Christopher Gill, Professor of Ancient Thought at the University of Exeter, shares his views on the function of philosophical therapy in antiquity.
‘What contribution was made to the treatment of mental illness in antiquity by philosophical essays on the therapy of emotions? To what extent can we – moderns – recognize in these essays a credible response to mental illness? In this discussion, I explore both these questions, in the belief that each of these lines of enquiry may illuminate each other. A key point, bearing on both questions, is the suggestion that the philosophical essays were intended to function as a psychological analogue for ancient medical regimen, or what we call ‘life-style management’ or ‘preventive medicine’. I begin by developing this suggestion in general terms before relating this idea to the emergence of a distinct genre or body of writings on the therapy of the emotions in the Hellenistic and Roman Imperial periods. Next, I analyse the core strategy of this kind of philosophical therapy, identifying four key recurrent themes. I illustrate this schema, referring especially to Galen’s newly found essay, Avoiding Distress, taken as representing a Platonic-Aristotelian approach, on the one hand, and to Seneca’s On Peace of Mind, representing the Stoic approach, on the other. I then return to the idea that such works are designed to function as preventive psychological medicine, and ask whether they embody an approach to psychological health-care that we could find useful under modern conditions.’