Full Text: “Stoicism as Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)”

The Behavior Therapist

By D. Robertson and T. Codd, originally published in The Behavior Therapist, vol. 42, no. 2, Feb 2019

Abstract: Stoicism provides the clearest example of a system of psychotherapy in ancient Greek or Roman philosophy. Albert Ellis acknowledged that some of the central principles of Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy were “originally discovered and stated” by the Stoics and Beck that “the philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers.” However, the emphasis on mindfulness and living in accord with values in Stoicism was largely ignored by them and unknown to the third-wave psychotherapists who followed them. This article highlights Stoicism’s similarities to modern mindfulness and acceptance-based CBT and its potential as an approach to building emotional resilience.

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Revised Second Edition: The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy

I’m pleased to announce that in December 2019, Routledge will be publishing the revised second edition of my 2010 book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

It will be available in both hardback (ISBN 9780367219871) and paperback (ISBN 9780367219147) formats. The content has been thoroughly revised, with hundreds of small changes, and a whole new chapter, discussing the comparison between Stoicism and modern third-wave cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). You can order it online from Routledge, The Book Depository, Amazon, and all other good bookstores. See also Google Books and Goodreads for reviews and other information.

Table of Contents

  • Foreword to First Edition by Prof. Stephen Palmer
  • Introduction: Philosophy & Psychotherapy
  • Part I: Philosophy & Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
  • The “Philosophical Origins” of CBT
  • The Beginning of Modern Cognitive Therapy
  • A Brief History of Philosophical Therapy
  • Stoic Philosophy & Psychology
  • Rational Emotion in Stoicism & CBT
  • Stoicism & Ellis’ Rational Therapy (REBT)
  • Part II: The Stoic Armamentarium
  • Contemplation of the Ideal Sage
  • Stoic Mindfulness of the “Here & Now”
  • Self-Analysis & Disputation
  • Autosuggestion, Premeditation, & Retrospection
  • Premeditatio Malorum & Mental Rehearsal
  • Stoic Fatalism, Determinism & Acceptance
  • The View from Above & Stoic Metaphysics
  • Stoicism and the Third-Wave
  • Conclusion: Fate Guides the Willing
  • Appendix 1: An Example Stoic Therapeutic Regime
  • Appendix 2: The View from Above Script

Stoicism Talk in Toronto

I’ll be doing my third free talk on Marcus Aurelius and Stoicism tomorrow, Wednesday 11th September, 6.30-8pm, at the Lillian H. Smith public library, 239 College Street, Toronto, M5T 1R5 (Google maps).

It’s a free drop-in presentation. You don’t need to register but it helps us to track the numbers if you do so via the EventBrite listing. You can also find details on the Toronto Public Libraries events website.

I’ll be providing a structured presentation about the life and philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, covering the practical applications of Stoicism to different problems in life.

Everyone is welcome to attend. I’ll also be signing copies of my books, if you want to bring one along.

Looking forward to seeing you there,

Donald Robertson Signature

Book Summary: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019) is published by St. Martin’s Press in hardback, ebook, and audiobook formats. This is a brief summary of the contents.

The introduction explains how I came to write the book, drawing on my background in academic philosophy and training as a cognitive-behavioural psychotherapist, after nearly twenty years of writing and teaching Stoicism. It discusses the modern growth of interest in Stoicism, including the activities of the Modern Stoicism organization. It also explains how the idea for the book came from my experience of telling my young daughter, Poppy, stories about ancient philosophy.

1. The Dead Emperor

The first chapter opens with the death of Marcus Aurelius. I wanted to start the book with something dramatic. Each chapter begins with a story about some major event in Marcus’ life, based on the information we have from the various Roman histories of his reign.

In most of the chapters that leads into a discussion of Stoic philosophy and psychology and the concepts and techniques he used to cope with various problems such as anger, anxiety, pain, and so on. Then there’s a detailed discussion of how Stoic techniques can actually be applied today, drawing on my experience as a cognitive-behavioural therapist and the relevant scientific research. However, the first chapter is slightly different because after describing the events surrounding Marcus’ death in some detail, it proceeds to give the reader a short introduction to Stoic philosophy.

The story of Stoicism begins with Zeno of Citium, the founder of the school, and so you’ll be introduced to various anecdotes about him and other famous Stoics. Then we focus on what the Stoics actually believed: the core doctrines of the philosophy followed by Marcus throughout his entire adult life. And we’ll address some common misconceptions about Stoicism, such as the idea that Stoics were unemotional or joyless, which is false. I tried to keep the explanation of Stoicism in this chapter as simple as possible but after reading it you should have a pretty clear idea of who the Stoics were and what they believed. Then you’ll be well prepared to begin delving into the application of Stoicism to different areas of life. For example, in the next chapter we’ll be looking at how Stoics used language and in subsequent chapters you’ll learn how they overcame unhealthy desires and bad habits, conquered anxiety, managed anger, coped with pain and illness, came to terms with loss, and even faced their own mortality.

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Coming Soon: New Edition of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius

I’m delighted to announce that a new edition of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, with which I was involved, is due for publication in December 2019 by Capstone, an imprint of John Wiley & Sons.

Capstone Classics is a series of deluxe hardback editions of classic texts. This special edition of The Meditations is beautifully bound and contains a modernized version of the George Long translation accompanied by my detailed introduction to the text.

This book is eligible for Amazon’s pre-order price guarantee so you should find that by ordering now you’ll get the book at the lowest price offered prior to its release. So that’s a great way to pick up a bargain.

Podcast: Stoicism and the Art of Manliness

It was my pleasure to be interviewed recently by Brett McKay for the hugely popular Art of Manliness podcast. Brett asked me some very insightful questions about my latest book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius. The Art of Manliness has covered Stoicism in the past, including interviews with Ryan Holiday and William Irvine.

You can listen to the podcast via the Art of Manliness website, and on PlayerFMStitcher, Soundcloud, and Apple Podcasts.

We begin our conversation discussing the history of Stoicism and the overlooked beliefs the Stoics had. We then discuss the end goal of Stoicism and how it differed from other ancient philosophies like Aristotelian virtue ethics. Donald then explains the Stoic approach to emotions and the common misconceptions people have about Stoicism in that regard. We then dig into Stoic practices taken from Marcus Aurelius and discuss how modern cognitive psychology backs them up. Donald shares how the Stoics used language and daily meditations to manage their emotional life, and how they went about the psychology of goal-setting and dealing with success and failure.

Show Highlights

  • The origins of Stoicism — Where did it start? Who were the founders?
  • Comparing Stoicism to Aristotelian ethics
  • How did the Stoic way differentiate between good and bad actions?
  • The connection between Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) 
  • The Stoic approach to emotions (and misconceptions about it) 
  • How our language can help us manage our emotions 
  • How Stoics view anger and why they use so much space talking about it
  • Marcus Aurelius’ story, including his circuitous route to becoming emperor 
  • On catastrophizing 
  • What does Stoic meditation look like?
  • Was the Apostle Paul a Stoic?
  • What do Stoics say about changing or moderating our desires?
  • What about worry and anxiety?
  • Balancing successful outcomes with successful tactics (and dealing with setbacks)

​Read more on the Art of Manliness website.  Hope you enjoy!  Please feel free to leave comments – I’m always pleased to read your thoughts.


Donald Robertson​

Herodes Atticus on Stoic Apatheia

In his Attic Nights, the grammarian Aulus Gellius relates the following anecdote in which Herodes Atticus, a famous Sophist, criticizes the Stoic concept of apatheia, or freedom from irrational passions. However, Herodes was a notoriously quick tempered and violent individual, who stood trial (and was acquitted) of kicking his pregnant wife to death. So his own life may not be the best advertisement for his theory of the passions.

A discourse of Herodes Atticus on the power and nature of pain, and a confirmation of his view by the example of an ignorant countryman who cut down fruit-trees along with thorns.  

Herodes Atticus

I once heard Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, holding forth at Athens in the Greek language, in which he far surpassed almost all the men of our time in distinction, fluency, and elegance of diction. He was speaking at the time against the ἀπάθεια, or “lack of feeling” of the Stoics, in consequence of having been assailed by one of that sect, who alleged that he did not endure the grief which he felt at the death of a beloved boy with sufficient  wisdom and fortitude. The sense of the discourse, so far as I remember, was as follows: that no man, who felt and thought normally, could be wholly exempt and free from those emotions of the mind, which he called πάθη, caused by sorrow, desire, fear, anger and pleasure; and even if he could so resist them as to be free from them altogether, he would not be better off, since his mind would grow weak and sluggish, being deprived of the support of certain emotions, as of a highly necessary stimulus. For he declared that those feelings and impulses of the mind, though they become faults when excessive, are connected and involved in certain powers and activities of the intellect; and therefore, if we should in our ignorance eradicate them altogether, there would be danger lest we lose also the good and useful qualities of the mind which are connected with them. Therefore he thought that they ought to be regulated, and pruned skilfully and carefully, so that those only should be removed which are unsuitable and unnatural, lest in fact that should happen which once (according to the story) befell an ignorant and rude Thracian in cultivating a field which he had bought.

“When a man of Thrace,” said he, “from a remote and barbarous land, and unskilled in agriculture, had moved into a more civilized country, in order to lead a less wild life, he bought a farm planted with olives and vines. Knowing nothing at all about the care of vines or trees, he chanced to see a neighbour cutting down the thorns which had sprung up high and wide, pruning his ash-trees almost to  their tops, pulling up the suckers of his vines which had spread over the earth from the main roots, and cutting off the tall straight shoots on his fruit and olive trees. He drew near and asked why the other was making such havoc of his wood and leaves. The neighbour answered; ‘In order to make the field clean and neat and the trees and vines more productive.’ The Thracian left his neighbour with thanks, rejoicing that he had gained some knowledge of farming. Then he took his sickle and axe; and thereupon in his pitiful ignorance the fellow cuts down all his vines and olives, lopping off the richest branches of the trees and the most fruitful shoots of the vines, and, with the idea of clearing up his place, he pulls up all the shrubs and shoots fit for bearing fruits and crops, along with the brambles and thorns, having learnt assurance at a ruinous price and acquired boldness in error through faulty imitation. Thus it is,” said Herodes, “that those disciples of insensibility, wishing to be thought calm, courageous and steadfast because of showing neither desire nor grief, neither wrath nor joy, root out all the more vigorous emotions of the mind, and grow old in the torpor of a sluggish and, as it were, nerveless life.”

Herodes Atticus on Fake Stoicism

In this excerpt from Attic Nights, the grammarian Aulus Gellius, a contemporary of Marcus Aurelius, relates an amusing anecdote. Herodes Atticus was a wealthy Sophist, known for his eloquence but also his violent temper. He was family friend of Marcus Aurelius, but also a critic of Stoicism.

The apt use made by Herodes Atticus, the ex-consul, in reply to an arrogant and boastful young fellow, a student of philosophy in appearance only, of the passage in which Epictetus the Stoic humorously set apart the true Stoic from the mob of prating triflers who called themselves Stoics.  

Herodes Atticus
Herodes Atticus

While we were students at Athens, Herodes Atticus, a man of consular rank and of true Grecian eloquence, often invited me to his country houses near that city, in company with the honourable  Servilianus and several others of our countrymen who had withdrawn from Rome to Greece in quest of culture. And there at that time, while we were with him at the villa called Cephisia, both in the heat of summer and under the burning autumnal sun, we protected ourselves against the trying temperature by the shade of its spacious groves, its long, soft  promenades, the cool location of the house, its elegant baths with their abundance of sparkling water, and the charm of the villa as a whole, which was everywhere melodious with plashing waters and tuneful birds.

There was with us there at the time a young student of philosophy, of the Stoic school according to his own account, but intolerably loquacious and presuming. In the course of the conversations which are commonly carried on at table after dinner, this fellow often used to prattle unseasonably, absurdly, and at immoderate length, on the principles of philosophy, maintaining that compared with himself all the Greek-speaking authorities, all wearers of the toga, and the Latin race in general were ignorant boors. As he spoke, he rattled off unfamiliar terms, the catchwords of syllogisms and dialectic tricks, declaring that no one but he could unravel the “master,” the “resting,” and the “heap” arguments,  and other riddles of the kind. Furthermore, as to ethics, the nature of the human intellect, and the origin of the virtues with their duties and limits, or on the other hand the ills caused by disease and sin, and the wasting and destruction of the soul, he stoutly maintained that absolutely no one else had investigated, understood and mastered all these more thoroughly than himself. Further, he believed that torture, bodily pain and deadly peril could neither injure nor detract from the happy state and condition of life which, in his opinion, he had attained, and that no sorrow could even cloud the serenity of the Stoic’s face and expression.

Once when he was puffing out these empty boasts, and already all, weary of his prating, were thoroughly disgusted and longing for an end, Herodes, speaking in Greek as was his general custom, said: “Allow me, mightiest of philosophers, since we, whom you call laymen, cannot answer you, to read from a book of Epictetus, greatest of Stoics, what he thought and said about such big talk as that of yours.” And he bade them bring the first  volume of the Discourses of Epictetus, arranged by Arrian, in which that venerable old man with just severity rebukes those young men who, though calling themselves Stoics, showed neither virtue nor honest industry, but merely babbled of trifling propositions and of the fruits of their study of such elements as are taught to children.

Then, when the book was brought, there was read the passage which I have appended, in which Epictetus with equal severity and humour set apart and separated from the true and genuine Stoic, who was beyond question without restraint or constraint, unembarrassed, free, prosperous and happy, that other mob of triflers who styled themselves Stoics, and casting the black soot of their verbiage before the eves of their hearers, laid false claim to the name of the holiest of sects:

‘Speak to me of good and evil.’ — Listen: The wind, bearing me from Ilium, drove me to the Cicones. Of all existing things some are good, some evil, and some indifferent. Now the good things are virtues and what partakes of them, the evil are vice and what partakes of vice, and the indifferent lie  between these: wealth, health, life, death, pleasure, pain.— ‘How do you know this?’ — Hellanicus says so in his Egyptian History. For what difference does it make whether you say that, or that it was Diogenes in his Ethics or Chrysippus or Cleanthes? Have you then investigated any of these matters and formed an opinion of your own? Let me see how you are accustomed to act in a storm at sea. Do you recall this classification when the sail cracks and you cry aloud? If some idle fellow should stand beside you and say: ‘Tell me, for Heaven’s sake, what you told me before. It isn’t a vice to suffer shipwreck, is it? It doesn’t partake of vice, does it?’ Would you not hurl a stick of wood at him and cry: ‘What have we to do with you, fellow? We perish and you come and crack jokes.’ But if Caesar should summon you to answer an accusation…”

On hearing these words, that most arrogant of youths was mute, just as if the whole diatribe had been pronounced, not by Epictetus against others, but against himself by Herodes.

Stoicism and Virtue: The Stoic Code of Honor

Something about the chivalric codes of the Middle Ages seems curiously akin to the ethical ideals of Stoicism. Ancient Stoic philosophy didn’t have an explicit code of honor, as far as we know. However, a basic code of ethical conduct is clearly implicit in the surviving writings of Seneca, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and our other sources for the philosophy.

Stoics liked to have lists that could be easily committed to memory. Most obviously, there is their list of four cardinal virtues, which goes back at least as far as the portrayal of Socrates in the dialogues of Plato: Wisdom (sophia), Righteousness (dikaiosune), Fortitude (andreia), and Temperance (sophrosune); or Wisdom, Justice, Courage, and Moderation, in more modern language.

The doxographer Diogenes Laertius said that the Stoics described the supreme good as “honourable” because it consists of the four factors (virtues) required for the perfection of human nature: wisdom, justice, courage, and orderliness (self-discipline). The “honourable”, he says, denotes those qualities which make their possessor genuinely praiseworthy, by allowing him to fulfil his natural potential as a human being. The Stoics that the wise man alone is honourable and “that only the honourable is good”. The good and the honourable are synonymous, in other words, as far as the Stoics are concerned. However, the good is also that which is beneficial. The Stoics believed that doing what is honourable is in our own best interests because it allows us to flourish as human beings.

We might briefly summarize the Stoic code of honor described below as follows:

  1. Love truth and wisdom
  2. Act with justice, fairness, and kindness
  3. Master your fears and become courageous
  4. Master your desires and live with self-discipline

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