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Psychotherapy & Counselling – A Stoic Perspective

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Psychotherapy is often seen as a relatively new discipline dating from the late nineteenth century.  Freud, whose popularity seems to wax and wane, died less than eighty years ago and other dominant figures in early psychotherapy such as Jung and Klein also belong very much in in the twentieth century.  The development of psychotherapy and counselling has continued apace with the emergence of different modalities such as Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT), Existential Therapy, Personal Centred Therapy and Brief Solution Focused Therapy (BSFT). Additional approaches such as Dialectical Behavioural Therapy are of more recent vintage and the psychotherapy world has also in recent years heavily bought into concepts such as Mindfulness.

Yet the assertion that these variants are imaginative new ideas in the world of therapy does not always survive close scrutiny. I have remarked before on the similarity between psychotherapy and some aspects of management philosophy.  In both disciplines, there is a tendency to claim a slight variation on an existing theme as a radical innovation. In truth the adage of old wine in new bottles is probably a more apt descriptor.

Some of the basic tenets of therapy go back far beyond the nineteenth century to a distant age.  Glimpses of Freud’s study in his apartment in Berggasse in Vienna and then at Maresfield Gardens, London, shows an interesting collection of artefacts from the ancient world. Whether Freud acquired these for decoration or inspiration is not clear. Nevertheless certain schools of thought from classical times have indirectly at least contributed to the development of some of the newer therapies. One classical movement with a strong impact is the Stoic school.

The Stoics and in particular the philosopher Epictetus have cast a long shadow which extends across to much contemporary cognitive thought. Epictetus, a Greek, who lived from circa AD 55 to AD 135, is well known through a collection of sayings, the influence of which extend beyond philosophy to the basic tenets of current CBT.

Epictetus asserts that a building block of philosophy is a strong sense of self knowledge. This theme is developed in his main works The Discourses and The Enchiridon. Epictetus recognises the importance in self-development of maintaining a strong critical awareness.   In particular his much quoted comment that …….’Men are disturbed not by things but by the view they take of them’ …..,  neatly encapsulates certain basic tenets of CBT.  There may be similar influences emanating from his comment that ……’There is nothing good or evil save in the will…..’

The proposition that the meaning we give to events, behaviours, comments or ideas, comes from within ourselves rather than from some essence of the object itself, could have emerged from  text books of the more directive therapies. Epictetus is suggesting that for each of us, the world is how we decide to see it.  It can be viewed in vibrant exciting shades or alternatively dull and sombre tones.  The choice is ours.

Of course this approach can be challenged. The loss of a loved one and perhaps the ultimate tragedy of the death of a young child, stands apart as an undoubted tragedy. That there will be shock, tears and great sorrow is clear but Epictetus encourages us to think beyond the actual tragedy and to consider how we will then respond to that event and how we will decide to go forward. 

Whether the child’s room is turned into a shrine which must be preserved; or whether sorrow is channelled into the forming of a charitable trust to benefit others, will be decisions which individuals will make.  Those decisions will have an impact on the emotional future of all those concerned.  What is clearly important for Epictetus is how we look at what has occurred and how we decide to construct our future reality.

In addition to the CBT influence perhaps one can also see Epictetus in thoughtful discussion with existential thinkers such as Sartre, Frankel and Yalom.  There is a reflection of the existential in that option for personal choice. What we do and how we do it can be seen as our decision alone; and this will extend to the way in which we decide to view the world and our place in it.

And what of those many sayings of Epictetus?  These are certainly thought provoking. I am always reminded of the many quotes contained in the writings produced almost two thousand years later by George Bernard Shaw.  On reflection I probably hold a similar mental picture of both men. Given that Shaw had a great wit, perhaps that suggests Epictetus had a greater sense of humour than would be expected from a rather dour Stoic.

As far as those sayings are concerned. I will leave you with two particular quotations, each attributed to Epictetus and both of which resonate for me. You will of course want to decide for yourself how to interpret each saying – and that is exactly how Epictetus would expect it to be!  Those quotes are;

We should not moor a ship with one anchor or our life with one hope;


Is freedom anything else than the right to live as we wish. Nothing else.




Geoff Boutle

added on 17th October 2012

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