Two Types of Stoic Therapy? by John Sellars

When we started Stoicism Today back in 2012, we began with two aims: i) to see if we could test the efficacy of Stoic practices and exercises reported by Roman Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, and ii) to introduce Stoicism to a much wider audience. The two aims went hand in hand – to test the efficacy meant getting lots of people to try them out – and Stoic Week was born with these twin aims in mind.
Along the way the project has inevitably evolved and has become something of a hub for people who draw on Stoicism in their daily lives, whether they have been inspired by Stoic Week or had already discovered Stoicism on their own. Some of these consciously identify as ‘modern Stoics’, although many others do not. Some embrace a good part of Stoic philosophy while others might just take away the bits and pieces that they find helpful.
This raises an issue that I have found interesting right from the outset of the project: the relationship between the various bits of practical advice that we find in the Roman Stoics and Stoic philosophy proper. What’s the relationship between the two? A common objection that was made by some sceptical observers when the project began can be set out like this:

  1. Stoic advice either does or does not depend on Stoic philosophy.
  2. If it does, then it involves accepting a series of philosophical claims that are either outdated (e.g. providence) or unattractive (e.g. indifference of externals when applied to other people). (And note that this objection is taken to be much stronger if one thinks that Stoic ethics depends on Stoic physics.)
  3. If it does not, then there is nothing especially Stoic about this so-called ‘Stoic advice’.

It is far from unfair to say that much of the advice that Seneca or Marcus Aurelius offer – including many things that we include within Stoic Week – is simply good common sense that has nothing especially Stoic about it. When Seneca recommends that we review our day before going to bed, for instance, he offers good advice, but it’s not obvious that this bears any relation to specifically Stoic ideas. There’s no reason why someone completely dismissive of Stoicism could not do this and benefit from it. The genuinely Stoic advice is the stuff that presupposes explicitly Stoic philosophical ideas – the rejection of emotions, indifference towards externals, divine providence – and, so the objectors claim, this is the stuff that is much harder to sell.
I can’t tackle all the issues raised by this here, but what I do want to do is to suggest that perhaps the ancient Stoics were themselves well aware that much of the advice they offered was not narrowly Stoic. It was ‘Stoic advice’ in the sense that it came from a Stoic, but not ‘Stoic advice’ in the sense that it necessarily presupposed core ideas of Stoic philosophy. In order to do this, we shall need to go back well before the Roman Stoics; we need to go back to Chrysippus.
Chrysippus was the most important of the earlier Athenian Stoics. He was a pupil of his predecessor as head of the school, Cleanthes. Now, Cleanthes outlined what we now think of as the standard Stoic view, namely that the way to offer therapy for negative emotions is to challenge the value judgements that underpin them (see Cicero, Tusculan Dispitations. 3.76). But Chrysippus appears to have doubted this, primarily because it is difficult to reason with someone when they are in the midst of emotional turmoil. Instead, he seems to have offered two different types of therapy for the emotions.
The first type was immediate help for emotional disturbance, and Chrysippus is reported to have said that he could help anyone currently suffering emotional turmoil, even people with little interest in Stoic philosophy. In one source, we find Chrysippus prepared to offer emotional therapy to Peripatetics and Epicureans in the grip of an emotion, even though he knows they are unlikely to accept any Stoic ideas. However, this first type of therapy does not involve that sort of philosophical argument, again because someone in the grip of a powerful emotion (or passion) is unlikely to listen to reason. Chrysippus wrote:

The man who is troubled by passion should not worry about the doctrine which has gained possession of his mind at the moment when the passions are at their height, lest somehow he should be concerned at the wrong moment with the refutation of the doctrines that have gained possession of his soul, and possibility of cure is lost. (Origen, Contra Cels. 8.51)

Instead, says Chrysippus, they ought to be offered therapy consistent with the beliefs that they already hold:

If pleasure is an ultimate value, men should try to heal their passions assuming this to be correct; and supposing that there are three kinds of good, it is just as true to say that people who are entangled with their passions ought to be delivered from them by following this principle. (Origen, Contra Cels. 1.64)

Precisely what forms this first type of therapy took, we do not know, but Cicero suggests that the focus may have been on offering arguments about the inappropriateness of an excessive emotional response (Tusc. 3.76). One can also imagine the sorts of visualization techniques described by later Roman Stoics, such as adopting a ‘view from above’. All of these things might offer immediate respite for someone in the midst of an emotional crisis, whether they share Chrysippus’s own philosophical views or not.
The second type of therapy for the emotions is quite different. This is aimed at avoiding emotions altogether, and involves a philosophical analysis of the judgements that generate the beliefs that create the emotions in the first place. As Chrysippus noted, this sort of analysis can hardly be done when someone is in the grip of an emotion, and must wait until the immediate disturbance has passed.
This second type of therapy, unlike the first, draws explicitly on central claims in Stoic philosophy, most notably their theory of value and their psychology, and potentially much of their physics and theology as well. Once the emotionally disturbed Peripatetic or Epicurean has calmed down, Chrysippus will try to show them with philosophical arguments that the real cause of their emotional disturbance was the mistaken values that they hold, and that the only way to avoid suffering such emotions in the future is to adopt the Stoic theory of value. This second type of explicitly philosophical therapy will ultimately help only those who are prepared to accept some of the central ideas of Stoic philosophy.
The first type of therapy has been called ‘first aid’, while the second has often been compared to modern cognitive psychotherapy. While the latter is what we might call ‘narrowly Stoic’, built on ideas in Stoic philosophy, the former is not, and yet it still appears to have been a key part of Chrysippus’s set of therapeutic strategies. Although in some ways ‘less Stoic’, as Chrysippus’s own comments make clear this first type of therapy is absolutely essential when confronting people in emotional distress. First the symptoms must be attended to, before it is possible to start addressing the causes.
I think this might help to explain why later Roman Stoics offer a wide range of advice that, on the face of it, might not seem especially Stoic. All of the good common-sense advice that they offer may not explicitly draw on ideas in Stoic philosophy, but nevertheless it can still be seen as part of a consciously Stoic therapeutic plan. It may be that some modern readers will find this Stoic ‘first aid’ quite helpful, but be less convinced by the narrowly Stoic remedies proposed in the second type of therapy. I see no problem with that at all, if people struggling with difficulties have gained some benefit. But, of course, I think that the second type of therapy also has much to recommend it, and is well worth putting to the test. Stoic Week is an opportunity to try out both.
John Sellars teaches Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of The Art of Living and Stoicism, and the editor of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition. His next book, Hellenistic Philosophy, is due out in 2018 with Oxford University Press.

2 thoughts on Two Types of Stoic Therapy? by John Sellars

  1. […] with Chrysippus, then, it seems that the Stoics distinguished between a sort of emotional “first aid” on the one hand, and more […]

  2. […] therapy for non-stoics is something that existed even back in the beginning of the Stoic school. Chrysippus, one of the most prominent Stoic philosophers, was known to offer assistance to other peo…. One of his conclusions was that people who are currently suffering from a passion don't […]

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