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Ancient Greek Therapy Looks Very Modern

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As anyone familiar with the history of information technology knows only too well, the attrition rate of obsolete technology is ruthless and rapid. Similarly, psychology practitioners have been as quick to embrace the latest findings from modern neuroscience as the zeitgeist of the founding fathers, Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, and William James loses relevance and falls into obscurity.

In the mid-1950s, psychoanalyst Albert Ellis started to doubt the effectiveness of the prevailing Freudian view that mental health problems were due to past repression.

Ellis decided to focus on the present rather than the past and turned Freud’s timeline on its head, concluding that it was negative thought patterns that lead to emotional problems and that helping to manage thinking more effectively leads to the alleviation of emotional disturbance.

This was formally developed as rational psychotherapy and later as rational emotive behaviour therapy. It was many years later that the better-known cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) was developed by Aaron Beck, building on the work of Ellis, and which tended to focus more on cognitive distortions. But the foundations of these therapies preceded both Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck. 


Go back 2,500 years and the conceptual foundations of REBT/CBT were to be found in the philosophy of Ancient Greek and Roman Stoics. They lived in tumultuous times, and the challenge for philosophy was how to cope, become more imperturbable, and achieve a degree of calm in a world of continual flux. 

Epictetus, a slave who gained his freedom and became a Stoic tutor, provides some key insights. Some things are up to us, and others are not. By focusing on what is in our control we can direct our efforts accordingly. We need to accept that the world is what it is. The Stoics recognised that we can shed a considerable degree of anxiety by recognising the world is what it is, not what we want it to be, and that if we are being realistic, our external world isn’t something we can change very much

The main Stoic goal was to live happily as one could, and to do this we had to live in accord with the nature of the cosmos and to accept our place in it. The Stoics used logic as a guide to what is important.

Virtues such as courage, justice, prudence and other examples of practical wisdom are all good and contribute to a life well-lived. The opposites – vices – provide lessons in how we should not behave. However, there are also some things – such as reputation, health, and wealth – to which we should be indifferent. A rich person can squander money or be philanthropic, so it’s how we use it that matters. 

The Stoics knew emotions such as anger destabilised the mind. As does lust. And jealousy. And guilt. So, if emotions were not to fuel negative behaviour we would later regret, they had to be controlled: emotions were regarded as proto-passions, and although we cannot prevent them spontaneously appearing, we can recognise their onset, such as anger brewing, and recognise the potential that that has for adversely influencing how we react. As the Stoic Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius (121–180 CE) observed: ‘How much more grievous are the consequences of anger than the causes of it.’ Seneca (4–65 CE), tutor to the emperor Nero, was a notable Stoic philosopher (as well as a playwright and an early venture capitalist, making him the second richest Roman, after Crassus) wrote a detailed essay on the consequences of anger: De Ira (On Anger).  Seneca also wrote 124 letters on Stoic ethics: Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium, (Letters to Lucilius).  These works may be found online in Wikisource.

It’s often assumed that Stoicism is all about repressing emotions and that being Stoic means behaving like the TV/film character in Star Trek, Mr Spock: totally devoid of emotion. But this is a misperception: Stoicism was not about suppressing emotion, but using logic and practical wisdom as a powerful force for ensuring emotions didn’t control us, and in so doing, we can achieve equanimity independently of external circumstances and the vagaries of life.

The most influential Stoic, however, is undoubtedly the Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius. During his later life, he wrote down his thoughts in a private journalMeditations. Although this was a personal journal, and apparently never intended to be published, but remains widely read today, and a great many of his observations have become widely adopted. Two are particularly central to any talking therapy: 

You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realise this, and you will find strength,’ and ‘Very little is needed for a happy life: it is within you, in your way of thinking.’

He reminds us that as we will regularly encounter difficult people, so we need to be alert: ‘When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: the people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil.’

His Stoicism is, for me, encapsulated in this observation: ‘If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.’

Both Ellis and Beck acknowledge the foundations of Stoicism. REBT recognises that people construct their own persona and irrational beliefs trigger negative emotions, and if not addressed, they have the potential to undermine the quality of life.

Similarly, healthy emotions can motivate, in contrast to unhealthy emotions which can be debilitating. Regret can, in a positive frame of mind, lead us to change our behaviour and learn from past mistakes; guilt and shame, however, can lead to stagnation and paralysis for fear of repeating mistakes. Mindset is clearly instrumental in guiding behaviour: there are more than enough challenges in life without exacerbating suffering by allowing pain and loss to lead us towards self-defeat and irrational responses. Those who have been abused can choose to maintain hate, or they choose to move on and not to remain a victim. 

Given their conceptual roots, it is not surprising that at the heart of their therapeutic interventions, it is not events that affect us, but rather our feelings and behaviour are predicated on our thinking patterns, and it is these which determine beliefs and attitudes. 

Whatever the world throws at us, we can always choose how to react. And that is timeless advice.

*** Image credit: Freepik

John Castleford is a psychotherapist based in Ireland. John specialises in helping those who have suffered due to toxic relationships. He tweets @MentalHealthier

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