Excerpt: On Autosuggestion from The Philosophy of CBT

This is a brief excerpt from the new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT), which describes the relationship between Émile Coué’s method of “conscious autosuggestion” and the maxims of ancient philosophical traditions.

The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

Émile Coué, Autosuggestion, and Ancient Philosophy

Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.


When the French pharmacist Émile Coué (1857-1926) was 28 years old he met one of the pioneers of hypnotherapy, a country doctor named Ambroise-Auguste Liébault (1823-1904), and assisted him for about two years in his hypnotic clinic at Nancy. However, by 1910 Coué had abandoned classical hypnotism in favour of his technique of “conscious autosuggestion”, in which subjects are taught how to use suggestion and imagination for themselves, without the use of a formal hypnotic induction. At this point Coué founded a movement he termed the “New Nancy School”, in reference to the Nancy School of hypnosis founded by Liébault, who had passed away a few years earlier. Coué became one of the most influential “self-help” gurus of the twentieth century, touring America with his public seminars and attracting an international following during the period when Paul Dubois’ theories were still popular among psychotherapists.

Strikingly, Coué wrote, ‘Pythagoras and Aristotle taught autosuggestion’(Coué, 1923, p. 3). Though his justification for this conclusion seems somewhat unclear, he could probably have found more material to explain and support it.

We know, indeed, that the whole human organism is governed by the nervous system, the centre of which is the brain – the seat of thought. In other words, the brain, or mind, controls every cell, every organ, every function of the body. That being so, is it not clear that by means of thought we are the absolute masters of our physical organism and that, as the Ancients showed centuries ago, thought – or suggestion – can and does produce disease or cure it? Pythagoras taught the principle of auto-suggestion to his disciples. He wrote: “God the Father, deliver them from their sufferings, and show them what supernatural power is at their call.” (Coué, 1923, pp. 3-4)

The practice of repeating aphorisms, short verbal “formulas”, seems to have been associated with the ancient mystery religions and oracles, and the philosophical-therapeutic sect of Pythagoras which evolved from them.

The Ancients well knew the power – often the terrible power – contained in the repetition of a phrase of formula. The secret of the undeniable influence they exercised through the old Oracles resided probably, nay, certainly, in the force of suggestion. (Coué, 1923, p. 27)

The most famous formulae associated with the Delphic Oracle of Apollo, the patron god of philosophy, were “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess.” The Pythagoreans compiled lists of such aphorisms, which acquired cryptic symbolic meanings, and were referred to as akousmata, the “things listened to”, and symbola, the “symbols” or “watchwords.” For example, according to Porphry, the precept “poke not the fire with a sword” was a reminder that one should not further provoke an angry person by attacking them with verbal criticisms; “eat not the heart”, meant that one should not wallow in morbid emotions (Porphyry, 1988, p. 131). These Pythagorean sayings, and those derived from the Greek Oracles, may well be the precursors of the Stoic precepts (dogmata) which, as we shall see, appear to have performed a similar function.


This is a brief excerpt from my new book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, published by Karnac and available for order online now. You can also now order The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy from Amazon, where you may preview a sample of the contents online free of charge.

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