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PART II: Value of the Emotions Cognitive Therapy and the Role of Philosophy

11: The Role of Analytic Philosophy in Stoic Cognitive Therapy

Stoic cognitive therapy consists of a package which is in part a philosophical analysis of what the emotions are and in part a battery of cognitive devices for attacking those aspects of emotion which the philosophical analysis suggests can be attacked. The devices are often not philosophical and are often shared with other schools. But I believe it is wrong to suppose that they are doing all the work. The work is done by the package and the philosophical analysis is an essential part of the package. Admittedly somebody who just wanted to be treated passively as the patient of a Stoic therapist would not have to understand the philosophical analysis. But anyone who wants to be able to deal with the next emotional crisis that comes along and the next needs to learn how to treat themselves and for this the philosophical analysis of emotion is essential. What is under discussion here is the role of philosophical analysis as relevant to life.

I am indebted to Bernard Williams not only for expressing a diametrically opposite view but for discussing it with me both orally and in print.1 His case demands the most careful consideration. His claim which echoes Macaulay's epigram on Seneca quoted in the epigraphs at the front of this book is that rigorous philosophy cannot be therapeutic. I shall postpone to Chapter 15 the further suggestion that this is the province of psychoanalysis.

But can we really believe that philosophy properly understood in terms of rigorous argument could be so directly related to curing real human misery the kind of suffering that priests and doctors and—indeed—therapists address? How many people can really have believed it?… [The author under review] has left me for one feeling how strange it might be to see rigorous philosophy (Chrysippus’ logic for instance) exclusively or mainly in this light and also how great a distance separates these thinkers inasmuch as they did believe this from the modern world.… We are surely bound to find the Epicureans too rationalistic the Sceptics too procedurally self-obsessed the Stoics (at least in their Roman incarnation) too unyieldingly pompous for us to take entirely seriously not just their therapies but the idea of them as philosophical therapists…2

I have already begun to indicate my answer. I have argued that the Stoic analysis of emotion was more rigorous than similar modern analyses and yet that it has therapeutic value. Here are four ways in which the philosophical analysis contributes to therapy. First it provides the necessary motivation. Therapy would have seemed hopeless in the absence of drug therapy if emotions had been involuntary contractions or physical reactions. But if they are judgements and we are free to suspend judgement then our efforts may be worth while.

Secondly the analysis immediately shows you which two propositions you typically need to attack if you want to get rid of an emotion: the proposition that your situation is good or bad (e.g. have you really suffered harm?) and the proposition that it is appropriate to react (e.g. would it really be appropriate to get even?).

Thirdly while you are evaluating whether you have really suffered harm it helps you enormously to think ‘Don't worry if your teeth are chattering don't worry if you have got a sinking feeling’: that is not the emotion. This is calming because what often happens is that people think ‘I am in a terrible situation’ as soon as they realize that their teeth are chattering or that they have a sinking feeling. This is the phenomenon recognized by William James when he said:

We feel sorry because we cry angry because we strike afraid because we tremble.3

It has also been confirmed in recent studies of feedback from facial expression posture gaze or sweaty palms.4

Fourthly it is important to know that you must act fast if you are to counteract the initial appearance that things are bad and it is appropriate to react. Otherwise you will be carried away by a third movement and endorse even more extreme appearances (‘I must get even come what may’).

Next come the cognitive exercises for helping you reassess the two appearances. Even some of these we shall see are philosophical considerations including philosophical analyses of time and the self. But most of them are not and this fact raises a new question.

Why not use the techniques without philosophical analysis?

Would not the techniques calm emotions on their own without the analysis of emotions? The question has been pressed by Bernard Williams.5 A parallel question arises in Yoga where often useful techniques are taken over in the West without the theoretical framework. In fact on the different issue of achieving not tranquillity but happiness Seneca preserves a debate on whether you need both Stoic philosophical theory (decreta) and precepts (praecepta) or whether one or the other would be enough on its own.6 The ‘theory’ of which he is speaking would include for example the Stoic analysis of emotions7 while precepts are included among the therapeutic techniques. Seneca sees the two as forming a package and values them both.

Of the therapeutic techniques some are prophylactic designed to build character in advance. But the ones that concern me for the moment are applied in retrospect after an emotional provocation has occurred. By contrast with the retrospectively applied techniques the philosophical analysis of what emotions are needs to be internalized in advance. This is to enable you to apply therapy to yourself because the analysis can motivate guide and direct the use of the techniques. The techniques can be targeted some on one of the two propositions that the analysis distinguishes some on the other.

Consider some of the techniques for assessing the appearance that your situation is bad. The distressed may feel it is less bad when they reflect on the thought ‘You are not the only one’.8 Then there is the technique of relabelling exemplified by Epictetus’ advice to think of a crowd as a festival.9 It can help to ask yourself whether your situation is really bad or merely unexpected: recently people who thought they had won the national lottery and then found that they had made a mistake and had not got the winning number committed suicide. Why? What is bad about not winning the lottery? A week earlier they thought there was nothing bad about it. The difference is that now failure to win the lottery is unexpected. They have confused the unexpected with the bad.10

For assessing the other appearance that it is appropriate to react the Stoics have a number of techniques: ‘Mourning makes you neglect the living.’11 ‘Anger makes you ugly.’12 ‘I too have before now committed the offence I am complaining of.’13

When we include the Stoics’ prophylactic techniques we find that many of them are philosophical. Does anger or pity have a useful function? Not as often as we may think. The question is philosophical even if the answer calls for empirical experience. Anger tends to be self-frustrating and you can often achieve everything you want to achieve by sheer determination to produce the right result. Pity unlike mercy may get in the way of our helping by causing us to feel upset.14

We shall see in Chapter 16 the relevance of the Stoics’ philosophical views about the nature of time and the self. For example Seneca followed by the Platonist Plutarch argues that you should not be afraid of death because there is no continuous self only a series of momentary selves. Earlier selves have already died anyhow.15 Rather inconsistently Plutarch also argues in the opposite way that in order to achieve tranquillity you must avoid disintegration into momentary selves by weaving your past life into a whole. You should use your memory to create a biography of yourself including the bad parts of the picture along with the good. Those who do not use their memory to create a biography for themselves are like a person plaiting a rope who does not notice that a donkey is eating up the rope as he plaits it.16 On this view a self is something that you create. Epictetus offers tranquillity by a different route. We are to think that the self is not the body but the reason or will (proairesis) so no tyrant can control it.17 Posidonius’ rival analysis of the soul as containing an irrational element with spatial movements of its own is used to justify an education involving rhythm and music.18 And Posidonius’ and Galen's analysis of mental characteristics as following the blend of bodily qualities is used to justify character training by means of diet.19 In each case a philosophical analysis is considered relevant to real-life practices for obtaining the right psychological temperament. Whether or not these metaphysical views are therapeutic it is not only ancient philosophers who suppose they are. Derek Parfit for one expects the denial of a continuous self to be so.20

Concessions and vindications

But now I must make some concessions. In so far as the philosophical analysis offered by Chrysippus is mistaken to that extent we cannot expect that it will help us with our emotions. Take fear for example. We have recognized that you do not remove your fear in battle by deciding that it is inappropriate to run away. We have to admit that. So in so far as Chrysippus was wrong about fear in battle to that extent he does not help us get rid of it. Yet even with fear we can see that a revised version of Chrysippus is of some help. Think of the fear of flying. British Airways used to offer a course which had eighty per cent success in curing people in a single day of the fear of flying. But they had to use imagination as well as judgement. The technique was to stop people having the appearance or feeling-as-if flying meant that something bad would happen. And that did cure the emotion. We are talking now not of the ‘appropriate to react’ proposition but of the ‘something bad is going to happen’ proposition. If you remove the appearance that something bad will happen that does cure fear. So even though Chrysippus’ analysis of fear is wrong none the less a revised analysis can help you cope.

What I am conceding is that in so far as Chrysippus’ analysis is wrong about what is necessary for emotion we cannot expect it to guide therapy. But that I believe reinforces my point that the philosophical analysis is relevant to the therapy. Stoic therapy consists of rejecting those judgements or appearances which the analysis says are necessary to emotion. In the example of fear I was exploiting two related facts. First if the analysis is wrong because the judgement of appropriateness is not necessary in any way to fear then the therapy of rejecting that judgement will not free you from fear. Conversely if the analysis is right that an appearance of bad in the offing is necessary in some way to fear then the therapy of rejecting that appearance will free you from fear.

It might be added too that if the therapy of rejecting the appearance of bad in the offing regularly freed one from fear that would be evidence that the appearance was in some way necessary to fear. But there is a complication. The claim made in the analysis is that certain judgements or appearances are necessary as components of the emotion and not merely necessary in some other way for example causally. But what is relevant to therapy is merely that they should be necessary in some way or other not that they should be components.

There are still other cases of fear besides the one mentioned in which rejecting a judgement fails to remove an emotion. The shell-shocked are terrified by a slamming door even when they realize it is not gunfire. In this example premiss and conclusion are reversed. The failure of the therapeutic ‘It's only a door slamming’ shows the wrongness of the analysis which makes a judgement of imminent harm necessary for fear. In the earlier example it was independently implausible that fear required a judgement of the appropriateness of avoidance and that was used to infer the failure of therapy.

But Stoic therapy can fail for other reasons too not only because the rejection of a judgement fails to have the desired effect but also because it proves impossible to remove the judgement. The anorexic who eats nothing for emotional reasons persists in believing he or she is too fat.

That Stoic cognitive therapy will not always be effective and that other therapies will be needed too should already have been clear from the discussion in Chapter 10 of the amygdala system in the brain. This can produce on its own the physical reactions of fear and may not be amenable to judgemental correctives coming from the cortex. Another thing that became clear is that those people who merely feel-as-if there was something bad in the offing may be responding to stimulation of the amygdala and not at all to information presented independently to the cortex. In that case Stoic cognitive therapy may have only limited chances of removing the feeling-as-if by supplying information to the cortex. What all this suggests is that what we need in regard to therapies is a pluralism. It is sensible to have a repertoire of therapies alongside the Stoic ones and to discover empirically which therapies help best in which circumstances.

Not only may other therapies be required but the Epicureans would say that the Stoic rejection of judgements is not needed. For a mere switch of attention away from disquieting judgements can be sufficient.21 But shifting attention is often difficult unless supported by the kind of techniques supplied in Yoga: the recitation of mantras or listening for minutes to a tuning-fork. The ancients complained surely correctly that without such aids trying to shift attention may not work.22

Sometimes Stoic therapy will not work for a completely different reason I believe (although we shall see they would not agree) namely that you really are in a bad position and a sinking feeling really is appropriate. Bereavement would be an example. I would think it even stupid to deny the enormity of the loss. But Chrysippus and Seneca agree we shall see in the next chapter that therapy should not treat the loss as indifferent. Moreover their analysis points you in the right direction. At some stage—after a pause they would say23—you need to attack the first judgement by asking yourself how to make your life marginally less awful by putting something back into it or the second judgement by seeing that the sinking reaction has inappropriate consequences for other people. Seneca's On Consolation to Marcia though not always strictly Stoic is a marvellous example of what can be done.

Stoic cognitive therapy does have some advantages of its own I believe. It involves a habit of mind of questioning appearances by saying things to yourself and this habit can be exercised all the time in daily life for the many little ups and downs that occur. You can apply it to yourself and you need no therapist other than yourself once you have taken in the system. I believe that practising Stoic thoughts will show how often they are effective even though they will not always be so. This belief is itself an encouraging one. If we believed erroneously that the amygdala's reactions could not be countered by taking thought this despairing attitude would become self-fulfilling by leading us not to make the effort.

Is Stoic therapy a detachable part of the Stoic system?

In one way I may seem to have been distorting in comparing Stoic therapy with modern psychotherapy because Stoic therapy is only one small part of a much larger system combining ethics physics and theology not to mention logic. But we shall see in the next chapter that Chrysippus himself was willing to offer therapy to people who did not share Stoic values so he himself thought the therapy to be detachable from the ethics though not from the psychological theory. Even with Stoic trainees Chrysippus believed it should be possible to present Stoic ethics without dependence on theology because ethics came early in the curriculum whereas theology came last.24 This is despite the fact that the ultimate justification from a Stoic point of view might be theological.25

Christian therapy

It may be easier for some people nowadays to gain tranquillity from selected aspects of Stoic philosophy than from belief in the Christian God. We shall see in later chapters that the Christians of antiquity were in the business of proposing rival therapies. They borrowed and adapted the Stoic idea of ‘first movements’ and they disagreed with each other about the value of eradicating emotion. What is striking is how much stranger their therapies often appear from a present-day perspective than the pagan ones. In Evagrius the desert father we find a belief in demons as tempters and a heroic ever-losing battle of playing one emotion off against another in the solitude of the desert.26 Christian consolation literature invokes the resurrection of the body.27 Augustine connects our inability to avoid fear and grief with original sin.28 His advice on consolation appeals much more directly to reliance on God than does the Stoic version. He was inconsolable for his lost childhood friend until he learnt that God is the only thing that cannot be taken away.29 And he thinks that Christian baptism is the only thing that can fortify us against lust.30 Boethius gives an explicit warning in his Consolation of Philosophy which I take to be a Christian work.31 After using familiar pagan techniques of consolation in the first two books he says that he will move to something harder in Book 3 as he turns to his conception of God.32 These Christian appeals are undoubtedly powerful for believers but since not everyone nowadays is a believer I should expect the Stoic therapies to be much easier to assimilate for some people than the Christian ones. None of this is to deny that Stoicism has its unacceptable face which I shall consider in Chapters 12 and 13.

Revival and obsolescence of ideas

I have been arguing that the Stoic belief in rigorous philosophy as contributing to therapy is not obsolete. I think that it is in any case very difficult to predict when ideas are finally obsolete and when they may be revived. This is partly because ideas can be transplanted into new contexts I believe without necessarily being radically changed in the process. Since people are eclectic ideas may then be unpredictably revived. Elements at least of the Stoic approach have been revived by cognitive therapy and in Chapter 16 we shall notice that one ancient idea about momentary selves with its therapeutic consequences for the fear of death has been revived by Derek Parfit.

Stoic ethics practical but not ‘applied’

I could sum up my view by saying that in Stoicism analytic philosophy is married to philosophy as a way of life. But in describing Stoic philosophy as practical I have not described it as applied ethics. The idea has been rightly criticized that one can work out an ethical theory in the abstract and then discover how to act in concrete situations by applying the theory (often in a rather automatic way) and seeing what it tells you to do.33 The Stoic texts I have been concerned with are quite unlike this. The desire to control emotion leads to acute observation which informs the analysis of what emotion is. The resulting analysis in its turn is used in the fight to control emotion. The philosophical analysis of what the emotions are is not even treated as belonging to a separate branch of philosophy from the practical control of emotion. Both are classified as ethics.34 The connection between practice and theory is seamless.