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Philosophy as therapy April 9, 2008

Posted by Don in Philosophy, Skepticism, Stoicism.

The image of philosophy as a form of therapy–a treatment for the sickness of the soul–is pervasive among the Hellenistic schools (Epicureans, Stoics, Skeptics). Each school presents its own diagnosis of this sickness and its distinctive account of the remedy that philosophy provides. At the same time, the schools share a psychological reference point: the soul’s sickness manifests itself in our “disturbance,” our lack of a calm and steady mind. Accordingly, each of the schools is concerned with the way in which philosophy can be productive of a state of equanimity, tranquility and lack of disturbance (ataraxia)–goals that we have seen can be traced to Democritus.

In the debates among the schools, this shared concern with achieving a certain psychological outcome (“peace of mind”) can lead to a blurring of doctrinal differences. This is especially evident among later writers such as Seneca, who (as a Stoic) comes close to identifying the goal of philosophy with the attainment of this preferred mental state:

The Greeks call this stable state of the soul euthymia, on which there is an excellent book by Democritus; I call it tranquility…. What we are seeking, therefore, is how the soul may always pursue a steady and favorable course, may be well-disposed towards itself, and may view its condition with joy, and suffer no interruption of this joy, but may remain in a peaceful state, being never exalted nor dejected. This will be tranquility. (On the Tranquility of the Soul, 2.3-4)

On the basis of passages like this, one may be apt to think that the schools have identified a common problem (the soul’s “disturbance”) to which they propose competing solutions. But this, I believe, is a misleading way of representing their disagreement. Although the schools fix on what appears to be a single psychological state, they offer different analyses of the causes of our affective discomfort. Consequently, their real disagreement is about what this discomfort signifies, or what is wrong with the way in which we comport ourselves to the world. Here we find three very different accounts.

Cicero offers one of the most explicit statements of the therapeutic model in his Tusculan Disputations:

Assuredly there is an art of healing the soul [animi medicina]–I mean philosophy, whose aid must be sought not, as in bodily diseases, outside ourselves, and we must use our utmost endeavor, with all our resources and strength, to have the power to be ourselves our own physicians. (III.3)

Cicero presents this view from the perspective of the Stoics, for whom passions (pleasure, distress, lust, fear) are “diseases” of the soul that leave us discontent and incapable of happiness. Part of what is being picked out here is the unsatisfying affective condition we are in when we allow ourselves to be moved hither and thither by the passions. We are disturbed rather than calm; we do not feel right. Yet for the Stoics there is a deeper point at stake: when we live under the sway of the passions, we are incapable of happiness (eudaimonia), in the sense of a “successful life”–one that, objectively, goes as well as a human life can go. So, it is not just that we do not feel right: we are not right. Our soul is unhealthy (insanitas) rather than healthy (sanitas). We live in a condition of mindlessness (amentia), or “insanity” (dementia) (III.10)

For the Stoics, there is only one cure for what ails us: philosophy, whose goal is the production of that state of mind which finds us well-ordered with respect to our own constitution as rational beings and to the cosmos. And the only way to achieve this state is to know the truth–about the necessary order of nature, things to be pursued and avoided, and ultimately virtue and the good. The perfection of this state of knowing is wisdom.

Pyrrhonian skeptics offer the opposite treatment program. For them, the cause of our sickness and lack of tranquility is our vain conviction that we can know the true natures of things. We are full of opinions about how things really are, but these opinions are inevitably at odds with each other, and so we sway wildly from one belief to another, never at rest. Again, philosophy comes to the rescue. This time, however, the cure is to be shaken out of our dogmatism through the distinctive form of argument employed by the skeptic (the “modes”):

The skeptic, because he loves humanity, wishes to cure dogmatists of their opinions and rashness, with reasoning, so far as possible. So, just as doctors have remedies of different strengths for bodily ailments and for those suffering excessively employ the strong ones and for those suffering mildly the mild ones, so the skeptic puts forth arguments that differ in strength. (Sextus Empiricus, Outlines of Pyrrhonism, 3.280)

Both the Stoics and the Skeptics promise tranquility of mind, but they do so on the basis of opposing accounts of why we lack tranquility: either because we lack the knowledge that would right us to the world, or because we think that there is some such knowledge to be had. Deciding between the “remedies” offered by the two schools, therefore, cannot be compared to choosing one brand of cough syrup over another. It is not a case of one illness and two competing drugs; rather, we have two competing diagnoses of a symptom and two remedies to treat the (different) proposed underlying causes.

In my next post, I will extend this account to the position of Epicurus and consider some of the specific issues it raises.

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