Stoicism and Rational Psychotherapy

Short article on Charles Baudouin and the influence of Stoic philosophy on early 20th century rational psychotherapy.

Charles Baudouin and Stoicism

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

The French academic, Charles Baudouin was actually one of the first modern authors to integrate Stoic philosophy with psychotherapy, several decades before CBT or even its precursor REBT. Baudouin explored the relationship between psychotherapy and various religions and philosophies, including Christianity, Buddhism, and Stoicism in his book entitled The Inner Discipline (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924).

Baudouin was a follower of the father of modern self-help Émile Coué, who developed hypnotism into his immensely popular “conscious autosuggestion” method. He was also influenced by the Swiss psychiatrist, Paul Dubois, who had earlier drawn on elements of Stoicism, particularly Seneca, in expounding his “rational persuasion” psychotherapy, an early precursor of CBT. However, Baudouin dedicated a whole chapter of The Inner Discipline to Stoicism and its use in modern therapy and self-help. He wrote that “one of the most original characteristics of Stoicism was the stress it laid upon a vigorous discipline, upon the education of the character”, and for this reason he considered it the branch of classical philosophy most relevant to modern therapy. Baudouin stressed the need for regular daily practice in therapy and self-help, which he found also emphasised in Stoicism. He provides a particularly good account of the morning and evening meditation practices, which he recommends to his readers and patients.

Baudouin says that self-mastery, of the kind espoused by the Stoics, can only be acquired by daily training. He agreed that one of the first philosophical precepts we must master is the distinction between things that are in our power and those that are not. In particular, the first hour of every day demands our attention as a time for mental preparation and rehearsal of philosophical precepts “for the attitude we adopt at this time sets our course for the day”. Baudouin cites the fact that the Pythagoreans “recommended silence and meditation during the first hour after waking”, quoting Marcus Aurelius’ remark about them having us lift our eyes to the heavens at dawn (Meditations, 11.27). Baudouin suggests we follow Marcus’ advice that good resolutions can be made with the best effect at the start of the day, and that we should take this opportunity to counter slothful tendencies: “This initial victory will pave the way for the victories of subsequent hours.” Baudouin advises us that we can acquire good habits of living through daily practice in this way, becoming watchful of our thoughts and actions, and continually exercising our minds in a healthy direction: “Thanks to the suppleness acquired by this course of moral gymnastics, the mind will be enabled to overcome all obstacles.”

Like Dubois before him, Baudouin agreed with the Stoic view that a “scientific” belief in universal determinism is of profound psychotherapeutic importance. He found that contemplating this helped to remind him how many things are beyond our direct control, and of the ultimate worthlessness of the countless things our passions crave. With regard to things not within our power, he employed Epictetus’ maxim, “endure and renounce”, which he calls the principle of “economy of effort”. We must do nothing without a purpose and must not waste our energies by running our heads against a brick wall: “We must not wish for the impossible, or try to do what is impossible.” He quotes Phocylides, a poet from the 6th century BC, who wrote “Do not let past evils disturb you, for what is done cannot be undone.” Baudouin compares this Stoic attitude to a modern adage: “If we can’t get what we like, we must like what we have”, adding, “instead of lamenting because we cannot change our lot, let us learn to love it.”

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