Blog Post No. 143
By Dr Jim Byrne
Origianlly posted on 18th March 2016 – And re-posted here on 6th April 2016
Amended slightly on 29th July 2019
Dr Jim’s Counselling Blog: A little knowledge about Stoicism is a dangerous thing…
Part 1: The distinction between moderate and extreme Stoicism…
Copyright (c) Jim Byrne, 2016
It was most likely Alexander Pope who warned the world that “a little learning (or knowledge) is a dangerous thing”, and that it would be better to have no knowledge of a subject than a little, since the little we acquire may greatly mislead us. This seems to me to be true in many contexts, and in particular, today, I want to focus upon the ways in which brief ‘quotations’ (or aphorisms) are transmitted through our culture which give us an unrepresentative flavour of a subject, but no real grasp of the substance of that subject.
One example of this kind of misleading approach to the use of quotes (or aphorisms) is the tendency in cognitive and rational therapy to cherry pick a few phrases from Stoic philosophy, which seem on the surface to be helpful, but which hide dangerous depths of extreme lack of empathy and lack of self-regard, or self-care; especially those which come from the more extreme cogitations of Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius.
The most common example of this harmful practice is the promotion of the erroneous thought that “people are not upset by what happens to them”! Many cognitive and rational therapists promote these kinds of misleading quotations (or aphorisms, or phrases) to all and sundry, without any awareness of the harm that may be caused.
Overall, I think Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus show signs of having both a moderate tendency (of dedication to reality) and an extremist tendency (of trying to tolerate the intolerable – and advocating toleration of the intolerable).
Over the next few weeks, I hope to post a multi-part critique of extreme Stoicism in this blog, beginning with Part 1 today.
An example from my practice
Instead of trying to present a summation of what I have learned of this problem of extreme Stoicism in one blog post, I want to approach the problem in small, easy steps. Here is an example from my counselling practice which should help to illustrate the distinction between moderate and extreme Stoicism.
Over more than a dozen years, up to 2007, under the influence of Albert Ellis’s system of rational therapy, (which I have now abandoned), I’ve used bits and pieces of Stoic philosophy with my counselling clients.
In recent years, I’ve had three clients who had great difficulty handling difficult people in public places, such as workplaces, commercial offices, and educational settings. Those individuals would come to me, week after week, complaining about having (once again!) run into people who insult them, use sarcasm with them, or hook them into nasty psychological games. Eventually, I developed the habit, with those three particular clients, of always reaching for my copy of Marcus Aurelius’ book of Meditations, turning to Book II, Verse 1, and reading out this (moderate) statement:
- A moderate example
“1. Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today inquisitive, ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men (and women). All these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill (or evil). …”
And, after several such experiences, each of these clients eventually made a commitment to teach themselves this lesson, so that could avoid being upset when they (inevitably!) run into difficult people in the future. Indeed, each of them wrote down this statement from Marcus, and carried it with them, and eventually they each came to terms with the reality that there are Good and Bad ‘Wolves’ out there – and that the Good and Bad Wolf lives inside each of us (which is an old Cherokee insight, which I also taught to them – alongside some assertiveness skills! See my paper on this subject.)
But if you have Book II in front of you, then you will notice something significant. I have not quoted Verse 1 in full; and the reason is that the second part of Verse 1 is an example of extreme Stoicism:
- An example of extremist thinking
This is what the second part of Verse 1 says:
“But I, because I have seen that the nature of the good is the right, and of ill the wrong, and that the nature of man himself who does wrong is akin to my own (not of the same blood and seed, but partaking with me in mind, that is in a portion of divinity), I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of upper and lower teeth. To work against one another therefore is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism”. (Page 7).
I could not offer this second part of Verse 1 to my three clients as sound advice. Why not? For the following three reasons:
- Because of the foolish claim that “I can (not) be harmed by any of them…” (Of course I can – and so can you!)
- Because of the untenable idea that my clients cannot be angry with their tormentors. (Yes they can – and if they are emotionally healthy, then they will often be appropriately angry with their tormentors!)
- Because of the strange idea that to work against one another is to oppose Nature. (I will show, shortly that this is a false claim).
Analysis of those three points
Let me now look at each of those three reservations in turn, before coming to my conclusion (for this week).
- Firstly: Marcus’s foolish claim that “I can (not) be harmed by any of them…”
In a blog post in 2011, I remember writing this: “Of course, we need to note that this is not the ‘common sense’ understanding of harm. After all, Marcus knew that several previous Roman emperors had been seriously harmed (killed) by their political enemies. And Seneca, a great Stoic philosopher, was himself put to death by Nero during the crushing of a conspiracy to assassinate Nero. So, logically, he must be speaking of ‘harm’ here in the classical Stoical sense of ‘moral decay’ or ‘moral deviation’.”
But my clients would be poorly served by me if I told them: “When you go into public places, you will meet all kinds of difficult people, but none of them can harm you!”
This would not be true. They can be harmed by others; and they must be clear about that. They also have a responsibility to know how to protect themselves in the presence of others who might harm them.
So it would be an example of extreme Stoic self-delusion if I taught my clients that nobody could harm them!
- Secondly: Marcus’s untenable idea that my clients cannot be angry with their tormentors.
I cannot teach this to my clients, because I want them to have access to their reasonable angry responses when anybody tries to oppress or exploit or otherwise harm them. I want them to be able to defend themselves, assertively (not aggressively) – and to do that they need to be able to feel appropriate anger.
The Stoics made the mistake of thinking that all emotions area result of false beliefs. This is untrue, as a person who believe, accurately, that they are about to be killed by a violent assailant will feel strong, logical, and rational feelings of fear and dread! Stoics are committed to being unemotional. From Cynicism, Epictetus had learned that he should strive to be “as unfeeling as a stone” – see Irvine (2009) – and though Stoicism is supposed to be in the middle ground between Cynicism and moderate emotionality, there is evidence that both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius tended to drift towards the Cynic position from time to time – and this probably constitutes the core of their extremism!
This extremist tendency to want to be as unfeeling as a stone is exemplified in the famous statement by Epictetus, in the Enchiridion, to the effect that:
“Men (and women) are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things: for example, death is nothing terrible, for if it were, it would have seemed so to Socrates; for the opinion about death, that it is terrible, is the terrible thing. When, then, we are impeded or disturbed or grieved, let us never blame others, but ourselves, that is, our opinions. It is the act of an ill-instructed man (or woman) to blame others for his (or her) own bad condition; it is the act of one who has begun to be instructed, to lay the blame on himself; and of one whose instruction is completed, neither to blame another, nor himself”. (Page 14, Section V, the Enchiridion).
But this is a false view of human emotion – which was adopted by Albert Ellis and Aaron Beck – to the effect that cognitions cause emotions. In my new book – A Major Critique of REBT – I have this to say on this subject:
“People are affected by their environments, and especially their social environments (which contradicts the extremist view expressed by Epictetus in his most famous dictum: where he states, in the Enchiridion, that “people are not disturbed by what happens to them, but rather by the attitude they adopt towards what happens to them”). Most often, our emotional reactions are automatic, very fast, and non-conscious (Goleman). The emotional arousal occurs in a fraction of a second, which is far too fast for any thinking to take place. And very often, the strong emotional reaction is ‘self-preserving’ or self-protective, or survival oriented, and not at all ‘irrational’.”
Furthermore, according to the extensive research project of Jaak Panksepp, human cognitive processes – including attention, perception, memory, languaging and thinking – are all regulated by our innate emotions, and not vice versa! But Daniel Siegel (2015) clarifies that our emotions are both regulating and regulated. And Daniel Hill (2015), summarizing the work of Allan Schore and Peter Fonagy, suggests that regulation of non-conscious primary affects is more fundamental than the conscious insights of mentalizing (or thinking in language).
I will have more to say on this subject in Part 2 or 3 of this blog post series.
- Thirdly: Marcus’s strange idea that to work against one another is to oppose Nature.
I cannot agree to teach my clients this naïve view of human cooperation and competition. In E-CENT theory we teach that the line between good and evil runs right down the centre of the human heart; that we each contain a constructive, pro-social tendency (the ‘Good Wolf’ state) and a destructive, anti-social tendency (the ‘Bad Wolf’ state). We need to cooperate with each other for the common good, but we must not lose sight of morality. We must not cooperate with people who are promoting evil. We must, in fact, to the degree that we can, work against those people who are promoting evil – and this is not against ‘our Nature’, because our Nature is shaped by culture, and our nature/culture is split between the Good and the Bad.
Marcus Aurelius was not who we think he was!
And here’s the paradox. If you sit down and read through Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, you get the sense that you are reading the journal of a saint; a sage; a monk or hermit. A man who is filled with love for his fellows. But you are not! (He is actually said to have reviled mankind! [Irvine, 2009]).
Marcus Aurelius wrote Book II “among the Quadi on the river Gran” in central Europe, where he was crushing a rebellion against the Roman Empire. Marcus was at war with the peoples who were subjected by the tyranny of the Roman Empire, throughout most of his forty years of adult life, during which time he was the Emperor and military leader of the most aggressively expansive empire seen up to that time in ancient history.
When he retired to his tent to write the opening lines of Book II, he may have had to wash the blood of battle from his hands before handling his journal. How convenient that he believed that the subjugated peoples, who were oppressed by him and his armies, on behalf of his empire, were not upset by his oppression of them – which (Stoicism believes) was a matter of ‘indifference’ – but by their opinions of the Roman army of occupation!
And how insincere that he should write that “to work against one another therefore is to oppose Nature, and to be vexed with another or to turn away from him is to tend to antagonism”.
How can he – a full time warlord! – use that word, “antagonism” in that way, after a hard day’s bloodshed in putting down rebellion and revolt by an oppressed people?
Conclusion to Part 1
A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. I learned that lesson the hard way, when I learned that the philosophy of psychotherapy developed by Dr Albert Ellis was hidebound by his emotional damage in childhood; his (self-acknowledged) amoralism; his mild autism; and his avoidant attachment style. I learned in the process that you had better know the provenance of any idea you decide to take into your mind, because ideas carry the birthmarks of their creators, and screwed up individuals can only produce screwed up philosophies of life!
For more ideas about the philosophy of counselling and psychotherapy, and some self help books, please visit the ABC Bookstore Online.***
That’s all for this week.
 Byrne, J. (2011-2013) CENT Paper No.25: The Innate Good and Bad Aspects of all Human Beings (the Good and Bad Wolf states). Hebden Bridge: The Institute for E-CENT Publications. Available online: http://www.abc-counselling.com/id312.html
 Aurelius, M. (1946/1992) Meditations. Trans. A.S.L. Farquharson. London: Everyman’s Library.
 Sherman, N. (2005) Stoic Warriors: The ancient philosophy behind the military mind. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 9.
 Irvine, W. (2009) A Guide to the Good Life: the ancient art of Stoic joy. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Page 30.
 Epictetus (1991) The Enchiridion. New York: Prometheus Books.
 Goleman, D. (1996) Emotional Intelligence: why it can matter more than IQ. London: Bloomsbury.
 Panksepp, J. (1998) Affective Neuroscience: The foundations of human and animal emotions. Oxford University Press.
 Siegel, D.J. (2015) The Developing Mind: How relationships and the brain interact to shape who we are. London: The Guilford Press.
 Hill, D. (2015) Affect Regulation Theory: A clinical model. London: W.W. Norton and Company.