Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

I'm reading a book by Donald Robertson regarding Stoicism and CBT, which I find quite interesting.

I should first note that I have, somehow, been ignorant of CBT, though it seems to have been around in one form or another for more than 100 years.  This is somewhat daunting.  What I don't know is sometimes astonishing.  I remind myself that Socrates felt this way as well, and feel better.  But I can't help but think I should have been aware of its existence.  It seems quite a few good things were going on in philosophy and psychology at the end of the 19th and during the the early 20th century, in addition to pragmatism.  I wonder if, and to what extent, James and Dewey were aware of this therapeutic form of psychology.

Perhaps CBT's association with hypnosis and autosuggestion gave me pause; I've always been leery of such approaches.  But it has apparently distanced itself from them to some extent, and I may have been misinformed about them or misunderstood them as well.

Even more surprising, in a way, is that the founders of CBT were aware of its debt to Stoicism and expressly called attention to its similarities to Stoicism as a guide to how to live in their written works.   Generally, we tend to downplay the extent to which we have been inspired by others, particularly the ancients, particularly when it comes to the sciences.  But it appears that Stoicism's emphasis on distinguishing things outside our control from those in our control, and its claim that we are disturbed not by things which happen, but by what we think of them, are among the central tenants of CBT.  Also significant to the therapy is Stoicism's insistence that we may discipline ourselves to control what we think and how we feel.

Perhaps Stoicism has not generally been viewed as a form of therapy in the past.  The understanding that Stoicism and other ancient Greek schools of thought recommended spiritual or psychological exercises as a practice in attaining happiness and tranquility seems to be a relatively recent development, the result of the efforts of Pierre Hadot and others. 

Even more impressive (to me at least) is that it appears CBT may be, and has been, subjected to empirical methods of assessment and evaluation.  In other words, the results of CBT can be measured with a certain degree of objectivity, and in fact have been found to be successful in the treatment of certain disorders.  This distinguishes it from psychoanalysis it seems, which is something I find delightful as I've always thought Freud and Jung and their followers to be fundamentally misguided and even warped in their view of humanity. 

CBT also appeals to me because it (like Stoicism) indicates and maintains that we may at least to a certain extent control and cure ourselves, and attain happiness through our own efforts through discipline and the use of our reason.  This is an optimistic view in contrast with those views we encounter far too often these days, which reduce us to helpless victims or slavish denizens of our environment or our genes or society and culture.

Finally, I'm surprised once more that the ancients were so insightful regarding humanity and its nature, and disappointed that we have after thousands of years achieved no more when it comes to determining how best to live, and have in fact even disregarded ancient wisdom which has always been available to us. 

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