“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” — Epictetus, 1st Century Stoic philosopher
“People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.” — Albert Ellis, 20th Century psychologist
When you make the decision to seek counseling or therapy, you are in part making the decision to consult an applied philosopher — your therapist just may not know it! Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is one of the most well-known treatment models for issues such as anxiety, depression, and substance abuse — you’d be hard-pressed to find a psychotherapist who does not use any aspect of CBT in his or her practice, but CBT is also deeply indebted to the Stoic philosophers of ancient Greece.
The purpose of this article will be to explore the relationship between stoicism and CBT.
Stoicism in Ancient Greece
Stoicism is a school of philosophy that rose to promince in Greece during the 3rd Century B.C. There were no psychologists, psychiatrists, or therapists at this time; philosophers, instead, were the “physicians of the soul.” It was philosophy alone that provided the Greeks with guidance, and Stoicism was a particularly useful tool for self-improvement.
Stoicism arose during the Hellenistic period — the time after Alexander the Great and before the rise of the Roman Empire. Stoicism, like all philosophies, was a method of understanding the world. Stoics believed that truth was rooted in natural law, and that aligning one’s thoughts and expectations with natural order would promote mental well-being and protect against damaging emotions. They believed that beliefs contrary to nature laws would lead to suffering.
During this time, philosophy was accessible to all social classes, and was more important than ever in the daily lives of average citizens. More than wisdom for abstract purposes, Stoicism was practical, applicable, and effective — so much so that a number of its core concepts are still in use today.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy in Modern Times
Fast-forward a couple thousand years. Psychologist Albert Ellis has just set forth the first cognitive-behavioral therapy, Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy (REBT), in which he proposed that emotional and behavioral problems could be relieved through a process of cognitive restructuring, or the changing of faulty thoughts and beliefs. This treatment model represented a major shift from the dominant treatment model of the day, Freudian psychoanalysis, which emphasized the bringing forward of subconscious thoughts as a way of changing behaviors.
Where did Ellis get his ideas? Epictetus, the Stoic philosopher, was perhaps his biggest source of inspiration. Ellis drew on Epictetus’ notion that our interpretations of events have a greater impact on us that the events themselves. The more unrealistic — or out of line with nature — our interpretations are, the more we suffer when our expectations aren’t met. Conversely, when our beliefs and expectations align with nature, we will be well-adjusted to life.
In the 1960s, another psychologist, Aaron Beck, identified fifteen specific ways in which our beliefs can drift away from reality and cause depression, anxiety, and other difficulties. He called these cognitive distortions, and he, too, believed that re-aligning one’s cognition with reality would reduce suffering. His work was similarly built on the framework of the Stoic philosophers.
What do Stoicism and Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy have in common?
Stoicism and CBT overlap in several important ways. We will now look at three tenets of Stoicism that have formed the framework of cognitive-behavioral therapy: logic, acceptance, and control.
Stoics believed that the mind functions as an intermediary between our impressions and actions. A wise mind, they said, could successfully differentiate between accurate and faulty impressions through the use of logic. True impressions were based in observable laws of nature, and they were to be assimilated into one’s worldview and acted upon. False impressions had no natural basis, and would lead to destructive emotions if not discarded.
So logic is rooted in natural law, and negative emotions occur when our beliefs about natural law are false. These could be beliefs about the physical world, or beliefs about human nature. A stoic understood that emotional suffering occurs when expectations do not align with reality — when our expectations and interpretations are illogical.
Instead of trying to change nature — a fruitless effort — a stoic would realign his or her thoughts to more accurately reflect nature. Reducing the discrepancy between expectations and reality meant reducing one’s suffering, as suffering was the result of this discrepancy.
Stoics believed all of nature was to be accepted, even its more tragic elements — death, loss, pain, misfortune, etc. These things are naturally occurring, and therefore part of the natural law. Equally accepting our strengths and limitations, along with the beauties and horrors of the world, would lead to a balanced, well-adjusted life.
Stoics were skeptical of overly optimistic or pessimistic judgments — after all, nature isn’t all good, or all bad. We are all recipients of good and bad fortune. So Stoics strived to live in the present moment and nonjudgmentally accept their circumstance without forming rigid expectations about what was to come.
Critics of Stoicism have accused its practitioners of being too passive — too willing to simply accept the unacceptable. However, Stoics paid great attention to locus of control. They believed in taking action when outcomes were within our control, and mindfully accepting the things that were not.
Stoics recognized that we don’t have complete control over external circumstances– our reputations, or the way people treat us, for example. But we do have control over our own thoughts and beliefs. They believed we should concentrate our energy into these things we truly can control, and that doing so would give us the best opportunity to influence the world around us for the better.
It was through acting ethically that Stoics believed each individual could do his or her part combat the injustices of the world. Everything else, they said, was outside our control, and the best we can do is accept it.
These three things — using logical thought to identify unrealistic beliefs, accepting our circumstances, and making the distinction between the things we can and cannot control, are core tenets of cognitive-behavioral therapy. These can be seen in Aaron Beck’s original list of cognitive distortions: catastrophizing, all-or-nothing thinking, or magnification and minimization are all faults of logic that can lead to destructive emotions; jumping to conclusions, mind reading, and fortune telling are examples of failure to accept that which we do not know; personalization and overgeneralization are mistakes of locus of control.
A difference of scope
Despite the similarities outlined above, Stoicism and cognitive-behavioral therapy do diverge in significant ways. The most significant difference is perhaps one of scope. Many Stoics, including Epictetus, ascribed to fatalism. They believed that our fates were out of our control, and that the best we could do was dispassionately accept whatever our fates may be.
Today, fatalism is most often viewed within a religious context. For ancient Greeks, the bounds of religion were a bit blurrier than they are today, and many philosophies incorporated some ideas about the workings of the universe that we now would consider to be religious in nature. Congitive-Behavioral Therapy has a more limited scope, and does not posit any hypotheses about the greater workings of the universe. CBT is merely a therapeutic tool, though a powerful one.*
*Speaking of scope, there are also a number of core Stoic beliefs, and branches of Stoic thought, that are outside the scope of this article (a good primer on Stoicism can be found here).
Is Therapy a Philosophical Pursuit?
There can be little doubt that the role of the CBT therapist in modern society has similarities with the role of a Stoic philosopher in ancient Greece, and it can be helpful to consider the debt modern psychotherapy owes to this ancient tradition.
When we remember the ancient Greeks, the famous philosophers of the era come quickly to mind. This is in part due to the emphasis the Greeks put on the understanding of the world and our place within it. Ancient philosophers, and Stoics in particular, believed that understanding the human mind was not only a pursuit to be undertaken for its own merits, but was crucial to living successfully in the world.
When one make the decision to engage in psychotherapy, particularly cognitive-behavioral therapy, he or she is taking part in an ancient tradition. The value the ancient Greeks put on the understanding of the mind, mental wellness, and the harmony between the mind and the natural world, cannot be overstated. Therapy is a powerful tool for understanding and change, and has been for thousands of years.
Understanding the lineage from ancient Stoicism to modern cognitive-behavioral therapy makes the American stigma about mental health treatment all the more unfortunate when one considers how much our culture continues to celebrate our debt to ancient Greek advancements in countless other ways. Stoicism has been embraced by mainstream society more and more lately, including,of all places, the NFL. Increasing public awareness of the influence Stoicism has had on modern psychotherapy could help to reduce the stigma of mental health treatment.
- Beck, Aaron T. (1972). Depression; Causes and Treatment. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
- Ellis, Albert; Debbie Joffe Ellis (2011). Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy. American Psychological Association.
- Epictetus; Long, George (trans.) Enchiridion. New York: A. L. Burt, 1955 (reprint: New York: Dover, 2004)
- Robertson, Donald. (2010). The Philosophy of Cognitive-behavioural Therapy (CBT): Stoic Philosophy as Rational and Cognitive Psychotherapy. Karnac Books.
- Photograph licensed under Creative Commons zero.