The Stoic Thought in Practice

Experiencing anxiety, confusion and indecision is a lot more prone to youth than it was ever before. With mental illness on the rise, searching for a solution seems to become a lot more hazier these days. Perhaps an interesting possible remedy that is not often examined is to traverse a philosophical avenue.

Not often are people able to find a place to actively and explicitly practice certain principles of philosophy in a particular field of study. Stoicism, however, has found itself acting as a framework for having developed new therapeutic practices in the past few decades.

Epictetus, writer of the “Enchiridion”, which acted essentially as the handbook for Stoic thought has influenced the conception of a therapeutic method to deal with particular situations where the individual experiences a feeling of cognitive dissonance or confusion with one’s irrational feelings.

The popular thought of the Stoics which inspired this practice was the notion that people should care about the things they can control, while dismissing the things they cannot. It is the first principles which are established in the Enchiridion in its first few lines that reads:

We are responsible for some things, while there are others for which we cannot be held responsible. The former include our judgement, our impulse, our desire, aversion and our mental faculties in general; the latter include the body, material possessions, our reputation, status, in a word, anything not in our power to control. (Epictetus 221)

This distinction is vital in the Stoic thought, acting as the cornerstone that works to categorize its followers’ perception of the world. Other concepts that were also included in Stoic thought were how one must think when reacting towards situations (particularly with our emotions), while also conveying the sentiment of detaching oneself from extreme feelings and desires.

These ideas eventually influenced American psychologist Albert Ellis who was one of the first that invented a form of cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), one specifically known as Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy (REBT) in 1955. This form of therapy is best defined in an article by Psychology Today that writes “[REBT is] a short-term form of psychotherapy that helps you identify self-defeating thoughts and feelings, challenge the rationality of those feelings, and replace them with healthier, more productive beliefs” (“Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.”).

REBT was then elevated into another form giving way to is known as Logic-Based Therapy (LBT) which was developed further to emphasize its philosophical procedure by psychologist Ellen D. Cohen in the mid-1980s.

In LBT, the main objective is to construct practical syllogisms or rational antidotes as to how one feels towards a certain situation. Once this construction is complete, the individual must then identify what is known as cardinal fallacies, emotional errors in thinking or values, that need to be refuted, along with a guiding virtue that would offset that fallacy to allow one to live more happily. A plan of action and/or philosophy is then formulated which promotes their guiding virtue and is then placed into practice.

These specific cardinal fallacies along with their corresponding guiding virtues in LBT are listed in the chart below.

These specific cardinal fallacies along with their corresponding guiding virtues in LBT are listed in the chart below.Cardinal FallaciesGuiding VirtuesDemanding perfectionMetaphysical security (security about reality)AwfulizingCourage (in the face of evil)Damnation (of self, others, and the universe)Respect (for self, others, and the universe)Jumping on the bandwagonAuthenticity (being your own person)Can’tstipationTemperance (self-control)Thou shalt upset yourselfMoral creativity (in confronting resolving moral problems)ManipulationEmpowerment (of others)The world revolves around meEmpathy (connecting with others)Oversimplifying realityGood judgment (in making objective, unbiased discernments in practical affairs)Distorting probabilitiesForesightedness (in assessing probabilities)Blind ConjectureScientificity (in providing explanations)

The philosophical foundation which was laid out in its original form REBT has found to have produced effective results. Author Jules Evans personally interviewed Albert Ellis who invented cognitive behaviour therapy to investigate its roots in Stoic philosophy.

In the article “Anxious? Depressed? Try Greek philosophy”, Evans had claimed to undergo a drastic transformation when he had first partook in cognitive behaviour therapy for his depression, social anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder. He then goes on to break down many of the ideas in Stoic thought, ideas such as how one should focus on the present moment, how active habits are what makes us who we are, how one should contemplate more within the universe, etc.

The emphasis on a practice of life habits was a specific similarity Evans pointed out between the processes of the Stoic philosophers and individuals undergoing CBT. Stoics of their time had to carry their own personal enchiridia which recorded certain practices and beliefs so they would not forget. Similarly, individuals undergoing CBT would have audio courses that helped them practice certain healthy habits.

For Evans himself, he explains by incorporating principles of Stoic philosophy, he was able to diagnose and act on his understanding of his life situation:

Epictetus suggested that emotional problems arise when we try to exert complete control over something external. When I had social anxiety, for example, I rested all my self-esteem on others’ judgments of me. This made me feel very helpless, anxious and paranoid. The antidote to this self-enslavement was to stop trying to manage others’ opinion of me (which is impossible), and instead to focus on controlling my own thoughts and beliefs (which is possible). Then I immediately felt stronger and more in control, and eventually people started responding to me differently. (Evans)

While I have focused a lot on the ins and outs of how the Stoic thought came to be in psychology, these methods can have its limitations. Particularly, LBT can be limited due to its de-emphasized importance on physiological states and its dependence on one’s intellectual ability.

However, it is not to say philosophy does not have its place in therapeutic practice. If you still have any interest in the strong ties between philosophy and therapy, “The Be Wedding of Philosophical and Psychological Practices” by Ellen D. Cohen draws the connections as to the importance of uniting these fields of study.

(Written by Victor A. Khuong / Image Source)

Further Readings:

“The Stoic: 9 Principles to Help You Keep Calm in Chaos” : http://99u.com/articles/24401/a-makers-guidebook-9-stoic-principles-to-nurture-your-life-and-work

Cohen, Ellen D. “Philosophy with Teeth: The Be Wedding of Philosophical and Psychological Practices.” International Journal of Philosophical Practice, vol. 2, no. 2, 2004, pp. 1-12.

Cohen, Elliot D. “Metaphysics of Logic-based Therapy”

References:

Cohen, Elliot D. “Conquer Your Anxiety with Philosophy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 18 June 2010, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-would-aristotle-do/201006/conquer-your-anxiety-philosophy.

Cohen, Elliot D. “Logic-Based Therapy to Go.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 19 Mar. 2014, http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/what-would-aristotle-do/201403/logic-based-therapy-go.

Epictetus, and Robert F. Dobbin. Discourses and Selected Writings. Penguin, 2008.

Evans, Jules. “Anxious? Depressed? Try Greek Philosophy.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 29 June 2013, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/lifestyle/wellbeing/10146546/Anxious-Depressed-Try-Greek-philosophy.html.

“Logic-Based Therapy.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 25 Nov. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logic-based_therapy#Criticisms_and_limitations.

“Philosophical Counseling.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Jan. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Philosophical_counseling.

“Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, http://www.psychologytoday.com/therapy-types/rational-emotive-behavior-therapy.

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