Today philosophy is mostly an academic activity today. However this was not always so. The word itself is ancient Greek and means the love of wisdom, with a philosopher being a lover of wisdom. As this suggests, philosophy was originally a practice, a way of life; the pursuit of a good life. According to philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics, a good life was not constituted first of all by things external to one's character, but primarily by the kind of person you are. The achievement of a good life depended above all on becoming a good person. We can see this today in people who have all the luck and all the possessions, but whose bad personal qualities make them unhappy. Philosophy involved 'exercises' to transform oneself from within.
Ancient philosophy based these exercises on reasoned enquiry into what it is to live well, in terms of flourishing in life and possessing the virtues which make a person good. Such reasoning The use of reasoned enquiry distinguished philosophy from religion, giving it a rational and secular nature, however it was much more than a theoretical activity. For example ancient philosophers meditated, to discipline their minds and cultivate inner tranquillity. Above all they focused on action, on how you responded to things and what you did.
Hence ancient philosophers such as the Stoics defined the goal of the philosopher as "wisdom and virtue" - reflection and change - and these were considered dependent upon one another.
The historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot suggested that philosophy as a way of life was brought to an end by the rise of Christianity, which absorbed philosophy's transformative exercises into monastic life, and reduced the rest to an intellectual activity in the service of theology. That is the history behind why philosophy has become a purely academic activity. Today we live at the other end of this movement: the decline of Christianity. We might view the new revival of practical philosophy as a consequence of this decline of religion in the West. Philosophy is returning to its ancient form, in response to those same needs which created it in the first place: it is becoming once again a guide to life, helping us to cultivate strength, wisdom, and virtue. This is happening in a similar situation to the world of the ancient philosophers; like the ancient Greeks we live in an increasingly secular, globalised, and unstable world. Philosophical counselling is a part of this revival of practical philosophy.
However there is a twist to the story. Before the recent revival of philosophy as a way of life, twentieth-century psychology had already breathed new life into many ancient philosophical practices. I talk about existential therapy here. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) revived Stoic insights and practices, albeit framed in scientific terms. This means that many philosophical counsellors have come to practice in a culture where CBT is established and dominant, and so they draw on CBT as a guide for how to practice philosophy therapeutically. CBT draws on philosophy to do therapy, and philosophical counsellors draw on CBT to do therapy. There is a refraction going on, a circuitous route which has virtues and flaws. I think the path has real dangers because there is important differences between the intellectual values of philosophy versus CBT.
According to Stoics such as Epictetus, we pursue wisdom and virtue by determining what is within our power, and what is out of it, in each situation that we face. As Epictetus said,
Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.
This idea is familiar to most of us in the form of the Serenity Prayer:
Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.
The idea is that we can control what we intend, but ultimately nothing else. This means that many important things are out of our control however the most important - that which constitutes our humanity - is within it: the will to do good, the will to be just, truthful, faithful to what matters. We may fail to achieve our aims, we may mistake matters, come up against our limits, or be thwarted by chance, but what ultimately matters is the aim that guides us - this is where we show our humanity at its best. By constantly striving to live up to these values - a hard task indeed - we become transformed, gradually, so that they come to characterise us. We develop the character of a good person which is to say, just as it is the nature of a good knife to do what knives do well, that we manifest the best of our humanity. We also develop a certain calm confidence, a contentment and peace about life which is lacking when a person is constantly pushed and pulled by confusion about what really matters.
In my experience as a counsellor, it is highly evident that the conflation of what is out of our control with what is in it dwells at the root of much distress. People suffer from their failure to make this distinction at an intellectual and (more often) at an emotional level. However we don't really understand the stoic insight until we realise that ultimately this is a failure to order values. The search for goodness is primary in Stoicism, not the alleviation of distress. The aim is to become a person who habitually loves the things that matter most, and whose love for these things is greater than their attachment to things which, by being both out of their control and secondary or even indifferent or contrary to what matters most, create anxiety, anger, depression, envy, cynicism, and so on. The emotional peace and happiness that follows from Stoic practice is a wonderful side-effect of striving to live a life committed to what really matters: a good life of genuine meaning and value. The ancient use of reason as therapy to order one's inner-life was done in the service of this aim.
During the 19th century there was a revival of forms of rational therapy, for example the work of Emile Coue and Charles Baudouin, but the true emergence of modern rational therapy came in the 1950s with two Americans, Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck, who developed cognitive-behavioural therapies (REBT, and CBT). Beck readily acknowledged that his work had its precedent in Stoicism. Ellis made the even stronger claim that rational philosophy in general, and Stoicism in particular, directly inspired his therapy. These pioneers drew on Stoicism to create a modern psychological therapy. Many people view CBT as Stoicism for the modern age.
Ellis developed an "ABC model" of emotional and behavioural disturbance based on another important teaching of Epictetus, that "Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things." A stands for Activating Event, B for Belief and C for Consequence. An event happens (for example your partner leaves) and we react with emotional and behavioural consequences - we do things and feel things in response to the event. Often we assume that these consequences follow directly from the event, but Ellis points out that people react differently to the same event so there is is evidently something else at play. In counselling I often invite people to exercise greater curiosity about why they responded with such and such an emotion, when a different person may respond differently in the face of the same event. The other factor here is B - the mediating belief. If my relationship ends (the event) but I believe that I will meet somebody else in time, which is a more rational belief, then I will be less distressed (the consequence) than if my relationship ends and I hold irrational beliefs, such as that I am, in contradiction of all past experience, surely doomed never to meet another.
Ellis uses a model of causation which is psychological, rather than a focus on reasons which would be philosophical. During the 1980s under his tutelage, the philosopher Elliot Cohen developed a more purely philosophical version of CBT, called Logic-Based Therapy (LBT). Cohen's new approach went back to the philosophical sources, in particular to Aristotle and his model of practical reasoning, and to the use of critical thinking more generally, as a highly effective therapeutic tool. Rather than the causal ABC model, Cohen uses Aristotle's age-old practical syllogism. In this approach the client is trained in critical thinking as a practical art applied to their details of their particular cognitive, emotional and behavioural life. The work of both Ellis and Cohen is very important, and I often recommend Cohen's What Would Aristotle Do? to clients. However there is something vitally lacking in CBT which makes it a risky model for philosophical counselling.
There are a variety of dimensions to my concern (which is why I am slowly writing a book on the matter) but in essence there is a contradiction between the dominant, popular attitude of value-neutrality that characterises CBT, versus the insight that values lie at the core of human life which informs Stoicism. CBT is typical of modern thought in that it assumes the "fact-value distinction" - the doctrine that facts are real while values are merely assertions of preference. Iris Murdoch provides a brilliant critique of this doctrine in her short book The Sovereignty of Good, however the doctrine permeates modern thought, including modern counselling and psychotherapy. Many people simply assume this distinction, treating it as self-evident, often without actually recognising, naming, and critically questioning it - its a part of the culture, an unnoticed dogma that shapes people's thinking and its treated as self-evident. Anybody who contradicts the doctrine is accused of dogmatism. (Often this is due to the fact, I suspect, that people think the only antidote to dogmatism about opinions and preferences is the opposite extreme - absolute relativism - which of course is nonsense.) The fact-value distinction underlies the dominance in psychology of such things as behavourism, functionalism, the medicalisation of our life struggles, and the bureaucratic approach to well-being. Hence, while CBT borrows and teaches many of the rational, philosophical tools which made Stoicism so effective, it does so in the pursuit (at the individual level) of something which counted as a mere side-effect in the opinion of the Stoics: emotional calm and peace. To use Iris Murdoch's words (although she was criticising psychoanalysis, in the 1950s) CBT aims to "make our lives workable rather than good." Value is whitewashed out of the picture. The modern culture of value-neutrality is the reason that my language of truth, goodness, justice and so on will seem strange to many ears when coming from a counsellor, just as my talk elsewhere of despair and such seems odd to ears trained in the technical language of psychology. However when I speak this way about values, as with despair, I am describing realities which are at the centre of our lives. It is technical, theoretical notions which are remote. This can be hard to see because often a person's philosophy contradicts their living - it is untrue of their experience and commitments - and this is especially the case in a technocratic age. We need to construct our philosophical picture through close attention to our lives and what moves them, rather that reaching for neat theories that make everything simple by reducing complexity and mystery.
Stoicism asserts value above all, and uses reason in the pursuit of it. In this sense CBT as a supposedly value-neutral cognitive science is an indequate inheritor of the Stoic mantel. Of course if we look carefully we will notice that CBT is not value neutral, just as Murdoch shows that the fact-value distinction is an assertion of specific values which are hidden behind a rhetoric of neutrality: CBT asserts a mash of values such as functionalism and hedonism. However such values do not sustain people. They do not get to the heart of our longing, they do not offer something worth living for. This probably explains the increasing dissatisfaction of many intelligent seekers of therapy with CBT, and their interest in philosophical approaches.
Philosophical counselling, like the best of philosophy, has the opportunity to bring its sophisticated and rich engagement with value and meaning into counselling and everyday life. With the demise of Christianity and religion in general, which as Nietzsche showed threatens us with nihilism, it is time to rediscover ancient philosophy, and to find contemporary ways of practicing philosophy with the age-old aim of finding meaning and value, of becoming good, of living out the best of our humanity, in this our new secular world. A primary value of philosophical counselling is its ability to attend to value - to the client's struggle to live a life of significance (and I am speaking of genuine, good significance, not the significance sought by an ever-growing crowd of narcissists) - and to do so by drawing on its profound, sophisticated, time-tested tools and practices which are deeply secular, truth-loving, and native to the western mind.