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…

Books Philosophy Philosophy of CBT Psychotherapy Stoicism

The Books I’ve Written on Stoicism

I’ve published about seven books so far on philosophy and psychotherapy. People often ask about one book but aren’t aware of the others so I’ve put together a short article explaining what they’re about. If you’re interested, you can see more info on my publications, including journal articles, some foreign translations, and books on psychotherapy not mentioned below, on my Google Scholar, Goodreads, and Amazon profile pages.

1. Ancient Lives: Marcus Aurelius (in press)

This is a prose biography of Marcus Aurelius, which will be part of the new Yale University Press Ancient Lives series, edited by James Romm. This book is finished and should (I think) be published around Spring 2023. This was the third book that I wrote in a row about Marcus Aurelius. It focuses on how Stoic philosophy influenced his life, and his rule as emperor, and how his personal relationships shaped and reveal aspects of his character. For instance, the first chapter focuses on Marcus’ relationship with his mother. I’ll publish more details on social media as they become available.

2. Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

Verissimus Cover

Verissimus is a graphic novel, published in July 2022, by St, Martin’s Press. It tells the story of Marcus Aurelius’ life in comic-book panels, with a lot of emphasis on his study and application of Stoic philosophy, particularly how it helped him to conquer his anger.

This was the second of three books that I wrote about the life of Marcus Aurelius, and how it connected with his philosophy. The graphic novel format meant that it’s a very different experience, though, from reading a prose biography or a self-help book. I wrote this book for adults – it’s a graphic novel not a comic – but I have to admit that a lot of readers have said their kids were attracted to the cover design and artwork, and stole their copy!

3. How to Think Like a Roman Emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius

How to Think Like a Roman Emperor (2019) is a self-help book. Most of the chapters begin with an anecdote from the life of Marcus Aurelius, closely based on the surviving historical sources. This is followed by a discussion of how Stoic philosophy can be applied in daily life, and then a comparison with techniques from modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), which draw on my clinical background as a psychotherapist.

When I first proposed this book the title and the idea of combining three genres (history, philosophy, and psychology) seemed controversial – like a bit of a gamble – but it worked. Roman Emperor is my most popular book. It was the number one bestselling philosophy book in the US in the weeks following its release and was reviewed in the Wall Street Journal. It’s since been translated into eighteen different languages.

4. Teach Yourself: Stoicism and the Art of Happiness

Stoicism and the Art of Happiness (2013) is part of Hodder’s popular Teach Yourself series. It was so popular that a revised second edition was published in 2018, which added an extra chapter on death contemplation. This is a self-help book, which provides careful instructions on how to apply Stoic practices in daily life. It also includes many comparisons with cognitive-behavioural therapy and other evidence-based psychological strategies.

The Teach Yourself series follows a strict and well-established format. Chapters begin with relevant quotes, and short quizzes, and include practical exercises, guides to terminology, key points to remember, examples, recommended reading, etc. It’s designed to make it easy to put the advice into practice in daily life.

5. Teach Yourself: Build your Resilience

build your resilience book cover

Build your Resilience (2012) was my first book for Hodder’s Teach Yourself series. It’s a self-help book about what psychologists call “emotional resilience training”, which is basically training in preventative strategies designed to reduce the risk of mental health problems in the future by making you more able to cope with stressful situations. Like Stoicism and the Art of Happiness, it follows a strict self-help guide format, with lots of info boxes, and practical steps described.

Resilience building draws heavily on cognitive-behavioural therapy but I mainly focused on recent “third-wave” approaches, particularly Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). There are also chapters discussing research on resilience and vulnerability, and evidence-based approaches to relaxation techniques, worry management, and problem-solving. This book contains a lot of practical psychological advice – I wrote it partly to be used by my own CBT clients and trainee therapists. However, it also contains a chapter on Stoicism and references to Stoicism are interspersed throughout, comparing Stoic concepts and techniques to the evidence-based psychological approaches employed in modern resilience training.

6. The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy: Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy

Philosophy of CBT Cover 2nd Edition

The Philosophy of CBT (2010) was my first book on Stoicism. I’d already been researching the subject, writing about it, speaking about it at conferences, etc., for over a decade before I decided to publish a book. So it contains a wealth of research on the history of philosophy and psychotherapy. My first degree is in philosophy (Aberdeen) and my masters was in philosophy and psychotherapy, at an interdisciplinary centre in Sheffield University. I then trained in counselling and psychotherapy, which became my profession. I wanted to do a PhD about Stoic philosophy and cognitive-behavioural therapy but couldn’t find a university department with a suitably qualified supervisor. So, to cut a long story short, I ended up just writing a book, instead of a dissertation, which was published in the UK by Karnac.

Karnac were later bought by Routledge, who commissioned me to produce a revised second edition in 2020, as the book had become so popular. The new edition contains an additional chapter focusing on more recent “third-wave” approaches to cognitive-behavioural therapy, and how they compare to Stoicism. I was surprised at its reception because it was intended as an academic publication, aimed at philosophers and psychologists – but very few of them read it! Instead, by accident, it somehow reached a “lay” audience, who embraced it as a sort of self-help guide to Stoicism. So I accidentally found myself making the transition from academic researcher and writer, to self-help author.

Other Books

I’ve also contributed chapters to several books on Stoicism.

  1. “The Stoic Influence on Modern Psychotherapy” in The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016), edited by John Sellars
  2. Introduction to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations: The Philosophy Classic (Capstone Classics, 2020), which I also helped edit
  3. Introduction to Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic: The Ancient Classic (Capstone, 2021)
  4. “Marcus Aurelius and Psychotherapy” in The Cambridge Companion to Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (in press).

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.



Stoicism and Early 20th Century Psychotherapy

Dubois and Baudouin

The earliest modern school of psychological therapy was arguably hypnotism, or “hypnotic therapeutics”, founded by the Scottish surgeon, James Braid, in 1841. Hypnotism spread to France after Braid’s death in 1860, where it gained popularity and the term “psychotherapy” was coined to describe hypnotic therapy and related methods. Hippolyte Bernheim, at Nancy, and Jean-Martin Charcot at the Salpêtrière hospital in Paris, set up rival schools of hypnotic psychotherapy, which flourished in the 1880s. Prior to developing psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud studied hypnotism, attending both Bernheim and Charcot’s lectures. Freud’s first book on psychotherapy, Studies in Hysteria (1895), described his hypnotic “catharsis” method, the precursor of psychoanalysis proper, which was essentially founded with his publication of The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Psychoanalytic approaches, derived from Freud and his followers, largely supplanted hypnotism and dominated the field of psychotherapy until the late 1950s, when “humanistic” and “behavioral” approaches to therapy began to be developed.

There’s not much evidence of Stoicism having influenced psychoanalysis. However, the fame achieved by Freud has often obscured the fact that rival approaches to psychotherapy existed in the early 20th century. One of the most important of these was the “rational psychotherapy” or “rational persuasion” approach of the Swiss psychiatrist and neuropathologist Paul Dubois, author of The Psychoneuroses and Their Moral Treatment (1904).  Dubois was an important pioneer of modern psychotherapy and treated several famous clients, including the novelist Marcel Proust.

The impact of Stoicism during this period was mainly upon Dubois and those inspired, in turn, by his “rational” approach to psychotherapy. Dubois believed that psychological problems were due mainly to negative autosuggestion but rejected the technique of hypnotism in favor of a treatment based on the practice of “Socratic dialogue”, with the goal of rationally persuading patients to abandon the unhealthy ideas responsible for various neurotic and psychosomatic conditions. The influence of the ancient Stoics is clear from Dubois’ scattered references to them. He even prescribed reading Seneca’s letters to one of his patients as therapeutic homework (Dubois, 1904, p. 433).

If we eliminate from ancient writings a few allusions that gave them local colour, we shall find the ideas of Socrates, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius absolutely modern and applicable to our times. (Dubois, 1909, pp. 108-109)

With practice, we can learn to monitor our thoughts and challenge the irrational ideas that cause unhealthy emotions and psychosomatic symptoms (Dubois & Gallatin, 1908, p. 56). Dubois therefore often speaks of his rational psychotherapy as involving a form of “stoicism” (with a small “s”) but he closely relates this to “Stoicism” (with a big “S”), especially as he found it in the writings of Seneca.

The idea is not new; the stoics have pushed to the last degree this resistance to pain and misfortune. The following lines, written by Seneca, seem to be drawn from a modern treatise on psychotherapy: “Beware of aggravating your troubles yourself and of making your position worse by your complaints. Grief is light when opinion does not exaggerate it; and if one encourages one’s self by saying, ‘This is nothing,’ or, at least, ‘This is slight; let us try to endure it, for it will end,’ one makes one’s grief slight by reason of believing it such.” And, further: “One is only unfortunate in proportion as one believes one’s self so.” One could truly say concerning nervous pains that one only suffers when he thinks he does. (Dubois, 1904, pp. 394-395)

Dubois also quotes Seneca’s letters to illustrate the role of patience and acceptance, as opposed to worry, in helping us to cope with and avoid exacerbating physical illness.

We must turn here to the ancients in order to recover the idea of patience towards disease, that stoical philosophy which not only helps to support us in evils, but diminishes or cures them. (Dubois, 1909, pp. 224-225)

He quotes Seneca’s remarks that the principles of Stoic philosophy served him as a consolation during illness and “act upon me like medicine”, strengthening the body by elevating the soul. It’s this ancient Stoic claim that by altering our judgments we can alleviate emotional suffering, and related physical symptoms, that most interested Dubois and he illustrates it with the following anecdote:

A young man into whom I tried to instil a few principles of stoicism towards ailments stopped me at the first words, saying, “I understand, doctor; let me show you.” And taking a pencil he drew a large black spot on a piece of paper. “This,” said he, “is the disease, in its most general sense, the physical trouble – rheumatism, toothache, what you will – moral trouble, sadness, discouragement, melancholy. If I acknowledge it by fixing my attention upon it, I already trace a circle to the periphery of the black spot, and it has become larger. If I affirm it with acerbity the spot is increased by a new circle. There I am, busied with my pain, hunting for means to get rid of it, and the spot only becomes larger. If I preoccupy myself with it, if I fear the consequences, if I see the future gloomily, I have doubled or trebled the original spot.” And, showing me the central point of the circle, the trouble reduced to its simplest expression, he said with a smile, “Should I not have done better to leave it as it was?”

“One exaggerates, imagines, anticipates affliction,” wrote Seneca. For a long time, I have told my discouraged patients and have repeated to myself, “Do not let us build a second story to our sorrow by being sorry for our sorrow.” (Dubois, 1909, pp. 235-236)

He adds that this diagram illustrates that “He who knows how to suffer suffers less.” The burden of physical pain or illness is light when we are able to look at it objectively, without drawing “concentric circles” around it, which multiply our suffering by adding layers of fear.

Moreover, Dubois was in broad agreement with the Stoic theory of universal causal determinism, and held such a firm conviction in its therapeutic value, as a means of moderating unhealthy emotions, that he dedicated an entire chapter of his textbook on psychotherapy to this subject. Although most of his patients were initially hostile to the idea of determinism, Dubois found that they could be persuaded, on reflection, to accept universal determinism as a common sense view and to adopt patient fatalism as the only rational response concerning inevitable events (Dubois, 1904, p. 47).

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)

Dubois felt that, in psychotherapy, the Stoic concept of determinism was particularly valuable as a way of viewing the behavior of other people. The influence of Stoic determinism upon his psychotherapy, in this regard, is particularly well-illustrated by the following passage:

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)

However, the most explicit appeal to Stoicism in modern psychotherapy is probably contained in a self-help book called The Inner Discipline, co-authored by the psychotherapist and academic, Charles Baudouin. This combined elements of Dubois’ “rational persuasion” method with an eclectic mixture of other influences, including Coué’s “conscious autosuggestion”, psychoanalysis, Christianity, and Buddhism. Following Dubois’ example, Baudouin dedicated a whole chapter to the relevance of ancient Stoicism for modern psychotherapy and self-help. He concluded Stoicism was the school of ancient Western philosophy most-obviously relevant to the goals of personal improvement and selected it for special consideration because of the emphasis it placed upon self-discipline and the “education of the character” (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924, p. 89). He noted that both rational psychotherapy and Stoic practice rest upon “the law of habit, and the need for training”, prescribing exercises to be “assiduously practised, daily if possible” (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924, p. 216). Baudouin’s enthusiasm for Stoicism was tempered by his own Christian faith but he cited both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius repeatedly, and in more detail than any other psychotherapist of the period.

The founders of CBT would later emphasize the quotation from Epictetus that says: “Men are disturbed not by things but by the views which they take of them” (Enchiridion, 5). However, Baudouin focused on the opening sentence of the Enchiridion, which arguably expresses a more fundamental principle of Stoicism: “One of the first of these philosophers’ precepts is that we must thoroughly grasp the distinction between the things which are in our power and the things which are not in our power” (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924, p. 40). Following Dubois, he also espoused the psychotherapeutic value of Stoic determinism, and their attitude of acceptance and resignation toward the countless things in life that are outside our control (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924, pp. 217-218). Likewise, as Baudouin notes, the Stoics advise us to focus on our locus of control, in the “here and now”, rather than dwelling on the past or distant future.

Imagination and opinion are pre-eminently to be classed among the things which are within our power. There is a familiar adage: If we can’t get what we like, we must like what we have. The Stoics held the same view, though on a somewhat higher plane. Instead of lamenting because we cannot change our lot, let us learn to love it. Happiness and unhappiness are, to a great extent, matters of imagination and opinion. (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924, p. 45)

He also recognized the importance of the “pitiless analysis” through which Stoicism shows us the ultimate worthlessness of these external (“indifferent”) things, despite their being valued by the majority of ordinary people. Baudouin was also influenced by the Stoic practice that Hadot later dubbed “physical definition”, in which events giving rise to strong desires or emotions (“passions”) are patiently analyzed into their material constituents as if from the detached, objective perspective of natural philosophy (Stoic “Physics”).

The principle that underlies the [Stoic] method may be described as depreciation by analysis. When we decompose into its constituent parts the object which has been of so much concern to us, we shall realise that it is a matter of no moment (much as a child which has pulled a toy to pieces is disillusioned, and says, “Is that all it is?”). (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924, p. 48)

Baudouin was perhaps the only modern psychotherapist to recommend the Stoic routine of morning meditation, described by Marcus Aurelius, apparently inspired by the Pythagorean tradition. Mastery over the mind and body can only be acquired by daily training in rational precepts, he says, and “the first hour especially demands our attention, for the attitude we adopt at this time sets the course for the day” (Baudouin & Lestchinsky, 1924, p. 58).


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 Rational Psychotherapy

Charles Baudouin and Stoicism

Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2012.  All rights reserved.

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

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

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

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


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.

CBT Stoicism

Stoic Philosophy as Psychotherapy (2005)

This article was first published in the July 2005 edition of the BACP magazine CPJ (now Therapy Today).

Republished with minor amendments.  Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2005.  All rights reserved.

The philosopher’s school is a doctor’s clinic. (Epictetus, 1995: 3.23.30)1

There is currently [2005] a growth of interest in the “practical” or psychotherapeutic aspects of classical philosophy. Academic experts have long perceived “Late” or “Roman” Stoicism (c. 1st – 2nd Century AD) as offering the most explicit system of therapeutic concepts and techniques to be found in classical literature.  This article seeks to introduce some of the basic principles of Stoic philosophy to an audience of psychotherapists and counsellors. We have found that therapists are often surprised at how relevant to their practice and strangely familiar Stoic ideas actually are.  Indeed, we hope to demonstrate that many modern theories of psychotherapy, counselling and personal development are ultimately indebted to this age-old but virtually forgotten therapeutic tradition.

The Origins & History of Stoicism

Stoicism is an ancient European school of philosophy, which incorporates a comprehensive system of therapeutic exercises. Zeno of Citium founded the school in Athens, as a “Socratic” sect, around 300 BC. However, Stoicism was more than just a “philosophy”, in the modern academic sense of the word, it was a far-reaching and long-standing cultural movement. 

 The historical boundaries are controversial, but it is safe to say that the Stoic school of philosophy can be situated within a broader philosophical tradition of “practical philosophy.”  That movement as a whole lasted from around the time of Pythagoras of Samos (c. 6th century BC) –who may be considered the original philosopher-therapist– to the superseding of pagan philosophy by Christian theology well over 1,000 years later. Following the closure of the great pagan academies by the Christian Emperor Justinian in 529 AD, the therapeutic practices of Stoicism and other philosophical systems survived only insofar as they were assimilated into orthodox Christian theology, i.e., barely at all.

 As a living tradition of philosophical practice Stoicism’s time was over. However, some of its concepts survived in literature and experienced various revivals, most notably the so-called “Neostoicism” of the Renaissance period, explaining the traces of Stoic thought in the work of such influential figures as Erasmus, John Calvin, Rene Descartes, William Shakespeare, John Milton, and Michel de Montaigne, to name but a few.  Even the royals, Queen Elizabeth I of England and King James I of England (VI of Scotland), were considered admirers of Stoic philosophy. More recently, Tom Wolfe, author of Bonfire of the Vanities (1987), published a novel called A Man in Full (1998) in which one of the lead characters adopts a philosophy of life based on the ancient Stoic Manual of Epictetus. Hollywood director Ridley Scott’s epic Gladiator (2000) depicts the last days of the Stoic emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris) and briefly alludes to the cardinal philosophical virtues and the Stoic notion of ‘contempt for death.’ 

It is worth noting, in this context, that the English language still retains evidence of the therapeutic dimension of philosophy. The adjective ‘philosophical’, among other things, still clearly alludes to the ancient ideal of emotional calm (ataraxia) and self-mastery (sophrosyne). This usage of ‘philosophical’ has also become virtually synonymous with the modern, popular meaning of ‘stoical.’

 philosophical. adj. 3. Calm in adversity.

 stoical. adj. Having or showing great self-control in adversity. (OUP, 1992: ‘philosophical’, ‘stoical’)2 

Indeed, Stoicism’s influence over our thought and language, usually unrecognised, endures right down to the present day, so much so that people are often surprised to find that many familiar clichés and proverbs are derived from Stoic philosophy – I call this its “déjà vu factor.”

Stoicism & Modern Psychotherapy/Counselling

Stoicism is fundamentally a philosophy of life independent of any political or religious dogmas. Some have seen it as comparable to a “European Buddhism” or “Western Yoga”, similar in appeal to Oriental systems of thought. Yet it is essentially agnostic, naturalistic, and European in character. Though we shall focus on the therapeutic dimension of Stoicism, it does encompass the possibility of certain metaphysical and spiritual themes, which provide the basis for a sophisticated kind of rational mysticism. Indeed, historically Stoicism evolved into the high mysticism of the last great pagan philosophical school, Neoplatonism, which was in turn assimilated into Christianity.

However, Stoicism is also the forgotten ancestor of our own psychotherapeutic tradition.  The modern history of psychotherapy begins in the early Victorian era with the development of hypnotherapy as a medico-psychological treatment, from which Freud subsequently developed psychoanalysis. Yet thousands of years earlier, it was common parlance to refer to philosophy as a “physician of the psyche” and for philosophers to employ therapeutic aims, concepts, techniques, and styles of working. For example, it’s now known that Freud derived his concept of katharsis (psychical “purification”) from a superficial reading of Aristotle. However, as a classical scholar himself, he might have been aware that the word was more commonly used as a technical term to describe the separation of mind from emotional attachment to external, material things. This notion of the need to “separate” and “purify” the subjective (self) from the objective (other), so fundamental to Stoic practice, pre-empts the basic psychoanalytic concept of projection, which both Jung, and later Klein, inferred was among the most fundamental of all Freud’s so-called ‘defence mechanisms.’ 

More recently, existential and cognitive therapies have drawn explicitly upon similar themes from classical philosophy. When existential therapists, following Heidegger, discuss the importance of an “authentic being-toward-death”, e.g., they are perpetuating one of the central methods of ancient philosophical therapy, the melete thanatou or “meditation upon death”, dramatically portrayed in Plato’s dialogues on the last days of Socrates. The “here and now” philosophy of Gestalt therapy is a figure of speech translating the Latin “hic et nunc”, one of the key themes of Stoic psychotherapy: returning awareness to the present moment. Albert Ellis, the founder of REBT, openly acknowledges his debt to Epictetus, the author of the therapeutic Manual of Stoicism; hence many students of REBT are already partially apprised of its connection with Stoic philosophy. The “ABC model” widely used in cognitive therapy is simply another re-iteration of the perennial philosophical notion of philosophical katharsis, i.e., separating out our subjective judgements from the external events to which they give emotive meaning. In this regard, Cognitive therapists repeatedly cite the famous quotation from the Manual of Epictetus: ‘It is not things themselves that disturb people but their judgments about those things.’ (Epictetus, 1995: §5)1

Nowadays thinkers are freely developing personal development systems and eclectic psychotherapeutic techniques which, often unknowingly, re-introduce key concepts and techniques from classical Western philosophy. Indeed, the many ways in which modern therapists are indebted to ancient philosophy would fill a book by themselves. We only offer a few examples of this intellectual debt to emphasise the point that all therapists, for the most part unwittingly, operate in the shadow of a very ancient therapeutic model. We still speak the language and use the methods of an ancient therapeutics, whether we realise it or not. 

The Basic Concepts of Stoicism

The name “Stoic” simply refers to the stoa poekile, the “painted porch” within which Zeno of Citium, the school’s founder, delivered his lectures and training. However, Stoicism has a more descriptive name, it is also called the “Natural Life” or “Following Nature”, and many variations of this phrase are used to describe the basic orientation of the system. The ancient historian of philosophy Diogenes Laertius writes, ‘the end [of Stoicism] turns out to be living in agreement with nature, taken as living in accordance both with one’s own nature and with the nature of the whole [universe]’ (Diogenes Laertius: 1964, VII: 88).3  In this, Diogenes is alluding to the central Stoic distinction between (internal) human nature, and the (external) Nature of the universe.  In fact, this basic ideal was interpreted as applying at three levels, Diogenes could have added, ‘living in accord with the nature of all mankind,’ because the Stoics believed that the individual self can only be understand as one part, or rather a ‘limb’, of the community of all people. Hence, we have a system of coherence at three levels of ‘nature’:

  1.       Self.  Moral integrity, truthfulness, and personal authenticity
  2.       Mankind.  Empathic understanding, social justice, philadelphia (“brotherly love”)
  3.       Universe.  Being at one with life, with the All, with the totality of Nature

The Stoic Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, employs these three tiers of psychological relations in the therapy journal he kept, the famous Meditations, when he writes:  

Your own mind, the Mind of the universe, your neighbour’s mind –be prompt to explore them all.

Your own, so that you may shape it to justice [and authenticity]; the universe’s, that you may recollect what it is you are a part of; your neighbour’s, that you may understand whether it is informed by ignorance or knowledge, and also may recognise that it is kin to your own. (Marcus Aurelius: 1964, 9:22)4

Stoicism, therefore, is essentially a philosophy of being at one (homologoumenos), or in harmony with, the totality of life. As psychotherapy, it equates mental and emotional health with integration or a sense of “oneness” at these three levels of existence. This simple and intuitive threefold classification also provides the basic structure for applying Stoic psychotherapy, the ‘Threefold Rule of Life.’ 

The Threefold Rule of Life

Objective judgement, now, at this very moment [Logic].

Unselfish action, now, at this very moment [Ethics].

Willing acceptance –now, at this very moment– of all external events [Physics].

That’s all you need. (Marcus Aurelius: 2003, 9.6)5

The Stoics divided their philosophy into three branches: Logic, Ethics and Physics. It is important to realise that these words have now changed their meaning; indeed we will substitute “Metaphysics” for “Physics.” Greek philosophy in general also recognised four ‘cardinal virtues’: Truth, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude.  These may correlate with the Threefold Rule, the disciplines of Judgement, Action, and of Fear and Desire, and with what we might term the three ‘Core Qualities’ of Stoicism: ‘Objectivity’, ‘Integrity’, and ‘Acceptance.’  Fortunately, for ham-fisted scholars trying to translate these ideas into plain English, we possess a beautifully concise and poetic expression of the Threefold Rule,

“The Serenity Prayer”


Grant me the Serenity

to accept the things I cannot change;

Courage to change the things I can;

and Wisdom to know the difference.

This is the so-called “Serenity Prayer” of the Twelve Step Programme of Alcoholics Anonymous. Although the earliest records attribute it to the late Victorian era, it is so obviously consistent with Stoic philosophy that it is tempting to speculate whether it originates in a much earlier source. In fact, some writers claim that it is based upon the work of the early medieval philosopher Boethius, author of The Consolations of Philosophy, though I have been unable to verify this. 

This, in a nutshell, is the essence of Stoic philosophy; though precisely because of its simplicity it does not give full expression to the enormous breadth of ideas which that system contains. It expresses one of the most fundamental principles of Stoicism: ‘to know the difference between what depends upon me and what does not.’ The Stoics mean by this precisely the distinction we have made between that which is internal and directly subject to my will, and that which I must accept as external and beyond my immediate control, i.e., wholly, or even partially, contingent upon external events.

What, then, should we have at hand upon [challenging] situations? Why, what else than to know what is mine, and what is not mine, what is within my power, and what is not. (Epictetus: 1995, 1.1.21)1

The Threefold Rule of Life

The previous section considered the Stoicism’s history and its relation to modern psychotherapy and counselling. We explained that the grand maxim of Stoic therapy is ‘To follow Nature.’  The first logical step on this path being to distinguish between our own internal nature, the field of Stoic Ethics, and the external Nature of the universe as a whole, the domain of (Meta-) Physics; Stoic Logic aims to make this distinction objectively. This is the Threefold Rule of Life, the basic psychotherapeutic structure presupposed in classical Stoic literature.  Marcus, e.g., exhorts himself to: “Apply them constantly, to everything that happens: Physics, Ethics, Logic” (Marcus Aurelius: 2003, 8:13) 5  We now proceed to examine each of these therapeutic disciplines in turn.

Logic: The Discipline of Judgement

And progress for a rational mind means not accepting falsehood or uncertainty in its perceptions […]. (Marcus Aurelius: 2003, 8:7)5

We can equate the supreme classical virtue of ‘Truth’ with the core quality which I call ‘Stoic Objectivity’, the ability to separate internal from external nature.  In one sense, the heart of Stoic Logic is ‘know thyself’, the legendary maxim inscribed at the Oracle of Apollo in Delphi. However, such knowledge takes on a special character in Stoicism; true knowledge is seen as precisely this ability to clarify the boundaries of the inner self. That is, to continually distinguish, in the present moment, between internal and external nature, i.e., between mind and matter.  As Epictetus says, ‘And to become educated [trained in philosophy] means just this, to learn what things are our, and what are not.’ (Epictetus: 1995, 4.5.7). We can picture this demarcation as the drawing of an imaginary boundary, a circle around the limits of the true self. Indeed, the Stoics described the perfectly circumscribed mind of the ideal Sage as ‘fencing itself off’, an unassailable ‘inner citadel’, and a ‘sphere in perfect equilibrium.’

The ancients generally defined the psyche in terms of activity, as ‘that which moves itself.’ Hence, for Stoicism, the essence of the self is the autonomous action of our freewill: our intentions, thoughts, and decisions. This is a deeply existential view of the self; man is essentially freewill in action, everything else is extraneous to the self. The attitude we call ‘Stoic Mindfulness’ (prosoche), then, means constant self-awareness of the movements of the mind, assuming full responsibility for our own judgements, actions, fears and desires. 

Mindfulness also entails owning our thoughts, re-owning our projections, and suspending all value-laden or emotive judgements. Our thoughts project meaning and form onto our perceptions, by separating the two we attain Truth and Objectivity.  Moreover, the key therapeutic slogan of Stoic Logic is: ‘It is not things that disturb people but their judgements about things.’ (Epictetus: 1995, §5)1  Hence, John Milton’s Satan boasts, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’ (Milton, :I, 254)6 As Shakespeare’s Hamlet exclaims: ‘There’s nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so!’ (Shakespeare, 1994, Act 2, Scene 2)7 Marcus Aurelius provides many practical examples of this principle in his therapeutic journal: 

[Remember that] this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes [of imperial office] are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. […] Perceptions like that –latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time –all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust– to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them. (Marcus Aurelius: 2003, 6:13)5

[Assent to] nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That –but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick –that I can see. But “that he might die of it,” no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you. (Marcus Aurelius: 2004, 8:49)5

We ascertain the truth when we acknowledge and suspend our own prejudices and let the facts speak for themselves. This technique of stripping things down to their essence, phrased in a few words, is known by scholars as ‘essential analysis.’ Its goal is called ‘objective representation’ (phantasia kataleptike), to this alone the Sage’s judgement assents. 

At a practical level, the Discipline of Judgement was achieved by a variety of therapeutic methods. For instance, sophisticated rhetorical techniques and verbal formulae –i.e., language patterns– were used to reframe perceptions. Visualisation was employed, e.g., in imagining the presence of an ideal Sage, accompanying the student as a mentor and observer. Moreover, the therapy was conducted in three modes which happen to correspond to the main surviving examples of Roman Stoic literature.

Mode Format Example
SolitaryTherapeutic journalThe Meditations of Marcus Aurelius
One-to-oneMentor and studentThe Letters of Seneca to his student
GroupDialectical debateThe dialogues in Epictetus’ Discourses and Manual.

Although the Discipline of Judgement was the logical cornerstone of the whole therapeutic system, practical training began with the two disciplines to which we now turn. 

Ethics: The Discipline of Action

[Follow] your own nature, through your actions. Everything has to do what it was made for. […] Now, the main thing we were made for is to work with others. (Marcus Aurelius, 2003: 7:55)5 

Stoic Integrity means to act at one with one’s own innermost nature and the nature of all mankind. The cardinal virtue of ‘Dikaiosyne’ has a dual meaning, it translates as either ‘personal authenticity’ or ‘social justice.’ Likewise, the Discipline of Action involves taking responsibility for all of our actions and directing them toward the solitary goal of reconciling personal moral integrity with love for all mankind.  Our sense of identity determines self-interest and therefore Ethics, because ‘wherever “I” and “mine” are placed, to there the creature inevitably inclines.’ (Epictetus: 1995, 2.22.18)1 For the Sage, therefore, there is no conflict between self-interest and social-interest because he identifies his own nature with the nature of all mankind. This sense of existential kinship is exercised by deliberately practising ‘brotherly love’ (philadelphia) and ‘exploring the minds of others.’ The striking parallel with the core counselling qualities of ‘congruence’, ‘unconditional positive regard’, and ’empathic understanding’ espoused by Carl Rogers will be obvious to any counsellor.  Motivation comes by making an affirmation of the first principle of Stoic moral psychology: ‘The good man is always happy.’ They distinguish sharply between sensory ‘pleasure’ (hedone) which is superficial insofar as it depends upon external factors, and ‘happiness’ (eudaimonia) which comes purely from doing the right thing, i.e., Integrity.  

Your integrity is your own; who can take it from you? Who but yourself will prevent you from using it? When you are eager for what is not your own, you lose that very thing. (Epictetus: 1995, 1.25.3)1

Epictetus elaborates, ‘nothing is of concern to us except our volition.’ The Sage, therefore, renounces attachment to material possessions and invests happiness solely in what is always within his grasp, moral integrity.  However, the Stoics recognised this was an idealistic vision. For practical purposes they distinguish between the absolute value of internal acts and the relative value of external goods. For example, physical health is considered a natural thing to desire and worth having, however, its value is secondary and derivative. That is, physical health is worth having only insofar as it contributes to moral integrity. Yet the Stoics believed that in extreme circumstances even death could be a rational choice. The archetypal example being Socrates, who famously accepted forced suicide rather than accept the trumped-up charges made against him in court – choosing Stoic Integrity over life. This solitary existential decision made him a legendary martyr, and effectively guaranteed philosophy a place at the heart of Western civilisation for posterity.

Some of the Stoics’ ethical views may seem challenging, even radical. However, their “Ethics” was not about moralising, in the modern sense, but something more akin to a system of personal development. Classical philosophy in general predicated its ethics on a notion of enlightened self-interest, which aims for a state of personal fulfilment and happiness. Hence, Aristotle refers to ethics as ethike arete, the science of ‘character excellence.’ Our moral character (ethos) is constituted by the principles of action which we develop into habits.

[Philosophy is] doing what human nature requires. […] Through first principles. Which should govern your intentions and your actions.’ (Marcus Aurelius: 2003, 8:1)5 

The process of ‘essential analysis’ central to Stoic Logic also creates the pithy slogans typical of their Ethics, e.g., “Seize the day”, “Indifference to indifferent things”, etc.  Contemplation, repetition, and memorisation of such principles of action (dogmata) was a key psychotherapeutic technique, as can be seen from the journal of Marcus Aurelius. Hence, these statements were used as autosuggestions, or affirmations, composing a ‘principle-centred’ and inherently therapeutic Ethics.

Metaphysics: The Discipline of Fear & Desire

Reasonable nature is indeed following its proper path if […] it has desire and aversion only for that which depends on us; while it joyfully greets all that which is granted to it by universal Nature. (Marcus Aurelius: 2003, 8:7)5 

Stoic Acceptance means living at one with the external Nature of the universe. The cardinal virtue of ‘Temperance’ means mastering our desire for sensory pleasure, that of ‘Fortitude’ the conquest of our fear of pain and death. Hence, this discipline is about controlling pathos, or emotion. The Stoics believed that both fear (or emotional ‘aversion’) and desire result from excessive emotional attachment; the attitude of the Sage toward external things, therefore, is one of serene non-attachment. The primal and underlying fear which the Stoic seeks to conquer is that of death. ‘The breast from which you have banished the dread of death’, counsels Seneca, ‘no fear will dare to enter.’ (Seneca: 1997, 19)8. Contemplating the transience of life was a standard therapeutic technique of classical philosophy in general.  Indeed, Socrates famously insisted that all philosophy is preparation for death. In the wake of military victory, ancient Roman generals were followed by assistants whispering “memento mori” in their ears: “Remember you must die!” (cf. Discourses 3.24.84-8). Traditionally, many clocks and watches carried Latin inscriptions meant for the same purpose, typically the tempus fugit (‘time flies’), of the Roman poets.

This philosophical theme spawned a vast genre of the same name in the history of art. Examples of memento mori are countless, from the human skulls and wilting flowers of classical Vanitas painting to the animal cadavers of Damien Hirst, all confront us with coolly dispassionate reminders of our own mortality. That most iconic of all Shakespearean images, black-clad Hamlet contemplating the skull of his jester Yorick, affectionately parodies the philosophical practice of meditation on death. The practice of non-attachment and conquering death-anxiety is basically the application of Metaphysics. The original Stoic Metaphysics was wedded to pagan theology, however, belief in God is not essential to Stoicism. As a system of psychotherapy it stands apart from any particular religion or set of spiritual beliefs, and is easily adapted to modern agnostic or even atheistic perspectives. Nevertheless, the early Stoics were mainly pantheists who believed that the totality of the physical universe is simply the Body of God, and the object of His eternal meditation. The aim of their mysticism is simply union with the Mind of God (‘the One’). Hence, it was natural for them, like many earlier philosophers, to infer that by visualising the universe (‘the All’) they attained a Godlike point-of-view. From this God’s-eye perspective, the key concepts of Stoic Metaphysics became more apparent; namely, the unity, transience, and interdependence of all material things. 

The world as a living being –one nature, one soul. Keep that in mind. And how everything feeds into that single experience, moves with a single motion. And how everything helps produce everything else. Spun and woven together. […] Time is a river, a violent current of events, glimpsed once and already carried past us, and another follows and is gone. (Marcus Aurelius: 2003, 4:40-43)5 

For the Stoic, the universe viewed in its entirety is objective reality. Our normal, embodied and earthbound perspective necessarily distorts reality because it is confined to a tiny corner of the universe. Hence, ‘the All is One’, and the totality is the only authentic reality.

Modern scholars call this meditation exercise the ‘View from Above’, and variations of it abound in ancient literature. Sometimes it entails contemplation of the entire universe as though contained in a sphere. Typically though, philosophers attempted to visualise the Earth seen from outer space, a technique which created profound emotional detachment and tranquillity.  Support for this ancient therapeutic intuition comes from the numerous observations of astronauts, who describe the actual experience of seeing the world from space in remarkably similar terms. General Thomas Stafford, commander of the NASA Apollo 10 project, reports:

[From space] you have an almost dispassionate platform -remote, Olympian- and yet [seeing the Earth from up there is] so moving that you can hardly believe how emotionally attached you are to those rough patterns shifting steadily below. (Kevin W. Kelley (ed.), 1988)9 

Marcus Aurelius writes of the ideal Stoic attitude in identical terms: ‘To be free of passion and yet full of love.’ (Marcus Aurelius, 7.9)5 Coincidentally, this meditation exercise may well have evolved out of attempts to visualise the same perspective, of Zeus looking down from Mount Olympus, that General Stafford metaphorically alludes to.  This attitude of serene affection is the goal of the Discipline of Fear and Desire. It is for this reason that Stoicism viewed the practice of pre-scientific, or ‘phenomenological’ physics as a therapy of ‘fear and desire’ in its own right.


[After training in Freudian analysis] I gradually turned more and more to accumulated wisdom in the fields of philosophy. After all, philosophers have been thinking of some of the same issues that we have for the past 2,000 years and I’ve drawn a lot from philosophical insights. (Dr. Irvin Yalom, interviewed in the CPJ, July 2004: 8)

Why does this philosophy stuff matter so much to so many therapists and counsellors?  First, many people simply prefer the stylistic beauty and philosophical depth of classical literature over modern alternatives. Stoicism has demonstrated a perennial appeal enduring more than two millennia. For example, former US President Bill Clinton recently named the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as his most treasured read. 

Second, many therapists feel the need for a broader philosophical framework. Psychoanalysis, perhaps Marxism, and to some degree religions such as Buddhism and Christianity offer an established ideological basis for therapy practice. Stoicism, on the other hand, offers a viable philosophy of psychotherapy which is not inherently wedded to religious or political dogmas. Ironically, in relation to modern, brief psychotherapy Stoic philosophy proves significantly more relevant than traditional Freudian theory.

Third, the Stoic system contains basic therapeutic principles and techniques not found in modern therapy, which are still relevant and applicable today. Indeed, we have only scraped the surface of Stoic psychotherapy in this article. In particular there are a number of rhetorical strategies and therapeutic interventions –visualisation techniques, etc.– which are not discussed here but which we have found of considerable use in working with clients and workshop participants.  Hence, we would encourage those with an interest in this area to research the primary texts themselves. There is still a great deal to be learned from the ancient forebears of psychotherapy. 


1 Epictetus The discourses, the handbook, fragments. London: Everyman, 1995.

2 Oxford University Press The Oxford Dictionary of Current English. Oxford: OUP, 1992.

3 Laertius, Diogenes Lives of the philosophers. H.S. Long (ed.) Oxford: OUP, 1964.

4 Aurelius, Marcus Meditations. London: Penguin, 1964.

5 Aurelius, Marcus Meditations: living, dying and the good life. London: Phoenix, 2003.

6 Milton, John Paradise Lost. Oxford: OUP, 2004.

7 Shakespeare, William Hamlet. London: Penguin:, 1994.

8 Seneca, Lucius Annaeus Consolation to Helvia, in Dialogues and letters. London: Penguin, 1997.

9 Kevin W. Kelley (ed.) The Home Planet. Boston: Addison-Wesley 1988


CBT Philosophy of CBT

Introducing The Philosophy of CBT (Karnac Blog)

Stoic Philosophy as Rational & Cognitive Psychotherapy

Philosophy of CBT Cover 2nd Edition

Blog article for Karnac.  Copyright © Donald Robertson, 2010.  All rights reserved.  This article includes adapted material from The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy.

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.

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

The Philosophy of CBT, now in its second revised edition, is available from Routledge, and all good booksellers.