Is CBT 'looting' ancient philosophy?

Julian Baggini, editor of The Philosophers' Magazine, has written two articles raising scepticism about our society's obsession with happiness, and particularly with its current enthusiasm for positive psychology.

The first article, in the Telegraph, said:

what worries me is that our pursuit of happiness is leading us to judge the great intellectual and spiritual traditions of the past according to only one measure: do they increase happiness and reduce misery? That which passes the test is plundered and that which fails is left behind. The result is that wisdom is hollowed out and replaced with a soft centre of caramelised contentment.

If we can find practical, secular advice in the works of Buddhists, stoics and saints, so be it. If Montaigne can soothe your troubled soul, take the balm. The problem is that ways of living and thinking which offer, and demand, so much more, are simply being looted to fill a toolbox for the crass engineering of positive thoughts and warm emotions. The looters are at best blind to the deeper riches on offer, at worst disfiguring the very source of their ill-gotten riches.

To be fair, many of the experts in these fields are fully aware of these dangers. But what about the management consultants, life coaches and even government agencies who are clamouring for their services? By the time the plunderers have themselves been plundered, there could be very little real meat left to nourish more demanding souls. We are witnessing deep thought being driven out by positive thought; true self-awareness sacrificed in the name of shallow happiness.

He returns to his theme in tomorrow's Financial Times, in which he gives a good review of Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Smile Or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America and the World. Baggini writes:

Ehrenreich describes how she was diagnosed with breast cancer and then discovered that the majority of her fellow sufferers had bought into a bogus ideology that says cancer can make you a better person, and that really wanting to get better is the key to recovery. The flipside of this, of course, is that if you don’t get better, it must somehow be your own fault for being too negative. It also has the perverse implication that it is better to get cancer than not to. “If I had to do it over, would I want breast cancer?” asked sufferer Cindy Cherry. “Absolutely.” As Ehrenreich points out, such an attitude “encourages us to deny reality, submit cheerfully to misfortune, and blame only ourselves for our fate.”

He concludes:

What positive psychology gets right is that when we confront reality, we always have some control over how we then respond to it, and that a lot of misery is avoidable if we try to make the best rather than the worst of things. In practice, however, this sensible advice often degenerates into an excessive optimism, in which reality is whatever we think it to be. But you can’t make the best of a bad situation if you pretend it’s really just a good one in disguise.

These are not new criticisms of CBT and positive psychology. When I wrote a piece on CBT for Prospect, saying that it drew on the ideas and techniques of Stoicism, the philosopher Mark Vernon said CBT was more like 'Stoicism-lite', and that it emptied out the techniques of Stoicism of their moral content, because it didn't sign up to the full Stoic package (belief in the Logos, detachment from all externals, and so on). It was thus an example of the 'pick n' mix' culture of consumerism, in Vernon's estimation.

I think this is a flawed position. Baggini and Vernon seem to be casting themselves as the guardians of the treasures of ancient philosophy, with the likes of Martin Seligman (the inventor of positive psychology) and Albert Ellis (the inventor of CBT) the plunderers and looters of these treasures. Baggini actually uses the word ‘looted’.

But does he think philosophy should be the province only of the highly educated? Does he believe, as the ancients believe, that philosophy has therapeutic value, and if so, should that therapeutic value only be confined to the educated readers of The Philosophers’ Magazine? If philosophy has genuine therapeutic value, then shouldn't we be striving to bring its benefits to as many people as possible?

Trying to adapt the ideas and techniques of ancient philosophy to help ordinary people is not against the spirit of ancient philosophy. It's not a vulgar popularisation of ancient philosophy. On the contrary, it is a return to the original spirit, in which philosophy was not something confined to lecture rooms and drawing rooms, but something that took place on the street (Stoicism literally means 'from the street, or colonnade'), something that genuinely tried to improve lives and relieve suffering.

As Seneca put it:

There is no time for playing around. You have promised to bring help to the shipwrecked, the imprisoned, the sick, the needy, to those whose heads are under the poised axe. Where are you deflecting your attention? What are you doing?

Now it is true that CBT doesn’t embrace all the beliefs of orthodox Stoicism, such as the belief in a providential Logos. Thank God it doesn’t - if CBT signed up to Stoicism’s religious beliefs, it could never be used in state-funded therapy or in education, because that would go against the liberal principle of the separation of church and state. So it would always remain the province of a handful of educated and affluent individuals.

And it would indeed be a great pity if ordinary people did not have access to CBT either in the NHS or in schools, because a large body of scientific research shows that CBT is very effective at helping people overcome depression, anxiety, and other emotional disorders. CBT really works, which means that the ideas and techniques of Stoicism really work. The fact that the insights of ancient philosophy have to some extent been validated by modern scientific trials should be cause for celebration among modern philosophers, in my opinion.

Baggini and Vernon are being somewhat fundamentalists - either you sign up entirely to Stoicism, or you should leave it entirely alone. To use some of Stoicism but not all of it is to ‘loot’ it. But are they not eclectic themselves in their approach to philosophy? Do they not use some ideas from some philosophers, while rejecting other of their ideas?

The ancients themselves - Seneca, Cicero, Aurelius, Plato, Posidonius - were also eclectic, and drew from different traditions (Platonism, Epicureanism, Stoicism, Pythaogreanism, mystery cults) without being accused of being ‘looters’.

Finally, it is not true that CBT uses the techniques of Stoicism but without any of the ethical context of ancient Greek philosophy.

Yes, CBT doesn’t promote the view that the only true goods are inner goods, and that all externals are indifferent. How could it promote such a view, and still be taught in schools or hospitals?

And yet, if it doesn’t teach complete withdrawal from worldly attachments and aversions, it does still seem to follow the Stoic belief that attachments and aversions are at the root of much mental suffering. Albert Ellis, for example, insisted that many emotional disorders were caused by our rigid demands of ourselves, of other people, and of reality.We tell ourselves ‘I must be successful’, ‘other people must treat me with respect’, ‘the world must be an easy and stress-free environment’. What are such imperatives, but attachments to external outcomes? And when reality fails to oblige us, then we rage against ourselves, or against other people, or against the world.

Now CBT may not advise abandoning all attachments and aversions, but its solution to many emotional disorders is not so far from the Stoic theory of preferreds. Rather than say ‘I must be treated at all times with respect’, it teaches people to be more flexible and to recognize that the world is not always that obliging. Instead, one might say to oneself, ‘I would prefer to be treated with respect at all times, but I recognize that people are often rude and so I am likely to encounter rudeness quite often. I can’t change that, but I can make sure I don’t always take it personally or let it wind me up.’

So CBT does, in fact, teach people a sort of detachment from externals, and it likewise teaches them not to depend entirely on externals for their sense of self-worth, but instead to look within for their self-acceptance.

In fact, although CBT rightly presents itself as an evidence-based science, we should recognize that it also enshrines certain ethical assumptions, as most psychologies do, and that in the case of CBT, these ethical assumptions are Hellenistic.

Firstly, CBT is based on the Socratic precept to “know thyself”, and on the Socratic belief that we can use our awareness and rationality to discover our mental habits and transform them. It shares the optimism of Hellenistic philosophy that the self is malleable and improvable through rational philosophy. Like Buddhism and Stoicism, it tries to foster a critical awareness of, and detachment from, our thoughts and opinions, so that we realize that our beliefs about reality are not the same as reality itself.

Secondly, it promotes the Hellenistic ideal of autonomy - the idea that we can use philosophy to become ‘masters of ourselves’. It promotes the idea that taking responsibility for one’s thoughts and emotions is the cornerstone both of mental health and (implicitly) of morality.

Thirdly, it promotes the idea that being a responsible and autonomous individual takes self-discipline. You have to work at monitoring yourself, regulating yourself, and challenging your self-destructive habits. You have to work at achieving fortitude and constancy in your character.

Fourthly, it is based on the Stoic principle of adaptation, of learning to adapt one’s thoughts and beliefs to the ever-changing nature of reality, to become flexible and resilient in the face of adversity, and not to impose one’s rigid demands onto reality.

Finally, it is based on the Hellenistic principle of autarkia, or self-sufficiency. It is based on the idea that people who depend entirely on a particular external thing for their self-worth are likely to become needy, neurotic and emotionally unbalanced; while someone who has a ‘secure base’ or emotional anchor within themselves is likely to be able to engage with the world and other people in a more meaningful, open and fearless manner.

I make these points to show that, while CBT may distance itself from some of the more overtly religious or metaphysical aspects of Hellenistic philosophy, it nevertheless assumes and absorbs many of the ethical beliefs shared by the main Hellenistic philosophies.

CBT thankfully doesn’t accept the Stoic belief in providence, or the Stoic assertion that all externals are indifferent. But it doesn’t need to. In fact, some of the most famous Stoics of the ancient world were not entirely convinced that the Logos existed. Marcus Aurelius, for one, often expressed the suspicion that the universe was nothing more than atoms randomly floating in a void. But he still effectively used Stoic techniques to manage himself and cope with the ups and downs of his life.

One doesn’t have to believe in God to use Stoic techniques. Some of the techniques of Stoicism were very similar to the techniques of Epicureanism, which held an atomistic view of the universe. Albert Ellis, the man who did most to bring Stoic thinking into the modern world, was a militant atheist.

What you do need to believe and accept is the Stoics’ cognitive theory of emotions - the idea that emotional disorders are caused by irrational or illogical beliefs. If you accept that, then many of the techniques of Stoicism will work for you, regardless of whether you believe in God or not.

And just because CBT is secular doesn’t mean that it simply lifts the techniques of Stoicism, but drained of all ethical content. On the contrary, CBT is soaked in the ethics of ancient Greece. The techniques don’t just make you happier. They make you more responsible, more resilient, more virtuous.