Consolation Literature and Stoic Self-Help

Philosophy-of-CBT-Cover.jpgWhen I wrote The Philosophy of CBT: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010), in 2009, I wanted to provide a fairly comprehensive list of every example of a “therapy technique” to be found in Hellenistic philosophy, particularly Stoicism.  I was building on the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who outlined “spiritual exercises” in ancient literature.  My contribution, as a psychotherapist, was to show how these often prefigured modern therapy techniques, especially those employed in cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).  Since then, I’ve been on the outlook, assuming that I must have missed at least a few.  Of course, there are many different examples of the same handful of techniques that I didn’t include.  However, I was slightly surprised that, as I continued reading, I didn’t spot many examples of new techniques: ones that had been completely overlooked in my first book on the subject.

Recently, though, I stumbled across a fragment attributed to Epictetus that caught my eye.  It’s by no means a completely new technique but it does seem to very explicitly describe the use, by a famous Stoic called Paconius Agrippinus, of something that’s clearly a technique of moral and psychological self-therapy, slightly different from the ones I’d documented in The Philosophy of CBT.  Agrippinus was one of Epictetus’ heroes – he mentions him several times to his students as an exemplary Stoic role-model.  He was an esteemed Roman statesman, contemporary with Epictetus’ own teacher Musonius Rufus, and both were persecuted for their commitment to philosophy, and their political views, by the tyrant Nero.

According to Epictetus, when Agrippinus encountered some problem in life, like fever, exile, or damage to his reputation, he would write a letter to himself praising the situation.

For this reason it is right to praise Agrippinus, because, although he was a man of the very highest worth, he never praised himself, but used to blush even if someone else praised him.  His character was such, said Epictetus, that when any hardship befell him he would compose a eulogy upon it; on fever, if he had a fever; on disrepute; on exile, if he went into exile.  And once, he said, when Agrippinus was preparing to take lunch, a man brought him word that Nero ordered him into exile; “Very well,” said he, “we shall take our lunch in Aricia.” (Epictetus, fr. 21)

Now, I would say that this isn’t a complete revelation because I and my colleagues had made educated guesses that the Stoics probably used similar techniques.  The technique of writing philosophical consolation letters is very well-known, and particularly associated with the Stoic school.  Seneca’s Letters and Essays provide many fine examples, although the genre goes back at least as far as the early Platonic school.  The Axiochus of pseudo-Plato (probably one of Plato’s immediate students) provides one of our earliest examples but it is also exceptional in that instead consoling someone over the loss of a loved one, as most letters in this genre do, it employs similar concepts and arguments to console an individual in relation to his own imminent demise.  Although this isn’t explicitly stated, I think it’s reasonable to speculate that the Stoic letters Agrippinus allegedly wrote to himself, praising adversity, must have been of a broadly similar nature to the surviving examples of “consolation” literature.

Indeed, the typical consolation letters, although purportedly addressed to individuals other than the author, can potentially be read as self-directed guidance, i.e., as attempts to persuade both another person, a friend or loved one, and the author himself of some philosophical insight that brings calm in the face of adversity.  (It’s also possible that some of these “letters” were never sent/published, or even that their recipients were fictional.)  The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius, written much later, in the sixth century AD, consists of a dialogue which perhaps serves a similar purpose in that it may have been intended to provide philosophical consolation to both others and the author himself.

Another well-known example of Stoic literature as therapy is provided by The Meditations (“To Himself”) of the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.  However, these consist of numerous short, aphoristic sayings, rather than the kind of sustained argument that we find in letters of consolation.  Pierre Hadot has argued at length in The Inner Citadel that despite their superficially informal appearance, these passages are the product of a systematic approach to philosophical training through repeated verbal reformulation of key Stoic doctrines.  Of course, it’s nevertheless notable that both Agrippinus and Marcus appear to have employed writing as a very deliberate way of helping themselves  cope philosophically with life’s problems.

So, although Epictetus only provides us with a passing, fragmentary reference to Agrippinus Stoic technique of writing in praise of adversities that befell him, it’s natural to wonder whether those writings lay somewhere between the consolation letters of Seneca and the personal meditations of Marcus, in terms of their style and format.  Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine how they would have been composed without employing fairly similar arguments to those found in the consolation literature, albeit directed toward the author himself in this case.

Part of my reason for being so interested in this fragment is that it provides an excellent example of a way in which Stoic philosophy could be used today for moral and psychological self-improvement.  The Stoic consolation letters provided by Seneca, and other Stoic-influenced authors such as Plutarch, provide a very clear example of how to go about applying Stoicism to specific situations, in a therapeutic manner.  However, Agrippinus’ example allows us to infer that even in ancient times similar methods were employed by Stoics not just to help (“console”) others, but also themselves, i.e, as form of self-help, self-therapy, or self-improvement.

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