The reason it survived two millennia.
As a psychologist, my favourite philosophy is Stoicism.
A lot of other philosophies can be interesting to muse over. Like pointing out clusters of stars, and wondering what shape they form. Beyond intellectual fancy, though, -isms rarely strengthen us.
Stoicism is practical and it works.
Philosophy can get so caught up in whether or not God’s dead, it forgets that most of the time we can’t spare a thought for metaphysics because we’re busy being a human — which is to say, a mess.
Stoicism never forgot.
In this story, we’re going to look at how Stoicism shaped psychology — and helped keep your modern mind healthy in the process.
Where does Stoicism come from?
Stoicism earned its name from stoa, or porch — upon which its followers met and debated in public. As we would expect of any Ancient Greek intellectual gift, it came out of Athens.
The same city that gave us Socrates (470 BC.), Plato (427 BC.), and Artistotle (384 BC.) decided a hat trick of philosophical greats just wasn’t enough. So it trained up Zino of Citium.
Why always Athens? It’s been compared to the Silicon Valley of today.
As the de facto leader of an alliance against Persian invasion, Athens had wealth, and political clout. The city invested heavily into its public services, had a strong sense of democratic citizenship, and welcomed travellers — and their ideas — from all over the world. Enter Zino, of Citium: modern-day Cyprus.
Zino was the founder of Stoicism and a pretty weird guy, which is standard for the city. None of his original work has survived. We only know he’s Stoic №1 via later references by his followers.
He preached the importance of self-discipline and apatheia — freedom from physical passions, temptations, and being led by temporary emotions. This bears remarkable similarities to Buddhism.
Zino probably would have liked dopamine fasts.
Stoicism’s three most famous subsequent practitioners were all Roman: Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher-emperor. For these three, their work still exists and can be read today.
The emperor’s diary or notes-to-self, Meditations, is the closest thing Stoicism has to a surviving Bible.
It was also a self-help CBT session — before it was cool. We’ll see why soon.
How does Stoicism link to psychology?
“Men are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.” -Epictetus, 135 AD
Albert Ellis, in the 1950s, was a psychologist with a vision. His vision was simple: make therapy tackle the present, not the past. He suggested that mental illness emerges from distortions in your thoughts, and disruption to your behaviour. How we feel is due to the way we think and act.
Now, we take for granted that mindset affects mental health. You’ve probably heard of a growth mindset, for example, and how it makes you more likely to persist and succeed against adversity. We have lists of common cognitive distortions — yes, jumping to conclusions is bad for you — and how they affect mental health.
At the time, though, this link was revolutionary. It birthed modern therapy.
“People don’t just get upset. They contribute to their upsetness.” -Albert Ellis, 1975 AD
Ellis created the first form of cognitive-behavioural therapy — rational emotive behaviour therapy — based on the central tenet that thoughts influence feelings.
This new model of mental health was radical because it didn’t blame your mother or your father. Nor did it compare you to a rat in a box, driven solely by reward and punishment.
Two millennia ago, Zino founded a philosophy based on the central tenet that extreme emotions lead us to make bad choices.
Fifty years ago, Ellis founded a new form of therapy based on the central tenet that irrational thoughts lead to personal distress.
See where I’m going?
Let’s look at each side-by-side.
Decades afterwards, Ellis wrote a book explaining his theory, in which he explicitly named Stoicism as a source of inspiration. Beck later built off the principles of rational emotive behaviour therapy to create cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
Today, CBT remains:
- The model most commonly used in therapy.
- The model most successfully used in therapy.
- The model closest to Stoicism.
Stoicism → REBT→ CBT
Stoicism is the grandpa of your therapy session.
Turning problem into insight
Both Zino of Citium and Albert Ellis were no-nonsense types who used tough love and practical wisdom to help people. Both first invented their methods to overcome a personal problem they were facing.
Zino came to Athens destitute and shipwrecked when he was once a wealthy merchant. Stoicism derived meaning and strength from this hardship and shared this insight with others.
Ellis was painfully shy around women as a young man — so he made himself speak to them. Rational emotive behaviour therapy (RABT) built off his personal insights into how irrational thoughts generated fear, and shared them with others.
Of the two, it may surprise you that Ellis was the one who said success was down to forgetting your “god-awful past”.
“The problem with most therapy is that it makes you feel better, but you don’t get better. You have to back it up with action, action, action.” — Albert Ellis
If you hear ghostly clapping, that’s Zino.
We often think of philosophy as an airy-fairy discipline these days.
It’s not like anybody’s ever actually been in the trolley problem.
But in the ancient world, philosophy was an essential source of guidance. If you were facing massive pressure at work like, I don’t know, becoming Roman Emperor, you couldn’t stumble into a therapist’s office. But you might start taking advice from a philosopher.
Stoicism stood the test of time because it gave us practical, secular tools to understand our inner world. We still use these tools in their raw (reading Meditations) and updated (cognitive-behavioural therapy) forms today.
In therapy, Ellis often used the word “awfulize”. Today, we call it “catastrophising”. He meant that while bad things happen, it is our choice how we deal with them.
We can accept sadness and frustration, or kick it up with thoughts into full-blown, debilitating despair and rage.
Do you ruminate on it, or do something about it?
The pathway from both Stoicism and CBT is clear:
Focus on what you can control.
In 2020, this is more useful than ever. It’s not abstract.
- You can’t control whether a virus is airborne — you can wear a facemask.
- You can’t control what your president says — you can vote.
- You can’t control the global economy — you can set up your own side-hustle.
- You can’t make people buy your product — you can create and market to the very best of your ability.
In 2020, focus on your cans.
“Don’t wish for figs in winter.” — Epictetus