ANCIENT STOICISM AND RATIONAL PSYCHOLOGY:
HUMANISTIC WAYS TO MENTAL HEALTH
by Frederick Edwords
"To be a philosopher," said Thoreau, "is not merely to have
subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom
as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity,
independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the
problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically."
Yet that's often what we Humanists have overlooked in many of
our activities. To solve some of the problems of life, or help
others solve them, in very practical and down-to-earth ways, is,
in the final analysis, what I think the Humanist philosophy was
developed to accomplish. After all, Humanism can be defined as a
commitment to the use of reason and observation in the service of
human need and interest in the here and now. And, as such, it is
an ethic that aims at what thinkers ancient and modern have termed
"the good life." For Humanists, the good life is one where reason
is the tool and happiness the goal -- happiness both for ourselves
Now, if modern Humanism were to trace its roots to some
particular ancient philosophical system, what system would that
be? Well, given our heritage in the freethought movement, there
is a tendency to choose Epicureanism. It's founder, Epicurus,
challenged the religious traditions of his day, declaring clearly
that the superstitious fear of hellfire was a major cause of
human misery in the here-and-now. That sort of thing warms the
hearts of the debunkers among us. But did the Epicureans, or
their Cyrenaic forebears, have the right idea on how happiness is
attained? I don't believe they did.
Contrary to the teachings of these ancient hedonists, it
seems that happiness can rarely be attained directly, through a
forthright pursuit of a well-balanced set of pleasures. Happiness
is rather like "wellness." Its prerequisite is an absence of
disease. And when it came to providing that prerequisite, to
relieving the diseases of the mind, and even of society, it was
the ancient Stoics who often proved to be the best philosophical
Bertrand Russell, in his book The Conquest of Happiness, set
forth the Stoic dictum in modern terms. "I believe," he wrote,
"unhappiness to be very largely due to mistaken views of the
world, mistaken ethics, mistaken habits of life . . ." Following
Russell's lead, 1971 Humanist of the Year Albert Ellis has taken a
similar approach. In his Rational-Emotive Therapy, which he
freely acknowledges as humanistic and rooted in ancient Stoicism,
Ellis focuses attention on the irrational ideas that keep people
miserable. He directs attention to the Jehovian demands, the
religiosity, the catastrophizing that prove counter-productive and
self-defeating. And he prescribes reason as the tool best capable
of breaking down these extremes of the mind.
In this view, then, the first step in attaining to the good
life is the removal of obstacles, the taking down of the barriers
to happiness. One would do well to cease to be ill before trying
to become well. Or so it would seem . . .
But I think this is a mistake.
For there is a prior step even to the one just outlined.
There is, shall we say, a prerequisite to the prerequisite. And
this latter prerequisite has little to do with reason. In fact,
it has everything to do with desire.
You know the old joke. How many therapists does it take to
change a light bulb?
It will change only when it truly wants to change.
In short, motivation is the key. The first job of the counselor,
the recovery group leader, the youth club leader, even the social
reformer, then, is to instill a strong desire for change. And one
instills a strong desire for change through such activities as --
and excuse my choice of terminology -- evangelism and
rabble-rousing. That's right: One appeals directly to the
emotions. One paints a graphic and beautiful word picture of the
good life, and the good society, so that they become strongly
People who do this well are called women and men of "vision."
And one can also paint a graphic and ugly word picture of misery.
One grinds in the significance of the present unhappy state --
focuses on what is wrong and how matters cannot simply be allowed
to continue as they are.
People who do this well are called preachers of hellfire.
It's the old carrot and stick trick. It's whipping up a fury of
desire, fanning the flames of discontent. It's the stuff of
which revolutions are made: revolutions in society, or
revolutions in one's personal life.
And it was for this purpose that the Roman Stoic philosopher
Seneca wrote his essay On the Shortness of Life. In that essay,
he drew attention to the fact that people often don't get their
lives in order in anything like a timely way. He wrote:
The majority of mortals complain bitterly of the
spitefulness of nature, because we are born for such a brief
span of life, because even this space that has been granted
to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a
very few find life at an end just when they are getting
ready to live.
That was the stick. Then came the carrot.
Yet the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor
do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it.
And he added, "our life is amply long if ordered properly."
What Seneca meant here was that people would do well to have
more concern for the values and priorities of life. He was urging
his readers to reconsider their goals, to reassess themselves, to
give the truly important things more time, and to act now.
By way of example, we can we look around us today and see
many people living life on what might be called the "deferred
payment plan." Children commonly say, "Just wait until I grow
up." Students can't wait until they finish school and leave home
so they can begin to live as they like. When young people date,
they look forward to the time when they will be married. Then
they'll be happy. When married they look ahead to owning their
own home. Then they'll be happy. When winter comes, they look to
Spring, or to the day they can move to California. If they have
children they say, "When the kids grow up and leave home, then
we'll be able to do what we want." Of course there's still the
job. So they look to retirement as the time to live.
Seneca denounced this attitude in the strongest language:
Are you not embarrassed to reserve for yourself only the
remnant of life, and to set apart only that time which cannot
be devoted to any business? . . . What foolish
forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the
fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a
point which not all have even attained!"
Seneca believed that we can live now, every day, can find our
meaning and joy at this time, not some other. Don't wait for
happiness, he argued, create it.
For the irony is, when retirement comes, people tend
to look back and wonder what became of the "good times." The
remedy is to always remember that today is the day you will be
nostalgic about tomorrow. These are the "good old days." Make
them good before they get old.
Postponing happiness, however, isn't the only problem.
People also lose much of their lives seeking to gain the approval
of others. They live their lives for others, not in a charitable
way that might bring mutual happiness, but in a slavish way,
putting their happiness in others' hands. They often worry about
what others might think and say.
Albert Ellis has written much on not worrying about what
other people think. So did the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius
who, in his Meditations said:
Constantly observe who they are whose approval you seek, and
by what principles they are guided. For if you look to the
sources of their opinions and appetites, you'll neither
condemn those offenses they give nor desire the approval
Elsewhere he added that one shouldn't listen to the opinions of
all people, but only those who we can respect.
Of course there are also those who we seek to impress, get
even with, and compete against. How much of our lives do we allow
them to rob from us? And among how many such people does each one
of us distribute his or her life? Seneca argues:
People do not allow anyone to seize their estates, and they
rush to stones and arms if there is even the slightest
dispute about the boundaries of their property, yet they
allow others to trespass upon their life -- nay, they them-
selves even bring in those who will eventually possess it.
Clearly, then, efforts to live our lives by the measure of
others turn us away from ourselves. So, we would do well to
choose with care the standards by which we wish to live and the
standard-bearers we wish to follow. If we are finding life short,
this is evidence that we have chosen wrongly and might better
reassess our goals, and perhaps even our values. It is so easy,
after a promising start, to become sidetracked and lose sight of
our reasons for doing what we do. Things that were, at first,
means to worthy ends can become ends in themselves. But these are
not our ends, the ends we started with. They are ends that take
us away from ourselves and render the time we really spend for
ourselves shorter and shorter.
Another source of the feeling that life is short is the time
lost in worry, fear, and anxiety. One irony here is that at the
very moment we are achieving our goals or having the life we
seek, the anxious thought floods over us, "How long will this
last?" We wonder if it might not all disappear in some calamity.
The happily married can wonder if divorce will one day ruin it
all. The wealthy can worry about bankruptcy. Whatever it is, it
can be lost, and this realization can cause some to fail to enjoy
the bounty of the moment. Of course precautions can be
taken, but life is to be lived now.
As anxiety over the future robs us of the present, so does
guilt over the past. All human beings commit wrongs, some
intentional and some accidental. But guilt and remorse are non-
productive and often counter-productive. If we have done wrong,
we should seek what action we can take to remedy the problem or
make amends. If nothing can be done, we should try to learn what
we can from the experience so as to avoid repetition in the
future. But at no time is it productive to wallow in our own
self-pity, condemn ourselves, punish ourselves, or pursue the rest
of our lives as though we are undeserving.
Yet so many do this. Were it not so, there would not be the
popularity of guilt-oriented religions. In Old Testament times,
the collective guilt of the tribe was symbolically placed on a
goat and the scapegoat was sent out into the wilderness. But with
the coming of Christianity, Christ became the scapegoat for the
sins of the individual. His death was to free all those who
believed from the guilt of their past actions. The "saved"
thought of themselves as "washed in Christ's guiltless blood," and
fully pardoned for their transgressions.
This sort of symbolic blood-sacrifice is an intellectualized
version of a primitive scheme for expiation of guilt. As long as
humans have lived in societies they have often sought to invent
such schemes. Guilt is such a painful and disorienting emotion
that society cannot function if it is allowed free reign.
Yet such guilt expiation schemes accomplish no real good.
The wrong has still been done. This leaves the thinking person
in a quandary. Since no ritual can undo an actual wrongdoing,
should the thinking person continue to feel guilty? Many would
say yes. But this would render the thinking person less effic-
ient than the one who has the ritualistic scheme. Suddenly the
twin goals of honesty to oneself and rational living seem at odds.
But they are not. The initial awareness of wrongdoing
reminds us of our error. But such feelings are not ends in
themselves. They are goads to productive action. Such action
can be to remedy what can be remedied, or to perform in the
future in a fashion that will avoid a repeat performance. But
once the appropriate action is taken or resolve established,
there is nothing more that needs to be done. And if one feels a
sense of wrongdoing about something that is not actually wrong,
then the appropriate course is self-re-education, not remedial
action or resolve.
But think how much people waste of their lives in useless
replays of past wrongs. And those who cannot face their wrongs
squarely, and have no guilt expiation scheme in which they can
believe, often resort to repression and other efforts to forget
what they did. Such actions can distract one from a meaningful
pursuit of ones goals as much as outright guilt can. The past is
to be neither forgotten nor dwelled upon, but learned from in the
interests of better living in the present and future.
In regards to the use of time, past, present, and future,
Has some time passed by? This is something one embraces by
recollection. Is time present? This is something one uses.
Is it still to come? This is something one anticipates.
One makes life long by combining all times into one. But
those who forget the past, neglect the present, and fear for
the future have a life that is very brief and troubled.
It is a Humanist dictum that this life is all and enough.
We will pass this way but once and no one can guarantee any
paradise waiting just beyond the grave. This is probably our only
shot. But the possibilities of this life are sufficient to give
meaning to our existence. For it is in the context of this life
that we love, laugh, experience nature, pursue goals, and enjoy
triumph. And to better enjoy these things we cultivate courage,
bear adversity, and rise up from the ashes of failure.
And for those who continue their hope for an afterlife, let
it be viewed as a bonus to a life well-lived here and now, not a
focus to justify the giving up of everything resting in the palm
of the hand.
Yet so many do give up the good life. They join ascetic
religious orders, political mass movements that put all the
benefits ahead to future generations, adopt creeds of excessive
self-denial. The price people pay in adherence to such ideas,
devotion to charismatic leaders, and involvement in fanatical
crusades is staggering. Seneca could have had such people in mind
when he wrote:
They spend life in making ready to live! They form their
purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement
is the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day
as it comes, it snatches from them the present by promising
something hereafter. The greatest hindrance to living is
expectancy, which depends upon tomorrow and wastes today.
Many ex-fundamentalists have found this out too late, often
regretting sacrificed years. This can lead them into a frantic
effort to make up for lost time. For example, when an article on
Fundamentalists Anonymous, an organization for ex-fundamentalists,
appeared in an issue of Penthouse magazine, the positive response
from ex-fundamentalists was overwhelming, since so many were
reading the magazine to catch up on some of the living they had
Humanism, on the other hand, is a philosophy for today, for
the here and now world of our senses and aspirations. It is an
ethic that puts life first, death last. It is a way of life that
finds joy in a spring flower or the crash of waves on the
seashore, in a momentary human encounter or the purr of a kitten.
It is a focus that includes purposeful goals, meaningful pursuits,
and high aspirations.
And this is because, once the "bull" has been successfully
fought, once the irrational ideas that blockade happiness have
been largely removed, it is possible to focus one's attention on
realizing the good life itself. Now one is free to pursue the
goal more directly.
Lloyd and Mary Morain talked about the good life in their
1954 Beacon Press book, Humanism as the Next Step, when they
As a starting point let us take the idea that this life
should be experienced deeply, lived fully, with sensitive
awareness and appreciation of that which is around us.
This was the first of their seven key ideas of Humanism. They
elaborated further, saying:
Back through the centuries whenever people have enjoyed
keenly the sights and sounds and other sensations of the
world about them, and enjoyed these for what they were--not
because they stood for something else--they were experiencing
life humanistically. Whenever they felt keen interest in the
drama of human life about them and ardently desired to take
part in it they felt as humanists.
Referring to this attitude as "zest for living," they were
following the lead of Bertrand Russell who, in The Conquest of
Happiness, referred to "zest" as "the most universal and
distinctive mark" of the happy individual. People with this
quality, Russell argued, are those who come at life with a sound
appetite, are glad to have what is before them, partake of things
until they have enough, and know when to stop.
To some, this vision sounds a bit like Omar Khayyam:
A Book of Verses underneath the Bough,
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread--and Thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness--
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!
Ah, make the most of what we yet may spend,
Before we too into the Dust descend;
Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie,
Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and--sans End!
Which comes close to the hedonistic doctrine Humanists are accused
Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.
Or, as Mad magazine once put it --
A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread, and Thou--
Pretty soon I'll be drunk, fat, and in trouble.
But we needn't take Omar the Tentmaker literally when it
comes to all that drinking and carousing. The humanist notion of
the good life goes much deeper than any philosophy one will find
at the bottom of a bottle. The physical pleasures are far from
representing the whole. For the Humanist there are also the
pleasures of an unfettered mind making new discoveries, solving
problems, and creating. There is the enjoyment of art, music,
dance, and drama. There is the joy of helping others and the
challenge of working to make the world a better and more peaceful
place. And, of course, there are the joys associated with love
and family. The Humanist seeks the enjoyment of as many of these
as reasonable, and cannot do so if an over-focus on just one
overtakes life completely.
In this, we are clearly at one with the ancient Greek ideal
of wholeness and the integration of life. For example, in the
ancient Olympic games, competition included not only athletics but
drama, music, poetry, and philosophy. And the whole combination
was viewed as a religious event. The Greeks put it together and
did it all. So can we.
In having zest for living, we join with the ancient Chinese
who, in following Confucius, saw much of life as play -- which
accounted for their enjoyment of ceremony and especially their
love of toys.
Such a worldly and good-natured view of life that claims no
ultimate knowledge, stands out when contrasted with Hinduism.
Whereas the Yogi is often seen as renouncing desire, living an
ascetic life-style, and acquiring eternal knowledge, Socrates, the
sage of the ancient Greeks, deliberately provoked certain
appetites in himself, lived a social and active life, and
professed to have no knowledge whatever!
It is also radically different from conservative
Christianity, which has sometimes called this world a veil of
tears, has seen pleasures as vanity, and seems to find the goal of
human life beyond the grave. Such believers might quote
Better a good name than costly oil,
the day of death than the day of birth.
Better to go to the house of mourning
than to the house of feasting;
for to this end all men come,
let the living take this to heart.
Better sadness than laughter,
a severe face confers some benefit. Jerusalem Bible
As an antidote, Robert Louis Stevenson offered these words in his
Gentleness and cheerfulness, these come before all morality:
they are the perfect duties. If your morals make you dreary,
depend on it they are wrong. I do not say, "give them up,"
for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice,
lest they should spoil the lives of better men."
The way the good life can be lived is well-described by
Havelock Ellis in his book, The Dance of Life. There he presents
living as an art, one best characterized as a dance. In this, he
follows the ancient Greeks who chose the image of dancing because,
unlike walking or running, dancing is not generally viewed as a
goal-oriented activity leading from point A to B. One dances for
the sheer joy of the activity. It is the process more than the
product that counts. And this is how the Humanist good life can
So, when someone asks a Humanist, "What is the purpose of
life?" the Humanist would do well to answer, "Life is not purpose,
life is art." The meaning is found in the doing.
And there is a resulting optimism found is this philosophy.
As Robert Louis Stevenson put it in A Child's Garden of Verses --
The world is so full of a number of things,
I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.
Yes, there is more in this world than I could experience in a
thousand different lifetimes. There is a richness here, a
cornucopia of choices, a wealth of opportunities. There is so
much to see, to do, to read, to learn. The question is not, "What
shall I do with my life?" but "What shall I do next?!"
Yet, now we can ask, if this good life is to be the goal, is
it a goal accessible only to the affluent, the intelligent, the
educated? If so, then we are advocating a way of life only for a
relative few of the world's people. Certainly, I must admit that
I benefit from growing up in a middle class environment in a
wealthy country where I have access to a variety of choices. But
all is not lost in more impoverished environments in less wealthy
countries. For example, in Vijayawada, India, an extended family
of Humanists teach the poor of the villages the joys of
traditional folk dance, music, athletics, science, animal
husbandry, occupational skills, and, most important of all, the
vast world made possible only through reading. Many of the
beneficiaries of this effort are not only impoverished and
uneducated, but are often handicapped and abandoned. Yet in a
country steeped in an ancient tradition of other-worldliness due
to just such harsh realities, the humanistic vision is offered and
met. The International Association for Religious Freedom, the
world organization of liberal religions, has similar projects in
India and is getting similar results. The vision is no illusion.
Because my visits in India have given me an appreciation for
important elements of their culture, I would like to conclude my
talk here with one of the most humanistic pieces of poetry to come
down to us from that country's fabled past. It it is called The
Salutation to the Dawn. Were we to greet each day with words like
these, we would never have time to complain that life was short,
and would rarely become focused on irrational ideas. We would be
too busy living our happiness.
Look to this day!
For it is life, the very life of life,
In its brief course
Lie all the verities and realities of your existence:
The bliss of growth
The glory of action
The splendor of achievement
For yesterday is but a dream
And tomorrow is only a vision,
But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of
And every tomorrow a vision of hope.
Look well, therefore, to this day!
Such is the salutation to the dawn.
This is the text of a talk prepared for the Humanist Asssociation
of Massachusetts and delivered Sunday evening, February 14, 1993,
at the Harvard Science Center. Its author, Frederick Edwords, is
the executive director of the American Humanist Association.
(C) Copyright 1993 by Frederick Edwords
Permission to reproduce this material in toto in electronic or
printout form is hereby granted free of charge by the copyright
holder. Free permission to reprint the essay is granted to
nonprofit Humanist and Freethought publications. All others must
secure advance permission of the author through the American
Humanist Association, which can be contacted at the address at the
end of this file.
For further information on the Rational-Emotive psychotherapy of
Albert Ellis, please contact --
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Phone: (212) 535-0822
Dr. Ellis was the 1971 Humanist of the Year of the American
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AHA, please contact --
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