The idea of a Roman emperor undergoing a course of psychotherapy probably sounds like historical fiction, right? Well, it’s not. The Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, was famously a lifelong follower of the ancient Greek philosophy of Stoicism. Stoic philosophers employed an early form of cognitive psychotherapy, and Marcus had a therapist.
Indeed, the word Marcus uses here in Greek is therapeia — there’s no question that it means therapy.
How do we know this? Because he tells us so, right at the beginning of his personal notebook, known to us today as The Meditations. Marcus is looking back on the things he learned from his family and teachers. We know from the Roman histories that the Stoic philosopher and Roman statesman, Junius Rusticus, was his favourite tutor. Speaking of him, Marcus says:
From Rusticus I received the impression that my character required improvement and therapy… — Meditations, 1.7
The word Marcus uses here in Greek is therapeia — there’s no question that it means therapy. Indeed, we know that the ancient Stoics, and other philosophers, wrote entire books on the subject of psychopathology and psychotherapy, the cause and cure of emotional problems. One of the most influential was the Therapeutics of Chrysippus, the third head of the Stoic school. Although it’s sadly lost, it’s one of the key influences on a surviving text called On the Diagnosis and Cure of the Soul’s Passions by Galen, the court physician of Marcus Aurelius.
As it happens, Stoicism was the philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT).
I’m a psychotherapist by profession, and write books about Stoic philosophy. As it happens, Stoicism was the philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based form of modern psychotherapy. I’ve written about the relationship between them at length elsewhere. (See my recent…