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Epictetus and CBT in the first century AD

Posted by Andrew Cooper on December 10, 2008

David D Burns, one of the original exponents of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (see various previous posts) once pointed out that the underlying principles of the approach are nothing new.

He mentions the Greek Stoic philosopher Epictetus who, as you will see from his Wikipedia entry, was born in 55 AD.  Epictetus suggests that ‘suffering arises from trying to control what is uncontrollable, or from neglecting what is within our power.’

CBT is based on the ideas that what we think (our ‘cognitions’) determines how we feel and that we can exercise some control over what we think.  Epictetus said, for example, that “”Men are disturbed not by the things which happen, but by the opinions about the things” and as this book points out, Taoism and Buddhism both regard cognition as a primary force in determining human behaviour.

Epictetus had views on every subject under the Sun.  Here are just a few of them.  One of them is clearly the original of Shakespeare’s famous CBT related quote.

Incidentally, I came across an advert earlier in which IBM claim that they can help to ‘solve business challenges’.  Further evidence that ‘challenges’ are what we used to call ‘problems’, I think.  Before long ‘challenge’ will have the same negative connotations as ‘problem’, so we’ll have to think of something else to call them.  Can’t be ‘issues’ though: that’s already been taken.

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