Philosophy and psychotherapy (Part 2): Stoicism

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The growing popularity of cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) and modern self-help literature has triggered renewed interest in the practical side of ancient philosophy.  Although most ancient philosophical traditions had concepts and practices that prefigure aspects of modern psychological therapy and self-help, Stoicism is widely-recognised as the school of thought with the most explicit “therapeutic” orientation.  The Stoics saw themselves as standing in the broad Socratic tradition.  However, they placed greater emphasis than their rivals, Plato’s Academy, upon the practical lifestyle and psychological exercises associated with the Socratic ideal of psychological flourishing (eudaimonia), freedom from irrational, unhealthy or excessive fears and desires (apatheia), and freedom from distress (ataraxia).  Stoicism is based on the philosophical premise that the chief good in life is for us to excel in terms of our essential nature as rational beings, something they refer to as the attainment of “virtue” (aretê), although “excellence” is often considered a better translation.  The Stoics define human excellence as the attainment of wellbeing and the four cardinal “virtues” of practical wisdom, justice (fairness and kindness), courage, and moderation (or self-control).  The analogy between medicine and philosophy was well-known in the ancient world and the Stoics even described the philosopher’s lecture room as being like a doctor’s clinic, there is no doubt they saw philosophy itself as a kind of psychological “therapy”.

Their general precept, as explained at the beginning of the famous Stoic “Handbook” (Enchiridion) of Epictetus, sometimes called the “Sovereign” principle of Stoicism was that we should carefully distinguish between things under our control and things not under our control.  In my previous book on the subject, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010), I called this the “Stoic Fork”.  It clearly resembles, and probably inspired, the famous “Serenity Prayer” used in Alcoholics Anonymous and by many modern therapists: 

God, grant me the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change;
The Courage to change the things I can;
And the Wisdom to know the difference.

Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom, are central concepts in classical Stoic philosophical therapy.  The Sovereign Precept of Stoicism is therefore that we should develop a firm grasp of the nature of the good and identify it with our own attainment of virtue and wellbeing, rather than things outside of our control.  Although this may seem obscure at first, Stoicism was based on the concept of “philanthropy” or love of mankind, and the pursuit of personal wellbeing is seen as fundamentally entwined with the ability to experience “natural affection” and friendship toward others, and to wish them well also.  In this brief summary, I can only introduce the broad outline of Stoicism, so it’s important to stress that Stoic philosophy was a vast system, based on subtle arguments.  It also consisted of many practical psychological exercises, which I describe in detail in my book.  For example, the Stoics spent a lot of time writing down and rephrasing their principles in order to memorise them and have them constantly “ready to hand” in the face of adversity.  The famous Meditations of the Stoic Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius provides a clear example of this: it’s his personal therapeutic journal.  The Stoics also employed what we might call “meditation” or “visualisation” techniques such as imagining the world seen from high above (modern scholars call this “The View from Above”), patiently visualising (“premeditating”) one’s death or other misfortunes, or mentally reviewing one’s progress at the end of each day before going to sleep, etc. 

This is too short to give a full idea of the beauty and depth of Stoicism.  Most readers of Stoicism are struck by the earnestness of their endeavour to “figure out” the meaning of life, and many people over the centuries have found their arguments convincing.  Modern therapy and self-help lack that grandeur of vision, and for many people restoring the connection with the Socratic philosophical tradition, particularly Stoicism, answers a need to place therapeutic strategies and techniques within a wider and more fundamental sense of purpose and philosophy of life.

For those who are interested in reading more about Stoicism, there is a recently published book by Arthur Still and Windy Dryden called The Historical and Philosophical Context of Rational Psychotherapy: The Legacy of Epictetus (2012).  I also have a book due out in 2013 called Teach Yourself Stoicism, which is intended to provide a practical introduction to Stoicism for the general public.

Donald Robertson
Author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010)