Émile Coué, Autosuggestion, and Ancient Philosophy
This is a brief (slightly modified) excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy, which is now in its revised second edition, from Routledge.
Copyright (c) Donald Robertson, 2010. All rights reserved.
When the French pharmacist Émile Coué (1857-1926) was 28 years old he met one of the pioneers of hypnotism, 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 hypnosis 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.
Coué went on to found a movement he termed the “New Nancy School”, in reference to the Nancy School of hypnosis started 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.
Strikingly, Coué wrote, ‘Pythagoras and Aristotle taught autosuggestion’ (Coué, 1923, p. 3). Though his justification for this conclusion is left unstated, he could probably have found some 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 Porphyry, 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.