Donald Robertson, a British therapist who is head of the UK College of CBT, has a new book out called The Philosophy of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, which looks at the roots of CBT in ancient Greek philosophy. Donald, like me, is fascinated by the role ancient Greco-Roman philosophy, particularly Stoicism, has played in inspiring the cognitive revolution in modern psychology, and has done a brilliant job at researching this influence, not just on the theoretical side of CBT, but also in terms of practical techniques which therapists use today.
Donald was inspired by his reading of the French classicist Pierre Hadot, who sadly passed away a few months ago. There wasn't a single obituary of Hadot in the British press, although to my mind he was one of the great philosophers of the last 50 years. But he was very humble, shy, didn't give interviews, so he didn't get the media attention he deserved. Perhaps he preferred it that way. Most academics know his ideas, if at all, through Michel Foucault, who was much less shy about media attention.
Hadot transformed the modern understanding of ancient philosophy, by reminding us that, for the ancients, philosophy was a way of life, something that consisted in a set of 'spiritual exercises', which one practiced to transform one's psyche and achieve inner peace. Philosophy provided a sort of first-aid kit which ordinary people could turn to in moments of emotional crisis - or to make themselves more resilient in preparation for those crises.
As Donald shows, many of these 'spiritual exercises' have been picked up and re-used by modern psychology, thanks to the work of Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, the two inventors of cognitive therapy, who were both inspired by their reading of ancient Greek philosophy. But not all of the ancients' therapeutic techniques have been re-discovered, and Donald has performed some very valuable research in exploring and uncovering other exercises which modern psychology could deploy.
There are still some areas of the ancients' tool-kit that Donald doesn't discuss - for example, he doesn't discuss the physical training exercises that ancient philosophers recommended, such as exercises to do with one's diet, one's clothing, one's sleeping and bathing arrangements, one's gymnastic and sporting activities etc, although these were an important part of their spiritual philosophy. That's indicative, perhaps, of CBT, which tends to forget the body in its focus on thoughts and beliefs. I've always thought CBT could be effectively combined with the Alexander Technique - aren't our emotional habits physical as much as they are cognitive? Aren't our attitudes embodied in our posture, our muscles, our facial expressions?
The book also does not mention Positive Psychology, although the relationship between Positive Psychology and ancient Greek philosophy is a rich one - Martin Seligman, Jonathan Haidt and others have all returned to Greek philosophy, particularly Aristotle, in their exploration of the science of flourishing (or 'eudaimonics', as it is sometimes called).
The book left me chewing over some of the problems that arise from the meeting between modern psychology and ancient philosophy: what are the differences between CBT and ancient philosophy? To what extent has CBT dropped the language of morality, virtue and God in its recycling of ancient philosophy? Are CBT and Positive Psychology using the techniques of ancient philosophy towards the goal of happiness, rather than the goal of virtue - and are they wrong to do so? These are some of the thorny questions which we have still to work out.
Still, the book is a tour-de-force of scholarly research. Robertson has gone beyond Hadot, really, in amassing detailed quotes and references about the spiritual exercises. It's easily the best book written so far on the relationship between ancient philosophy and modern cognitive psychology - indeed, it's pretty much the only book written, as far as I'm aware. It continues to amaze me that more hasn't been written on this subject - although to be fair, philosophers like Martha Nussbaum and John Sellars, and psychologists like Jonathan Haidt, have done some good work.
Philosophy and psychology are beginning to talk to each other - but the dialogue is still quite young, which is why Robertson's book is so valuable - because, unusually, he is very literate in both cultures.
Jules Evans [...]