I’ve just come back from an academic workshop at the University of Exeter, organised by Christopher Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought. Prof. Gill has a special interest in Galen and Stoicism, and their relevance for modern physical and mental wellbeing.
Along with Professor John Wilkins, Prof. Gill, leads the Healthcare and Wellbeing: Ancient Paradigms and Modern Debates project in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. The project explores the significance of ancient medicine and psychology for modern debates and practice in healthcare and psychotherapy.
My previous book on Stoicism, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, goes into the practical analogies between Hellenistic philosophy and modern psychotherapy in some detail, from a moderately academic perspective. By contrast, my subsequent self-help book Build your Resilience, in addition to many references to Marcus Aurelius, concludes with a chapter on Stoicism and Psychological Resilience-Building, written as an introduction for the lay reader. This is currently being expanded by me into a new book about Stoicism, which provides a much more comprehensive introduction to the use of Stoic concepts and techniques in daily living.
Hi everyone, a few months ago we had a very successful Q&A session with Dr John Sellars and now we have an opportunity to interview a modern author that approaches Stoicism from a psychology point of view. Donald Robertson, the author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy has graciously agreed to answer our questions about CBT and Stoicism.
Here is how this will work. Please post your questions in this thread, then I will organize them after a few days and forward them to Donald. I will then post his answers and hopefully he will be available to answer any follow-up questions within a few days of the answers being posted.
Jules discusses The Philosophy of CBT as one of his five book choices:
…the founders of CBT were directly inspired by ancient Greek philosophy. Unfortunately, not many people are aware of that connection at all. Even a lot of cognitive therapists are unaware of it. That is partly because Aaron Beck was keen to present CBT as an evidence-based scientific therapy, so the philosophical roots of CBT were somewhat swept under the carpet. Donald’s was really the first book to properly explore the relationship between ancient philosophy and CBT.
The book currently has five-star overall review ratings on Amazon UK and USA and has been favourably reviewed already in two academic peer-reviewed journals, one philosophy and one clinical psychology. It’s also been the basis of at least one dissertation.
It is high time that some member of the community of contemporary therapists, so many of whom deploy one or more of the many permutations of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) to help manage their patients’ psychological dysfunction, paid proper obeisance to the ancient architects upon whose work so much modern therapeutic theory and practice are built. […] Fortunately, Donald Robertson undertakes precisely this task of uncovering and acknowledging the Stoic taproot of popular modes of contemporary therapy and counsel in his recent and admirable book, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy.
This down payment on the practicing therapist’s debt of gratitude to the ancient Stoics is a very welcome addition to both the academic’s and the practitioner’s library. It ought to be required reading for students of Hellenistic philosophy, psychotherapists, and anyone undertaking an exploration of the human condition, or efforts to deal with challenges endemic to it, or both.
He concludes, after an overview and discussion of the contents,
For anyone interested in Hellenistic philosophy, Stoicism in particular, or in contemporary talk therapy and its foundations, The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy is an invaluable resource. Philosophers, psychologists, therapists, counselors, and all others who hope to cultivate equanimity through rational self-governance are certain to benefit from Donald Robertson’s exploration of Stoicism as a wellspring of indispensable therapeutic wisdom. Reading Robertson’s book should, itself, be considered a form of “bibliotherapy” and an effort of which the ancient Stoic masters would, no doubt, approve.
Jules Evans: You speak of using the ‘Socratic method’ in CBT. To what extent was Greek philosophy, particularly Socrates and the Stoics, an influence on your ideas, as it was on Dr Ellis? And how much of an influence was Ellis and REBT on your development of CBT?
Aaron Beck: Ellis and I developed our approaches independently. I believe that Albert Ellis independently wrote about the influence of Greek philosophers on his own writing.
I came across the notion of Socratic Dialogue when I read about it in my college philosophy course – I believe it was in Plato’s Republic. I also was influenced by the Stoic philosophers who stated that it was a meaning of events rather than the events themselves that affected people. When this was articulated by Ellis, everything clicked into place; however, I must say that I was looking at meaning prior to this. My work in psychoanalysis taught me that “unconscious” meanings were extremely important. Over the course of time I decided that the important meanings were quite accessible to consciousness when individuals focused on their automatic thoughts.
This is the first book to explore in detail the relationship between modern psychotherapy, especially REBT and CBT, and traditional Socratic philosophy, particularly Stoicism. According to Karnac’s website, it’s currently their most popular book on CBT. Amazon report it’s most popular among people who buy Prof. Paul Gilbert’s book The Compassionate Mind (2010) and Prof. William B. Irvine’s A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy (2009).
Several reviews of The Philosophy of CBT have already appeared online and it currently has a five-star rating on Amazon, where one reviewer writes,
“I’ll be honest… I wasn’t originally going to buy this book because although I am very interested in all things CBT I didn’t think I was at all interested in Philosophy. I decided to buy it anyway because I have a huge respect for the author, and other publications of his which I have read have all been superbly written…
“Donald always impresses with his in-depth knowledge of, and enthusiasm for, his subject areas. This book is no exception… he has taken a really interesting area and communicated the material with clarity and insight. I would certainly recommend this book to anybody interested in, or involved with CBT as a book thoroughly worth reading and keeping on the bookshelf!”
We’re pleased with how well it’s doing so far and have created this website/blog about it where you can watch a video interview and read excerpts from the book and reviews about it, as well as related articles.
I hope you’ll enjoy the articles and consider delving into the book to find out more about how Socratic philosophy informs the theory and practice of modern psychotherapy.
Author of The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (2010) The Discovery of Hypnosis: The Complete Writings of James Braid (2009) The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy (due out soon)
The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT) is a new book about ancient philosophy and modern psychotherapy. Professor Stephen Palmer, author of Brief Cognitive Behavior Therapy and several other books on CBT, has kindly contributed a foreword in which he observes that a thorough discussion of the historical roots of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) has been lacking. He adds,
This book takes us on a historical journey through millennia, and highlights the relevant philosophies and the ideas of the individual philosophers that can inform modern cognitive-behavioural therapies. This book also contains some therapeutic techniques that seem to be modern, yet were developed and written about many years ago. (Ibid.)
This is the essence of The Philosophy of CBT. It’s a book about the practical relevance of ancient philosophy to modern psychotherapy, most especially the relevance of Stoicism to modern CBT.
Stoicism had more of a psychotherapeutic orientation than most modern psychotherapists are probably aware of – it was essentially a psychological and philosophical therapy in its own right. CBT is also more indebted to it than is widely recognised. Epictetus, one of the most important Stoic philosophers, went so far as to say that the philosopher’s school is a doctor’s (or therapist’s) clinic (Discourses, 3.23.30). In 1979, Aaron T. Beck and his colleagues wrote in the first major CBT treatment manual, Cognitive Therapy of Depression, ‘The philosophical origins of cognitive therapy can be traced back to the Stoic philosophers’ (Beck, Rush, Shaw, & Emery, 1979, p. 8). These comments echo earlier remarks made by Albert Ellis, the founder of Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT). Most CBT practitioners will be familiar with the famous maxim of Epictetus, from the Stoic Enchiridion (Handbook), that states,
It is not the things themselves that disturb people but their judgements about those things. (Enchiridion, 5)
This ancient philosophical precept is widely-quoted in introductory texts on CBT and in the writings of Beck, Ellis, and other leading authors in the field. It serves to highlight the fundamental link between ancient Stoic therapeutics and modern cognitive therapies. However, this link is never explored – at least not in much detail.
Moreover, there are many practical therapeutic strategies and techniques to be found in the literature of classical philosophy that have good “face validity”, appear consistent with CBT, and may well deserve empirical investigation in their own right. Hence, some of the key points of The Philosophy of CBT might be summarised as follows,
The origins of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy can be traced, through early twentieth century rational psychotherapists, back to the ancient therapeutic practices of Socratic philosophy, especially Roman Stoicism.
The notion of Stoicism as a kind of “intellectualism” opposed to emotion is a popular misconception. Stoicism has traditionally attempted to accommodate emotion, especially the primary philosophical emotion of rational love toward existence as a whole.
Ancient philosophy offers a clear analogy with modern CBT and provides many concepts, strategies, and techniques of practical value in self-help and psychotherapy.
The contemplation of universal determinism, of the transience or impermanence of things, including our own mortality, and the meditative vision of the world seen from above, or the cosmos conceived of as a whole, constitute specific meditative and visualisation practices within the field of ancient Hellenistic psychotherapy.
Contemplation of the good qualities (“virtues”) found in those we admire and in our ideal conception of philosophical enlightenment and moral strength (the “Sage”) provides us with a means of role-modelling excellence and deriving precepts or maxims to help guide our own actions.
The rehearsal, memorisation, and recall of short verbal formulae, precepts, dogmas, sayings, or maxims resembles the modern practice of autosuggestion, affirmation, or the use of coping statements in CBT.
The objective analysis of our experience into its value-free components, by suspending emotive judgements and rhetoric, constitutes a means of cognitive restructuring involving the disputation of faulty thinking, or cognitive distortion. By sticking to the facts, we counter the emotional disturbance caused by our own “internal rhetoric.”
Mindfulness of our own faculty of judgement, and internal dialogue, in the “here and now”, can be seen as analogous to the use of mindfulness meditation imported into modern CBT from Buddhist meditation practices, but has the advantage of being native to Stoicism, the philosophical precursor of CBT, and to European culture and language.
The enormous literary value, the sheer beauty, of many of the classics with which we are concerned marks them out as being of special interest to many therapists and clients, just as it has marked them out for many thousands of previous readers throughout the intervening centuries.
Socratic philosophy has a broader scope than modern psychotherapy, it looks at the bigger picture, and allows us the opportunity to place such therapy within the context of an overall “art of living”, or philosophy of life.
Philosophers and psychotherapists have a great deal to talk about, and a better common ground is required on which the two traditions can meet each other and exchange ideas. I hope that this study of the philosophical precursors of modern cognitive-behavioural therapy will help to clarify and strengthen the basis for further dialogue between philosophers and therapists in the future.
The book is divided into two parts. The first explores the historical and theoretical relationship between Stoicism and CBT. However, the discussion extends to other schools of ancient philosophy, such as Pythagoreanism and Epicureanism, and other 20th century schools of psychotherapy, precursors of modern CBT, such as the rational persuasion school of Paul Dubois, etc. The second part of the book focuses upon the practical strategies and techniques of Stoic therapeutics in relation to modern CBT. For example, the role of specific mindfulness, visualisation, autosuggestion, and semantic techniques in ancient Stoicism are explored in some detail. Appendices provide examples of a possible Stoic daily routine and a complete script for modern practitioners to employ in groups or with individuals, based on the Socratic meditation termed “The View from Above” by modern scholars.
Table of Contents
Foreword by Prof. Stephen Palmer
Introduction: Philosophy & Psychotherapy
Contented with Little
Part I: Philosophy & Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (CBT)
The “Philosophical Origins” of CBT
The Beginning of Modern Cognitive Therapy
A Brief History of Philosophical Therapy
Stoic Philosophy & Psychology
Rational Emotion in Stoicism & CBT
Stoicism & Ellis’ Rational Therapy (REBT)
Part II: The Stoic Armamentarium
Contemplation of the Ideal Sage
Stoic Mindfulness of the “Here & Now”
Self-Analysis & Disputation
Autosuggestion, Premeditation, & Retrospection
Premeditatio Malorum & Mental Rehearsal
Stoic Fatalism, Determinism & Acceptance
The View from Above & Stoic Metaphysics
Conclusion: Fate Guides the Willing
Appendix: An Example Stoic Therapeutic Regime
Appendix: The View from Above Script
More information on the book can be found on the blog,
Stoic Philosophy as Rational & Cognitive Psychotherapy
“The philosopher’s school”, said Epictetus, “is a doctor’s clinic.” The Philosophy of CBT is the first comprehensive review of the relationship between modern cognitive-behavioural therapies and classical philosophy. The founders of cognitive therapy and REBT, Aaron Beck and Albert Ellis, both refer to Stoicism in particular as the main precursor of the modern cognitive approach. This book elaborates in detail upon the historical relationship between different schools of ancient philosophy and modern psychotherapy. It places particular emphasis on the specific therapeutic strategies and techniques employed in Stoicism and other Hellenistic philosophies and explores the potential for integrating them within modern psychological therapies.
For example, the central principle of Stoicism was that emotional disturbance is linked to placing excessive value upon things outside of our direct control while neglecting things we can more easily change, especially our cognitions and behaviour. Visualisation techniques such as “The View from Above” and Stoic mindfulness practices are explained as part of a “forgotten” armamentarium of therapeutic methods. The author argues that certain aspects of these ancient schools of philosophical psychotherapy may well deserve to be rehabilitated within the modern psychotherapeutic framework. This book opens up a new forum for dialogue between philosophers and psychotherapists, focusing on the practical dimension of Socratic philosophy and its relationship with the cognitive-behavioural tradition.