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The Consolations of Philosophy

The Jardin du Luxembourg during Covid lockdown

Kiran Ridley/Getty Images

The Jardin du Luxembourg during Covid-19 lockdown, Paris, France, November 5, 2020

I recently found myself on a metal chair in the Jardin du Luxembourg, in Paris, submitting to my first-ever session of “philosophical therapy.”

I was there because I had gotten an email from a philosophy professor I knew explaining that he offers personal therapy sessions. After months of various lockdowns, it was a chance to have a new experience, and to spend time with someone who doesn’t live in my apartment. Plus it was in English (the professor is also an American who lives in Paris), and it can be done outside.

Although PT is not an indigenous practice (Parisians prefer psychotherapy), Paris is a philosophical town. Kids here read Voltaire in middle school, and philosophers regularly spar on prime-time talk shows. We’re sitting just a few blocks from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s tomb at the Panthéon, and nearby newsstands sell a nine-part series on the great philosophers (volume one comes with a free portrait of Friedrich Nietzsche).

Anyway, I’d entrusted my psyche to Freud in the past; why not let Sartre and Spinoza have a go at it, too? Surely, over millennia of inquiry, the great thinkers have uncovered some wisdom about how to live well.

And so, here I am, on a sunny day, describing my problems to an acquaintance. One of them is that I’m anxious about getting older.

I’m not proud of this preoccupation. I should be worrying about climate change, inequality, and the perilous journeys of refugees. My anxiety isn’t even a proper philosophical fear of death; it’s more about skincare. I turned fifty at the start of the pandemic, and have spent many months wondering whether I’m still attractive, and worrying that armies of brilliant millennials are about to make me professionally irrelevant.

I’m relieved when my therapist takes this seriously. “You could really use a dose of ancient wisdom about the beauty of aging,” he says.

One approach is to focus not on what you’re losing with age, but on what you’re gaining. He says the sixth-century Roman philosopher Boethius, writing in his mid-forties, believed that though we lose passions as we get older, this is not necessarily a bad thing.

“You can discover that your passions were actually an affliction,” says my guide. “And now that you don’t have your passions, you can contemplate the eternal and unchanging form of the good.” 

Boethius doesn’t resonate at all for me. In what seems like a Darwinian joke, my libido has soared just as I’m becoming infertile. What I contemplate most often these days is whether people I meet—including my therapist—would, in theory, want to sleep with me. To avoid making him uncomfortable, though, I just say that my passions feel “more intense than ever.”

“Then that’s the Phillip Roth approach,” he replies. “Have you read Sabbath’s Theater? It’s a wonderful just kind of refusing to go down quietly, old men with their passions.” 

He also posits that I may be in synch with metaphysical forces. Aristotle believed “the whole world is governed by eros, the celestial spheres are circulating out of desire, reducing all understanding to a cosmic horniness.”

For more on the ancients, he suggests I read Martha Nussbaum’s The Therapy of Desire. She writes that Epicurus (b. 341 BC), a Greek philosopher who apparently kept a sex diary, defined erotic love as “an intense desire for intercourse, accompanied by agony and distraction.”

Lucretius, a Roman, was similarly ambivalent two and a half centuries later. According to Nussbaum, he believed that lovers experience erotic desire “as a source of weakness and instability” and that sex is an attempt to extinguish this pain with “a complete possession of the other that would put an end to all desire, all unseemly openness.”  

But I like the unseemly openness, I just want to stay in the game. I mention to my therapist that I’ve been hanging around with French nudists, for an article I’m writing.

“Did you…,” he asks.

“Nudify? Yes,” I reply. 

For the first time, he’s speechless.

*

Philosophers have been pondering the question of how to live for millennia, but philosophical therapy got its formal start only in the early 1980s, when a German philosopher put up a shingle, then started a professional association. The practice spread to other countries, including the Netherlands and Israel, and came to include professional journals and an international conference. The American Society for Philosophy, Counseling, and Psychotherapy began in 1992 (later renamed the National Philosophical Counseling Association).

Naturally—this is a branch of therapy—there are warring schools and associations. Some practitioners insist on specialized therapeutic training. Others say a doctorate in philosophy is enough.

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Everyone seems to agree that PT should draw on both the insights of philosophers and the Socratic method, of having a dialogue about a problem, to find a new way of seeing it. It also seems to require some knowledge of ancient Greek. My therapist says we’ll use the free flow of words, called parrhesia (he points out that this comes from the same root as “diarrhea”). We might sometimes hit an aporia, a dead end, but our goal is to reach a type of happiness called eudaimonia—literally, the state of having good demons.

The therapist is about my age, and is someone I would run into in Parisian expatriate circles. I’d usually see him standing in a corner, at a party, confidently arguing with someone about an idea. In our brief interactions, I’d gotten the sense he didn’t find me that interesting.

He’s different now. During the pandemic, he’d grown a beard, and his hair, now longer, had gone from blond to a dusky gray. The new look gives him the air of an intellectual hermit. And he regards me with a new, benevolent curiosity. Now that I’m his patient, I’m a puzzle that he gets to solve.

I’ve probably made him uncomfortable with my talk of passions, because at our next session, he says we should put aside gender, and consider ourselves “disembodied brains having a conversation.”

That’s not easy for someone like me. So far, the theme song for my fifties is Puddles Pity Party singing, “I Want You to Want Me.” I recently joked to a friend that I didn’t think I could be sexually harassed, since nothing would be unwelcome.

I’m aware that it’s unfeminist to believe that middle-aged women lack sex appeal. Obviously, I’m channeling the patriarchy. Simone de Beauvoir would be appalled. My thesis isn’t even true; there are plenty of attractive older women.

But I’m not alone; it’s the dominant view in society. Social science research shows that getting older often presents a mind-body problem for white, Western women. After a certain age, which isn’t much older than mine, they no longer recognize themselves in the mirror, and feel a gap between how they appear to others and who they really are.

Maybe I’m fixated on eros because it functions as a kind of mental Botox. Lucretius wrote that men blinded by desire will “attribute to women excellences that are not really theirs. And thus we see women who are in many ways misshapen and ugly being the objects of great delight.”

My therapist urges me to detach myself from the idea that it’s better to be young. Buying into this is comforting when you’re young yourself, but “it eventually starts to cause pain.”

“It’s the big existential tragedy that we’re unable to cope with the changing self,” he says.

Since philosophical therapists are free to talk about themselves, he describes his own approach to aging: half the time, he can’t believe how much of his life is already over; and half the time, he’s grateful to be alive. There’s something in that gratitude that feels like a philosophical solution. It reminds me of something a friend in his eighties once told me: I like the movie, and I want to keep watching it as long as possible.

*

When the weather turns cold and rainy, we meet instead at the nearby Café Rostand.

My therapist has shaved his beard and cut his hair, and he’s on a new-fangled diet that, as far as I can tell, involves eating nothing at all. He suddenly looks a decade younger. I’m reminded of how shape-shifting a person’s age can be.

Our therapy sometimes feels like a freshman philosophy course. At one point, he excitedly explains a proof for the immortality of the soul (spoiler: it hinges on whether “a dozen eggs” is one thing or many). When he suggests that I read Spinoza’s inquiry on whether God exists, I just skip to the parts about love. (For Spinoza, it’s “pleasure accompanied by the idea of an external cause”—a description my therapist says seems “painfully wrong to me, but also deeply interesting.”)

When our coffees arrive, he tells me about Jean-Paul Sartre’s theory of waiters: they’re just playing the role of a waiter, exaggerating their gestures in order to seem more authentic. Sartre probably meant that this is the human condition: we’re all striving to imitate the thing we think we’re supposed to be.

I’ve been imitating what I think an intelligent adult should be: someone who grapples with classic philosophical questions. But in truth, I don’t spend any time puzzling over divine providence, or wondering whether I have false beliefs about the physical world. Since having kids, I don’t even ponder the meaning of life.

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“The questions and I just drifted apart,” I tell my therapist, who wrestles with them constantly and is surprised that anyone wouldn’t. “Why not just come up with reasonable answers, and get on with things?”

Evidently, I have no talent for abstraction. But I’m not sure philosophers should have too much say about my passions, anyway. My therapist tells me that, at age seventy, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz suddenly recalled that, twenty years earlier, he’d written a letter to a young woman’s father, inquiring about marriage. And he just remembered that he’d never heard back. (I prefer stories about philosophers’ love lives to their philosophy.)

Despite all this, I’m enjoying our sessions immensely. For both of us, these meetings are one of the few forms of social life. Each one runs nearly two hours, and I’m always left feeling there’s more to discuss. I’ve come to see that he’s not just an icy debater; he’s kind, and a good listener. I’m touched by his desire to slay my lesser demons.

He may even have succeeded. Mysteriously, PT has cured me of my burning need to be seen as a sexual object, at least by him. Years ago, when I was experimenting with religion, I read a biblical commentary that said, “Buy yourself a friend.” Amid the loneliness of the pandemic, I think that’s what I’ve done. Maybe it’s what I needed all along.

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