answering the central questions of modern existence. What are those questions?

Lou Marinoff: I'm helping to pose them. The answers we get very often depend on the questions that we ask. There seem to be many repeating themes, and it's based on this that I've chosen each chapter heading, [such as]: How do you know what's right? Must you suffer? What is love? Can't we all just get along? Can anyone win the war of the sexes? How can you handle change? These are issues which affect everyone at some time.

You talk about philosophy as therapy for the sane. Do you see it a new form of psychotherapy?

When we talk about psychotherapy in its most generic sense, yes. If we go back to the meaning of the word in Greek, it means attending to the character, or the soul. Psyche is a difficult word to translate into English. It means sort of the mind, but it's a bigger word than that.

Is "The Big Questions" a sequel to your previous book, "Plato, Not Prozac!" [HarperCollins, 1999]?

In some ways. It's definitely a continuation.

In "The Big Questions," you're careful to distinguish between disease--as in sickness--and dis-ease, as in lack of ease. You argue that if people can tell the difference, they won't need prescription drugs "to deal with life's normal challenges." Is it really that simple?

It's often surprisingly easy to determine [whether it is an illness or not]. What can be difficult afterward is the treatment. If one knows one is medically ill, the diagnosis is often much simpler than prognosis and treatment. Similarly, if one has worked out that there's nothing medically wrong, then, if you don't buy into a bogus diagnosis--if really what is wrong is a dis-ease, a lack of comfort, a lack of fulfillment--then indeed it's simple to determine that is the problem. But then one has to do a lot of philosophical work to remedy it.

Does this mean you don't accept diagnoses such as clinical depression?

I do [accept them]. [But] if one has a teenager who comes home and says, "I broke up with my boyfriend and I'm really depressed," this is not clinical depression. She probably just means she's really unhappy. This word has to be used very carefully. Americans, in particular, have become extremely careless with language in the last couple of decades and this causes a lot of confusion.

There is such a thing as clinical depression, and these new mood enhancers and serotonin uptake inhibitors--that's really good for [sufferers], because that reverses this horribleness that they experience. But most people don't have that.

What about something like anxiety disorder?

This is incredibly bogus. You have prime time television adverts telling people that if they have anything going on in their lives at all, that's a mental illness. I beg to differ. To be engaged with life is to have concerns and to experience a full gamut of emotions. To deal with these philosophically is a far superior way than turning oneself into a kind of zombie.

You're also skeptical of diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder, asking since when did memories become a disease to be diagnosed by doctors. And, you add, "Sorry, but philosophers can do as well or better." That probably doesn't make you very popular with the medical profession.

Actually, I think it does. Many psychiatrists recognize that perhaps as many as 15 percent of the people they're seeing actually have philosophical problems. On the other hand, there is going to be a little bit of jostling as philosophy finds its proper place in the constellation of services that help people. But having bad memories is not a disease.

Wouldn't psychiatrists argue that it's not the bad memories, but people's inability to cope with them that is considered the disorder?

This may be the case, but then one has to ask, what are the nature [anything to do about this to make it smoother?] of the coping strategies? You can't change your past. The question is how do we interpret these circumstances? The human being has far more latitude than it's been given credit for by the behavioral psychologists and the medical profession in general.

Do you see philosophy filling the role once filled by religion and theology? A guide for people who want to lead ethical lives but without the dogma of organized religion?

Absolutely right. The good part of religions is that they give moral guidance to people; the bad part is that they often turn them into fanatics and they become too dogmatic. Philosophy is fulfilling a very important need for people who want some sort of guidance, but don't want to succumb to dogma. There we can help a lot. Indeed, some religious commentators have criticized you for usurping the role of the church. The great thing about philosophy is that we don't want anyone's souls. We're not even sure that people have them, so how can we want them...[Also] most religions have a core set of beliefs that most adherents would share. If you put a bunch of philosophers in the room, they don't agree with each other about anything.

So is philosophical counseling perhaps a form of comfort therapy--a way for people to justify their behavior by saying, "this is what Aristotle or Jean-Paul Sartre or John Stuart Mill would have done?"

People have different preferences, tastes and temperaments and definitely identify themselves with different philosophical schools if they're made aware of it. We're offering people a philosophical identity that helps them make sense of the world.

Do you ever have clients who argue they can do whatever they want because there's a school of philosophical thought that says the means justify the end?

No. We do have a lot of latitude, because there are so many ways of looking at things. But as counselors, we are bound by a code of ethics, and there are various things that are proscribed. For example, I would not counsel someone to go out and harm anybody. We have a primary responsibility to our clients, and we have a secondary responsibility to the community that we serve. Our ethics are subsumed by the laws of the land. We cannot say that anything goes. We could say that you can think what you like, but you're not at liberty to do what you like.

Do you support moves for state certification of philosophical counselors like yourself?

More and more professional groups are emerging, such as art therapists, such as psychoanalysts of old, and philosophers of new too, who deserve to be recognized by states for what they do.

In the absence of such certification, how do potential clients distinguish between a real philosopher and somebody who's just trying to make a fast buck?

When we go into the marketplace to buy, we're liable sometimes to get defective merchandise. Anybody who wants to go to a philosophical counselor could look for at the APPA Web site to see the certification standards and the code of ethics and be reasonably assured that anyone we certify is competent to deliver the service that we describe. Of course, anybody in New York State can hang out a shingle saying philosophical counselor at this point. As in many states, it's completely unregulated.

Do you recommend that philosophical counselors have advanced degrees in philosophy?

We require that our candidates [for APPA] have an MA or a PhD in philosophy to begin with.

You charge about $100 an hour for your counseling sessions, which presumably is not covered by insurance.

It's not covered by insurance. [But] I also do it [for] free. I have a research protocol at City College that people can come to if they qualify. It's not about money, it's about rendering a service.

Who's a typical client?

The typical client is an atypical client. I have students, housewives, CEOs, investment bankers, psychologists, psychiatrists, unemployed people, it could be anybody.

Is philosophical counseling usually a first or last resort for those seeking help?

There's one population of clients [that] has been through every kind of psychotherapy or psychoanalysis. They've tried everything that's out there, and they may have really been helped. But they're still seeking something, and they need a guide for a particular thing that's going on in their lives. There's another kind of population who resisted going to psychologists or psychiatrists because they think [there's a] stigma that's attached. But they still need to talk. And when they find out that we do dialogue and not diagnosis, then they come to us.

You've been criticized by some of your fellow scholars for trivializing philosophy. What do you say to them?

I love this question. The analogy I like is the one about the whiskey. Some people take their whisky neat, other people take it with soda. In either case, it will intoxicate you eventually. Definitely we're watering down the whiskey enough so that some people who've never had a taste of it can acquire a taste and not get too intoxicated at once. What we're doing is extending an awareness and knowledge and utility of philosophy beyond the academy, and that's exactly what should be done.

A century ago, students were considered uneducated if they lacked knowledge of the classics and the ancient philosophers. Has there been a resurgence of interest in your subject?

Philosophy has a very bad name. Inside the academy, philosophers have become endangered species. This is because of the deconstruction of our education system. The last 30 years have completely undermined people's basic abilities to read and write and reason. This is a catastrophe. So naturally the more difficult subjects have been dumbed down the most. Philosophy is the most notoriously difficult subject in the humanities sector, so it's suffered the most hits.

You object to political correctness, arguing that it fails to distinguish between offense and actual harm--and that universities themselves are largely responsible for perpetuating that confusion.

Yes, they are. We see the graduates of such systems now wandering around with no moral compass. This is why they can't tell the difference between [George W.] Bush or Adolf Hitler or Saddam Hussein anymore. They've not been taught to think in any kind of cogent, moral way. It's not just political correctness. This is only one facet of a much greater problem. It's the problem of relativism. Everyone has been taught for 30 years that all cultures are equally valid, are equally functional, equally advanced. This is palpable nonsense.

Human beings are [equally valid]. In our human essence, we are all worthy of being treated with respect and dignity. We all have wonderful things we can attain as individuals. But it's patently clear that not all cultures are able to encourage this to the same extent or to progress to the same extent. Some are much more functional than others. And now the really big question. Can anyone win the war of the sexes? I think not. We're far too evenly matched. The whole point here is to make peace.