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Stoicism, 'Logos' and the reform of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

Posted by a.marlow on December 4, 2012 at 1:40 PM

An interesting article appeared in the Guardian today that I'd like to discuss here in this blog.

It starts with a discussion of the ancient Roman system of philosophy called stoicism and one of its central ideas, that of the λογος (pronounced 'logos'). Λογος can be translated into english as either word, discourse, reason, activity, or principle, although none of these words truly reflects its full meaning. Writing about λογος, the early Stoic philosopher Cleanthes wrote:

"...For thus you [Zeus] have joined all things, the good with the bad, into one,

so that the eternal Word of all came to be one.

This Word, however, evil mortals flee, poor wretches;

though they are desirous of good things for their possession,

they neither see nor listen to God's universal Law..."

Λογος is also found at the heart of Christianity. In one of the most famous passages of the Bible, from the beginning of John's gospel, it is proclaimed that: "[i]n the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God". Christians take this to mean that Jesus Christ is 'the Word' and often leave it at that, but one would reach a fuller understanding of the passage if one understood the meaning of 'the Word', or 'λογος', in the context of stoic philosophy, from which the author of John's gospel undoubtedly took inspiration.

Explaining the concept of λογος in the practical stoic life, Mark Vernon in his article for the Guardian writes that:

"The ancient stoic training was an attempt to orient the whole of life to the logos. Chrysippus, the third head of the school and one of the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world, used the metaphor of a cylinder rolling down a hill. Life is like that. There is nothing you can do to change it. What you can do is learn "to go with the flow", as opposed to resisting the bumps and shocks.

But why should you go with the flow, one of his young disciples might have asked? Because the flow can be trusted, Chrysippus would have replied. It is the action of the logos. It is mysterious, yes; often painful, yes. But ultimately benign. And if life were not providential, you are right: it would be more noble to resist it all the way."

In this way, belief in the λογος is a belief that the universe is ordered in a rational way according to a unifying rational principle, and that one can be sure that everything one enjoys or endures is for the good of the whole, even if it is not good for the self, and should therefore not be resisted. This idea makes sense when one takes into account the statement of another ancient philosopher, Heraclitus, that:

"Listening not to me but to the logos it is wise to agree that all things are one."

If, underneath it all, 'all things are one', then each of our individualities would have to be seen as nothing more than separatist illusions, mere parts of a greater whole; and if we believe that temporary harm to our individual selves is ultimately for the good of the whole of which we are merely a part, then we will be much more able to endure the inevitable challenges that life throws in our path.

What does any of this have to do with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), though? As a matter of fact, the ancient school of stoicism is often said to bear many similarities to modern cognitive approaches to mental health. And yet, if  CBT has taken on many aspects of stoic thought, it has left out consideration for the λογος. Mark Vernon warns us:

"the stoic notion of flow was a kind of devotion, an offering of yourself. Cultivating the right inner attitude was absolutely crucial to the good life stoicism promised. Practise stoicism for self-serving reasons, as instrumentally driven therapies and self-help might encourage, and you risk alienating yourself further...

...Longitudinal testing of CBT appears to be suggesting the benefits are short-lived. I wonder whether Chrysippus might help explain why: does CBT unwittingly encourage the delusion of living out of your own strength, he might ask?"

It is this difference that could be crucial. If CBT does encourage its clients to live out of their own strength, then when that strength inevitably fails them, they will lose the faith they gained in themselves and go back to square one. If, however, consideration of the λογος were included in CBT, then such setbacks would be taken on the chin and accepted as being, in some as yet inconceivable way, a good, whether that be for oneself or for others, and could therefore be endured much more effectively without returning to the symptoms for which the patient sought CBT in the first place.

Categories: stoicism, therapy

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