How I got into Stoicism

Donald Robertson speaking at Ben Mcnally Books

People keep asking me how I got into Stoicism. Sometimes I’m asked in interviews. There’s even a guy who trolls me on the Internet making stuff up about my past. Sometimes people who Google my details get random info that’s incorrect. (My daughter thought it was hilarious that if she asked “OK Google: Who is Donald Robertson?” the computer voice would confidently inform her that I am an author, aged seventy.) So this is an attempt to set the record straight. I find it’s easier to write an account like this down in one place so if it comes up again, all I need to do is share the link. It also helps me remember all the specific details! Some of the event dates, etc., might be off by a year or so either way but, basically, this should be about as accurate as it gets. For reference, you can read most of my publication history in my Google Scholar profile.

The Beginning

I was born in Irvine, Scotland, in 1972, and grew up in the nearby town of Ayr. My father passed away when I was about thirteen years old. He didn’t leave much behind except some old books on Freemasonic rituals. I saw they mentioned symbols and ideas from the Old Testament combined with allusions to Hellenistic philosophy. I think I probably saw mention of Plato, Pythagoras, the four cardinal virtues, etc. That was what first sparked my interest in religion and philosophy. For some reason, it made me want to read more about these things.

At that time, books were hard for me to obtain. My mother, a widow, cleaned the houses of schoolteachers, and we didn’t have a lot of money. There weren’t many bookshops. I would scour second-hand shops for hours at the weekends looking for any used books on philosophy that I could find – there were extremely slim pickings available! I loved the Carnegie Library in Ayr, spent a lot of time there, and would often request books on order. One challenge was even knowing the names of books worth ordering in the first place. One day the library were selling off old books, including a huge set of Books in Print, a catalogue of all published books, which I managed to obtain. That allowed me to look up books by specific authors, which I could then try to order from the library or bookstore. This was life before the Internet!

A few years later, my curiosity piqued by some references in the Freemasonic rituals, I started learning to read Hebrew. (I didn’t get far; languages are not my forte.) A church minister lent me some books on the language. I began reading more and more obscure religious texts, including various ones on the Qabbalah – I liked modern esoteric commentators such as Aleister Crowley, Israel Regardie, Dion Fortune, but also primary sources such as Sepher Yetzirah and Sepher Zohar. I read famous Christian mystical texts like the Cloud of Uknowing, Pilgrim’s Progress, and Mystical Theology. At the same time I was also reading the classics of Indian religion, particularly the Hindu Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita, the Buddhist Dhammapada, the Tao Te Ching, and many other more obscure religious scriptures.

Ayr College

I was kicked out of school when I was sixteen, and eventually ended up at Ayr College, studying computing, where my study of religious and mystical texts intensified even more in my spare time. Later, by the time I was around seventeen, I had also become interested in martial arts (Taekwondo) and hatha yoga and practiced meditation – I read many books on yoga philosophy.

My interest in Hebrew and Christian mysticism eventually led me to Gnosticism. I found a copy of Elaine Pagel’s The Gnostic Gospels (1979) in the bargain bin at a local book store. I then managed to get a copy of the Naj Hammadi Gnostic corpus from Carnegie Library, which I found fascinating. I noticed it contained many references to Neoplatonic philosophy, and even an excerpt from Plato’s Republic! I read many other ancient mystical texts, such as those of the Corpus Hermeticum, which also seemed influenced by Neoplatonism.

That sparked my interest in ancient philosophy. I began reading Plato. I found an old book of excerpts from Plato that I sat in the garden reading one summer. I read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy and many other introductory books. I then tried to work my way through many of the key texts in the history of philosophy, which was pretty hard going for a teenager with my level of formal education! I read very widely. I particularly liked Spinoza, Hume, Kant, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, etc. (I thought at the time that Schopenhauer was underrated as a philosopher and liked the parallels between his thought and the Indian philosophy I had read.) I also read Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness at this time, and other French existential texts, which I loved. (I only managed to obtain these because of a trip to Glasgow, where I found a trove of philosophy books, from former students, in a second-hand book store.) It was the Gnostic texts and the dialogues of Plato that had the most profound and lasting effect on me, though.

Studying Philosophy at Aberdeen

In 1992, aged nineteen, I went to Aberdeen University to study philosophy. The course at Aberdeen is named “Mental Philosophy” for historical reasons but it’s a standard philosophy degree. Scottish undergraduate degrees like this are four years long, and lead to the award of an MA degree rather than a BA.

By this time, I’d already been reading many of the first year philosophy texts for several years, so I got off to a very good start, and flourished at university. I also took courses in cultural anthropology, psychology, and history of Indian religions, which meant I studied the Bhagavad Gita and Dhammapada in more depth. I joined the Buddhist society, regularly meditated, and went on several Buddhist meditation retreats.

We were fortunate to be able to study quite advanced topics at Aberdeen, and I particularly focused on Kant, Wittgenstein, and Heidegger. However, I also took two courses in classical philosophy: Plato and Aristotle. We mainly focused on the Theaetetus and Nicomachean Ethics, although I read many other Greek philosophical texts at this time. I graduated joint top of my year, in 1996, won the John Laird memorial award for moral philosophy, and obtained a first class MA Hons degree.

Discovering Stoicism

It’s often observed that Stoicism is one of the main schools of ancient philosophy that’s largely ignored in undergraduate philosophy curricula. I loved studying philosophy but I was slightly frustrated that I still hadn’t found a philosophy of life, which I felt comfortable with. I had dabbled with yoga and Buddhism, but somehow they just didn’t click with me sufficiently. With more time now available to choose my own reading, I went back to the Gnostics. I read Hans Jonas’ The Gnostic Religion, which was inspired by Heidegger. I read Freud and Jung, trying for a while to find a way to combine existential philosophy, psychoanalysis, Neoplatonism, and Gnosticism.

Around 1996 or 1997, I began training in counselling and integrative psychotherapy. I studied very widely, covering many different models of psychotherapy, including Freud, Jung, Adler, Klein, Gestalt, REBT, CBT, Carl Rogers, and many more. I was a bit of a geek about the history of psychotherapy, actually, and read many obscure early texts. I became fascinated by the history of hypnotism, and evidence-based clinical hypnosis. (Not “New Age” hypnotherapy but what psychologists such as Hans Eysenck had written about research on hypnotic suggestion.) I later edited the complete writings of James Braid, the Scottish physician who discovered hypnotism, The Discovery of Hypnosis (2009) was therefore my first book. Eventually, I would publish The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy: A Manual for Evidence-Based Clinical Hypnosis (2013), which contains a detailed review of research on clinical hypnosis.

Early meeting of the Society for Philosophy in Practice in Conway Hall, London, with Tim LeBon and Antonia Macaro

Between graduating from Aberdeen and starting my masters degree, I became actively involved in philosophical counselling. I was a committee member of the Society for Philosophy in Practice (SPP), along with my friend, the psychotherapist and author, Tim LeBon, who is also now involved with Stoicism. I began publishing articles in their journal, with one on ‘Philosophical & Counter-Philosophical Practice’ (1998), and later ‘REBT, Philosophy and Philosophical Counselling’ (2000). I was searching for a better way to combine my interests in philosophy and cognitive therapy.

Around this time, I stumbled across Pierre Hadot’s Plotinus, or The Simplicity of Vision, probably shortly after it was released in 1998. I loved this book and over the next few years I also read Hadot’s others: What is Ancient Philosophy?, Philosophy as a Way of Life, and his book on Marcus Aurelius, The Inner Citadel. Suddenly I realized that Stoicism combined all of my interested and I began immersing myself in reading the ancient Stoics. (That was about a quarter of century ago now, at the time of writing this summary.)

Sheffield University

In 1998, I enrolled part-time on the MA program in Psychoanalytic Studies at Sheffield University’s interdisciplinary Centre for Psychotherapeutic Studies. This was really a course comparing academic philosophy and psychotherapy, mainly psychoanalysis. My dissertation was on Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism and Freudian psychoanalysis. I also studied a lot of Jacques Lacan at this time, and other postmodern thinkers, which weren’t really to my taste. I graduated with distinction in 2000. I was already starting to question psychoanalysis and losing interest in existentialism by the time the course began. During my time at Sheffield, I became progressively more interested in the relationship between Stoicism and cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). By around 2003, I had left behind my interest in psychoanalytic therapy and was completely immersed in Stoicism, reading many more books on the subject.

Why didn’t I do my PhD in philosophy? When I graduated from Aberdeen, everyone assumed I’d go on to have a career in academic philosophy. I didn’t have much money, though, and, to my surprise, despite having a first, I was turned down for funding to do a PhD. I looked hard for an alternative, and found my way on to the integrative program at Sheffield, which seemed to be the best option I could afford at the time. Later, when I was earning more money, I tried to enroll on several PhD programs. Now I had both a 1st class degree in philosophy and a masters with distinction in philosophy and psychotherapy. However, I wanted to write my thesis on Stoic philosophy and CBT, and at that time could not find either a psychotherapy or philosophy department who would agree to supervise me. They told me they didn’t have anyone who knew enough about either subject to act as supervisor. (I could probably solve that problem now but I no longer feel the need to do a PhD.)

Harley Street Psychotherapist

After completing my studies at Sheffield, I carried on training in and practicing psychotherapy and counselling. I worked for about a year as a school counsellor for a youth drugs project in South London. Soon after this, I opened a private psychotherapy clinic in Harley Street, London, where I worked for many years, specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. I also ran a training school for psychotherapists. I wrote many articles for magazines and journals, and gave many conference presentations, including on Stoicism and psychotherapy. A lot of these publications are not online but one of them, for the largest British counselling journal, the magazine of the BACP, was an introduction to Stoicism for therapists, published in 2005. I called it Stoic Philosophy as Psychotherapy. (Bizarrely, the BACP editor didn’t like Stoicism or CBT and renamed it “Stoicism, a lurking presence”, without my consent.)

Between 2006 and 2010, I was also part of the team responsible for a research project called Coping with Noise, in collaboration with Defra, the UK department for the environment, and the department for health. I designed online CBT based protocols for stress and insomnia and we gathered data on the outcomes, which were published in peer-reviewed journals.

Around 2008, roughly, I went for an interview at one university well-known for psychotherapy, in order to apply for their PhD program in philosophy and psychotherapy. They said they’d accept me on their program but I declined because, to be blunt, the member of staff who interviewed me seemed at the time, and in retrospect, like a real idiot. She made some shockingly inappropriate and unprofessional remarks about other students. She also told me that students are viewed as a nuisance by staff and not to expect much in exchange for my fees, etc. She said she thought CBT was a waste of time and that I should be studying postmodern theory and psychoanalysis instead. I left feeling pretty disillusioned – there was no way I was going to pay these people tuition fees or dedicate years of my life to studying in their establishment!

Frustrated, I suddenly decided that if I couldn’t find anyone to supervise my PhD thesis, I would just write it anyway, and try to get it published. I wrote a proposal for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor in 2009, which I sent to Karnac, a British publisher who specialized in psychotherapy. Karnac rejected the proposal but suggested I resubmit with a title about philosophy and CBT. So I renamed it and it was subsequently published as The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy (2010). That would have been the basis of my PhD thesis, if I could have found an academic supervisor. Instead, it launched my career as a writer, and is now in its second revised edition, and has been translated into several languages.

Rather than pursue an academic PhD, I continued to train in different models of psychotherapy. I had already been incorporating elements of CBT in my clinical work for many years, and completed a diploma with Prof. Stephen Palmer. I went on to complete an advanced postgraduate diploma in cognitive-behavioural psychotherapy at Kings College, University of London, in 2011.

Around this time, I was also invited by an editor at Hodder, to write a book on CBT, Stoicism, and psychological resilience, called Build your Resilience (2012), for their popular Teach Yourself self-help series. I followed this up with another book for the same series, called Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013), which proved very popular and is now in its second revised edition, and available in several foreign languages.

Photoshoot at Conway Hall in London for a 2012 newspaper article on ancient Greek philosophy with Jules Evans and Tim LeBon

Modern Stoicism

A few years after The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy was published, I was invited by Christopher Gill, emeritus professor of Ancient Thought at Exeter University in England, to attend a workshop there on Stoic philosophy and its practical applications, in Oct 2012. (There’s a video of the event on Facebook.)

We formed a multi-disciplinary team of academic philosophers, classicists, psychologists, and cognitive therapists. Our first project was to create an online course called Stoic Week, which subsequently ran every year, and in which an estimated 20k people have now participated. I later developed a more in-depth online course called Stoic Mindfulness and Resilience Training (SMRT), which we used to collect more robust data on psychological outcomes. Modern Stoicism also organizes an annual conference called Stoicon, which has led to many smaller Stoicon-x events around the world. It is now incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the UK.

Recent Developments

I started studying Stoic philosophy roughly 25 year ago, around 1998, and soon after that began writing articles and giving talks at conferences, etc. From around 2009 onward, when I began writing The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010), I started dedicating most of my time to Stoicism. I wrote Build your Resilience (2012) and Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013). In June 2013, I emigrated from the UK to Canada, and subsequently became a naturalized Canadian citizen.

In 2018, I visited Athens for the first time, and have returned many times since. I became a full-time writer, when St. Martin’s Press published my book How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2019). How to Think Like a Roman Emperor has since been translated into eighteen languages.

I subsequently wrote a graphic novel called Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (2021) for St. Martin’s, followed by a prose biography of Marcus Aurelius for Yale University Press’ Ancient Lives series (in press). I obtained my Greek residence permit around 2020 and now divide my time mostly between Canada and Greece. I didn’t get far with Hebrew as a teen but later I picked up some ancient Greek studying at Aberdeen although I’ve now abandoned that to learn modern Greek, which is tricky with a Scottish accent! I’ve got a long way to go but I can read reasonably well and just about manage a short conversation.

In Jan 2022, I founded a nonprofit organization in Greece called The Plato’s Academy Centre, which aims to introduce Greek philosophy to a wider audience and to create a new international conference facility in the vicinity of Akadimia Platonos park in Athens, the original location of Plato’s Academy. You can find out more about the Plato’s Academy Centre from our website. At the moment, that’s the main project that I’m working on, along with other books, and ongoing workshops, public speaking, etc.

Psychotherapy Resilience Stoicism

How Stoicism Could Help You Build Resilience

Combining stoic philosophy and cognitive-behavioral therapy.

  • Stoicism is an ancient Greek school of philosophy that inspired modern cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).
  • Stoics like Epictetus taught that it’s not things that upset us but rather our opinions (cognitions) about them.
  • People identify with Stoicism as a philosophy of life, which may be more permanent than skills learned in CBT or resilience training.

Read the rest of this article on Psychology Today…

Exercises Stoicism

An Ancient Stoic Meditation Technique

When I wrote The Philosophy of CBT, about eight years ago, I tried very hard to provide a totally comprehensive overview of all the major psychological “techniques” that I could identify in the surviving Stoic literature.  This was made easier for me by the seminal work of the French academic Pierre Hadot, who documented many “spiritual exercises” in Hellenistic philosophy.  I interpreted these from my perspective as a cognitive-behavioural therapist, and spotted a few more.  Over the subsequent years, I kept studying the Stoic literature, looking for things that I may have missed.  However, I was disappointed.  I only found a few minor variations of existing techniques.  One was a passage where Epictetus mentions that the Stoic Paconius Agrippinus used to write eulogies to himself about any hardships that befell him, focusing on what positive things he could conceivably learn from them.  If he developed a fever or was sent into exile, for example, he would write himself a letter about it from a Stoic perspective.  Now, we already knew that so-called consolation letters were an important part of the Stoic tradition.  They were normally addressed to another person, like a kind of psychotherapy, using Stoic arguments to help them cope with the suffering caused by events such as bereavement.  Agrippinus, however, appears to have had a practice of writing similar letters but addressing them to himself.

Aside from a few observations like that, I came across nothing new.  One day, however, I suddenly realised that another sort of ancient Stoic meditation technique was potentially hiding in plain sight, right before my eyes.  The Stoic philosopher Athenodorus Cananites, a student of Posidonius, was personal tutor to the first Roman Emperor, Augustus, formerly known as Octavian, in the latter half of the first century BC.  We know fairly little about Athenodorus’ life or philosophy, aside from a few isolated remarks in the ancient literature.  We do know that he was held in high regard as a philosopher and that he was friends with Cicero, and perhaps assisted him in writing On Duties.  (And he features in an ancient ghost story.)  What interested me about him, though, was that according to Plutarch, he taught the Emperor Augustus a very specific mental strategy for coping with anger:

Athenodorus, the philosopher, because of his advanced years begged to be dismissed and allowed to go home, and Augustus granted his request. But when Athenodorus, as he was taking leave of him, said, “Whenever you get angry, Caesar, do not say or do anything before repeating to yourself the twenty-four letters of the alphabet,” Augustus seized his hand and said, “I still have need of your presence here,” and detained him a whole year, saying, “No risk attends the reward that silence brings.” (Moralia, Book 3)

Now, on the face of it, this seemed like relatively familiar and trivial advice.  Like advising someone “count to ten each time you get angry”, before doing or saying anything.  It was several years after reading this passage before it occurred to me that it could, and perhaps should, be viewed somewhat differently.  It started with a simple observation.  Athenodorus is talking about the Greek alphabet.  Greek has twenty-four letters; the Latin alphabet used in ancient Rome had twenty-three.  Unlike the letters of the modern English alphabet, all the letters of the Greek alphabet have names of two or more syllables: alpha, beta, gamma, etc.  So reciting those takes a bit more time and effort than just counting to ten.  If we assume that it’s not meant to be rushed, because the subject is trying to cope with anger, then it’s natural to repeat each letter slowly, on the outbreath.  Most people take 12-20 breaths per minute, so that would normally take about a minute and a half on average.  Now, although it might not sound like it, that’s actually quite a long time to stop and think, by most people’s standards.  Try closing your eyes right now and doing nothing for ninety seconds, or just breathing normally and counting twenty-four exhalations of breath.  One day, I did that, as Athenodorus suggested, and noticed something that should perhaps have been obvious: it requires a little bit of patience.

The point is that we potentially have an exercise that takes enough time to constitute a proper contemplative experience.  If you repeated that type of count ten times, it would take fifteen minutes on average.  The thing that seems to me to most resemble is the meditation technique developed by Herbert Benson, author of The Relaxation Response (1975).  Benson was a professor of physiology at Harvard Medical School who carried out physiological studies on self-hypnosis and many different relaxation and meditation techniques, in the 1970s.  The simplest method he found was the mantra yoga of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s Transcendental Meditation school.  The good news for the TM people was that Benson found their technique of simply repeating a Sanskrit mantra on each exhalation of breath was effective at reducing nervous arousal, and triggering the physiological relaxation response.  Even better, it worked as well as other relaxation methods but was much simpler and easier to teach than, say, progressive muscle relaxation or self-hypnosis.  The bad news for them, however, was that Benson found that it made no real difference what phrase was repeated: you could pick more or less any word or short phrase and get the same result.  So that removed any mystical or philosophical ingredients from the technique, at least in terms of its ability to evoke a beneficial physiological effect.  

So we have a Stoic technique, which, is basically monotonous enough to require patience for a couple of minutes.  That’s still not meditation.  However, what I realised was that it makes a whole world of difference what attitude one adopts to something as mundane as repeating the letters of the Greek alphabet.  That is, in order to understand this procedure we surely have to interpret it within the context of Stoic philosophy and psychology.  We have to take into account what the Stoics actually say about the attitude they tried to adopt in response to anger and other passions.  Indeed, what the Stoics did say about this is very remarkable:

Let the ruling [hegemonikon] and master faculty of your soul be unchanged by any rough or smooth motions in the body.  Do not let it mingle with them but instead draw a line around it and set a boundary limiting those affects [i.e., proto-passions] to where they belong.  However, when through a sympathetic reaction [passion] these tendencies spread into your thinking, because it is all occurring in the same physical organism, you must not try to suppress the feeling, as it is natural, but rather see that your ruling faculty does not add any judgement of its own about whether it is good or bad. (5.26)

What Marcus notes here is perfectly consistent with the writings of earlier Stoics, such as Seneca’s On Anger or The Discourses of Epictetus.  We should view our minds as if there’s a fairly sharp dividing line between two domains: what we do, and what happens to us.  Modern psychologists would call that the distinction between “strategic” or voluntary cognitive processes, and “automatic” or involuntary ones.  It’s a very simple distinction but one that, for some reason, people tend to continually blur.

What Marcus says here is that when we spot the early-warning signs of distressing or unhealthy “passions”, by which the Stoics mean either desires or emotions, we should maintain a sense of detachment from them, viewing them as from a distance.  Modern cognitive-behavioural therapists call this “cognitive distance” or “verbal defusion”.  It’s basically the ability to view our own thoughts and feelings as merely events in our stream of consciousness, without getting too caught up in them, or confusing them with reality.  Marcus says two crucial things here.  First, when these involuntary thoughts, sensations, or impressions (which the Stoics call propatheiai or “proto-passions”) arise in our minds, we should view them with detachment, like a scientist, or natural philosopher, calmly and objectively observing a natural phenomenon, such as a rainbow.  Second, we should not struggle against these experiences by trying to block or suppress them from our minds, because they are natural.  Despite being the seeds of potential emotional distress, as they stand they are neither good nor bad, but indifferent.  This is a more sophisticated way of putting something Epictetus repeats over and over again in The Discourses.  Indeed, it’s the meaning of the very first line of his Stoic Handbook: “Some things are up to us and some things are not.”  This is the subtle attitude that Stoics must strive to maintain throughout life, and especially during contemplative exercises of this kind.

So to return to Athenodorus, how should this exercise be practised in relation to the observations from Stoic psychology above?  Well, first of all, we can assume it doesn’t make much difference whether we repeat the Greek alphabet or the English (modern Latin) alphabet.  You could just as well count from one to ten, repeating each number in your mind on each outbreath.  You could repeat the days of the week or the names of the Seven Dwarves.  If you wanted you could just repeat “alpha, beta, gamma”, “one, two, three”, and then start at the beginning again.  Or you could just repeat the same word on each breath, such as “alpha”, although more or less any other short word would do just as well.  One advantage to counting, or repeating the alphabet, or any series of words, is that you’re more likely to notice when your attention inevitably wanders because you’ll probably lose your place.  That’s helpful.  Rather than being annoyed, just (figuratively) shrug, respond with indifference, and start the process again with the first word or number.  It doesn’t matter.  The same goes if you fall asleep: when you wake up just continue as if nothing had happened.

The point is that you’re deliberately engaging in an excruciatingly simple procedure: merely saying the alphabet, or counting to ten.  That frees you up to focus all of your attention on the way you do it, the attitude of mind that you adopt toward the procedure.  Stoics like to divide that into two dimensions.  You should notice that many involuntary thoughts and feelings pop into your mind.  That’s completely natural.  The first part of your job is therefore to view everything that automatically enters your mind, as Marcus says, with total indifference, as neither good nor bad.  In fact, consider this an opportunity to train yourself in an attitude of indifference toward all such things, whether you suddenly feel irritated or notice a pain in your shoulder, etc., everything except the procedure itself, and the way you’re doing it, is indifferent to you right now.  Viewing things with indifference – and it’s important to bear this in mind – means accepting them, as opposed to trying to get rid of them or block them from consciousness.  Benson described this as a “So What?” attitude and he said it was the main factor that he found to correlate with success among individuals learning techniques to control their relaxation response.  Pretty much anything that could potentially be a distraction or an obstacle to you during meditation is grist to this mill, merely another opportunity for you to train yourself in indifference.

The second part of the procedure is what you’re actually doing strategically and voluntarily: the way you repeat the words or numbers in your mind.  You should do that simple task with what the Stoics call excellence or “virtue” (arete).  The Stoics tell us to focus our attention on the present moment and completing whatever task is before us to the best of our ability, in accord with virtue.  During this meditation we can train the mind and study that attitude more easily because the task itself is exceptionally simple and mundane, making it easier to focus on the way we go about it.  The Stoics tell us to ask ourselves continually what virtue, or characteristic, a particular task demands from us.  In the case of this sort of meditation on a repetitive stimulus, perhaps the most obvious virtue would be patience or even endurance, which, incidentally, was considered part of the cardinal Stoic virtue of courage (andreia).  

I’d say another important factor is that we don’t allow our awareness to narrow in scope, which is symptomatic of anxiety and other forms of emotional distress, according to modern research in cognitive psychology.  The Stoics said that all virtue entails a quality called magnanimity, literally having a great soul, or expansive mind.  One simple way of maintaining that is to remember that you’re not trying to block anything from awareness.  When a distracting thought or feeling comes to your attention, go back to the repetition of your word, or the alphabet, but allow awareness of the intrusive thought to remain there, as it were, in the background.  Your attention should be focused on the word you’re repeating, sometimes called a mental “centering device” but not to the exclusion of everything else.  Rather you should be able to “walk and chew gum”, to repeat your phrase while still allowing room for other things to cross your awareness, albeit in the distance.  What you’re trying to avoid is what the Stoics called the tendency to be “swept along” with intrusive thoughts and feelings, to go along with them, rather than just noticing them, in a detached way, and doing nothing.  

Another key element of ancient Stoicism, perhaps the most important element, which many modern students of Stoicism nevertheless tend to neglect, is the role of natural affection (philostorgia).  That’s the reason why we do things: “for the common welfare of mankind.”  Buddhists call this compassion, (karuna) but Stoics dislike that word because etymologically it denotes colluding in another’s passions or emotional distress –- like the word “commiserate”, to share in another person’s misery.  Our primary goal in meditation, as in life, is to cultivate virtue, by perfecting what is up to us, or under our direct control.  However, as Zeno said, that’s meaningless unless it refers to an external target or outcome.  Cicero portrays Cato explaining this by the famous Stoic analogy of the archer.  His goal is to notch his arrow and fire it skillfully from his bow.  Whether or not it hits the target is indifferent to him, insofar as, once it’s in flight, it’s no longer under his direct control.  Nevertheless, he does aim at an external object – he has to point his arrow at something.  Stoics live, and therefore meditate, for the sake of their own virtue, but also for the common welfare of mankind, although the latter can only be wished for with the caveat we call the “reserve clause”, which says “if nothing prevents it” or “God Willing”.  In meditation, each moment is both in the service of virtue, and, fate permitting, in the service of the rest of mankind, because the closer we come to wisdom and virtue ourselves, the more able we are to benefit other people.  

My advice would therefore be to try Athenodorus’ technique for yourself.  I’ve been using some version of the Benson technique more or less every day for about the past fifteen or twenty years or so.  It’s a very simple and versatile method, with many hidden benefits.  If you can’t repeat the Greek alphabet, use the the English alphabet, or just count to ten.  Say one word or number in your mind with each exhalation of breath, and then start again at the beginning when you’re done.  Repeat this for about ten or twenty minutes, once or twice each day.  Before you do so, contemplate the passage from Marcus Aurelius above.  Think always about these two dimensions of the Stoic attitude: indifference toward indifferent things, including automatic thoughts that pop into your mind; and continually acting with virtue, dedicating your action affectionately to the common good.  Was this how Caesar Augustus said the alphabet, when he noticed himself getting angry?  I don’t think we’ll ever know.  But it seems to me that the method is psychologically sound and it makes perfect sense in terms of the Stoic literature on the passions discussed above.


Spinoza’s Philosophical Psychotherapy

– Rational Techniques of Emotional Therapy

(Remedia Affectuum) –

“All things come from One, and are resolved into One.”

– A precept of the Orphic Mysteries, c. 6th Century BC.

NATURE! We are surrounded and embraced by her: powerless to separate ourselves from her, and powerless to penetrate beyond her…

– Goethe, Aphorisms on Nature

Who Was Spinoza?

In former centuries, he was one of the most controversial and reviled philosophers in Europe but he is now seen as an intellectual hero of the Enlightenment. Benedictus de Spinoza (1632-1677) was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Amsterdam where, refusing the offer of a prestigious university professorship, he earned his living as a lens-grinder until his untimely death from consumption. Spinoza developed an impressive and visionary metaphysical system, written in technical Latin and drawing together many themes from classical philosophy, which climaxed in a rational psychotherapy and method of personal philosophical enlightenment.

Spinoza is generally considered to be one of the most influential figures in the history of Western philosophy and, along with Descartes and Leibnitz, one of the three great “rationalist” philosophers of the European enlightenment period. His work is perhaps the most imposing example of classical philosophical therapy and pre-empts modern psychotherapy, especially cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), in many important respects. Bertrand Russell called Spinoza, ‘the noblest and most lovable of the great philosophers’ (1946: 552), and conceded that his grand theory, ‘was magnificent, and rouses admiration even in those who do not think it successful.’ (Russell, 1946: 553). Even someone who cannot accept the whole of Spinoza’s metaphysic, will often feel that his moral and psychological conclusions remain deeply profound, and that includes his psychotherapy as we shall see.

Spinoza was driven to develop a system of therapeutic self-help because of his own “existential” crisis. Though he considered himself Jewish, he had been excommunicated from the faith over his liberal interpretation of scripture, ritually cursed and cut adrift from his community. His published works were condemned as ‘forged in Hell by a renegade Jew and the Devil’, and banned from certain Jewish and Christian communities. In an unfinished manuscript on his method of self-improvement, Spinoza refers to his early uncertainty and craving for happiness, hinting at darker experiences of ‘extreme melancholy’, and his inner quest to procure philosophical balm for his troubled mind,

I thus perceived that I was in a state of great peril, and I compelled myself to seek with all my strength for a remedy [or “therapy”], however uncertain it might be; as a sick man struggling with a deadly disease, when he sees that death will surely be upon him […] is compelled to seek such a remedy with all his strength, inasmuch as his whole hope lies therein. (De Intellectus Emendatione, 4-5)

Ironically, this document, like Spinoza’s most important work, The Ethics (or Ethica), was hidden until after his death because of the same threat of religious persecution which forced him to develop his “emotional remedies” in the first place.

Spinoza’s Relevance to Modern Psychotherapy

Human impotence in moderating and controlling the emotions I call slavery. For a man who is enslaved by passions is not his own master, but lies at the mercy of fortune such that he is often forced, though he may see what is better for him, to follow what is worse. (E4, Preface, my translation)

The main reason why Spinoza’s psychotherapy is not currently more popular is probably because modern readers have difficulty with his terminology. For instance, classical philosophers included what we now call “psychotherapy” or “self-help” under the broad heading of “ethics.” Spinoza’s Ethica has little to do with “morality” in the modern sense; it really describes a self-help method, a system of therapy for overcoming negative emotions and cultivating personal enlightenment. As one commentator writes, ‘It picks up ancient debates, where questions about the nature of knowledge and of the ultimate nature of things were integrated with reflection on the mental attitudes required for a well-lived life.’ (Lloyd, 1996: 141).

Those taught that psychotherapy began with Freud are therefore surprised to discover that a definite therapeutic tradition can be traced back through the great Stoic and Epicurean schools to the very ancient teachings of Socrates, and perhaps even Pythagoras (fl. 6th century BC). I will pass over these issues, though, sadly, modern therapists are not usually taught the history of their own field and its close-knit connection with Western philosophy (See my ‘Stoicism as Philosophical Psychotherapy’, Therapy Today, 2005). Suffice to say that Spinoza provides one of the most sophisticated models of philosophical psychotherapy, though he seems heavily indebted to Hellenistic philosophy. Leibnitz dubbed Spinoza as pioneering ‘the sect of the new Stoics’ , and many others have seen him as a “Neo-stoic” in disguise, but I think there is also strong evidence of Epicureanism in his writings. It is perhaps better to consider the possibility that Spinoza was weaving together various influences from ancient and medieval thought into a new philosophical whole. It is no coincidence that he was one of the last great philosophers to write mainly in Latin, and the language itself may be considered a major influence upon his philosophy.

A further obstacle to the modern reader lies in Spinoza’s use of the word “God” to denote the logico-metaphysical absolute from which his system is deduced. Again, brevity forces me to say only that Spinoza’s “God” is very much a philosopher’s God, a pure metaphysical concept, and not at all the insidious anthropomorphism which bewitches the popular imagination. Einstein once said, “I believe in Spinoza’s God, Who reveals Himself in the lawful harmony of the world, not in a God Who concerns Himself with the fate and the doings of mankind.” (Quoted in Einstein: Science and Religion, Arnold V. Lesikar)

For Spinoza, the whole of existence is, without exception, sacred and divine when considered in its entirety, a position known as “pantheism.” Not surprisingly, his philosophy struck a chord with mystically-inclined poets including Goethe and Wordsworth; and it stoked the ire of frightened, religious bigots who condemned him, somewhat self-contradictorily, as an atheist, heretic, Satanist, and pagan (q.v., Letter LXXIII). He caused an ongoing storm in Europe by referring to Deus sive Natura, ‘God aka Nature’, and indeed his metaphysic can be more credibly presented nowadays by substituting “Nature” for “God.” The fact that I have done so is only likely to offend people ignorant of Spinoza’s professed meaning.

Spinoza’s Philosophy & Psychology

“I am fascinated by Spinoza’s pantheism, but admire even more his contributions to modern thought because he is the first philosopher to deal with the soul and the body as one, not two separate things.” (Albert Einstein, quoted in Glimpses of the Great (1930) by G. S. Viereck)

Monism & Pantheism (The Bigger Picture)

Metaphysical Nature (Natura) is the concept of something which exists necessarily, by definition (causa sui). It is absolutely infinite, without borders or limitations in any dimension or sphere of being. It precedes, encompasses and pervades everything. Everything that exists does so by reference to it, and within it. It is the cloth from which everything is cut, the solitary metaphysical ground or substance of all that exists. It is the essence of everything, and all things conceived as a unified whole. When perceived accurately, it is accepted with absolute certainty as perfectly real, a necessary and eternal truth, because, ex hypothesi, its very existence is part of its essence.

By [Nature] I understand a being absolutely infinite, that is, a substance consisting of infinite attributes, each of which expresses eternal and infinite essence. (E1, Definition 6)

If we were to view it as conscious, we would probably want to call it “God”, though doing so may be more trouble than it’s worth. People have therefore vacillated between dubbing Spinoza as “god-intoxicated” on one hand, and an irredeemable atheist on the other: he is, of course, both and neither.

My atheism, like that of Spinoza, is true piety toward the universe and denies only gods fashioned by men in their own image, to be servants of their human interests. (George Santayana, Soliloquies in England and Later Soliloquies, 1922: 246)

Spinoza’s metaphysical “Nature” exceeds the vastness of space and time, and the depth of the human imagination. Your body is a tiny, wandering cell within its vast body, your mind a slender and shadowy thought within its cosmic mind. This is Spinoza’s main premise.

For Spinoza, contemplation of the essence of Nature as an “absolutely infinite” metaphysical substance, is the highest philosophical and therapeutic method. The Nobel-prize winning writer, Isaac Bashevis Singer’s short story, The Spinoza of Market Street, an otherwise flawed effort, describes the euphoric vision of a Spinozist thus,

Yes, the divine substance was extended and had neither beginning nor end; it was absolute, indivisible, eternal, without duration, infinite in its attributes. Its waves and bubbles danced in the universal cauldron, seething with change, following the unbroken chain of causes and effects, and he, Dr. Fischelson, with his unavoidable fate, was part of this. (Singer, 1962: 25)

When asked why he doesn’t attend synagogue, the old scholar replies, “God is everywhere […] In the synagogue. In the marketplace. In this very room. We ourselves are parts of God.” (Singer, 1962: 21).

Pantheism is a philosophy favoured by mystics and ancient religions. Indeed, nowadays, it is tempting to compare Spinoza’s nameless, faceless, infinite God with the Brahman of Hindu vedanta, or the Sunyata of Buddhist metaphysics. Spinoza has therefore been taken as representative of a “perennial philosophy” (philosophia perennis). Aldous Huxley, who wrote a book on the subject, defines the perennial philosophy as, ‘the metaphysic that recognizes a divine Reality substantial to the world of things and lives and minds; the psychology that finds in the soul something similar to, or even identical with, divine Reality; the ethic that places man’s final end in the knowledge of the immanent and transcendent Ground of all being.’ (Aldous Huxley, The Perennial Philosophy, 1946: 9).

To understand ourselves, transient things, and the individual events in life in relation to the whole in this way is to see things, in Spinoza’s celebrated phrase, sub specie aeternitatis; a vision of everything that happens as an aspect of the same timeless essence of Nature. All this heady stuff is probably too much for the purposes of practical psychotherapy, nevertheless it is important to grasp the theoretical context of Spinoza’s techniques, albeit in broad strokes, before proceeding to discuss them -it would be folly to pretend that none of this matters. If I remember rightly, it was upon hearing a reading of Goethe’s beautiful poem on Nature, which paints the material world itself in godlike hues à la Spinoza, that the young Sigmund Freud was inspired to dedicate his life to plumbing the depths of human nature.

Double-Aspect Psychology (Mind-Body Unity)

The philosopher Rene Descartes developed the modern world’s most influential philosophy of psychology, which postulates that mind and matter are two completely distinct substances. In a sense, the theory of “Cartesian dualism” merely confirms a latent tendency in folk-psychology to regard the mind and body as separate objects. Indeed, the same presupposition, deeply engrained in our language, still pervades contemporary psychology and psychotherapy.

However, mind-body dualism was seen as an incoherent theory by almost everyone who stopped to consider its implications in any detail. In the 20th Century, it was fiercely attacked both by existentialists and behaviourists, but it seems to keep boomeranging back into our collective consciousness. The Cambridge philosopher Gilbert Ryle famously dubbed it the “ghost in the machine”, the philosophy of mind received by default in modern society. However, Spinoza studied Descartes closely and was hot on his heels with a counter-argument.

Mind and body are one and the same individual which is conceived now under the attribute of thought, and now under the attribute of [physical] extension. (E2, 21, n.)

I cannot engage further with metaphysics here. I hope it will suffice to say that Spinoza argued, very convincingly, that mind and matter are two side of the same coin. He replaced Descartes’ dual-substance theory of mind with what became known as a dual-aspect theory. Putting things back together is often a wiser strategy than breaking them asunder, especially with regard to the human sense of self.

Modern psychotherapy, CBT in particular, is wont to speak of a cause-effect connection between the body and mind. For instance, that negative cognitions “cause” negative feelings and behaviour. The ghost of Spinoza would object that this seems to be a throwback to Cartesian dualism; there can be no “causal” relationship between body and mind because they are the same thing viewed from two different angles. The relationship between them is “closer than close”, it is one of total union. Hence, it makes no more sense to say that thoughts “cause” emotions and behaviour, or vice versa, than it does to say that the circumference of a circle causes its diameter. You might say that a person worries and gives himself an ulcer, an example of cause-effect between the mind and body. However, I would rather say that his worried brain caused the ulcer, one part of his body causing damage to another, and that his worried mind was just another aspect of the same event.

Spinoza’s Philosophy of Love (Positive Psychology)

Spinoza famously labels the fundamental emotion, which man experiences when he accurately perceives the essence of universal Nature, Amor Dei Intellectualis, the “intellectual love of God.” Given my reservations about Spinoza being miscast as a theologian, I would paraphrase this, in line with his writings, as “the rational, or philosophical, love of Nature.” This is the feeling Einstein claimed motivated most great scientists, a quasi-religious devotion to understanding and contemplating the essence of life and the universe. Moreover, its connection to therapy is that it is both the key to emotional insight and its conclusion, ‘he who understands himself and his emotions loves [Nature], and the more so the more he understands himself and his emotions.’ (E5, 15).

I cannot emphasise enough that contrary also to those who would miscast Spinoza, and philosophy in general, as arid intellectualism, Spinoza’s therapy is essentially founded upon a philosophy of love, one of the dominant themes in the Ethica. Spinoza argues that the ultimate human emotion is an active, rational, love of existence itself and from this descend in turn all other human emotions in fragmentary form. This is the true meaning of “Platonic love” as expressed by Socrates in The Symposium, and the meaning of the very word “philosophy”, which most have forgotten means “love of enlightenment.” Philosophers are essentially lovers of contemplation and the classical quest for wisdom is a labour of love toward apprehension of absolute Nature. Hence, the appeal of Spinoza’s philosophy to great poets becomes most apparent.

The Essence of Psychotherapy

Modern readers of Spinoza must first come to terms with the fact that he envisages a “deductive” model of psychotherapy, in which its essence is inferred from a handful of metaphysical axioms by a process of pure reasoning, i.e., a priori and without experiment or observation; ‘we shall determine solely by the knowledge of the mind the therapies for the emotions.’ (E5, Preface, my translation).

This method proceeds logically but not empirically, so many find it hard to decide whether they consider it “scientific” or not. Deductive arguments of this kind are traditionally considered legitimate proof in mathematics and formal logic, etc. Indeed, the Ethica is styled on the format of Euclid’s Elements, the ancient textbook of geometry, and Spinoza even claims to treat ‘human actions and desires precisely as though I were dealing with lines, planes and bodies.’ (E3, Preface). Nevertheless, it seems peculiar nowadays to contemplate a psychotherapy that has more in common with maths than experimental psychology. Nietzsche, otherwise an admirer, was forced to bewail, ‘that hocus-pocus of mathematical form with which Spinoza encased his philosophy as if in brass.’ (Beyond Good & Evil, §5). In Spinoza’s defence, however, his method seems less absurd to most academic philosophers and many people, including some great scientists, feel it to have borne impressive fruit. As one contemporary philosopher writes,

The style of these works is sparse, unadorned, and yet solemn and imposing; the occasional aphorisms jump from the page with all the greater force, in that they appear as the surprising but necessary consequences of arguments presented with mathematical exactitude. (Scruton, 1986: 19)

Another remarkable consequence of this method is that it entails the assumption that we already possess an innate knowledge of the essence of psychotherapy, albeit in a confused form. Spinoza writes of the therapy of emotions ‘which I think every one experiences, but does not accurately observe nor distinctly see’ (E5, preface). However, Spinoza is a realist in this respect and keen to emphasise that he sees our ability for self-mastery as fairly limited; he only wishes to illustrate the extent to which it is possible, under the right circumstances, to achieve some degree of enlightenment and peace of mind.

The last section of the Ethica, on ‘Human Freedom’, introduces his proof of ‘the path or lifestyle which leads to freedom.’ Spinoza sets out to demonstrate ‘the power of the mind, or of reason’, and ‘the extent and nature of its dominion over the emotions, for their control and moderation.’ (E5, Preface). Believing that he has exposed the essence of philosophical therapy with mathematical certainty, he goes so far as to write,

I have now gone through all the therapies for the emotions, or all that the mind, considered in itself alone, can do against them. (E5, 20 n., my italics)

Spinoza therefore proceeds to summarise the five essential processes in which philosophical psychotherapy consists. These can only be properly understood by reference to Spinoza’s philosophy as a whole but I will attempt a brief outline before proceeding to discuss his more empirical therapy.

Spinoza’s Therapeutic Armamentarium

1. Cognitive Insight into the Emotions. (Cognitive Restructuring)

‘In the actual knowledge [or “cognition”] of the emotions.’

The essence of Spinoza’s psychotherapy is the idea that cognitive insight into the nature of desire and emotion is necessarily therapeutic. Spinoza carefully defines what he means by such knowledge in the Ethica and provides schematic examples. For instance, when specific emotions are understood in the light of his theory of mind, of pain and pleasure, and “active” and “passive” emotion, a cognitive transformation occurs in our experience of them. When we realise that our thinking shapes our emotion we can learn to actively choose rational emotions, rather than being passively swept along by emotions which impose themselves upon us. True knowledge of the emotions also entails an understanding of the extent to which they are founded upon confused (irrational) cognitions and their purification in terms of accurate ideas. This resembles the “cognitive restructuring” of emotion in CBT.

Spinoza defines accurate cognition as occurring, ‘when a thing is perceived solely through its essence, or through the knowledge of its proximate cause [causa proxima]‘ (De Intellectus Emendatione, 8). Some modern philosophers, notably Sir Stuart Hampshire, have argued that this kind of insight prefigures Freud’s development psychoanalytic interpretation. However, Spinoza himself provides many examples of what he means by the essence of emotion and these clearly show that he is referring to insight based on the current cognitive structure of emotion, similar to modern cognitive therapy, and not repressed childhood libidinal attachments, etc., as postulated by psychodynamic therapy. I think Spinoza would say that the childhood antecedents of an adult emotion are no longer part of its essence, but merely its “remote cause”, and therefore understanding them does not constitute the kind of accurate cognition referred to in his therapy; there is, of course, no trace of anything even loosely resembling Freudian interpretation to be found anywhere in his writings.

The feeling that an interpretation is correct, or the supposed recovery of a repressed memory, would be classed by Spinoza as inadequate (hypothetical) knowledge, based upon sensation and imagination, rather than deductive reasoning. Spinoza would also seem to imply that recollection of the historical origin of an emotion provides unreliable knowledge unless we already accurately perceive the essence of the emotion as it exists in the present (q.v., De Intellectus Emendatione, pp. 10-11). As an advocate of the cognitive-behavioural tradition, I would concur. According to a well-known legend, Guatama Buddha said that if we find a man wounded by an archer, there’s no point debating who made the arrow or where it came from, we should set to work immediately removing the arrowhead and repairing the wound. It’s knowledge of the proximate (“maintaining”) causes of suffering that Spinoza thinks we should be concerned about.

2. Separation of Rational Emotion from Imaginary Causes. (ABC Model)

‘In the [mental] separation of the emotions from the idea [“cognition”] of an external cause, which we imagine confusedly.’

Spinoza argues that when emotions are accurately understood we perceive them as determined primarily by our own internal images and ideas rather than by the external “triggers” which we naturally tend to blame them upon. We say “He made me angry”, but it would be more accurate to say, “I made myself angry toward him.” When we stop blaming our feelings on others and take responsibility for them ourselves, we become fundamentally empowered. This is strikingly similar to the idea of ‘cognitive mediation’, or the ABC model, in modern CBT. Indeed, Aaron Beck, the founder of cognitive therapy, quotes the following passage from Spinoza as one of the chapter mottos in his seminal Cognitive Therapy & the Emotional Disorders (1976).

I saw that all the things I feared, and which feared me had nothing good or bad in them save insofar as the mind was affected by them. (Spinoza, quoted in Beck, 1976:156)

Spinoza writes,

Wherefore the reality of true thought must exist in the thought itself, without reference to other thoughts; it does not acknowledge the object as its cause, but must depend on the actual power and nature of the understanding. […] Thus that which constitutes the reality of a true thought must be sought in the thought itself, and deduced from the nature of the understanding. (De Intellectus Emendatione, 26)

By which I take him to mean that a rational belief is necessarily derived from some active proof and insofar as an idea is experienced as being triggered passively by external events it is irrational. There is no causal relationship between body and mind. Therefore, when we assume that a physical event, including another person’s actions toward us, causes our emotional response we are necessarily in contradiction.

3. The Necessary & Eternal Basis of Rational Emotions.

‘In [the perception of] time, whereby emotions referring to [timeless] things which we distinctly understand overpower those which refer to [transient] things perceived in a confused and fragmentary manner.’

When we accurately understand the essence of a thing we perceive what is constant and unchangeable in it. The truth that the angles of a triangle add up to two right angles is timeless; though triangular shaped things in nature may come and go the concept remains eternally the same. Because reason perceives things in relation to essential truths it gives rise to emotions which are more rational, stable, and powerful.

The more we truly understand people, for example, the less our feelings are swayed by individual appearances and the more rational and constant they become because they are determined by general principles of our philosophy. If I conclude, with Spinoza and Socrates, that people essentially desire happiness that will become a constant factor in my emotional responses, if I have no philosophy of human nature I will respond to each event according to the vagaries of habit and irrational association.

A famous example, but one likely to provoke much misunderstanding: The great Stoic sage Seneca is reputed to have handled his own execution in this way. His former student the emperor Nero -an arch-enemy of philosophy- forced Seneca to fall on his sword (literally). Seneca, the most reasonable man in the world, reputedly calmed his frantic supporters by observing that everyone already knew Nero was a murderer, therefore it should come as no surprise when the time comes for him to murder his opponents. In doing so, however, he was utilising an ancient therapeutic formula derived from philosophy and rhetoric. The same technique is rehearsed by Marcus Aurelius in his journal of meditations,

When you run up against someone else’s shamelessness, ask yourself this: Is a world without shameless people possible?


Then don’t ask the impossible. There have to be shameless people in the world. This is one of them.

The same for someone vicious or untrustworthy, or with any other defect. Remembering that the whole class has to exist will make you more tolerant of its members. […]

Yes, boorish people do boorish things. What’s strange or unheard-of about that? Isn’t it yourself that you should reproach for not anticipating that they’d act this way? (Meditations, 9: 42, Hays)

For Seneca, there could be no anxiety in the face of the inevitable. He knew what to expect from life and from mad emperors, and when Nero’s hired thugs came to put him to death he was serene because he was prepared to meet his fate. (Of course, if there had been an escape route, no doubt Seneca would have taken it.)

For the Stoics, irrational anxiety was always accompanied by a kind of feigned surprise and naïve indignation incompatible with reason and common sense. On the day of his death, Seneca felt the same way about his murderers that he had always felt, because his emotions were based on a long-standing perception of the general situation and not a superficial gut-reaction to the heavy knock on the door of Nero’s guards. If we all know that we must necessarily die, why should death frighten us any more when it is close than when it is far away? This is the “constancy” of the ideal Sage who “never changes his mind”, because his deepest layer of emotion is rooted in a clear and distinct perception of the timeless essence of Nature.

4. The Multiple Causes of Rational Emotion. (Determinism & Empathy)

‘In the multitude of causes whereby emotions are fostered which refer to the common properties of things or to [the essence of Nature itself, which Spinoza calls “God”].’

To understand things rationally is to do so by reference to philosophical principles, and ultimately the essential idea of Nature itself. Instead of responding to individual “triggers” in our environment, which send us hither and thither, our emotions are shaped by the whole structure of our rational world-view. When we see the common properties of things we respond to things in context rather than in isolation and our feelings become balanced and rational. Under this heading, presumably, fall the therapeutic effects of determinism so fundamental to both Spinozism and Stoicism. The last of Spinoza’s example rules of life states,

[…] in so far as we understand, we can desire nothing save that which is necessary, nor can we absolutely be contented with anything save what is true: and therefore insofar as we understand this rightly, the endeavour of the best part of us is in harmony with the order of the whole of nature. (E4, Appendix XXXII)

The more we understand, the more we experience external events as causally determined, and the actions of ourselves and other people as determined by various motives and causes. To understand all is to forgive all. Einstein puts Spinoza’s theory of empathic understanding very neatly in a letter, discussing the Christian rule of life, “love thine enemy”,

I agree with your remark about loving your enemy as far as actions are concerned. But for me the cognitive basis is the trust in an unrestricted causality. ‘I cannot hate him, because he must do what he does.’ That means for me more Spinoza than the prophets. (Einstein, in a letter to Michele Besso (6 January 1948))

Spinoza believed in absolute determinism, and that this assumption in itself conveyed a sense of contentment in lieu of specific causal knowledge. The philosophical Sage’s determinism about life and other people is meant to generate rational equanimity similar to the “unconditional acceptance” of REBT. Therapists may be surprised to find a similar premise in the canon of behaviour therapy but, to some extent, behaviourism and Spinozism are natural allies,

Objectivity, empathy, and sensitivity to suffering are intrinsic to the behaviour therapist’s approach to his patients. The objectivity follows from the knowledge that all behaviour, including cognitive behaviour, is subject to causal determination no less than is the behaviour of falling bodies or magnetic fields. […] To explain how the patient’s neurosis arose out of a combination or chain of particular events helps [empathic] understanding. (Wolpe, 1990: 59)

5. Rational Conditioning of Emotion.

‘Finally, in the capacity for mental self-regulation of the emotions, whereby they are organised and mutually associated with each other.’ (E5, 20, n., my translations )

I have translated this passage to highlight the notion of “emotional self-regulation”, or the rational organisation of one’s thoughts and feelings. The previous methods were techniques of “pure reason” which followed necessarily from cognitive insight into the emotions. Spinoza seems here to acknowledge a range of empirical techniques, whereby the mind can also engineer its habits of thinking so that emotions are conditioned to be associated with each other in a rational and constructive manner. ‘By this power of rightly organising and associating the modifications of the body we can bring out about that we are not easily affected by bad emotions.’ (E5, 10, n.)

This more “empirical” mode of philosophical therapy bears obvious resemblance to techniques and principles found in modern cognitive and behavioural therapies, which we shall now consider.

Empirical Techniques of Philosophical Psychotherapy

5.1 Ordering of Contrary Associations (Reciprocal Inhibition)

Joseph Wolpe adapted Sherrington’s theory of “reciprocal inhibition” in neurology, making it the core mechanism of the Behaviour Therapy developed in the 1960s. As the name indicates, when two mutually exclusive neurological states coincide the most powerful will inhibit the weaker, a phenomenon variously known as “counter-conditioning” or “response competition.” This basic mechanism has many therapy applications, the most typical being the use of physical relaxation to systematically extinguish nervous anxiety.

If a response antagonistic to anxiety can be made to occur in the presence of anxiety-evoking stimuli so that it is accompanied by a complete or partial suppression of the anxiety responses, the bond between these stimuli and the anxiety responses will be weakened. (Wolpe, Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition, 1958: 71)

Although this concept was pre-empted by earlier behaviourists and hypnotherapists, Wolpe believed himself to be the first to make it a central and explicit principle of psychotherapy. Nevertheless, three hundred years before Wolpe, Spinoza made it one of the axioms (E5, A1) underlying his psychotherapy. He concludes that a powerful emotion will suppress a weaker contrary one, including the suppression of fear by mental calm (animi acquiescentia).

An emotion can neither be hindered nor removed save by a contrary emotion and one stronger than the emotion which is to be checked. (E, 4, Prop VII)

However, Spinoza’s “dual-aspect” psychology attempts to resolve the opposition between cognitive and behavioural theories, three hundred years before it became a bone of contention in modern psychotherapy.

5.2 Contemplation of Virtue & the Sage (Covert Modelling)

An ancient philosophical technique consists in contemplating the character of an imaginary wise man, a perfectly enlightened and self-possessed philosopher, the ideal of the Sage. As one modern commentator phrases it,

The Ethics describes the free man, who has risen to the higher levels of cognition, mastered his passions, and reached understanding of himself and the world. (Scruton, 1986: 95).

The Sage is not a real man, of course, nobody is perfect. However, the concept of the Sage is the concept of man-made-perfect and the clear and distinct perception of this goal acts as the moral compass of the philosopher. Spinoza claims that the moral terms “good” and “bad” only have meaning in a relative sense, insofar as ‘we want to form for ourselves an idea of man upon which we may look as a model of human nature’, and we may refer to things which are good or bad at helping us to approach this ideal. (E4, Preface). We may meditate upon the strengths of an ideal Sage, of a real-life hero or role-model, or any strengths manifested by ourselves or others. Contemplation of the Sage resembles, e.g., Cautela’s Behaviour Therapy technique of “covert modelling.”

Though nobody can attain perfect wisdom, ‘meanwhile man conceives a human character much more stable than his own, and sees that there is no reason why he should not himself acquire such a character.’ This character consists in rational love and ‘the knowledge of the union existing between the mind and the whole of nature.’ (De Intellectus Emendatione, 6). Spinoza refers to the work of approaching this ideal as a “purification” of the intellect, the original philosophical meaning of katharsis, the effect of which is supreme peace of mind,

[…] the Sage, insofar as he is considered as such, is scarcely disturbed in mind: but being conscious of himself, of [Nature], and of things, by a certain eternal necessity, he never ceases to be, but possesses eternally true peace of mind (acquiescentia). (E5, 47, Note)

In relation to this, Spinoza observes that in conditioning the mind by means of mental imagery, the focus of our attention should always be upon the pleasant qualities we wish to cultivate and not the unpleasant ones we seek to avoid.

But we must note, that in arranging our thoughts and conceptions we should always bear in mind that which is good in every individual thing, in order that we may always be determined to action by an emotion of pleasure. (E5 P10, Note)

This conclusion follows from Spinoza’s observation that we cannot imagine something as absent without imagining its presence unless we focus our mind on a contrary idea with which it is mutually exclusive. This is a basic axiom of modern hypnotherapy. The clichéd example being the obvious difficulty in obeying the command “Don’t imagine an elephant!” in response to which most people will do just the opposite and picture one. More importantly, if we focus on problems, we risk becoming engrossed in them,

For instance, if a man sees that he is too keen in the pursuit of honour, let him think over its right use, the end for which it should be pursued, and the means whereby he may attain it. Let him not think of its misuse, and its emptiness, and the fickleness of mankind, and the like, whereof no man thinks except through a morbidness of disposition; with thoughts like these do the most ambitious most torment themselves, when they despair of gaining the distinctions they hanker after, and in thus giving vent to their anger would fain appear wise. Wherefore it is certain that those who cry out the loudest against the misuse of honour and the vanity of the world, are those who most greedily covet it. (E5 P10, Note)

The inability of the senses to represent absence (or “non-being”) without imagining presence also explains the importance of reciprocal inhibition in psychotherapy. To remove anxiety, we imagine the presence of calm and relaxation, a positive and contrary state, rather than merely trying to imagine the absence of fear.

Thus he who would govern his emotions and appetite solely by the love of freedom strives, as far as he can, to gain a knowledge of the virtues and their causes, and to fill his spirit with the joy which arises from the true knowledge of them: he will in no wise desire to dwell on men’s faults, or to carp at his fellows, or to revel in a false show of freedom. (E5 P10, Note)

This is undoubtedly related to Spinoza’s striking rejection of the Socratic meditation upon death (melete thanatou): ‘A free man thinks of nothing less than of death, and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life.’ (E4, 17).

The contemplation of virtue in general, whether that means seeing the best in others or visualising the ideal Sage, prepares us with a repertoire of vivid and lively images which are ready-to-hand and can be used counteract negative emotions in the future by “reciprocal inhibition.”

5.3 Mental Fortitude (Ego-Strength)

Spinoza famously argues that the desire for self-preservation (conatus) is the very essence of man. (Another point best understood by reference to his writings.) The power of the mind to act freely and autonomously in accord with reason, love, and self-interest is therefore the essence of human excellence. In this respect, Spinoza appears to follow the connotation of the Latin word for virtue (virtus) which can also mean strength, courage, or vitality, ‘by virtue and power I understand the same thing.’ (E4, D8). He therefore argues that “strength of mind” (animi fortitudo), a kind of basic strength of character closely-knitted to the rational love of existence, is the primary human “virtue.” (We still speak today of someone’s “strengths” or their forte.) For Spinoza, virtue in this (pre-Christian) sense cannot logically co-exist with suffering (pathos); as the ancient saying goes: “The good man is always happy.” Indeed, he is happy, healthy, loving, rational, and empowered. Spinoza’s ideal of mental fortitude is obviously comparable to concepts such as “self-efficacy” or “ego-strength” in modern psychotherapy and with certain concepts in the field of Positive Psychology.

He also divides mental strength, or virtue, into two principal modes of active and rational emotion: animositas et generositas. The technical meaning is difficult to translate, but it is clear from his comments that animositas (“love of life”?) denotes the virtue of rational self-interest or egotism, and generositas (“love of mankind”?) that of rational social-interest or altruism. For Spinoza, seen through the lens of his philosophy, these two basic drives are not in conflict but complementary; they can therefore easily be compared to the notions of rational self-interest and social-interest in Ellis’ REBT.

5.4 The Rules of Life (Positive Cognitions)

In common with the Stoics and other ancient therapeutic schools, Spinoza recommends that simple philosophical principles, the “rules of living” (vitæ dogmata), should be internalised by repeated memorisation.

The best thing then we can bring about, as long as we have no perfect knowledge of our emotions is to conceive some right manner of living or certain rules of life, to commit them to memory, and to apply them continuously to the particular things which come in our way frequently in life, so that our imagination may be extensively affected by them and they may be always at hand for us. (Spinoza, Ethics, V.10.n.)

Of course, they are also comparable to the positive cognitions, coping statements, self-statements, etc., of modern CBT, or to the affirmations and autosuggestions of the hypnotherapists.

In Graeco-Roman philosophical therapy such maxims seem to have been designed to function as an aide memoire or mnemonic. They often take the form of a short, pithy sentence of which the famous inscriptions (“Know thyself”, “Nothing in excess”) at the Oracle of Apollo at Delphi were perhaps the most famous. Spinoza gives the following example. One of the rules of life suggested by the Ethica is that hatred is best met with love and the virtue of social-interest (generositas) and not requited with hatred. Spinoza recommends that we meditate on philosophical “rules” that say,

• Our true advantage lies in cultivating love not hatred within ourselves.

• Mutual friendship is a valuable good in life.

• True peace of mind results from the rational way of life.

• Men act by the necessity of their nature in causing offence, just like any force of nature. (E5, P10, Note)

When these ideas and their implications are borne in mind they counteract, or at least weaken, excessive anger associated with the perceived offence by determining our emotions rationally, through a complex of positive and empowering mental associations.

5.5 The Premeditation of Misfortunes (Imaginal Exposure)

Spinoza pre-empts several key notions found in Behaviour Therapy. Perhaps most fundamentally, he clearly identifies, under another name, the role of classical (Pavlovian) conditioning principles in psychotherapy,

If the human body has once been affected by two or more bodies [i.e., physical stimuli] at the same time, when the mind afterwards imagines any of them, it will straightway remember the others also. (E2, P6)

One of the cardinal techniques both of ancient and modern psychotherapy is that in which a person visualises distressing events, usually one’s to be faced in the near future, while mentally rehearsing more positive and rational beliefs and the emotions and actions that accompany them. The Stoics called this premeditatio malorum, preparing the mind in advance, by contemplative meditation, to cope well with misfortune. The Stoic writings of Seneca, e.g., provide many examples of the therapeutic use of premeditation. In modern CBT many variations of the same basic concept are found and referred to as imaginal exposure, covert rehearsal, rational-emotive imagery, etc.

Hence, Spinoza suggests that we mentally prepare for the typical problems that people are likely to encounter in life by rehearsing belief in our philosophical and therapeutic “rules of life.” Spinoza uses the two cardinal virtues of his philosophy, self-interest and social-interest, as examples. First he explains how social-interest (generositas) can be developed by rehearsing the relevant philosophical maxims in the Ethica,

For example, we stated among the rules of life that hatred must be overcome by love or [compassion and social-interest], not requited by reciprocated hatred. But in order that this rule may be always at hand for us when we need it, we must often think of and meditate on the common types of harm done to men, and in what manner and according to what method they may best be avoided through [compassionate social-interest]. For thus we unite the image of the harm done to the imagination of this rule, and it will always be at hand when harm is done to us. (Ethics, V.10.n.)

Spinoza adds “if the anger which arises from the greatest injuries is not easily overcome, it will nevertheless be overcome, although not without a wavering of the mind, in a far less space of time than if we had not previously meditated on these things.” From anger he proceeds to discuss the conquest of fear by means of the cardinal virtue of self-interest (animositas),

We must think of [courage and self-interest] in the same manner in order to lay aside fear, that is, we must enumerate and often imagine the common perils of life and in what manner they may best be avoided and overcome by mindfulness (animi præsentia) and [courageous self-interest]. (Ethics, V.10.n.)

In other words, Spinoza recognises a kind of classical conditioning in the memorisation of positive beliefs and their repeated association with the mental image of challenging situations in a way that pre-empts the use of Systematic Desensitisation and mental rehearsal in modern cognitive and behavioural therapies.


It behoves a simple introduction of this kind to end by citing Spinoza’s famous and oft-quoted conclusion to the Ethica,

If the road I have shown to lead to this is very difficult, it can yet be discovered. And clearly it must be hard when it is so seldom found. For how could it be that if salvation were close at hand and could be found without difficulty it should be neglected by almost all? But all excellent things are as difficult as they are rare. (E5, Prop 42 n.)

The way of the Spinozistic Sage is indeed a road less travelled. However, the earlier section on emotional therapy concludes on a more encouraging note; if the path is difficult, the steps are not,

Whosoever will diligently observe and practise these precepts (which indeed are not difficult) will verily, in a short space of time, be able, for the most part, to direct his actions according to the commandments of reason. (E5, 10, n.)

I have presented Spinoza’s conclusions only, in very summary form, and not his deductive “proofs.” I strongly encourage readers to study the Ethica for themselves. As he himself implores his readers, ‘not to reject as false any paradoxes he may find here, but to take the trouble to reflect on the chain of reasoning by which they are supported.’ (De Intellectus Emendatione, 17). In a sense, as I hope you will see, the process of grappling with Spinoza’s ideas, is itself the fundamental technique of his psychotherapy. Nevertheless, I hope that I have shown something of the relevance of Spinoza to modern therapists and whet their appetite for his philosophy.


Damasio, Antonio (2004). Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, & the Feeling Brain. Vintage Books.

Deleuze, Gilles (1970). Spinoza: Practical Philosophy. San Francisco: City Light Books

Hampshire, Stuart (2005). Spinoza & Spinozism. Oxford: OUP

Lloyd, Genevieve (1996). Spinoza & the Ethics. Oxford: Routledge.

Robertson, Donald (2005). ‘Stoicism as Philosophical Psychotherapy’, Therapy Today, July, 2005.

Scruton, Roger (1986). Spinoza: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: OUP

Singer, Isaac Bashevis (1962). The Spinoza of Market Street. Middlesex: Penguin.



Psychotherapy and philosophy (part 2)

Psychotherapy and philosophy (part 2)

Link to Karnac blog.


Philosophy and psychotherapy (part 1)

Philosophy and psychotherapy (part 1)

Link to article on Karnac blog.


Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy


New Stoa: Interview with Donald Robertson about Stoicism and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

New Stoa: Interview with Donald Robertson about Stoicism and Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)

This is an interview I did for the New Stoa about Stoic philosophy and modern psychological therapy, etc.

Excerpts Philosophy of CBT

Stoic Fatalism, Determinism, and Acceptance

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, published by Routledge and available to order online from Amazon, and everywhere they sell books.

Whatever sorrow the fate of the Gods may here send us
Bear, whatever may strike you, with patience unmurmuring;
To relieve it, so far as you can, is permitted,
But reflect that not much misfortune has Fate given to the good. – The Golden Verses of Pythagoras

Paul Dubois was perhaps the first modern “rational” psychotherapist to explicitly argue that emotional problems could be made worse by certain, often unspoken, philosophical assumptions about freewill and determinism which prevail in modern society.

Patience towards unavoidable events, depending neither upon us nor upon others, is synonymous with fatalism; it is a virtue, and it is the only stand to take in face of the inevitable. […] The idea of necessity is enough for the philosopher. We are all in the same situation towards things as they are, and towards things that we cannot change. The advantage will always lie with him who, for some reason or other, knows how to resign himself tranquilly. (Dubois, 1909, pp. 240-241)

This notion is equally prominent in Stoic literature. In the Handbook, Epictetus boldly asserts that if we merely train ourselves in wishing things to happen as they do, instead of expecting them to happen as we wish, then our lives will go smoothly (Enchiridion, 8). In the Discourses, he actually defines the practice of philosophy in terms of such acceptance, when he writes, ‘Being educated [in Stoic philosophy] is precisely learning to will each thing just as it happens’ (Discourses, 1.12.15). In an extant fragment from his other teachings, he says that the man who refuses to accept his fortune is a “layman in the art of life” (Fragment 2).

The conceptual and metaphysical problem of freewill has been a central theoretical concern throughout the entire history of Western philosophy. However, Dubois, the Stoics, and others, have seen confusion over precisely this issue as a central psychotherapeutic concern. Dubois dedicates a whole chapter of his textbook on psychotherapy to the issue of determinism in which he asserts, ‘My convictions on this subject have been of such help to me in the practise of psychotherapy that I can not pass this question by in silence’ (Dubois, 1904, p. 47). However, in modern society we take certain metaphysical views regarding freewill for granted, and seldom examine whether they are well-founded, or even logically consistent.

There are some conclusions which we easily arrive at by using the most elementary logic, and which we dare not express. They seem to be in such flagrant contradiction to public opinion that we fear we should be stoned, morally speaking, and we prudently keep our light under a bushel. The problem of liberty is one of those noli me tangere [“do not touch me”] questions.

If you submit it to a single individual in a theoretical discussion, in the absence of all elementary passion, he will have no difficulty in following your syllogisms; he will himself furnish you with arguments in favour of determinism. But address yourself to the masses, or to the individual when he is under the sway of emotion caused by a revolting crime, and you will call forth clamours of indignation, – you will be put under the ban of public opinion. (Dubois, 1904, p. 47)

The philosophical debate concerning “freewill versus determinism” in modern academic philosophy is incredibly complex. Dubois only engages with it at a very superficial level. However, one aspect of the debate can perhaps be made explicit by means of a very crude syllogism of the kind Dubois had in mind.

Most people seem to assume that we generally act on the basis of freewill, which is constrained to varying degrees by obstacles in their environment. So a man is free from extrinsic restrictions or limitations, and therefore completely responsible for his actions, unless he is held at gunpoint, or brainwashed, etc. However, this popular way of looking at things seems to confuse two different concepts of “freedom”, that of freedom from the effects of preceding causal factors, and that of freedom to pursue future goals without obstruction. By contrast, the simple determinist position of Dubois can be outlined as follows,

  1. All physical activity of the brain is wholly determined by antecedent causal factors.
  2. All mental activity is wholly determined by physical activity in the brain.
  3. Therefore, all mental activity is wholly determined by antecedent causal factors.

There are many variations of this argument, exhibiting different degrees of philosophical complexity and sophistication. However, this simple “premise-conclusion” format should at least be sufficient to expose the basic controversy. As Dubois observes, if we accept the physiological basis of the mind, ‘all thought being necessarily bound to the physical or the chemical phenomena of which the brain is the seat’, we are ultimately forced to abandon the metaphysical theory of freewill (Dubois & Gallatin, 1908, p. 9).

Doing so does not logically entail apathy and inertia, as many people falsely assume. Indeed, a man may be causally determined to respond to the perception of universal determinism with a sense of renewed commitment to his ideals, and to vigorous action.

At the exact moment that a man puts forth any volition whatever his action is an effect. It could not either not be or be otherwise. Given the sensory motor state, or the state of the intellect of the subject, it is the product of his real mentality. […] But it is nowhere written that the individual is going to persist henceforward in a downward course, that he is fatally committed to evil. But the fault having been committed, it should now be the time for some educative influence to be brought to bear, to bring together in his soul all the favourable motor tendencies and intellectual incentives, to arouse pity and goodness, or found on reason the sentiment of moral duty. (Dubois, 1904, pp. 55-56)

To a large extent, the defence of freewill has been a central concern of medieval Christian ethics and traditionally depends upon making a sharp metaphysical division between the body and the mind, such that our will can be considered the unfettered activity of a soul which exists independently of the body, a “ghost in the machine”, as Gilbert Ryle famously put it (Ryle, 1949).

However, if we accept the argument for determinism at face value it has radical implications for our attitudes toward ourselves and other people. It forces us to see other people as the product of genetics and environment and therefore acting in a manner which they cannot be “blamed” for in the ordinary sense of the word, i.e., in an absolute, metaphysical sense. We are all, to a large extent, victims of circumstance, insofar as we do what we do with the brains and the upbringing that nature has given us. Dubois puts this quite eloquently,

I know of no idea more fertile in happy suggestion than that which consists in taking people as they are, and admitting at the time when one observes them that they are never otherwise than what they can be.

This idea alone leads us logically to true indulgence, to that which forgives, and, while shutting our eyes to the past, looks forward to the future. When one has succeeded in fixing this enlightening idea in one’s mind, one is no more irritated by the whims of an hysterical patient than by the meanness of a selfish person.

Without doubt one does not attain such healthy stoicism with very great ease, for it is not, we must understand, merely the toleration of the presence of evil, but a stoicism in the presence of the culprit. We react, first of all, under the influence of our sensibility; it is that which determines the first movement, it is that which makes our blood boil and calls forth a noble rage.

But one ought to calm one’s emotion and stop to reflect. This does not mean that we are to sink back into indifference, but, with a better knowledge of the mental mechanism of the will, we can get back to a state of calmness. We see the threads which pull the human puppets, and we can consider the only possible plan of useful action – that of cutting off the possibility of any renewal of wrong deeds, and of sheltering those who might suffer from them, and making the future more certain by the uplifting of the wrong-doer. (Dubois, 1904, p. 56)

In other words, contemplation of determinism, the idea that human actions are definitely caused by a complex network of multiple preceding factors, mitigates our anger toward other people, and leads us closed to a healthy sense of understanding and forgiveness. We are also more enlightened regarding our practical responses and more inclined to reform rather than punish wrongdoers. When Socrates argued in The Republic that the Sage wishes to do good even to his enemies, he meant that the Sage sought to educate and enlighten others, seeing that as their highest good. That harmonious attitude is the polar opposite of the one which seeks revenge through moralising punishment. It leads to a sense of generosity and equanimity, and resolves anger, resentment, and contempt.

The Paradox of Freewill versus Determinism

Like Dubois after them, the Stoics were determinists, who believed that all events in life, including our own actions, are predetermined to happen as they do. However, paradoxically, they were also passionately in favour of increased personal responsibility and belief in one’s freedom to act and make decisions in accord with reason. Hence, Epictetus constantly reminds his students that no matter what happens to them they still have the opportunity to make of life what they will.

Sickness is an impediment to the body, but not to the faculty of choice, unless that faculty itself wishes it to be one. Lameness is an impediment to one’s leg, but not to the faculty of choice. And say the same to yourself with regard to everything that befalls you; for you will find it to be an impediment to something else, but not to yourself. (Enchiridion, 9)

Epictetus himself was famously lame, reputedly after being brutally crippled by his master when enslaved, so these remarks must have carried an extra poignancy, given his obvious physical disability.

To many people this seems confusing and contradictory. How can the Stoics emphasise both freedom and determinism? However, as often proves the case in philosophy, it is not the answer which is confused but the question. The Stoics evidently believe that the concepts of freedom and determinism are compatible.

It is virtually certain that Epictetus’ concept of a free will, far from requiring the will’s freedom from fate (i.e., a completely open future or set of alternative possibilities or choices), presupposes people’s willingness to comply with their predestined allotment. The issue that concerns him is neither the will’s freedom from antecedent causation nor the attribution to persons of a completely open future and indeterminate power of choice. Rather, it is freedom from being constrained by (as distinct from going along with) external contingencies, and freedom from being constrained by the errors and passions consequential on believing that such contingencies must influence or inhibit one’s volition. (Long, 2002, p. 221)

Confusion is caused because of a well-known and long-standing ambiguity in the popular notion of “freewill”. Metaphysical “freedom” refers to the freedom of the soul to act independently of antecedent causal factors. However, by contrast, “freedom” in common parlance merely refers to the ability of something to perform its prescribed function without external impediment or obstruction. A wheel turns freely unless, for instance, it is buckled or stopped by a rock. People act freely unless, for instance, other people restrain them physically or mentally. ‘For he is free for whom all things happen in accordance with his choice, and whom no one can restrain’ (Discourses, 1.12.8).

The great Stoic academic, Chrysippus explained the Stoic theory of freewill and determinism by means of his famous “cylinder analogy”. In this example, it is argued that if we roll a cylinder along the ground, the initial impetus to move is given by someone pushing it, but the direction in which the cylinder moves, in a straight line, is determined by its own shape. The push is an example of what Stoics call an “external cause” coming from without, whereas the shape of the cylinder is the “internal cause” of the direction it takes, its own constitution. External causes impinge upon the human mind through the senses, and through other effects upon the body. However, the constitution, or character, of our mind determines how we will respond, acting as an “internal cause” of our response.

The mind is therefore autonomous to the extent that it can determine the direction in which it acts on the basis of its own character, however, external events impinge upon it and trigger its responses. Our actions are like the movement of the cylinder, insofar as both are due to a combination of “internal” and “external” factors. The cylinder is free to move according to its own nature so long as no further external causes obstruct it.

Whatever happens to you has been waiting to happen since the beginning of time. The twining strands of fate wove both of them together: your own existence and the things that happen to you. (Meditations, 10.5)

In this sense of the word “freedom”, which we should remind ourselves happens to be the normal sense, there is no incompatibility whatsoever with the notion of determinism because there is no reference made to the preceding causes which make the wheel turn, or the person act, in the first place. The cylinder rolls freely, its movement determined by antecedent events.

The notion of being free from preceding causes, by comparison, is a much more unusual and problematic concept. As Skinner argues at length in Beyond Freedom & Dignity, as our scientific understanding advances with regard to human behaviour, the notion that we were somehow exempt from universal determinism is very much eroded (1971, p. 21). He adds, ‘Although people object when a scientific analysis traces their behaviour to external conditions and thus deprives them of credit and the chance to be admired, they seldom object when the same analysis absolves them of blame’ (Skinner, 1971, p. 75).

But what of the inner feeling of freewill? Whatever sensations or impressions we might feel of “effort”, the idea that our actions are free is simply a sign that we are ignorant of their causes.

We do not think enough about the yoke inside, the result of ideas so thoroughly adopted that they seem like our own. That is what Spinoza meant when he said, “Men think themselves free only because they get a clear view of their actions, they do not think of the motives that determined them.” (Dubois, 1909, p. 53)

My freedom toward the future is a different matter and down to my specific circumstances in each situation, i.e., whether I am obstructed by external events or not.

When people are told that things happen because they have been determined by the preceding chain of causes they usually respond, at first, by complaining that there’s no point trying to change anything in that case. The Stoics and other ancient philosophers knew this as the “lazy argument”, and considered an obvious fallacy. The theory of determinism does not hold, as this fallacy requires, that all events are completely determined only by external causes, i.e., that people are completely passive in relation to the world. Rather, it holds that events are co-determined by the interaction of internal and external causes. My actions are part of the causal network, and therefore have an effect upon the things which happen. Nevertheless, accepting those things which are genuinely beyond my control, with philosophical resignation, is a key rational therapeutic strategy, and employed extensively by Stoics in the face of adversity.

This is a brief excerpt from my book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, published by Routledge and available to order online from Amazon, and everywhere they sell books.

Philosophy of CBT Cover 2nd Edition

Cognitive Distancing in Stoicism

“Distancing” versus “Disputation” as the central process of Stoic psychotherapy

This article explores whether “distancing” from thoughts/impressions or “disputation” of underlying irrational beliefs is more integral to Stoic therapy.  If it were established that ancient Stoicism employed a focus on “cognitive distancing” strategies that would be important for several reasons.  Distancing is a simpler and more consistent procedure than verbal disputation, so analogies between Stoicism and CBT would be easier to make.  Moreover, large volumes of research now exist on distancing, which suggest that it may be one of the most important mechanisms in psychotherapy, and may serve both a preventative and remedial function.  Some groups of modern researchers also believe that disputation may interfere with distancing, which would be an important consideration for modern Stoics to assimilate.

The first major figure to notice the relevance of ancient Stoic philosophy for modern psychotherapy was Albert Ellis.  In the late 1950s, Ellis began developing what later became known as Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT).  REBT is the main precursor of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), currently the approach to psychological therapy with by far the strongest evidence-base for most clinical problems.  Ellis had read the Stoics as a youth.  He later trained in and practiced psychoanalytic therapy.  However, after becoming disillusioned with psychoanalytic theory and practice he started looking for a radically different approach, and remembered Stoicism.  Hence, Ellis explicitly stated that Stoicism was the main philosophical inspiration for REBT.  Stoicism arguably stands in the same relation to subsequent CBT approaches in general, although these are really quite a diverse cluster of different therapies, rather than a single homogenous approach.

Ellis’ approach placed considerable emphasis on the systematic and vigorous verbal disputation of irrational beliefs – its characteristic feature.  However, he used to provide clients with a quotation from Epictetus to illustrate his basic premise that our beliefs are at the root of emotional disturbance: “It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things” (Enchiridion, 5).  This quotation highlights a basic assumption shared by all cognitive-behavioural therapies: that we should begin by separating our thoughts from external events.  Ellis and Beck (the founder of “cognitive therapy”) both saw this as an important therapeutic insight but mainly because it was a necessary precursor to the use of disputation techniques.  Typically, for example, REBT or CBT practitioners would ask their clients to evaluate the “pros and cons” of an irrational belief, or the evidence “for and against it”, and to identify alternative rational beliefs to replace it with.  This, combined with “behavioural experiments” designed to test out and challenge irrational beliefs in practice, form the bulk of what happens in most modern CBT sessions.

However, although the Stoics do appear to have sometimes challenged specific beliefs in ways that loosely resemble this, it was perhaps not their dominant or characteristic approach.  REBT and CBT might encourage clients to challenge underlying (“core”) irrational beliefs such as “I am worthless” or “Other people must like me otherwise it’s awful!”  When philosophically evaluating beliefs, Stoics tended to focus on defending underlying precepts of an even more  general nature from which individual judgements are derived, such as “the only good is moral good”, considering the possible criticisms, or arguments against these positions, and those in favour of them.  Whereas CBT and REBT often target “underlying” value judgements, Stoic disputation might be described as more “philosophical” or “meta-ethical” as it tends to concern the very nature of “the good” itself.  (And it may be closer to what modern researchers term disputation of “metacognitive” beliefs, beliefs about beliefs or cognitions about cognition.) The Stoics do appear to have challenged their judgements about specific situations but the focus in their writings is typically more on defending their core philosophical dogmas.  Moreover, when Stoics do examine particular situations they appear to place more emphasis on constructing  a positive mental representation of how the Sage might act, or what virtues Nature has granted that allow them to rise above adversity.  CBT places more emphasis on the identification and direct disputation of negative or irrational beliefs.

Since the 1990s, different researchers have introduced alternative approaches to CBT that are collectively known as the “third-wave” movement.  (The first wave was behaviour therapy in the 1950s and 1960s, the second the rise of cognitive therapy in the 1970s and 1980s.)  Although there are significant differences between these new forms of CBT, they all tend to place less emphasis on direct verbal disputation of beliefs and more on the initial step of gaining “cognitive distance”.  Beck defined “distancing” in cognitive therapy as a “metacognitive” process, a shift to a level of awareness involving “thinking about thinking”, which he defined succinctly as follows:

“Distancing” refers to the ability to view one’s own thoughts (or beliefs) as constructions of “reality” rather than as reality itself. (Alford & Beck, 1997, p. 142)

In CBT, clients are usually “socialised” or introduced to this notion through the use of simple diagrams or metaphors.  For example, they may be taught that when thoughts distort our perception of events it’s like we’re wearing coloured spectacles.  When we gain cognitive distance from our own thoughts, it’s as though we’re taking off the spectacles and looking at them, rather than looking through them.  A similar “distancing” mechanism has been seen as integral to mindfulness meditation practices which have been found effective in the treatment of depression, and were therefore integrated with some forms of CBT.  Therefore, the third-wave approaches are often described collectively as the new “mindfulness and acceptance-based” approaches.  For example, one of the most prominent of these, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), was originally called “comprehensive distancing” because it explicitly aimed to test the hypothesis that the initial “cognitive distancing” strategy in conventional CBT was much more important than had previously been assumed.

Unlike REBT and Beck’s cognitive therapy, these recent forms of therapy do not explicitly claim to be influenced by Stoic philosophy.  However, perhaps by chance, they may have many similarities with aspects of Stoicism that were overlooked by the founders of CBT.  In particular, it might be argued that Stoicism itself placed more emphasis on a something akin to “cognitive distancing” than upon direct disputation of beliefs.  This may have been somewhat overlooked by scholars because “distancing” is a more subtle and elusive concept than disputation.  For that reason, sometimes it is difficult to tell if the Stoics are genuinely referring to the same mechanism, as this often turns on subtleties of translation and interpretation.

One of the passages that stands out most in this regard occurs right at the start of the Enchiridion of Epictetus, where he writes:

Train yourself, therefore, at the very outset to say to every harsh impression: “You are merely an impression [phantasia] and not at all what you appear to be [phainomenon].” (Enchiridion, 1)

Alternatively, perhaps more literally: “You are an appearance and not in any way the thing appearing” – you are merely the subjective impression and not the thing in-itself.

Epictetus, as is often the case, appears to be literally instructing his students to repeat this phrase to themselves as part of a general-purpose psychological strategy for managing disturbing thoughts or impressions.   The fact that this occurs in the first passage of the Enchiridion may also signal its importance.   It’s presented, as in cognitive therapy, as a prelude to other strategies, which involve “testing” the impression by applying the core precepts of Stoicism to it.  At this point, cognitive therapy might involve weighing up the evidence for and against the impression (or “automatic thought”), or identifying the types of distortion it contains, such as “over-generalisation” or “black and white thinking”, etc.  However, Epictetus says the most important response a Stoic can make is to question whether the impression has to do with things under our control or not.  If it refers to something external, the student is to say to it: “It is nothing to me.”  That is, this is completely indifferent with regard to happiness and the good life, the chief goal of Stoicism.  The Stoics appear to have realised, as modern CBT does, that any form of re-evaluation or disputation is impossible unless the initial step of gaining “psychological distance” takes place first.  I have to be able to view my judgements as hypothesis (merely impressions) rather than as facts (confusing them with the things they claim to represent), before I can begin to question them as such.

In relation to this, Epictetus also refers many times to the strategy of avoiding “being carried away” (sunarpasthêis) by impressions in general, and not letting them “seize the mind” prematurely.  He specifically refers to impressions that attribute good or bad to indifferent things, such as pleasure, other people’s happiness, insulting behaviour, or fearful prophecies, etc.

When you get an impression of some pleasure, guard yourself, as with impressions in general, against being carried away by it; nay, let the matter wait upon your leisure, and give yourself a little delay. (Enchiridion, 34)

And so make it your primary endeavour not to be carried away by the impression; for if once you gain time and delay, you will more easily become master of yourself. (Enchiridion, 20)

This delaying tactic was well-known in antiquity and can perhaps be traced to the early Pythagoreans.  It resembles time-out or postponement strategies used in modern CBT, which require cognitive distance from an automatic thought, and the ability to defer thinking any more about it or acting upon it until later.  Another reason this works well is clearly due to the fact that emotional disturbances (“passions”) tend to come and go naturally and so returning to a thought at a later time, in a different “frame of mind”, generally makes it easier to evaluate it more objectively.

Beck’s cognitive therapy writings only discuss “cognitive distancing” very briefly, although he does mention about half-a-dozen practical strategies, which are taught to clients in the initial stage of therapy.  For example:

  1. Writing down negative automatic thoughts on a daily thought record, particularly fleeting automatic thoughts that might normally go unnoticed or get conflated with feelings
  2. Writing thoughts on a blackboard and literally viewing them from a distance, as something objective and “over there”, by patiently describing the colour, size, and style of the writing, etc.
  3. Viewing thoughts as inferences or hypotheses instead of facts, distinguishing between “I believe” and “I know”, discriminating carefully between thoughts and facts
  4. Referring to your thoughts and feelings in the third-person (“Bill is having anxious feelings, he’s thinking that people are criticising him…”)
  5. Using a counter to keep a tally of specific types of automatic thoughts, seeing them as habitual and repetitive, as just a meaningless side-effect of previous experience rather than something important and meaningful that deserves to be taken seriously
  6. Self-observation, being aware of your own awareness, noticing how you observe your thoughts, maintaining a sense of yourself as conscious observer, separate from the contents of your stream of consciousness
  7. Shifting perspectives and imagining being in the shoes of other people, who might disagree with your beliefs and view things differently, adopting a different perspective on things and identifying a range of alternative views, among which your current thought is just one of many

ACT and other third-wave therapies have added more techniques to this list and refined the existing ones.  In particular, they’ve introduced the use of mindfulness meditation techniques, derived from Buddhism, which are mean to train clients to develop greater detachment or psychological distance from their thoughts.  Beck himself never mentioned the use of meditation in this way, although it may seem an obvious adjunct to the techniques described above.

Moreover, a brief survey of the Stoic literature suggests that most of the psychological techniques employed can be seen as relating more to the mechanism of “distancing” than “disputation”.  For example, in the Enchiridion, Epictetus instructs students of Stoicism to do the following:

  1. We should continually maintain attention (prosochê) to the leading faculty of the mind (hêgemonikon), watching our judgements as they happen; as if watching our steps, cautious of stepping on a sharp object, or as if looking out for an enemy in hiding
  2. When upset, we should always remind ourselves that it is our judgment that harms us and not the external thing itself, and we should guard against being “swept away” by upsetting external impressions
  3. When something appears to be upsetting, you should imagine the same thing befalling someone else, so that you can judge it from a distance
  4. We should abandon value judgements and stick instead to a bare description of the facts of a situation, which forces us to see our value judgements as something we’re imposing on events rather than an intrinsic characteristic of external events themselves
  5. We should remind ourselves how the wise man would judge the same thing differently because noting that different people view things differently helps us to distinguish our thoughts from external facts.  Epictetus’ favoured example: Death cannot be intrinsically evil otherwise Socrates would have judged it to be so.
  6. We should postpone responding to impulses associated with powerful impressions until later, something which forces us to adopt a more detached perspective on them – modern therapists call this taking a “time-out” or simply “postponement”

These might be described as brief “shifts in perspective” rather than stepwise methods of disputation.  They are perhaps more experiential than verbal.  There’s no need to evaluate the evidence for these judgements, the Stoic simply reminds himself that they are judgements, peeling them away from the surface of reality, as it were, and viewing them as events within his own mind.  The Stoics referred to this process as “withholding assent” from initial impressions that mistakenly ascribe intrinsic value to indifferent things.  They assumed that impressions are outside of our control, being triggered by external events, like the “automatic thoughts” of cognitive therapy.  However, we do control what happens next: whether we accept the impression as reality or not, by giving our “assent” and saying “yes” to it.  Interestingly, the Stoics don’t seem to refer to saying “no” or exercising “dissent” toward impressions, merely suspending assent appears to be sufficient, at least at first.  Shortly after, attention may be shifted on to alternatives to the initial impression, such as “What would the Sage do?”

Some researchers, most notably the founders of ACT, have argued that verbal disputation techniques may interfere with psychological distance (which they call “cognitive defusion”).  The best way to illustrate this is perhaps by considering the example of Buddhist-style mindfulness meditation.  While meditating, if a distracting thought crosses the mind, mindfulness practitioners are taught to view it with detachment and resist the urge to respond to it by analysing its meaning or engaging in an internal dialogue about it.  They might view it as if it were like a cloud passing across the sky and “let it go”.  Engaging with the thought can simply make it more prominent, even if someone is attempting to challenge or dispute it.  One can easily be swept along with the thought this way and lose psychological distance from it.  The relative brevity of Stoic techniques arguably lends itself to maintaining psychological distance from upsetting impressions.  That could be lost again, though, if you “get into a debate with yourself” about the truth or falsehood of certain thoughts.  There’s a considerable body of modern research showing that attempts to suppress or distract oneself from distressing thoughts tend to be counter-productive.  Gaining psychological distance neatly circumvents this problem because it means neither assenting to (“buying into”) a thought nor trying to eliminate it, but rather viewing it from a detached perspective.  Rather than “I must not have this thought”, someone with psychological distance from their thoughts might say: “It’s okay to have this thought cross my mind but it’s just a thought, I don’t need to dwell on it or take it too seriously.”  There appear to be some references in the Stoic literature to suppressing automatic thoughts or feelings, though, which would be considered unhealthy and problematic from the perspective of modern research on psychotherapy.  However, the dubious strategies of thought-suppression or distraction do not seem to be an important or necessary part of Stoic therapeutics, and could easily be replaced with more consistent emphasis on “cognitive distancing” or merely withholding assent.