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.
Most of the chapters begin with a quotation from Marcus Aurelius, linking ancient Stoic practices to modern cognitive-behavioural approaches to psychological resilience-building. However, the final chapter, looks at perhaps the oldest Western system of resilience-building, the classical Graeco-Roman school of philosophy known as “Stoicism”, which is derived from the teachings of Socrates and influenced the development of modern CBT (Robertson, 2010). The Stoics are, in a sense, the ancient forebears of most modern resilience-building approaches. Indeed, Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher who has most influenced the field of psychotherapy, has been described as “the patron saint of the resilient” (Neenan, 2009, p. 21).
The Essence of Stoicism
So what practical advice do the Stoics give us about building resilience? Well, this is a philosophy that can be studied for a lifetime and more detailed accounts are available. An excellent modern guide to Stoicism already exists in the book A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by Prof. William Irvine, an academic philosopher in the USA (Irvine, 2009). My own writings, especially my book The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, have focused on describing the relationship between Stoicism and modern psychotherapy (Robertson, 2010; Robertson, 2005).
However, although, Stoicism is a vast subject, it was based upon a handful of simple principles. Epictetus summed up the essence of Stoicism as “following Nature” through the “correct use of impressions”. By “following Nature”, the Stoics meant something twofold: accepting external events as decreed by the Nature of the universe, while acting fully in accord with your own nature as a rational human being, living in accord with your core values. (Scholars capitalise “Nature” when referring to the nature of the universe as a whole, whereas lower-case “nature” means your internal human nature as an individual.)
Don’t treat anything as important except doing what your nature demands, and accepting what Nature sends you. (Meditations, 12:32)
Reverence: so you’ll accept what you’re allotted. Nature intended it for you, and you for it.
Justice: so that you’ll speak the truth, frankly and without evasions, and act as you should – and as other people deserve. (Meditations, 12: 1)
However, the basic twofold principle “follow Nature” leads on to an elaborate system of applied philosophy, which this chapter will explore in more detail.
The first few passages of the philosophical Handbookof Epictetus provide arguably the most authoritative summary of basic Stoic theory and practice. I’ve paraphrased the key statements below, to highlight the possible continuity with ACT, CBT and the approaches to resilience-building discussed in this book.
The Handbookbegins with a very clear and simple “common sense” declaration: Some things are under our control and others are not.
Our own actions are, by definition, under our control, including our opinions and intentions (e.g., commitments to valued action), etc.
Everything other than our own actions is not under our direct control, particularly our health, wealth and reputation, etc. (Although, we can influencemany external things through our actions we do not have complete or direct control over them, they do not happen simply as we will them to.)
Things directly under our control are, by definition, free and unimpeded, but everything else we might desire to control is hindered by external factors, i.e., partly down to fate.
The Stoic should continually remember that much emotional suffering is caused by mistakenly assuming, or acting as if, external things are directly under our control.
Assuming that external events are under our control also tends to mislead us into excessively blaming others and the world for our emotional suffering.
However, if you remember that only your own actions are truly under your control and external things are not, then you will become emotionally resilient as a result (“no one will harm you”) and you may achieve a kind of profound freedom and happiness, which is part of the ultimate goal of Stoicism.
To really succeed in living as a Stoic, you need to be highly committed, and may need to abandon or at least temporarily postpone the pursuit of external things such as wealth or reputation, etc. (Stoics like Epictetus lived in poverty while others, like Marcus Aurelius, tried to follow the principles while commanding great wealth and power – both were considered valid ways of living for a Stoic but Marcus perhaps believed his complex and privileged lifestyle made commitment to Stoicism more difficult at times.)
From the very outset, therefore, the Stoic novice should rehearse spotting unpleasant experiences (“impressions”) and saying in response to them: “You are an impression, and not at all the thing you appear to be.” (Something that closely this resembles the basic strategy we call “distancing” or “defusion” in modern CBT.)
After doing this, ask yourself whether the impression involves thinking about what is under your control or not; if not, then say to yourself, “It is nothing to me.” (Meaning, it’s essentially indifferent to me if it’s not under my control – I just need to accept it; although the Stoics did admit that some external outcomes are naturally to be preferred, despite lacking true intrinsic value.)
The Teach Yourself book goes on to describe the basic principles of Stoicism in more detail and, in particular, to elaborate upon some of the basic psychological strategies employed for resilience-building by the Stoic sages, such as acting “with a reserve clause”, visualising the “view from above”, and contemplation of the ideal Sage, etc.
Table of Contents
Introduction: What is Resilience?
Letting go of Experiential Avoidance
Commitment to Valued Action
Acceptance & Defusion
Mindfulness & the Present Moment
Assertiveness & Social Skills
Stoic Philosophy & Resilience
About the Author
Donald Robertson is a psychotherapist with a private practice in Harley Street. He is a CBT practitioner specialising in treating anxiety and building resilience and director of a leading therapy training organisation. He is the author of many journal articles and three books on therapy, The Philosophy of CBT, The Discovery of Hypnosis, and The Practice of Cognitive-Behavioural Hypnotherapy, and blogs regularly from his website www.londoncognitive.com.
Patricia Murphy’s Special Feature in CBT Today (May 2012)
The following excerpt from CBT Today mentioned The Philosophy of CBT:
In The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy, Donald Robertson cogently explains why modern psychotherapists should remain interested in ancient philosophy, not least because it 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’. We are reminded that the origins of modern CBT can be traced back to the ancient practices of Socratic philosophy while, according to Epicurus,‘living well’ also requires the individual to ‘rehearse death’.The contemplation of one’s own mortality was viewed by the Stoics as a therapeutic exercise to be repeated daily. The imaginary embodiment of the ideal role model or sage was seen by ancient philosophers as necessary to provide a standard for the ‘art of living’.
Robertson suggests that, unlike Stoicism and most classical philosophies,‘CBT lacks any clear account of the ideal toward which it aims’. That said, he observes how many techniques and concepts found in classical literature, including mindfulness,modelling behaviour, cognitive restructuring and distancing/perspective changing techniques, are well rehearsed in CBT. Meanwhile, individual therapists may use poetry, prose, music, metaphor, imagery, archetypes and historical figures to demonstrate qualities or sentiments that also reflect the qualities of the sage, including wisdom, courage and compassion.
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.
“After reading a passage in which Marcus advocates this approach to himself, Patrick played a pre-recorded ‘View from Above’ meditation. The text for this meditation was adapted slightly from D. Robertson’s The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. […] This visualization was well-received and followed by lively discussion.”
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.
Another positive review in a peer-reviewed academic journal. This one by John W. Owen of the University of Manchester and Bolton Primary Care NHS Trust, a clinical psychologist and former IAPT supervisor,
In The philosophy of cognitive-behaviour therapy, Robertson proposes that the connections between Stoic philosophy and CBT deserve deeper consideration. Within this book, the author offers a detailed comparative analysis of these two schools of thought, and compellingly argues that the origins of CBT are evident in the theory and practice of Stoic philosophy.
The philosophy of cognitive-behavioural therapy particularly highlighted to me the extent to which REBT has its origins within Stoic philosophy. […] Being unfamiliar with the details of Stoic philosophy, I was surprised and intrigued to learn of the important practical aspects of this school of thought. Stoicism does not appear to have been a solely introspective form of philosophy, instead, a range of practical techniques were advocated in the service of self improvement. […] Robertson details an impressive range of Stoic techniques that are analogous to those found in CBT, for example the practice of self-monitoring, the use of coping statements and the practice of journal keeping.
Overall, I found The Philosophy of CBT to be informative and thought provoking. It was both interesting and sobering to reflect upon the possibility that variants of some of the psychotherapeutic techniques that I use on a day-to-day basis in clinical practice may have also been employed to alleviate emotional disturbance in ancient Greece. I would particularly recommend this book for trainee cognitive-behaviour therapists. […] I wonder whether Robertson’s book could serve to foster a broader understanding of the assumptions, philosophical underpinnings and overarching goals of cognitive-behavioural approaches to the alleviation of
See the full review in The European Journal of Psychotherapy and Counselling,