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Philosophy as Therapy – Conceptual Models


B.Contestabile   First version 2008   Last version 2024





Table of Contents




1.  Definition

2.  History

     2.1  Ancient Philosophy

     2.2  Modern Philosophy

3.  Forms of Therapy

     3.1  Therapeutic Goals

     3.2  Therapeutic Methods

     3.3  Link to Personality Psychology

4.  Therapy as Adaptation to Reality

     4.1  Overview

     4.2  Buddha

     4.3  Stoicism

     4.4  Nietzsche

     4.5  Freud

     4.6  Wittgenstein

5.  Therapy as Risk Ethics

     5.1  Basics

     5.2  Chances and Risks

     5.3  Awareness and Repression

6.  Therapy as Search for the Good Life

     6.1  Basics

     6.2  Hinduism

     6.3  Socrates

     6.4  Rawls

7.  Comparison with Psychotherapy

     7.1  Commonalities

     7.2  Differences

8.  Comparison with Religion

     8.1  Ancient Philosophy

     8.2  Modern Philosophy



Further Reading


Appendix: Moods









Starting point

The predominant movement in today‘s English-speaking philosophical culture is toward an increasing fragmentation of the subject into a set of highly professional specialisms and quasi-scientific and highly technical sub-disciplines whose connection with a “way of life” is virtually nil – except in the minimal sense that achieving the relevant qualifications and mastering the relevant intellectual techniques is how their practitioners happen to earn their living. If anyone today were to ask whether a member of a modern philosophy department can hope to “live better” than a lawyer, say, or a member of a metallurgy department, the question would in all probability be taken to be merely about relative salary and career prospects [Cottingham, 148-149].

Philosophy as therapy is a countermovement to this “culture”, which roots in ancient ways to do philosophy.



Type of problem

- What is philosophy as therapy?

- What is the difference between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy?




The shortest definition of philosophy as therapy is philosophy as a means to cure (or reduce) suffering.

In ancient times doing philosophy was a way of life; it was not restricted to an intellectual discipline [Hadot].



Relation to psychotherapy

Philosophical therapy competes with psychotherapy mainly in the counseling of mentally sane people. It differs from psychotherapy in two essential aspects:

1. Individualistic philosophical therapies strive to avoid theory-specific terms and consider the client’s constitution, environment, and life story as a unique phenomenon.  

2. Philosophical therapy is not only concerned with the life satisfaction of the individual, but also with the search for the objectively true and good. It is characterized by a variety of conceptual models, that cannot be captured by a universal medical model. Following some examples:

 - Soteriological model (Buddhism)

 - Pantheistic model (Stoicism)

 - Evolutionary model (Nietzsche)

 - Conflict model (Freud)

 - Aesthetic model (Wittgenstein)

Philosophical therapy is more than a subdivision of psychotherapy.


The delineation between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy is vague insofar, as philosophical methods like maieutics, hermeneutics and the change of perception are also used in psychotherapy.






1. Definition



What is philosophy as therapy?

The term therapy implies that there exists some kind of suffering to work therapeutically with.

The shortest definition of philosophy as therapy therefore is


Philosophy as a means to cure (or reduce) suffering.


Since there are different kinds of suffering, there are also different kinds of therapies. The term philosophy as therapy embraces all philosophies that

-      are (were) practiced as therapy or

-      can be interpreted as therapy.

[Lunsford, 9]


The cure (or reduction) of suffering can – but does not have to – lead to a state of happiness. We purposely abstain from characterizing philosophy as a happiness promising recipe or wellness-package. The deliberate attempt to become happy may even generate a counter-productive result [Hettlage, 154].


In above definition the entire topic of mental health is bypassed. Philosophical therapy aims at the clients' well-being without assuming that he/she suffers from a mental disease [Cohen, 32]. In the words of Lou Marinoff: “Philosophical therapy is a therapy for the sane” [Marinoff].






By disassociating retreat-oriented lifestyles like (certain forms of) Buddhism from psychological health [Zhang, 442] it is possible to exclude them from “normality”. But possibly the culture which excludes them is not as “healthy” and “sound” as it pretends to be. The question is especially pressing in authoritarian and totalitarian systems [Wallerstein] [Stover]. The political and ideological abuse of the term “psychological health” often goes with an abuse of psychiatry. Examples are abundant in history and seen during the Nazi era and the Soviet rule when political dissenters were labeled as "mentally ill" (Political abuse of psychiatry, Wikipedia). The political and ideological instrumentalization of psychiatry is one of the reasons for liberating philosophy from the medical terms health ideal and disease.

“The goal of philosophical counseling cannot be to return its clients to some socially (or biologically) defined level of functioning; nor can it be to treat deviancy” [Paden, 10].


For more information on the definition of philosophical therapy see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




The original meaning of the word therapy is service and the context was predominantly ancient worship [Ritter & Gründer, 1163]. The term philosophy as therapy is therefore reminiscent of the close relation between philosophy and religion in the antiquity [Clark, 83] [Kapstein, 99-100]. Later the term therapy included other types of services, in particular the care for body and soul. Curing the soul was traditionally seen as a task of the philosophers and wise. The cure of mental suffering by means of counseling is already mentioned with the Sophists and Plato [Ritter & Gründer, 1164].




There is no consistent usage of terms in the context of philosophy and therapy. We use philosophy as therapy as an umbrella term [Lunsford, 9]. It includes the following subterms:

-      A therapeutic philosophy is a form of philosophy, which has a therapeutic effect or a therapeutic intent. Socratic conversations, for example, have a therapeutic effect and Buddhism has a clear therapeutic intent. A therapeutic intent is also ascribed to Wittgenstein’s language analysis [Fischer].

-      A philosophical therapy is a form of therapy, which uses philosophical methods (like maieutics, hermeneutics and the change of perception). Without further specification this term is usually used for a therapist/client setting.

-      Philosophical counseling, philosophical consultancy or philosophical practice is a form of philosophical therapy, which is methodically related to cognitive behavioral therapy [Martin 2000, 17-18]. The terms are sometimes used to delimit philosophical therapy from psychotherapy. But philosophical therapy is more than cognitive behavioral therapy, at least in the ancient understanding, which is favored in this paper.



Structural model

Philosophy can change our way of living. We will associate such a change with the term self-transformation, because it implies a change of one’s character and not merely a change of one’s environment. “Self-transformation changes the internal disposition that determines the way in which one responds to external events” [Sellars, 83].




Above model (Fig.1) was developed in the antiquity. In the course of history theory was widely detached from practice and philosophy lost its therapeutic character. The ancient concept survived in niches until it was rediscovered and revitalized in modern philosophy. Following the historical course of events with some concrete examples for the meaning of theory and practice:




2. History



2.1 Ancient Philosophy




The use of critical-rational thinking in the therapeutic process is a possible criterion for distinguishing philosophical therapies from other forms of ancient therapies [Banicki 2015, 612]. Under these premises the therapeutic function of philosophy can be traced back to the Upanishads (Vedanta, last chapters of the vedas), in particular to the Samkhya doctrine, which pursued the liberation from suffering by means of knowledge, and which provides the metaphysical background for the Yoga school [Soni, 219][Baus, 8]. The Bhagavad-Gita contains direct instructions for Yoga:

Reining the senses, the heart and the spirit, entirely directed towards salvation – liberated from desires, fears and hatred, he is redeemed forever (chapter 5, verse 28)

With regard to above structural model

-      the Samkhya doctrine (including the disputes with competing doctrines) represents the theory

-      the Yoga school (in this context one of the six major orthodox schools of Hinduism) includes the corresponding mental and physical practices


The Upanishads developed out of Brahmanas (ritual texts) and are partially prose, partially verse. The early Upanishads all predate the Common Era, some in all likelihood pre-Buddhist and pre-Jain (7th-6th century BCE) and therefore also pre-Socratic. In Sanskrit Upanishad literally means “to sit down close to” a guru.

The Upanishads are a transitional form between the earlier vedas and the critical rational thinking of early Buddhism and Jainism.

The topics are – in contrast to the earlier vedas – not of a sacral or ritual nature. They address thinkers and seekers (Upanishaden, Wikipedia).

The Upanishads were, for centuries, memorized by each generation and passed down verbally (Upanishads, Wikipedia).

Since the goal of teaching was the liberation from suffering (Moksha) the Upanishads can be associated with philosophical therapy [Soni, 222, 231-232].

-      With the mediation by a Guru the Upanishads can be seen as precursors of guided therapies and philosophical counseling. There is an etymological interpretation of the guru as expeller of darkness, where darkness is seen as a lack of knowledge (avidya).

-      In the 4th century BC the proliferation of new ideas was favored by the emergence of sutras (textbooks). The written forms of the Upanishads can be seen as guidebooks for self-therapy.

The orientation of the Upanishads is not so much theoretical as practical and soteriological.




Buddhism was developed on the basis of traditional Hindu concepts, in particular Samkhya [Baus, 43-44] and Yoga. The most important Buddhist meditation technique, Vipassana, is an interpretation of the Patanjali Yoga Sutra. The Vipassana technique was rediscovered by the historical Buddha (6th/5th century BC).

There seems to be a fundamental difference in the Vedic world view before and after Buddha and Mahavira. The ancient view did not stress the idea of a recurrent cycle of existences (rebirth) as characterizing the human situation. This emphasis might have come about through the ascetic tradition, which seems to have been quite established during that time [Soni, 220].

For the proliferation of the Buddhist doctrine see Timeline of Buddhist History (http://www.buddhanet.net)


Buddhism is characterized by a clear focus on suffering and an obvious therapeutic intent. But is it also philosophical? Was the rebirth doctrine just a matter of belief or was it a matter of critical-rational discourse?

The doctrine of rebirth and karma is a complex cultural phenomenon, with a different function and a different mindset in popular belief, mythology and philosophical analysis. With regard to philosophical analysis, the mindset of the Buddhist scholars seems having been close to empirical science. According to Ernst Steinkellner, an Austrian specialist on Indology and Tibetology, the Buddhist discourses on rebirth express a vivid and strong rationality in large parts of the Buddhist tradition [Steinkellner 1995, 9]. The rebirth doctrine is seen as an irrational belief today, but Buddha’s version was perfectly in line with the empirical knowledge of the 6th century BC (see Secular Buddhism and Justice).


Despite of its critical-rational tradition Buddhism rejects a purely intellectual approach to philosophical knowledge. Buddha agreed with the Yoga school insofar, as theories can be refuted through arguments but not habits. The insight into the impermanence of the self, for instance, does not automatically destroy one’s attachment to the ego [Burton, 197]. Liberation requires a life practice according to the Eightfold Path.

-      Buddhism emphasizes that it can be extremely difficult to transform deeply engrained emotional and cognitive habits through straightforward rational considerations [Burton, 196]. The philosopher’s mistaken theories are simply rationalizations of these habits and therefore a superficial problem. Theories – which are more symptoms than causes – can be refuted trough arguments, but not habits. The refutation of the view that there is a permanent self, for instance, does not destroy one’s attachment to the ego [Burton, 197]. Buddhist writings therefore make use of literary forms such as parable, metaphor and contextualized descriptions. Many of the Buddhist scriptures are purportedly records of dialogues that took place between the Buddha and various disciplines. [Burton, 198].

-      The purpose of the “right view” has been missed, if one’s understanding of it is a cause of self-satisfaction, or if one uses it to appear clever or superior to other people. Such a misguided attitude betrays the fact that one has not been genuinely affected by the therapeutic message, namely that craving and selfishness are to be given up [Burton, 209].

-      Rational examination needs to complemented and confirmed by experiential verification (…). But experiences unscrutinised by reason are also unreliable (…). Hence there are developed traditions of debate in some forms of Buddhism. The Buddha said that his words should be accepted “after due investigation” rather than out of respect for him [Burton, 216].



Greek philosophy

There are good reasons to assume that Hellenistic philosophy was influenced by the Eastern tradition [McEvilley] [Clark, 84] [Vukomanovic, 166].

For information on this topic see Indian Sources of Hellenistic Ethics.


According to Lothar Baus Stoicism, as well as Buddhism, is related to the Samkhya doctrine [Baus]. Stoicism strives to liberate people from the suffering, which is caused by ignorance and unreasonable judgments. The Stoic ideal is apatheia, a term, which has a strong connotation with the “avoidance of suffering”: a- means "without" and patheia is derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *kwent(h)- "to suffer" [Harper]. Emotions were perceived as judgments, which can either be right or wrong. Wrong emotions express suffering directly (like grief and fear) or they lead to suffering indirectly (like craving and pleasure) [Laërtius 3rd century AD, 217-220].

Despite pronounced differences of cosmology, of many particular doctrines, of nuance and accent, there nonetheless is much in Buddhism and Stoicism that merits close comparison. Especially noteworthy is the rigor with which both hold that our pains and frustrations stem from false beliefs about ourselves, beliefs that are to be therapeutically overcome through a sustained process of education and ascesis [Kapstein, 106].


According to Martha Nussbaum philosophical practice is characterized by arguments, precise reasoning, logical rigor and definitional precision. Building an art of living is not specific to philosophy, it has to be an art that is committed to the truth (in contrast to religion, astrology etc.). The key is the interpretation of the term “philosophical argument”. According to Nussbaum “philosophical argument” means

-      Practice of argumentation

-      Psychological interaction aimed at personal and societal change

Ancient philosophers want to distinguish themselves from magicians and sophists, but they are aware that there is a personal frame and an interpersonal, historical and cultural context. That shifts the philosopher’s interest to psychology and the effectiveness of arguments: rhetorical, narrative, imaginary, mnemonic. Literary and rhetoric techniques are essential. A therapeutic argument cannot be understood without its context. Therapeutic arguments are not timeless and abstract. They are inherently personal, responsive to the particular case. Most classical philosophical arguments can easily be discussed without reference to their recipient and author. In case of the therapeutic argument this is impossible [Banicki 2015, 618-620].


According to Pierre Hadot and Michel Foucault the focus on arguments is typical for the analytical branch of contemporary philosophy and is not suited for the study of ancient philosophy [Banicki 2015, 612]. Antique philosophy was not restricted to an intellectual activity; it was a way of life [Hadot] and a substitute for religion. Philosophical discourse is a part of the philosophical way of life, but discourse makes only sense, if the acquired knowledge is implemented in practical life [Sellars, 170]. Philosophy, in the words of Seneca “teaches us to act, not to speak” [Banicki 2015, 613-617]. One cannot claim that one has genuinely philosophical knowledge unless one produces a way of life which is authentically philosophical [Banicki 2015, 625-626]. The translation of theoretical understanding into practical ability requires training or exercise [Sellars, 107-108, 119].


Consequently there are two distinct forms of philosophical texts (compare with the structural model in chapter 1):

       Philosophical theory:

o   Treatises such as those produced by Aristotle, Chrysippus, or Hierocles

o   Commentaries, such as those produced by Alexander of Aphrodisias or Simplicius.

       Description of philosophical exercises:

o   Instructional texts directed towards training, such as the Enchiridion (Handbook) of Epictetus

o   Texts where the act of writing itself can be seen to constitute the exercise, such as Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations.

[Sellars, 126-127]


Philosophical exercises can be subdivided into

-      Exercises for the soul (spiritual exercises), not to be understood as esoteric or religious [Banicki 2015, 622]. The Stoics and the Epicureans, both proposed materialist accounts of the soul and yet both schools have engaged in spiritual exercises [Sellars, 114]. The study of physics was seen as a spiritual exercise with a moral aim and philosophical dialogue existed for the sake of spiritual guidance. Examples for the latter are Platonic dialogues, notably the practice of death in the Phaedo and the practice of transcendence over all that is mundane described in the Theaetetus [Zeyl]. Despite its materialist (physicalist) world view Stoicism maintained that the cosmos as a whole is divine and therefore evoked religious emotions.

-      Exercises for the body (physical exercises), thought to impact the soul at the same time. All physical training involved an element of spiritual exercise [Sellars, 113].


Philosophical exercises aim at the change of one’s habits. Typical Stoic aims are the following [Sellars, 120, 135, 137].

-      Self-control in difficult situations, control of desires and aversions, control to act or not to act.

-      Critical reflection of one’s judgments, freedom from deception and hasty judgment.

-      Awareness of transience, acceptance of the fact that all living beings have to die.


A liberating exercise was the imagination to rise up to the sky, to look down to our lives from a cosmic perspective, see time passing by quickly, and realize how little and trivial most of our worldly anxieties are (Stoic Compass, Pantheism). The overall goal was to detach life satisfaction from external circumstances and bring one’s will in harmony with the will of the cosmos [Sellars, 141].


Pierre Hadot assigns a secondary and derivative character to intellectual activity in the therapeutic process. According to Hadot philosophical discourse originates in a choice of life – not vice-versa. The task of philosophical discourse is to rationally justify a way of life, as well as the corresponding vision of the world. Discourse of this kind turns out to come after the fact [Banicki 2015, 613-614]. To interpret theory merely as the rationalization of a previously chosen practice is probably overdone, but conversely, it is well possible that Nussbaum underestimates the importance of practice.



Hellenistic Judaism

The Therapeutae were a Jewish sect which flourished in Alexandria and other parts of the Diaspora of Hellenistic Judaism in the final years of the Second Temple period. The term Therapeutes means one who is attendant to the gods, although the term, and the related adjective therapeutikos carry in later texts the meaning of attending to heal, or treating in a spiritual or medical sense. The Therapeutae are described in De vita contemplativa written in the first century A.D (…) The author was employing the familiar polarity in Hellenic philosophy between the active and the contemplative life, exemplifying the active life by the Essenes, another ascetic sect, and the contemplative life by the desert-dwelling Therapeutae (Therapeutae, Wikipedia)

According to Lothar Baus the Therapeutae originally were Buddhist monks [Baus, 201].


According to Pierre Hadot the decline of philosophy as a way of life was caused by the rise of Christianity. Christianity positioned itself as a “philosophy” with its own regimen of spiritual exercises and spiritual goals. Christian interest in pagan philosophy was limited to its discourse [Zeyl].

Throughout the Middle Ages philosophy as a way of life survived in niches. Philosophers such as Peter Abelard and John of Salisbury drew upon the readily available Latin works of Cicero and Seneca, not only for philosophical ideas but also for an understanding of the nature and function of philosophy as such [Sellars].




2.2 Modern Philosophy


Modern philosophy is philosophy developed in the modern era and associated with modernity. The 17th and early 20th centuries roughly mark the beginning and the end of modern philosophy. How much of the Renaissance should be included is a matter for dispute; likewise modernity may or may not have ended in the twentieth century and been replaced by postmodernity (Modern Philosophy, Wikipedia).




-      In the Renaissance conceptions similar to the ones of Abelard and Salisbury can be found in Petrarch’s On the Remedies of Both Kinds of Fortune and in the explicit attempt to create a Neostocism by Justus Lipsius [Sellars, 174-175]

-      A clearly therapeutic conception of philosophy was promoted by the Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza in the 17th century [Spinoza] [Hampe, 2004]. Spinoza’s claim that knowledge of true causes of passive emotion can transform it into an active emotion anticipated one of the key ideas of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis. In contrast to the Stoics Spinoza maintained that strong emotions have to be controlled by opposing strong emotions. Consequently, if reason should control passion, then reason itself has to become a passion (Spinoza, Wikipedia).

-      Basically the pantheistic standpoint of the Stoics was revitalized and strengthened by the progress of the natural sciences. The development which begun now was similar to the conflict between philosophy and religion in the age of Buddha and Socrates. Although Spinoza succeeded in a brilliant combination of science and ethics, he got into conflict with the representatives of the Church.

-      Spinoza’s monistic (pantheistic) concept was also in conflict with the dualist theory of Descartes [Cottingham, 159-164]. The dualist theory was compatible with Christian theology and Descartes considered himself to be a devout Catholic. Descartes finally prevailed in the competition with Spinoza and his methodical criticism could explain the subsequent academic refusal to work on therapeutic topics [Hampe 2015].



Late modern period

-      With the translation of the Upanishads in the early 19th century they started to attract attention from a western audience, in particular the attention of Hegel, Schopenhauer and the transcendentalists (Upanishads, Wikipedia). Hegel was more impressed by the level of abstraction in some parts of the Upanishads, than by their therapeutic potential. He basically understood philosophy as an abstract system, constructed by a process of intellectual analysis [Sellars, 167].

Schopenhauer, in contrast, lamented that philosophy has been relegated to a purely abstract and theoretical subject, cut off from the goal that gave it its very raison d’être in earlier times, the goal of achieving a vision of reality that would lead to self-understanding and self-transformation. With Nietzsche’s existentialist approach philosophy finally returned to being a concrete attitude, a way of life and a way of seeing the world [Cottingham, 148-149].

-      In the same historical period the exclusive position of reason was shaken, ironically, by the Enlightenment philosopher Sigmund Freud. In a Freudian psychoanalysis the patients are confronted with the power of biological forces. The method of free association leads to a renaissance of conflicts, which were formerly projected onto gods. Polytheism reflects the structure of the psyche better than monotheism. The latter strives to eliminate contradictions and has a corresponding affinity to reason. The quasi-religious therapeutic goal of philosophy changed during the transition from Spinoza to Freud into a secular therapeutic goal (such as the healing of hysteria). Psychoanalysis is inevitably individualistic and tends towards a political demand for maximum individual freedom. Consequently, in totalitarian systems, in particular during the subsequent Nazi era and the Soviet rule, psychoanalysis had a clearly subversive character [Wallerstein].

-      In the 20th century Ludwig Wittgenstein promoted the therapeutic understanding of philosophy by claiming that “philosophy is not a theory, but an activity” [Aubry, 212].

-      Under the influence of Nietzsche Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze conceived “practical philosophy” as a way of life in which philosophy and life are united. In this context Deleuze explicitly referred to Spinoza [Sellars, 3-4]. 

-      Since the 1980s the so-called “ivory-tower philosophy” is challenged by a movement in practical philosophy called philosophical counseling or philosophical practice.




3. Forms of Therapy


A form of therapy is characterized by a goal and a method. We start with a rough classification of goals:



3.1 Therapeutic Goals




Contemporary philosophical counseling aims at a Socratic life, i.e. a life in which there is honest self-appraisal and rational inquiry into goals; in short, an examined life [Van Hooft, 20]. The motivation to undergo a therapy is usually a concrete problem, but it can also be a diffuse kind of suffering or discontent. The Socratic examination may lead to the solution of pending problems [Van Hooft, 24] or to the insight that a more profound therapy is indicated. The following classification of goals refers to the latter case.



Self-restriction and self-realization

All forms of philosophical therapy attempt to improve (self-) knowledge and – as a consequence – gain more freedom of choice. Inner freedom can be restricted by uncontrolled desires (emotions, passions) as well as by the (unconscious) suppression of desires. There are accordingly two kinds of suffering and corresponding therapies:

1.     Suffering caused by desires. The goal of the therapy is the elimination of inadequate (irrational) desires.

Examples: Philosophers of Hellenism [Van Hooft, 6,8,10]

2.     Suffering caused by the suppression of desires. The goal of the therapy is the Western understanding of self-realization.

Examples: Nietzsche [Van Hooft, 7], Freud

Therapies of desire [Nussbaum, 1994] tend to work with a specific theory of the common good; therapies for self-realization tend to be individualistic.



Survival and non-existence

Philosophy doesn’t necessarily have to function as a tool for (genetic) survival. The discovery that suffering can be reduced by questioning the wheel of (genetic) rebirth is at the source of Buddhism. This leads to a different classification of philosophy as therapy:

-      Greek tradition: Develop a strategy for survival. Cope with suffering.

-      Buddhist tradition: Liberate from (genetic) rebirth. Cope with non-existence (of the ego).


Most contemporary interpretations of the term philosophy as therapy are committed to the (life-friendly) Greek concept and conform well to the current historical period of expansionism. The Buddhist tradition, in contrast, cultivates the awareness of transience and decay.

The life of an individual knows periods of expansion and decay as well. Therapies which help to unfold and expand the self are different from therapies, which help accepting the (inevitable) dissolution of the self. For more information on therapeutic goals see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




3.2 Therapeutic Methods


Methods depend on the goal to be pursued:

The following table refers to the Western understanding of self-realization:

-      In ancient philosophy the “true self” emerges from the re-discovery of a (lost) universality [Ganeri, 120, 126].

-      In the modern understanding (Nietzsche, Freud), however, the “true self” emerges from an authentic discovery of one’s individuality [Martin, 27-28].





Forms of communication

According to Martha Nussbaum philosophical discourse is characterized by arguments, precise reasoning, logical rigor and definitional precision [Banicki 2015, 612]. But – depending on the topic and the audience – antique philosophers used a variety of different techniques and styles to communicate knowledge. Buddhist writings, for example, make use of literary forms such as parable, metaphor and contextualized descriptions [Burton, 196-198].


In the occidental philosophy we find the real personal dialogue, the written dialogue (Plato), the moral lecture (Aristotle´s Ethics), the letter (Seneca), the consoling book (Boethius as dialogue, Kierkegaard), the meditation (Descartes), the essay (Montaigne), the proving system (Spinoza). They all include arguments. But they deal with them differently and they are based on different ideas about their effectiveness (Michael Hampe).


Among the modern philosophers Freud insisted that his insights into the human mind have been anticipated by the creative writers of our civilization [Cavell 2004, 287]. He takes the fable as an allegory of psychoanalysis. Most generally these allegorical connections turn on the presence of delusions from which the sufferer has to be awakened; and on the feeling to be a prisoner of the circumstances [Cavell 2004, 284]. Literature is better suited to communicate emotional knowledge, whereas a simple and clear style (as in Freud’s prose) is better suited to communicate analytical knowledge.


Finally the term language also includes pictorial and visual language. The idea that the good life can be taught by films was brought up by the American philosopher and professor of aesthetics Stanley Cavell [Cavell 1981]. Cavell – who refers to Freud and Wittgenstein – considers philosophical films as case studies, where abstract ethical concepts become concrete. The practice of antique and modern philosophers illustrates that the cognitive therapy, which is usually associated with the terms philosophical therapy or philosophical counseling [Martin, 17-18], is only one of many possibilities.



Forms of life

For Wittgenstein the use of language is rooted in “forms of life”, which are ultimately ways of acting in the world [O’Grady, 239]. His therapy consists in disclosing these roots. Following two examples which relate to the Buddhist form of life:

-      If the language expresses, that all things are impermanent, then we are immediately aware that it is futile to get attached. In some Buddhist traditions, the word for color is the same as for desire. Color is a characteristic of everything and at the same time a symbol for transience. These traditions cultivate an accordingly ascetic-melancholic view on sexuality, which reflects the volatility of all desire [Seelmann, 2009].

-      How far the Korean language is influenced by Buddhism cannot be examined here. It is noticeable, however, that this language does not know the term self and therefore promotes a distant perception of one’s needs, desires and actions. Koreans, for example, do not say “I am thirsty”, they say “the throat is dry”. And they do not say “I am angry”; they say “the anger rises” [Seelmann, 2012].

Also see the examples at the end of chapter 8.2.



Representational clarity

Language serves a purpose. It can either support or hinder the insight, which is required to change one’s way of living. The removal of linguistic confusion (e.g. by Socrates’ maieutics) is the major tool in the pursuit of representational clarity.

The adventure of philosophy initially assumed for Socrates the form of a linguistic analysis of what he and others said about moral matters [Navia, 48].


Wittgenstein’s effort for representational clarity is a general concern and applies to each specific philosophy of life. In chapter 4 we will consider the philosophies of Buddha, the Stoics, Nietzsche and Freud as “forms of life” and strive for representational clarity in describing and comparing them. We represent the Stoics by Roman Stoicism, because it differs more from Buddhism than early Stoicism.




3.3 Link to Personality Psychology


The table below links the above mentioned philosophers to communication styles, which are explored in personality psychology. Communication styles are known from the factor analysis of interaction behavior [DTV, p.213] [Berkowitz]. They can be described by the two factors

-      dominance and affiliation respectively

-      their reversal compliancy and detachment:
















Roman Stoics









This diagram illustrates that changing the philosophy of life can shake up one’s personality. In chapter 1 we used the term self-transformation for such a change. According to recent research it is possible to deliberately change one’s character throughout life [Frankel]. In the following we investigate why philosophers acquired a competence in self-transformation.




4. Therapy as Adaptation to Reality



4.1 Overview


The Socratic Way of Thinking emerged in times of ideological uncertainty, when religion was challenged by science and people were looking for a new and reliable orientation. Similarly, the philosophies mentioned in chapter 3 emerged in times of disorientation and loss of beliefs. The perception was gradually adapted to a critical-rational world view. Religious forms of transcendence eventually transformed into secular forms (see chapter 8).


In ancient Greece the replacement of pagan beliefs led to a vast diversity of theories. The disagreements were such that Pyrrho concluded that the best strategy is to suspend judgment [Sellars, 88-103]. Obviously “truth-orientation” did not exclude conflicting therapies, even within the same cultural context. If we extend the investigation to truth-orientation in different cultures, then we can even find opposing visions of the therapeutic goal. How is that possible? The main reason is probably that philosophers focused on different aspects of reality and then developed a strategy of adaptation:






4.2 Buddha (6th/5th century BC)



4.2.1 Traditional Buddhism




Buddhism emerged out of the soteriology of Indian religious culture. This culture saw human life as an irredeemable realm of suffering, from which one should seek transcendence in an enduring beyond-human condition – a stance that virtually all traditional Buddhist schools, as well as Hinduism and Jainism, perpetuate (Buddhism, Wikipedia).

In contrast to most Hindu schools, Buddha avoided metaphysical speculations in general and rejected the existence of an eternal soul (atman) in particular [Fowler 1999, 81] [Webster 2005, 96]. Buddha’s conception of reality was the Trilaksana (three marks of existence), which says that

       all conditioned things are impermanent

       all conditioned things are unsatisfactory

       the perception of the self is – on a deeper level – an illusion

[Beckwith, 26-32].

The Trilaksana negates the characteristics of God presumably the early Zorastrian and early Brahmanist God: an uncaused, perfect, eternal being, in a perfect world [Beckwith, 151-152]. Buddha practiced an agnostic form of mysticism (chapter 8). We start the description of the Trilaksana with the ethical priority of suffering, because the experience of suffering precedes the reflection about suffering:


All conditioned things are unsatisfactory (dhukka):

The Buddhist doctrine says that there is no way to avoid suffering in the cycle of rebirth (samsara), no lasting happiness and no deeper meaning of existence. The ability of the mind to assess the reality of the external world and to act upon it accordingly is called reality principle today. From the Buddhist perspective people don’t follow the reality principle:

“What is the cause of suffering according to Buddha? Could it not be the same cause as the one for our social problems? The root cause of all these disturbing mental states (kleshas) is ignorance – we do not see things as they really are. The perception of the world is systematically distorted. We live in a collective madness.” (adapted from Buddhismus, Santikaro Bhikkhu)

A major aspect of this ignorance is the underestimation of suffering. Only the experience of suffering can disclose the ethical priority of suffering. Emotional knowledge is as important as intellectual knowledge.

“Not knowing the experience of suffering, not knowing the cause of suffering and not knowing the path to its avoidance – that is fatal ignorance” (Sariputra) [Baus, 11].

This sentence is reminiscent of Socrates’ claim that that no one errors or makes mistakes knowingly.

The distorted perception of suffering and risk is investigated in The Denial of the World from an Impartial View and Is There a Predominance of Suffering?


All conditioned things are impermanent:

The radical ethical priority of the avoidance of suffering is a controversial matter [Nagel, 173, 217] because it conflicts with the biological meaning of life. But why should we cling to a biological process which is destined to decay? As a matter of fact, life can end at any point in time (Media vita in morte sumus). The collective madness – according to Buddha – is the struggle for survival and procreation, a struggle which requires attachment to transient values. When we are confronted with transience (loss, illness, aging, death) then we suffer, and we are disappointed of life – the delusion cannot be maintained (German “wir sind ent-täuscht”). The Buddhist therapy strives to avoid this disappointment by avoiding attachments, in particular, the attachment to the self.

Buddhist philosophical therapy is, in this respect, about cultivating an attitude of “letting go”. The things that we think matter so much are not worth being anxious, unhappy, and angry about (…). Emotions and desires are expressions of our interpretation of the world. If our interpretation is out of accord with the way the world really is, then unhappiness will result [Burton, 192].

With Zarathustra’s all joy wants eternity deception is pre-programmed. We can also replace eternal happiness by the (non-hedonistic) survival at any price or the wish that the most loved persons don’t have to die; the result will be the same. The normative imposition of the reality principle to society is of course a questionable undertaking. But we must imagine this principle as guideline or warning (as practised in Buddhism) and not as coercion. The reality principle is a reminder of transience, like the Buddhist destruction of sand mandalas or the Christian Memento homo, quia pulvis es, et in pulverem reverteris“ (“Remember, man, that you are dust and unto dust you shall return”). It prevents from building castles on sand.





This shall ye think of all this fleeting world:

a star at dawn,

a bubble in a stream,

a flash of lightning in a summer cloud,

a phantom of a dream.


Diamond Sutra [Fowler, 1]





The perception of the self is an illusion:

In Buddhism the notion of a self is completely given up (see Anatta). Self-realization is replaced by the insight into non-selfhood.

In the Simile of the Lute the Buddha explains that if one looks within and investigates, one will find only the psychological elements and not the self, just as one will search in vain among the components of a lute for the sound that the lute makes [Ganeri, 128].

Coming to know that there is no enduring self is thus clearly seen as a therapeutic philosophical achievement. No emotion that requires one to admit the existence of enduring self, such as regret or possessive desire, is able to survive the surgical removal of that commitment [Ganeri, 124]. Greed is a failure to understand that none of things one seeks to obtain is going to last; it should also be understood that greed is, of its nature, insatiable [Ganeri, 130].



Philosophy of life

The liberation from samsara – the cycle of rebirth, mundane existence and death – is the ultimate goal of traditional Buddhism. Buddha was optimistic insofar, as he considered this liberation to be possible for everyone. The Eightfold Path is directed towards a way of life that supports meditation (and thus inner liberation). Wisdom (pranja) justifies the path, ethical behavior (sila) realizes a favorable environment and mental discipline (samadhi) creates the spiritual conditions.

Buddha strongly opposed the doctrine of Makkhali Gosala, who claimed that men cannot influence their fate [Baus 2006, 11] and he also opposed the radically skeptic and nihilistic Carvaka philosophy. His anti-fatalistic charisma could have been a major factor for the worldwide proliferation of ancient Buddhism [Baus 2006, 29, 36].





René Magritte  La Promesse



Since the attachment to transient values (in particular the self) was seen as the prime source of suffering, a selfless and retreat-oriented life was a plausible adaptation. The “everyman” considered wandering ascetics (like the early Buddhists) often to be fools. However, since the ascetics looked at society from outside, they were able to discover and describe the weak points in the so called “normal behavior”. Early Buddhists and Cynics maintained a world view, which turns things upside down. From their view the “everyman” is a fool because he/she is desperately attached to the ego and to all kinds of material objects, despite of the fact that life is short and the world is transient like a dream [Sellars, 61].



Social philosophy


Theravada Buddhism

Christopher Beckwith suggests that Buddha was a Scythian (Saka) [Beckwith, 5-6]. A nomad is naturally less attached to material things than a villager or a city dweller. Considering the escapist nature of early Buddhism, it is debatable if there is something like Buddhist politics [Conze, 120] [Moore]. The acquisition of resources to fight injustice usually implies entanglements with the ruling economic, political, and military institutions. Possibly life-affirming activities of any kind are counter-productive in the long-run because they serve an inscrutable evolutionary process which perpetuates suffering [Zimmer, 214-215]. For examples see the The Cultural Evolution of Suffering.


Buddha lived as celibate, wandering ascetic [Beckwith, 46, 93]. Although the connection between procreation and the emergence of a new consciousness was not recognized, childlessness was an ideal of the Theravada monks. They justified their attitude with the attachment to the material world (samsara) which is inherent in parenthood, and which subsequently jeopardizes the meditative goal. It is true that such a strict interpretation of the Buddhist path would put a definitive end to human suffering. However, an escapist doctrine cannot survive without a sympathizing more life-friendly community. Whereas monks interpret and teach the doctrine, the laic community keeps it alive. There are good reasons to believe that Theravada-Buddhism influenced the Hellenistic philosophers, especially the Cynics, Pyrrho, Epicurus and the early Stoics, see Indian Sources of Hellenistic Ethics. In the present time, related ideas can be found in movements such as simple living, back-to-nature, deep ecology and antinatalism.


Mahayana Buddhism

In Mahayana-Buddhism compassion is ranked higher than individual liberation. This shift in ethical priorities arose around the 1st century BC and is based on the doctrine of "non-self" (anatta). According to this doctrine, there is no self on a deeper level and therefore no profound difference between one's own suffering and that of others. The new ideal (bodhisattva) was now a person who renounces his own salvation to free others from suffering. Due to the many similarities, it has been suggested that Mahayana-Buddhism influenced early Christianity (Buddhist Influences on Christianity, Wikipedia). In the present time, similarities can be found in negative utilitarianism, at least in terms of goal and motivation. The idea of a profound connection between all humans was given a scientific basis in the Human Genome Project (1990-2003). According to the current state of research 99.9% of the human genome are permanently being reborn; see Secular Buddhism and Justice.


Buddhism differs from negative utilitarianism, among others, through the principle of non-violence (ahimsa), which is anchored in the Eightfold Path (ethical behavior). However, there are passages in Mahayana sutras that seem to justify violence in certain situations.

-      For example, the Lotus Sutra says that a Buddha can use skillful means to protect his followers, even if this means using violence.

-      Mahayana Buddhism is about minimizing the suffering of all sentient beings. Sometimes violence can be used as a last resort to prevent even greater suffering.




4.2.2 Secular Buddhism




“Secular Buddhism” is a broad term for an emerging form of Buddhism and secular spirituality that is based on humanist, skeptical, and/or agnostic values, as well as pragmatism and (often) naturalism, rather than religious (or more specifically supernatural or paranormal) beliefs. Secular Buddhists interpret the teachings of the Buddha and the Buddhist texts in a rationalist and often evidentialist manner, considering the historical and cultural contexts of the times in which the Buddha lived and the various suttas, sutras and tantras were written. Within the framework of secular Buddhism, Buddhist doctrine may be stripped of any unspecified combination of various traditional beliefs that could be considered superstitious, or that cannot be tested through empirical research, namely: supernatural beings (such as devas, bodhisattvas, nāgas, pretas, Buddhas, etc.), merit and its transference, rebirth, Buddhist cosmology (including the existence of pure lands and hells), etc. Traditional Buddhist ethics, such as conservative views regarding abortion, and human sexuality, may be called into question as well (Secular Buddhism, Wikipedia).

In the secular approach, the Buddha appears not as a religious messiah but more like a contemporary Greek philosopher addressing human predicaments in turbulent times (…). The attention to saecula applies equally to how we in our own time and context receive and deploy these messages from the past [Higgins, 117].


The Four Noble Truths

According to Stephen Batchelor we should think of awakening in terms of “tasks” to be accomplished, and not in terms of “truths” [Batchelor, 100]:

-      The first task is to focus on the experience of suffering instead of resenting or denying it.

-      The second task is to become conscious of our reactive “arisings” and the potency of their force.

-      The third task is to let go of the craving that habitually arises in reaction to suffering, and which prevents us from entering the Eightfold Path.

-      The fourth task is to enter (or continue) the Eightfold Path.

Is suffering caused by craving [Pyiadassi] or is craving caused by suffering [Batchelor, 96]? From an evolutionary perspective both is true, and it is a great achievement of the ancient doctrine of having described both:

1.     Craving is caused by suffering because suffering can be an adaptive trait. Adaptive suffering causes the craving for survival and procreation (see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering).

2.     Suffering is caused by craving, because the craving for survival and procreation causes (genetic) rebirth. Genetics replaces the ancient metaphysical doctrine of rebirth (see Secular Buddhism and Justice). This is what Batchelor doesn’t consider. He denies the metaphysical doctrine without replacing it.

Evolutionary theory reconciles Batchelor’s interpretation with the traditional interpretation. It teaches us that the unreflective fight against suffering increases suffering in the long run.


The rebirth doctrine

In the early Buddhist models of rebirth, the characteristics of a child were not attributed to its parents. It was assumed that the rebirth-consciousness (vijnana) of a previously deceased person enters the body of the newborn (see Secular Buddhism and Justice). According to the Nirodha interpretation of the Pali Canon Buddha was convinced that the (pari-)nirvāṇa [Breyer, 535] is the key to the cessation of rebirth, and therefore the key to the cessation of suffering. That explains the extraordinary role of meditation in the Buddhist doctrine. Today the knowledge of genetics has demystified the karmic law. Genetic rebirth can be avoided by renouncing to procreation and this renunciation does not require an ascetic lifestyle anymore.


The belief in progress

Is the traditional Buddhist pessimism about the future of suffering still defensible, or is it refuted by technological progress? For an answer to this question see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering and Is There a Predominance of Suffering? The belief in a technological eradication of suffering could be – similar to religious promises of salvation – just another pretext to sanction the immense suffering in this world.



Philosophy of life

In a pessimistic scenario the early Buddhist ideal of childlessness is still more convincing than taking the responsibility for a family and then struggling for equanimity. The antinatalist ideal, however, does not imply a retreat-oriented lifestyle. Even if the world will never be “good”, it may still be possible to make it “less evil”:





The Star Thrower


Someone is walking along a beach that is littered with exposed starfish that are dying in the low tide. He sees a young woman who carefully picks one and flings it into the ocean.


Young lady says the observer don’t you realize there are miles and miles of beach and starfish everywhere? You can’t possibly make difference.


She listened politely, then picked up another and tossed it into the water saying

It makes a difference to THIS one.



[Barash, 132] adapted from [Eiseley]





Antinatalist forms of secular Buddhism cannot survive without a sympathizing life-friendly community, as well as monastic forms of traditional Buddhism. A sympathizing life-friendly community exists, among others, in the form of Stephen Batchelor’s version of secular Buddhism. Batchelor seeks to detach the Buddha’s teaching from the ancient Indian soteriology and convey it as a guide to full human flourishing in this life and this world [Batchelor].

The idea of cosmic justice and some of Buddha’s rigorous ethical guidelines were shaped by a controversial theory of karma and rebirth and require validation. The traditional conservative views regarding abortion, voluntary euthanasia and human sexuality are accordingly called into question (Secular Buddhism, Wikipedia) [Burton, 214].


The Eightfold Path is criticized – as any other form of virtue ethics – for its claim on universality and its lack of authenticity. Much of this criticism stems from therapeutic concepts inspired by Nietzsche and Freud; see: Philosophy as Therapy – Conceptual Models. Does the Buddhist virtue ethics lead to neurotic disorders? Does it merely transform suffering it into new forms? The sublimation of passionate happiness into com-passion and meditative happiness is hard work, and not achievable for everybody. High ethical standards are often the wrong medicine for people who are vulnerable to depression [Zhang, 442]. Secular Buddhism is aware of this problematic and strives to free the teaching from the ascetic ideal and the doctrinaire style of orthodox traditions.



Social philosophy

The Eightfold Path is a therapeutic concept to end individual suffering. It does not reflect the political preconditions under which this concept can be taught and promoted. In traditional Buddhism political philosophy is replaced by the trust in cosmic justice (the Karma doctrine). Secularization means, amongst others, that the belief in cosmic justice transforms in a quest for mundane justice. The concern for justice descends to earth, so to speak; see Secular Buddhism and Justice. Concerning the quest for spirituality and transcendence see chapter 8.




4.3 Stoicism (from ca.300 BC)



4.3.1 Early Stoicism


Socratic-kind questioning and doubt had undermined the old pagan beliefs. The schools of philosophy inspired by Socrates, such as Cynics, Stoics and Epicureans focused on ethics, for at least two reasons:

-      The first is that despite their limited ability to investigate the larger questions such as the origin of the universe, the nature of reality, including that of divine beings, and the ultimate purpose of it all, they still believed that it was possible to fully understand the nature of the good life.

-      The second reason was that in age of thought and insecurity, it was necessary to find a way of living that was morally meaningful, that gave one control over one’s life and offered a way to achieve happiness (…) Philosophers were more like psychotherapists. Unlike priests and ministers today, the priests of the ancient world did not provide pastoral counseling. Doing philosophy included contemplative and meditative practice [Hadot].


But how could Stoicism replace the Pagan beliefs? The Stoic study of physics evoked the intuition that natural laws are divine and thus opened the door to a pantheistic form of mysticism (chapter 8). Humans as rational beings can recognize the universal law. If the cosmos is governed by a rational and divine law, then the adaptation to this law – by leading a rational life – is the prime ethical goal and paramount virtue. The Stoics, in contrast to the Buddhists, found a timeless value, which allowed them to affirm life and the world “as it is”.


The main exponents of early Stoicism were Zeno of Citium (ca. 334-263 B.C.), followed by Cleanthes and Chrysippus. Diogenes Laertius’ summary of Stoic philosophy [Laertius, 149, 195, 217, 225] is the best source of information on early Stoicism.


According to Hadot the ancient spiritual exercises lead from individuality and particularity to objectivity.

Freeing oneself from the limited first person perspective will free one from the emotional turmoil that goes with it. From the cosmic perspective, everything is in a continual state of change and nothing is expected to remain stable for long. In this sense, the “point of view of the cosmos” enables one to free oneself from attachment to particular external objects [Sellars, 154, 163].




4.3.2 Roman Stoicism



Universalistic ethics

Whereas the original Stoa was a center of dissident asceticism and social radicalism [Francis], Roman Stoicism (ca. 27 B.C.-180 A.D.) promoted a mystical absorption in the structure of society. Acting rationally was interpreted as acting with respect to our natural impulses for self-preservation, family and society [Gowans, 21]. The main exponents of Roman Stoicism were Seneca, Epictetus and Aurelius.


By changing our way of looking at the world, we are to transform ourselves to the point of becoming fully integrated beings (…) harmonizing our will and desires with the course of nature, and recognizing and fulfilling the social obligations placed upon us by the demand for justice. By all these means we can achieve a cosmic consciousness that raises us above the petty concerns of our individualistic lives, and makes us aware that we are parts of the All [Chase, 264]. The Stoic sage has achieved a perfect harmony with the real order of things as they are [Kapstein, 107].





Remember that you are an actor in a drama,

of such a kind as the author pleases to make it.

It is your business, to act well the character assigned you;

to choose it is another's.







Stoicism has some unique features. Although it started as a back-to-nature movement it proved to have an immense political potential. The Stoic universalism, unlike Skepticism, allows binding self-sufficient individuals and communities together. The fact that universalistic ethics supports large, expanding societies may have been the reason why Stoicism became Rome’s dominant philosophy:

-      Rome was a deeply unequal society in which less than one percent of the population owned nearly all the wealth. Rome’s masses were not merely poor but lived in conditions that can only be described as destitution. Twenty five percent of the population of Rome was composed of slaves.

-      Rome’s basic forms of thinking were derived from post-Aristotelian Greek philosophy, especially the Stoic school which began about 300 B.C.

In the century after the death of Aristotle the basic thrust of Greek philosophy and social thought was to separate the idea of a worthwhile life from the life of the polis (…). This was an understandable response to the chronic and now transparent failure of the city state.

(Social Theory, Daniel W.Rossides).

Another possible root of universalistic ethics is Cynic cosmopolitism.

The universality of Stoic ethics is manifested, among others, in the great variety of adherents. Seneca was a statesman and Aurelius an emperor, but Epictetus a physically disabled slave and Zeno of Citium a dark-skinned, penniless immigrant.



The decline of the Roman Empire

The early Stoics believed that the universe is informed and governed by divine providence. While we must accept that all things are fated, we can also know that everything is for the good. Although this remained orthodox Stoic teaching and is still to be found in the later writings, we also become aware of an increasing note of hesitancy in the late Stoa (…) Seneca’s nephew, the Stoic poet Lucan, rejected altogether the idea of Fate as benevolent. Fate, or Fortune, is a callous master that destined Romans to lose their freedom in the civil war [Roots].


In 161 AD the Stoic Marcus Aurelius became emperor of Rome. One might expect that this would have been as portentous for Stoicism as the later ascension to the throne of Constantine I was for Christianity. In fact, by the year 200 Stoicism was in sharp decline as a separate school of philosophy. Why? A possible reason is the move from the thoroughgoing cosmological optimism of the early Stoa to the agnosticism of the late Stoa [Roots].

The Crisis of the Third Century is a commonly applied name for the crumbling and near collapse of the Roman Empire between 235 and 284 AD. It is also called the period of the "military anarchy".


The loss of cosmological optimism corresponds to a loss of perspective and hope. The Stoics became vulnerable to the promises of the Christian religion.

In 313 AD Constantine I declared official toleration of Christianity, followed over the ensuing decades by establishment of Christian orthodoxy and by official and private action against pagans and non-orthodox Christians (Fall of the Western Roman Empire, Wikipedia).




4.3.3 Modern Stoicism


Modern Stoicism is an intellectual and popular movement in the late 20th and early 21st century which attempts to revive the Stoic philosophy in the modern setting (Modern Stoicism, Wikipedia)

Simply put the Stoic therapy liberates people from the suffering, which is caused by unreasonable judgments. This definition conforms to the thesis that Stoicism was inspired by an older philosophy (Samkhya) which pursued the liberation from suffering by means of knowledge [Baus, 8].




In modern Stoicism the ancient slogan “follow nature” is given a new interpretation:

“Following nature” means “following the facts”. It means getting the facts about the physical and social world we inhabit and the facts about our situation in it before we deliberate about normative matters (Modern Stoicism, Wikipedia).

Stoics, who “follow the facts” actually leave the ancient teleological worldview in favor of more skepticism (see The Cultural Evolution of Suffering). According to contemporary physics the natural laws are rather indifferent than “good”, rather contingent than “beautiful”, and possibly not even eternal [Brooks]. The pantheism of the ancient Stoics was helpful for individual well-being, but it didn’t reduce global suffering. On the contrary, the acceptance of the world “as it is” may have contributed to the incredible cruelty [Southon] of the ancient Roman culture.



Philosophy of life

Modern Stoics are neither passive nor unemotional [Robertson] and they are not necessarily optimistic like the early Stoics. They just focus on the things they can control. Decisive is the belief that the government of reason (value rationality, not instrumental rationality) is the best available option. The following aphorism stems from a theologian and is therefore phrased as a request for divine assistance, but it is clearly a variation of Epictetus’ dichotomy of control:





God, grant me the

-      Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

-      Courage to change the things I can, and

-      Wisdom to know the difference.


Origin disputed, but clearly Stoic doctrine





Modern Stoicism shifts Epictetus’ famous dichotomy of control to a more reasonable trichotomy: some things are up to us (chiefly, our judgments and actions), some things are not up to us (major historical events, natural phenomena), but on a number of other things we have partial control [Irvine].


Consider the example of playing a tennis match. The outcome of the game is under your partial control, in the sense that you can influence it; but it is also the result of variables that you cannot control, such as the skill of your opponent, the fairness of the referee, or even random gusts of wind interfering with the trajectory of the ball. Your goal, then, should not be to win the game – because that is not entirely within your control. Rather, it should be to play the best game you can, since that is within your control. By internalizing your goals you can therefore make good sense of even the original Epictetean dichotomy. As for the outcome, it should be accepted with equanimity. (Stoicism, Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy).



Social philosophy

The Stoics were seeking for an objective judgment and created the rule "Follow where reason leads" (see Stoicism, Wikipedia). An objective judgment can be reached, for example, by perceiving the world from the perspective of Rawls’ Original Position. As a consequence, the ancient Stoic vision of society has to be revised. Modern Stoics participate in the discussion about a contemporary political philosophy (see Stoics do Care about Social Justice, by Eric O. Scott). Concerning the quest for spirituality and transcendence see chapter 8.




4.4 Nietzsche (1844-1900)




An important influence on Nietzsche was the atheistic thought which spread out in Western countries after the French Revolution and which opened the way for the nineteenth century movements of Rationalism, Freethought, and Liberalism. An early atheistic publication in Germany was The Essence of Christianity by Ludwig Feuerbach (History of Atheism, Wikipedia)

Nietzsche’s atheism aims to redirect people's attention to their inherent freedom, the presently-existing world, and away from escapist, pain-relieving, heavenly otherworlds (Nietzsche, Stanford)

According to Nietzsche any philosophy that devalues the world around us by privileging some ideal or utopian world necessarily devalues human life and is a threat for humanity's future (Nihilism, Wikipedia)





A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows

that faith does not prove anything.


Friedrich Nietzsche





Nietsche’s search for truth is best understood against the background of encounters between Neo-Kantianism and the life sciences in the 19th century. Although he does not explicitly refer to science, his genealogy of values and his account of a will to power are clearly influenced by Kantian thought as they are by 19th century debates on teleology, biological functions, and theories of evolution [Emden].


Furthermore, Nietzsche’s philosophy is linked to the progress of thermodynamics in the middle of the 19th century. The discovery of the statistical nature of the gas laws gave rise to cosmological speculations [Silk] which match Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence [Polanowski, 165].


By the way: The idea was not new. Pythagoras already believed that “after certain periods of time the things that have happened once happen again and nothing is absolutely new” (see Metempsychosis, Stanford). Obviously the idea of eternal recurrence itself recurs.



Philosophy of life

It is in the texts of his middle period (1878-1882) that Nietzsche’s writing comes closest to being an exercise in philosophical therapeutics [Pearson, 137]. In his essay Dawn (1881) Nietzsche suggests that by reflecting, with the aid of psychological observation, on what is “human, all too human”, that “we can lighten the burden of life” [Pearson, 139].


Nietzsche addresses the existential crisis, which is caused by the loss of religious scenarios of salvation, and the corresponding loss of meaning [Van Hooft, 22]. The scientific demystification of nature suggests that the suffering in this world might be without a sense. The affirmation of life as will to power, however, constructs meaning in seemingly hopeless situations and develops an almost unlimited creativity in overcoming obstacles. Nietzsche’s remedy for cultural pessimism is cultural perfectionism. A contemporary interpretation of master morality is simply the secular worldview. According to Nietzsche the fight for truth (and for the dominance of truth) has a therapeutic effect in all areas of life, because it makes us stronger. The discovery that we are able to create our own values is an immense gain in power, and as far as self-created values are accepted by others, the creator attains a dominant position.


Nietzsche is not a moral nihilist. Similar to the Russian nihilists, he advocates destruction only as a means to establish a new order. The new order should be driven by (unconscious) biological forces and therefore be closer to nature than Buddhism or Christianity. Nietzsche sees cultural evolution as an open process. Reality is not given, it can be changed. Reality is interpreted by the survivors and the survivors are always right. Adaptation to reality – in the context of Nietzsche – means to accept the challenge of life and fight the evolutionary struggle for survival.



Social philosophy

Nietzsche did not intend to derive or establish morality, unlike classical moral philosophers, but rather to trace the historical development and the psychological presuppositions of moral values. But he accords with the ancient philosophers insofar, as the acquirement of philosophical knowledge cannot be reduced to arguments and precise reasoning [Pearson, 157]. The gain of insight requires self-experimentation and life experience [Pearson, 145]. There is not a single morality – numerous new attempts at living life and creating community should be undertaken [Pearson, 161]. Nietzsche criticizes the European prejudice, according to which sympathetic affects and compassion define the moral [Pearson, 146]. He is therefore not only in conflict with the Buddhist and Christian tradition, but also with the moral philosophers of the Enlightenment:

The egalitarian premise of all contemporary moral and political theory — the premise, in one form or another, of the equal worth or dignity of each person — is simply absent in Nietzsche's work (Stanford)


There are many reasons to criticize Nietzsche, but there are also many reasons to discharge him. Following two examples:

1.     Nietzsche could not know Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902), written partly in response to Huxleyan Social Darwinism (1861) and he was not aware of the evolutionary role of altruism in general.

2.     The impact of his work on German militarism and National Socialism is mainly due to his sister Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, who had become a prominent German nationalist and antisemite and who forged Nietzsche’s writings and letters after his death.


Nietzsche’s philosophy can be seen as an individualistic therapy for the liberation from false authorities and imposed ideologies. At the end of such a therapy, however, a philosophical practitioner is expected to deal with contemporary ethics and political philosophy. Concerning the quest for spirituality and transcendence see chapter 8.




4.5 Freud (1856-1939)



4.5.1 Orthodox Psychoanalysis




The origin of psychoanalysis is dream interpretation, i.e. the realization that there are mental processes which cannot be controlled, but possibly have a meaning for practical life (see Traumdeutung by Sigmund Freud, 1899).

The oldest written record of an intellectual confrontation with dreams is about 4,000 years old. The deliberately targeted interpretation of dreams is known since ancient times; it was particularly highly estimated by the Babylonians and Assyrians. The first book of Genesis tells of the most talented interpreter of dreams Josef. Even older are the interpretations of Gilgamesh’s dreams by his friend Enkidu. The Hellenists developed a real desire to discover forecasts in dreams (e.g. Socrates’ never erring Daimonion). The Christian church demonized dreams as diabolical temptations. The scientists of Enlightenment payed little attention to dreams and did not include them in scientific discussions. Only the Romantic discovered the relationship of dreams to fairy tales and to the unconscious (Traumdeutung, Wikipedia)

The term unconscious mind was coined by the 18th-century German Romantic philosopher Friedrich Schelling (Unconscious Mind, Wikipedia).




In contrast to Nietzsche, Freud’s search for truth explicitly refers to a science. Hermann von Helmholtz, who was both a medical doctor and a physicist, had a determining influence on Freud. “Freud conceived the mind as an energy processing apparatus that obeys Newtonian mechanics and the law of entropy. According to mechanistic principles, energy that accumulates within a system leads to a buildup of pressure and accumulated energy is converted into anxiety. Unless the energy is discharged or transformed symptom formation ensues. Energy transformation leads to higher levels of organization whereas symptom formation leads to lower levels” [Palombo, 15].

The idea for this came from his first year adviser, Ernst von Brücke at the University of Vienna, who held the view that all living organisms, including humans, are basically energy-systems to which the principle of the conservation of energy applies. This principle is at the very root of Freud's ideas, whereby libido, which is primarily seen as sexual energy, is transformed into other behaviors (Psychodynamics, Wikipedia).

Later Freud described death drive as the intention of organic matter to go back to its previous state, the state of inorganic matter, following the entropy arrow.

The intention of Freud’s psychodynamics (a catenation of psychology and thermodynamics) was to establish the theory on a scientific basis. Paradoxically today the energy model is the element in Freud’s theory that meets the most criticism.



Structure of the psyche

Freud not only discovered the reality of unconscious desires, but also the reality of (internalized) unconscious moral norms. A Freudian therapy navigates between these two powers and strives to find an adaptation, which matches the client’s constitution and risk-profile. In 1915 Sigmund Freud formulated the goal of psychoanalysis as follows:

Its intention is to strengthen the ego, to make it more independent of the superego, to expand its field of perception and to expand its organization so that it can acquire new pieces of the Id. Where Id was, Ego shall be [Freud 1915, 85].

Id addresses the uncontrolled unconscious desires and Ego the organized, realistic agent that mediates between the pressure of desires and the pressure of moral norms.




Freud ascribed the numerous 'hysterical' attacks in the society (especially among girls from noble houses) to the repression of biological desires. Given the pathogenic (in particular religiously based) social regulations at that time, the physician and healer Freud almost necessarily became an advocate of repressed drives. He associated the term ethics with the mentioned pathogenic rules so that the concept of healing was linked to an averting and liberation from ethics (or religion). In order to speak of Freud's ethics, one has therefore to break away from the traditional understanding of ethics. Since Freud tried to heal the suffering of his patients by raising awareness of the repressed biological desires, he seems to assign a moral value to raising awareness and emotional insight. Since the uncensored emotions, which are discovered in such a process, are conciliated with the self, the Freudian therapy is in conflict with the Buddhist tradition [Rubin, 47, 75]. Whereas Freud promotes adaptation to the biological nature of humans, Buddha strives to transcend it. In other words: Whereas Psychoanalysis strives to condition people for the biological race, Buddhism questions the sense of this race. For Buddhists the psychoanalytic reactivation of biological motives is a relapse into ignorance.





The idea of freely unfolding

the personality seems excellent,

as long as one does not come upon individuals,

whose personality has unfolded freely.


Nicolas Gomez Davila






Cultural philosophy

As compared to antiquity culture has changed in such a way that the loss of passion is considered to be a main source of suffering. The Buddhist dissolution of the self in meditation or the Stoic dissolution of the self in Pantheism are now considered to be a regression:

Freud categorizes the oceanic feeling of wholeness, limitlessness, and eternity as being a regression into an earlier state of consciousness — before the ego had differentiated itself from the world of objects (…) Freud imagines that the oceanic feeling became connected with religion later on in cultural practices (Civilization and Its Discontents, Wikipedia)

Psychoanalysis is also in conflict with revealed religions, because it interprets religions, instead of acknowledging their interpretational sovereignty [Freud 1930]. In psychoanalysis the dissolution of the self is only considered to be useful if it serves the exploration of the unconscious [Süsske]. Religions and ideologies which attempt to direct emotions to transcendent goals are categorized as collective madness.


From the starting point that religion is an illusionary yet extremely relevant creative force in culture, Freud comes to a general suspicion against the institutions of cultural life (...): "If we have recognized the religious doctrines are illusions, then the immediate question arises as to whether other cultural heritages which we esteem and which dominate our lives are of a similar nature. Possibly the conditions governing our state institutions are also illusions [Hampe 2009, 186].

As we have seen, the culture in Freud's eyes "overcomes the aggression of the individual" by weakening his/her physical and emotional powers, by relieving him/her of many of the hardships of life, but ultimately "disarming" him/her with its norms. Culture "creates an instance within the individual" and "monitors him/her like the controller of a conquered city. "The supervisory authority, which culture uses to master aggression, is the conscience, or, as Freud calls it, the" superego." Within this psychological instance, the internalized values that human beings adopt from their parents in childhood, exercise a lifelong control [Hampe 2009, 188]

Cultivation, therefore, does not mean the aggression disappears, but that it is transformed, so that the aggression which is directed towards human beings, takes place within the individuals, in his/her own mental life. In short: the inter-individual aggression becomes intra-individual. If we consider in a somewhat banal categorization aggression and destruction to be bad, peacefulness and constructiveness to be good, then the cultivation of a human being is by no means a development towards the good. It just seems as if destructivity and aggression were eliminated. In fact, however, they are only swept under the carpet [Hampe 2009, 190]


Freud’s well known slogan “We can change neurotic misery into real misery” makes clear that he had no intention to solve psychic problems by means of unrealistic optimism. Cultural pessimism should be overcome by reverting to biological resources and not by utopias. Freud’s biography illustrates that it is possible to be an optimist in personal matters and a pessimist with regard to the future of society. Even in a culture that is destined to decay, it is possible to find a (individual) sense in life.




4.5.2 Philosophical Psychoanalysis


The philosophical significance of Freud’s psychoanalysis was investigated by Stanley Cavell [Cavell, 289-295] [Hampe 2006]. Freud can be seen as a philosopher because of his radical quest for knowledge and because hermeneutics has its origin in philosophy. Philosophical psychoanalysis is practiced on the basis of free association and hermeneutics, without using an expert language and without being fixed on Freudian concepts like the Oedipus complex, the drive theory and the above mentioned thermodynamical principles. It is a tool for gaining insight, independent of any possible mental disease. Philosophical psychoanalysis is a therapy for the sane.


The method of philosophical psychoanalysis differs from orthodox psychoanalysis by its rejection of jargon. The concepts of the unconscious, association and interpretation date back to ancient concepts of knowledge acquisition and can therefore be attributed to philosophy.
The anamnesis of the Freudian kind (not all of them) resembles a novel, because it expresses the absolutely individual in a common language, which is not a technical jargon or only in a very limited sense [Hampe 2007].
The more such a novel is infiltrated by the technical jargon of psychoanalysis (e.g. introjection, libido, transference etc.) the more it goes on distance to philosophical therapy and the more it becomes psychotherapy.


Freud was not a man of politics, to say the least [Dolar, 15]; his ambition was to be a leading man of science. Consequently, he refused that psychoanalysis should adopt an ideology [Dolar, 16], in contrast to some of his successors (see e.g. Freudo-Marxism). Freud (like Nietzsche) was concerned with the liberation from oppressing beliefs and disease-causing moral demands. But again, at the end of such liberation, a philosophical practitioner is expected to deal with contemporary ethics and political philosophy. Concerning the quest for spirituality and transcendence see chapter 8.




4.6 Wittgenstein




There are different ways to do philosophy. One of these ways has a potential to cause emotional and behavioral problems. Wittgenstein talks of a specific kind of “disquiet” which is caused by imaginary issues and which can only be calmed by terminating the unreasonable worry about them. According to Eugen Fischer there are uncontrolled cognitive processes, which make the philosopher address pseudo-problems [Fischer, 53-58]. One of them is the following:


Structural analogies are forged by metaphorical extension [Fischer, 63]. Metaphors which were initially applied to concrete or familiar things or actions (like “grasp a stone to throw”) are extended to abstract or new concepts (like “grasp the implications of a claim”). Much of our “mental vocabulary” is recruited in this way from the domains of manipulation and perception [Fischer, 60]. In the moment where we engage in philosophical reflection, we are prone to unwittingly mishandle such analogies, in what cognitive psychologists call “non-intentional analogical reasoning” [Fischer, 63]. Problems with false analogies can be solved by becoming aware of the non-intentional reasoning, possibly with the help of an advanced philosopher. If, for example, a student were bewildered because of John Locke’s conception of the mind – which rests on the false analogy between intellectual and perceptional activities – then he could be reassured by a philosopher with advanced knowledge in cognitive linguistics and cognitive psychology [Fischer, 60]. Obviously, a philosopher can be a pathogenic agent, a patient, or a therapist, depending on his/her way to do philosophy [Gunnarsson].



Metaphilosophy and aesthetics

Wittgenstein’s work is metaphilosophy because it is an investigation of the nature of philosophy. But Wittgenstein’s mission was by no means limited to the disclosure of philosophical pseudo-problems. He once asked rhetorically: "What is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc. and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life" [Martin, 23]. According to James Peterman Wittgenstein’s philosophical therapy stands in the Socratic tradition [Peterman, 129]. For Socrates language analysis is not the goal of philosophy and should not be viewed as an end in itself. For him, it was only a means, a method that allowed for the clarification for what he viewed as the essence of human existence [Navia, 48].


The clarity of the language is a prerequisite for understanding forms of life. Because “clarity” is an aesthetic criterion, Wittgenstein’s method is sometimes called aesthetic [Peterman, 121]. We prefer the term aesthetic in our context, because the term metaphilosophical is rather associated with theoretical than practical philosophy (see Practical Philosophy, Wikipedia)



Intellectual genealogy

There is a methodical similarity between Freud’s and Wittgenstein’s way to do philosophy, although Wittgenstein’s method rather treats a question than the person raising it. Wittgenstein aims at general insight, but on the basis of particular person’s sensibility and experiential background [Hagberg, 68-69].

If we aim at a fuller understanding of our own courage or cowardice, or pride or prejudice, we need an overview of the self’s words and deeds in the corresponding context. This constitutes a kind of connective analysis of the self’s past, i.e. an analysis of one’s intellectual genealogy [Hagberg, 79].

A Freudian therapy attempts to connect the present with the past as well, but the emphasis is more on the emotional than on the intellectual genealogy.




Wittgenstein’s ethical concern is self-awareness, autonomy and freedom. The ultimate goal is to make an authentic decision about one’s philosophy of life:

What is a realistic world view in the face of so many philosophical theories and models? The focus of a philosophical therapy is on the process of acquiring knowledge. Ideas from the philosophical tradition are used as a source of inspiration [Niedermeier].


The therapeutic goal is not a specific view, but an authentic view on the basis of profound knowledge [Martin, 27-28].

Marinoff and other practitioners hold that we all have a philosophy of life, whether we know it or not, and that we can benefit from identifying that philosophy, making sure it helps us, rather than hinders us [Duane].




In the Hindu metaphor of the “world theatre” therapy as adaptation to reality means that the philosopher acquires knowledge about the play that is performed and the role which he/she is supposed to undertake:

-      Roman Stoics: Understand the familial and social role one has to play

-      Freud: Learn to change roles

-      Nietzsche: Learn to influence the script.

-      Buddha: Leave the stage and become a spectator.

The insight into these roles (with their risks and chances) enables an authentic choice of one’s way of living. If the pressure of suffering becomes too high, then seemingly fateful kinds of suffering may prove to be avoidable by changing the way of living.




5. Therapy as Risk Ethics



5.1 Basics




-      Risk: In order to define risk, one has to define situations like loss, catastrophe or undesirable outcome. Risk can be expressed in terms of financial loss, suffering, risk of dying etc. This definition makes clear, that risk can only be valuated relative to a goal. If not mentioned otherwise in this paper, the term risk relates to suffering.

-      Risk ethics investigates the general question under which conditions a person is permitted to expose him-/herself or others to a risk. The term risk ethics includes the evaluation of chances [Rippe, 4].

-      Risk-averse ethics is characterized by sacrificing chances (respectively efficiency) in order to avoid risks.

From the perspective of risk ethics therapeutic goals are characterized by chances and risks, and not by a health ideal.



Goals in life

Risk can only be valuated relative to a goal, but the diversity of subjective goals in life has become immense. In the following we reduce this diversity to four basic goals which are borrowed from the Purusarthas. Each of the therapies discussed so far is assigned to one of these goals:

-      Freud is assigned to Kama (Love and Desire) because of the central role of the pleasure principle and sexuality in psychoanalysis.

-      Nietzsche is assigned to Artha (Power and Wealth) because of the central role of the will to power, power understood as influence in its widest sense.

-      The Roman Stoics are assigned to Dharma (Compliance with the Law) because they emphasized the duty to the family and the state.

-      Buddha is assigned to Moksha (Salvation) because the prime goal of his philosophy is the liberation from suffering.




Cultural goals


Biological goals and

their Sublimations












Roman Stoics








Where is altruism located in this table?

-      Biological altruism belongs to Kama and Artha

-      Non-biological altruism belongs to Dharma and Moksha.


On the cultural level there are reasons to deviate from the biological goals. In the game of life, we may be successful from the genetic point of view, but with regard to survival we are all losers. We may lose the persons we love most. We will age, get ill, and finally die. The fact that traumatic forms of suffering exist and persist is a major challenge for any attempt to construct sense in life. Cultural tradition not only reveals the risks of the biological goals, it also teaches us that biological preferences can be sublimated (e.g. love in art, power in technology) and that non-biological forms of happiness (like mysticism) exist and can be learned. The identification with an imperishable spiritual goal represents a place of refuge and comfort. Cultural tradition represents a stronghold against transience.




5.2 Chances and Risks




Therapies have all sorts of consequences; nevertheless the ones that have to do with social relations are more frequent and therefore significant:

According to their specific vision of reality each of the four philosophies emphasizes a certain form of social relation:

-      Psychoanalysis typically leads to a changed behavior in partnership or a new partnership

-      Therapies based on Nietzsche’s philosophy typically lead to new activities in social groups. The emphasis is on creating and enforcing one’s own values.

-      The Stoic identification with nature and humanity brings about that individual strokes of fate are given less importance.

-      The Buddhist Insight meditation makes it possible to devaluate external activities and enjoy self-absorption. This is perceived as a gain in freedom.


The identification corresponds to the aspect of reality that is considered to be the most important.





Aspect of reality




Biological drives

Object of love



Survival of the fittest

Elite or opposition

Roman Stoics


Universal law, logos

(Global) community







Each of the above mentioned identifications has a potential to create transcendent experiences (see chapter 8.2). The human psyche is able to identify with a person, a family, a community, a concept of justice or even a state of consciousness like the Nirwana. The (relative) freedom in behavior consists in being able to dispose of these options.




Each construction of sense (chances, opportunities) is tied to specific risks:

-      If the sense of life is found in the family, then accidents, illnesses and death may destroy it.

-      If the sense of life consists in a business career, then the failure of this career will destroy it.

The more ambitious and emotionally loaded the sense of life is construed; the higher is also the involved risk. Commitments to a family and friends not only entail the risk of loss by accidents, crimes, wars, illnesses, ageing and death, but also (under certain conditions) require the use of violence.


Early Buddhists, Cynics, Epicureans and Skeptics developed a strategy to reduce risk by reducing social commitments. Buddha and Pyrrho of Elis, for example, lived as celibate, wandering ascetics [Beckwith, 46, 93].  The Roman Stoics committed to family and politics, indeed, but their commitment was driven by pietas and not passion. This reduction of risk has to be paid by the loss of “natural” happiness. In the context of Apatheia [Höffe, 101] Aristotle used the argument that insensitiveness is far from human nature. But Buddhists and Hellenists are not insensitive, they are differently sensitive. Buddhists replace passion by meditative happiness and compassion, and even Stoics are not unemotional (Donald Robertson).







Risk by social




Object of love

High (biological altruism)



Elite or opposition

Medium (opportunism)

Roman Stoics


(Global) community

by Pietas (not passion)







Contemporary philosophical therapies do not prescribe an ethical ideal. The goal is to explore the individual risk profile, and take account of the fact, that it changes in the course of time. The discovery of the individual risk profile corresponds to the discovery of the individual chances and risks within a social and cultural environment. The decision to adopt an ancient ethical ideal can be as authentic as the decision to develop an individualistic lifestyle [Sellars, 170]




Humans are born with an addiction to gamble in the casino of life. Utopists believe to win, but science suggests that the bank always wins in the long-run. The maximal win is a feeling of ecstasy, but the maximal loss is so horrible that it is repressed by most of the gamblers:

-      Buddha suggests liberating from the addiction and offers a method for complete withdrawal.

-       Freud, in contrast, emphasizes that withdrawal is in conflict with the biological destination of humans. He motivates his patients to take risks.

-      The Stoics continue to gamble but reduce the risks. The price for this reduction is a corresponding reduction of chances.

-      Nietzsche strives to change the rules of the casino in his favor.

For an impartial view on the casino of life see The Denial of the World from an Impartial View and Is There a Predominance of Suffering?




5.3 Awareness and Repression



The unconscious

The concepts of the unconscious, association and interpretation date back to ancient concepts of knowledge acquisition and can therefore be attributed to philosophy. If not mentioned otherwise in this paper we refer to philosophical psychoanalysis (as defined in chapter 4.5). While, historically, Freud was the first modern therapist to focus on unconscious mental activity, there is an extensive body of conclusive research in contemporary cognitive psychology devoted to the unconscious (Unconscious, Wikipedia).

Cognitive processing happens outside the scope of cognitive awareness, and things we are unaware of can nonetheless influence other cognitive processes as well as behavior (Unconscious Mind, Wikipedia).



Basic mechanism

Passions have a biological root, the so-called biological utility function. From a biological perspective there is an urge to expand one’s influence and live out one’s passions. Freud disclosed that not only the loss of self-control, but also an excessive self-control is a risk. In Buddhism the middle way deliberately avoids destructive asceticism. In Aristotle, the problem of an excessive ethical demand is addressed by the catharsis, which is a kind of mental cleansing process. Freud referred to a conflict between inner instances (see three-instance model), where passions and controlling forces are removed to the unconscious. If the repressed passions continue to act in the unconscious, they may cause neurotic symptoms. If the person suffers from the repressed conflict then the conflict must first be made conscious before it can be resolved. Neurotic symptoms can be, for example, inner blockage, nervous fatigue, or – with respect to philosophers – brooding with pseudo-problems and rationalizations (Fig.2 risks on the left side). Furthermore there is a smooth transition between temporary dejection and lasting depression. Note that the kind of depression that is caused by defeat and loss (Fig.2 risks on the right side) is different from the one that is caused by repression:

-      Repression tends to cause a feeling of being imprisoned.

-      Defeat and loss tend to cause a feeling of endlessly falling. Disorders in appetite and sleep are reminiscent of falling in love unhappily.

Making passions aware (like infatuation) doesn’t mean that they can be controlled or acted out in a given environment. Whoever experiences the power of genuine passions is more or less at their mercy. There are good reasons, for example, to repress aggressive affects, as Buddha and the Stoics did. And perhaps there are even reasons to consider and tolerate certain neuroses as a lesser evil. The psychoanalytical doctrine does not refute the Stoic warning (which says that passions have a destructive power). It merely supplements it with an exploration of their unconscious destructive power.




Note that the basic mechanism (Fig.2) exists independent of philosophical therapy; the therapies only reinforce it. With reference to the personality traits in chapter 3.3 the following experiences have a therapeutic effect:


Supporting the liberation of passions:

-      Experiences that encourage dominance (Nietzsche)

-      Experiences that encourage affiliation (Freud)


Supporting the liberation from passions:

-      Experiences that encourage compliance (Roman Stoics)

-      Experiences that encourage detachment (Buddha)


Very intense or very long lasting experiences can shift the mentioned personality traits. But the older a person is, the greater the resistance to shifts. Furthermore the process of repression and becoming aware often passes thru stages:





Psychoanalytic versus Buddhist view

Above diagram corresponds to the psychoanalytic view, i.e. the terms repression and awareness refer to biological instincts which can manifest themselves in passions. The psychoanalytic view insinuates that Buddhist and Stoics suffer from repression and lack the awareness of a part of reality. It has to be noted, though, that most Buddhists and Stoics know what they are repressing and why they are doing it. Furthermore calm and inner peace is an excellent condition to raise awareness on issues that are not egocentric. Conversely the individualistic perspective – in particular the passion-driven condition – restricts awareness for non-targeted knowledge. Example:

Testosterone primes several instincts, especially sexuality, also dominance, manifest in self-affirmation, the urge to win over rivals, to dominate a hierarchy, and to respond to violent signals in men, with weakening of empathy. Unduly high levels of this hormone are often associated in a person with aggressiveness (Instinct, Wikipedia)

One could therefore say that Nietzscheans and Freudians repress a part of reality as well:





In life’s vale of tears

the desires burn like the sun.

But when the sun goes down,

one discovers the miracles of the night sky.


Arthur Schopenhauer





6. Therapy as Search for the Good Life



6.1 Basics


Philosophy as therapy can cure (or reduce suffering) by changing the way of living. But is it also acceptable to reduce suffering at the expense of fellow humans? The more we gain freedom to choose our way of living, the more we are responsible for our actions. And the more we feel responsible, the more we reason about justice. How should the life goals (Purusarthas chapter 5.1) be balanced against each other? How much weight should we give to the suffering of others?


The search for the good life is a search for the objectively true, good, and right. It has a therapeutic effect for people who suffer from a loss of orientation; see Socratic Therapy.


To transcend the individualistic perspective and look for objectivity is (…) what makes a practice distinctively philosophical. This kind of questions, however, is rather raised towards the end of a therapy than at the beginning [Van Hooft, 28].

As long as a person is trapped in a mental crisis [Lotter, 38] we cannot expect that he/she cares for objectivity. The same applies to all other people in need: the hungry, the injured, the sick, the abandoned, etc. We cannot expect them to reason about what is objectively true, good, and right.




6.2 Hinduism



Hierarchy of life goals

Schopenhauer adopted the Hindu view according to which not only the artistic representation of reality (e.g. the Mahabharata epic) is a pseudo-world, but also the reality that is depicted in art:

“The philosophical man has the presentiment that even behind the reality in which we live, there is hidden a second quite different reality, i.e. the former is an illusory world as well” (from The Birth of Tragedy).


Hinduism teaches that suffering is caused by the attachments to an illusory reality (Maya). A reality appears all the more illusory, the faster it vanishes. The life goals (Purusarthas chapter 5.1) can accordingly be ordered as follows:

-      The reality of love (Kama) is transient as compared to the reality of power (Artha), where power stands for elites, family-dynasties etc.

-      The reality of power (Artha) is transient as compared to the reality of cultural laws (Dharma).

-      The reality of the Dharma is transient as compared to the natural laws which underlie cultural evolution. Cultures and their laws decay as well as elites and dynasties.

-      The ultimate reality (Brahman), however, is imperishable.

Not clinging on transient phenomena means identifying with the Brahman, the final cause of all that exists. In Hinduism the highest goal in life (Moksha) is the liberation from the cycle of reincarnation (Samsara) and the reunification of the individual soul (Atman) with the Brahman. The most consequent pursuit of this goal is represented in the lifestyle of a Sannyasin.


Interestingly, the reversal of above hierarchy – a precursor of Freud’s libido theory – is also mentioned in the Hindu epic:

The Mahabharata (12.167) reports of a dispute as to which of the life-targets is the highest. Bhima, one of the Pandava brothers, argues the case for kama: This is the first duty of man, for, without desire, every achievement is impossible. He sees Kama as the secret of all success, whether material or spiritual (Kama, Wikipedia)

If love stands for the inexhaustible life force (and not for the transient human love) then it is transcendent and represents the deity Kama. Finally, however, the life goal Moksha prevailed in Hinduism. A possible reason is that – in the cyclical cosmos of the Hindus – the life force is destroyed and recreated by a higher power. But the reason could also simply be that the creations of the life force are always tied to suffering.



Comparison with Buddhism

The lifestyle of a Sannyasin in Hinduism corresponds more or less to the one of wandering ascetic in Buddhism. According to Christopher Beckwith it was Buddha, who introduced wandering asceticism to India [Beckwith, 5-6]. The Hindu conception of the good life was questioned by Buddha in two major areas:

1.     He criticized the hierarchical and oppressive Indian caste system [Keown, 8] [Beckwith, 43].

2.     With regard to the doctrine of reincarnation he turned away from metaphysical speculations and focused on life practice [Kuzminski, 37]. Since he rejected the existence of an eternal, individual soul (Atman) he was in conflict with Brahmanism as well as Zoroastrianism [Beckwith, 43].

Today the ancient view of reincarnation is replaced by the reincarnation of genes. At first sight it seems easy to avoid genetic reincarnation: in order to remain childless, it is not necessary any more to pursue a particularly ascetic lifestyle. However, since 99.9% of the genome is identical for all humans [Embacher] an essential part of every individual – including the childless individuals – continues to exist after death. In this specific sense it is impossible to leave the cycle of reincarnation. To prepare for a favorable rebirth (translated into our time) therefore means to engage for a better world, a world in which 99.9% of our genome is permanently being reincarnated. In a secular view the Hindu and Buddhist vision of a cosmic justice (karma and rebirth) must be replaced by a mundane concept of justice: see Secular Buddhism and Justice. For concrete attempts to reduce suffering see Negative Utilitarian Priorities.




6.3 Socrates



Virtue ethics

Socrates seems to have thought – like his Stoic successors – that virtue is both necessary and sufficient for a good life (see Eudaimonia). In the Euthydemus he argued, for instance, that the good can be characterized by the four cardinal virtues. Virtues are behavioral patterns which are directed toward goals. One could speculate that Socrates’ cardinal virtues were influenced by the Purusarthas (see diagram below) in particular because ancient Indian scholars recognized and debated the inherent tension between active pursuit of wealth (Artha) and pleasure (Kama), and renunciation for the sake of spiritual liberation (Moksha). In Hinduism, the term wisdom is not only associated with knowledge, but also with spirituality. Similarly, Socrates’ search for wisdom not only has an epistemological, but also a spiritual dimension. For information about a hypothetical influence of Indian philosophy on Socrates see Indian Sources of Hellenistic Ethics.




























In ancient Greece, theory was measured against practice [Banicki 2015, 625-626]. From Socrates’ endeavor to improve ethical knowledge we can conclude that he gave the highest weight to the life goal wisdom. And from his social criticism we can conclude that justice ranked second. His ascetic lifestyle, finally, makes clear that he did not attach great importance to the life goals power and love.

In the Apology, Socrates clearly presents his disagreement with those who think that the eudaimon life is the life of honor or pleasure, when he chastises the Athenians for caring more for riches and honor than the state of their souls (Eudaimonia, Wikipedia).



Comparison with Hinduism

The history of Hinduism mirrors a deeply felt struggle for truth [Zimmer 1973] which could be associated with a Socratic search. There are, however, two major differences, similar to the ones between Hinduism and Buddhism:

1.     Socrates was a natural philosopher who questioned pagan beliefs and started research in ethics. He challenged the class of the priests and probably perceived philo-sophia (the love for wisdom) as a substitute for religion.

2.     Socrates was, among others, a political philosopher [Waterfield, 29] and justice was a major issue in his search. In ancient India, in contrast, there was less interest in political philosophy because the belief in cosmic justice was prevalent and democracy was no issue.



Ethical objectivism

As a moral and political philosopher Socrates fought against moral relativists such as the Sophists [Taylor, 66]. His search for a good life was a search for the objectively good, and for a way of living that represents and promotes the good. Philosophers like Socrates and Plato thought that moral propositions have the character of truths and can be discovered by the same rational way of thinking as scientific propositions.




6.4 Rawls


Major advocates of ethical objectivism in the modernity are Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) and John Rawls (1921-2002). Rawls’ principles were influenced by Kant’s categorical imperative:


“Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.” (Categorical imperative, Wikipedia)


In the mid-17th century social contract theory emerged as the leading doctrine of political legitimacy. In the 19th century it was eclipsed in favor of utilitarianism, Hegelianism and Marxism, but then revived in the 20th century, notably in the form of Rawls’s theory of justice (Social contract, Wikipedia).

A fair life – according to Rawls – requires the engagement for human rights, the equality of opportunity, the welfare of the worst-off and intergenerational justice (keyword sustainability). Human rights guarantee, in particular, the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press and therefore also the survival of Socratic debates.


Should a therapeutic understanding of philosophy not rather suggest a concept like negative utilitarianism respectively “consequentialism of compassion”? Consequentialist ethics has a totalitarian potential, independent of the driving ethical goal. History justifies a deep skepticism opposite to ethical theories which promise improvements by restricting human rights. Much of Rawls’ motivation to work on a theory of justice was founded in the totalitarian potential of classical utilitarianism (Thomas 2015, 16). He came to the conclusion that a free society combined with the difference principle (redistribution) is the most efficient way to improve the situation of the most suffering people.


Is a fair life a sufficient condition for a good life? If we take the Socratic ideal as a yardstick – i.e. the lasting endeavor to improve ethical knowledge – then the answer cannot be affirmative. Rawls’ theory neglects, for example, the private realm and animal welfare. An innovative approach to continue the Socratic search was proposed by the American philosopher Stanley Cavell [Cavell, 445-447]. Cavell’s moral perfectionism is not a moral doctrine but a method of developing an individual moral standpoint and advocating it in society; see Moral Perfectionism and Justice. In the context of Wittgenstein’s demand for representational clarity he brought up the idea that the good life can be taught by films. Cavell considers philosophical films about the good life as case studies, where abstract notions of the good become concrete. For a collection of such case studies see The Good Life in Philosophical Films.




7. Comparison with Psychotherapy



7.1 Commonalities



The medical analogy

There was no clear separation between medicine, psychotherapy, and philosophy in the antiquity [Van der Eijk 2009]. Medical analogies were commonly invoked in both Buddhist Dharma [Gowans 2010, 17-18] [Burton 2010, 187] and Hellenistic philosophy.[Long & Sedley, 155]. Cicero and Galen expressed the view of many Hellenistic philosophers when they described philosophy as a medical science for the mind [Sellars 2009, 64-68]. The most general form of analogy may be stated as follows: “Just as medicine cures bodily diseases and brings about physical health, so Buddhist Dharma and Hellenistic philosophy cure mental diseases and bring about psychological health” [Gowans, 11]. Stoic therapies associated avoidable kinds of suffering with diseases, so that the analogy could be applied to the suffering of mentally sane people. Soteriological therapies even associated suffering in general with a disease and their extended analogy insinuated that suffering in general can be defeated, if the proper (mental) medicine is administered. The medical model is consistent with the Buddhist model, if the four Noble Truths are interpreted as diagnosis, etiology, prognosis and prescription [Gethin, 63-64] [Burton, 187] [Brons 144-147].



Common practices

-      The delineation between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy is vague insofar, as philosophical methods like maieutics, hermeneutics and the change of perspectives are also used in psychotherapy [Van Hooft, 23].

-      Philosophical therapy, as well as psychotherapy connects academic knowledge with the practice of daily life.

Theory and practice are not separate spheres; rather, theories and distinctions are tools or maps for finding our way in the world. As John Dewey put it, there is no question of theory versus practice but rather of intelligent practice versus uninformed practice (…). Theory is an abstraction from direct experience and ultimately must return to inform experience. Theories are means and not ends in themselves (Pragmatism, Wikipedia).



The claim for universality

For Nussbaum, Hadot and Foucault ancient philosophical therapy is a therapy of passions/desires, which can be understood in analogy to medical therapy [Banicki 2015, 627-628]. Konrad Banicki suggests that the structure constituted by the three concepts health ideal, disease and process of treatment seems to be generally accepted in thinking about medicine or therapy of any kind. Consequently, he demands that a therapeutic vision of philosophy has to identify the diseases it attempts at curing [Banicki 2014, 14-15]. We disagree with this claim. In the 1980s, when philosophical therapy celebrated its rebirth, psychotherapy had already emerged as a separate discipline for mental diseases. Philosophical therapy established itself as a form of therapy, which aims at the clients' well-being without assuming that he/she suffers from a mental disease [Cohen, 32]. The reinterpretation of desires/emotions as “diseases” in Buddhism and Stoicism is first and foremost of historical interest. But it makes no sense to re-activate the terms health ideal and disease for the philosophical therapy of the 21th century. For more information on this issue see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.


Following the differences between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy in detail:




7.2 Differences




-      Psychotherapy treats mental disorders like hysteria, narcissism, bulimia, compulsive disorder, anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder.

-      Philosophical therapy competes with psychotherapy mainly in the counseling of mentally sane people [Van Hooft, 12] [Clark, 83] [Martin, 2].

Extract from an interview with Lou Marinoff:

Many of our most pressing problems aren’t even emotional or chemical to begin with – they’re philosophical. To wit: You don’t have to be clinically depressed or burdened by childhood guilt to want help with the timeless questions of the human condition – the persistence of suffering and the inevitability of death, the need for a reliable ethics. ‘’Even sane, functional people need principles to live by’’ [Duane].


Many forms of suffering, life crisis or conflicts are far from being pathological and are simply part of a normal life. The tendency to classify more and more of these quite normal problems as pathological problems leads to the assumption that certain economic interests play an important role in this development [Stefan, 121].

Contemporary therapies may pursue a concrete goal – as the Stoics did – but they can also be open processes:

The verb “to diagnose” is massively laden with medical connotations (…). Philosophical verification or diagnosis can be completely different from medical diagnosis in that trying to understand the nature of the problem is not based on a priori knowledge [Schuster].




-      Psychotherapy objectifies the client, forms a theory about the client and interprets the client’s statements in terms of that theory [Van Hooft, 20]. The definition of mental diseases may be influenced by political ideologies, religions or dictators of the mainstream.

-      Individualistic philosophical therapies strive to avoid theory-specific terms and consider the client’s constitution, environment and life story as a unique phenomenon. The language should be theory-neutral, because otherwise the client is guided in a specific direction. A standardized language is already a loss of individuality. Ideally, the patient discovers his/her own language in the course of the therapy [Hampe 2007]. If the client has already been confronted with a particular theory, then the corresponding way of thinking has first to be undone [Schuster].



Psychological health

-      According to Freud a person is sane if he/she is able to love and able to work. A retreat-oriented life is diagnosed as a sign of depression.

-      In a philosophical therapy a retreat-oriented life – if it comes out of a profound argument – is not associated with mental illness.

The ethical goal to liberate oneself from anger, fear and grief is a controversial conception of psychological health. In addition, the Buddhist and Hellenistic traditions believed that in various ways that it was necessary to withdraw from ordinary life (psychological or otherwise) in order to achieve genuine tranquility. The claim that psychological health requires downgrading the importance of ordinary life is also controversial [Gowans, 26-27] [Soni, 226].


A specific disanalogy concerns the soteriology of Buddhism:

-      The medical goal is to be again free from disease, a previous state of heath presupposed. Buddhism attempts to terminate a state of suffering and confusion without presupposing a previous state of wholeness and health [Halbfass, 250] (in contrast to Hinduism, where atman represents such a state).

-      In Samkhya and Buddhism the goal is not well-being, but rather the freedom from attachment. Medicine itself is, as seen from this perspective, an integral part of samsara [Halbfass, 253-254].



World views

Contemporary psychotherapists – with some exceptions like existential therapists – typically adopt the scientific stance of value-neutrality. They validate emotions, but not world views [Martin, 19-20]. The Buddhist and Stoic therapies [Sellars, 150-164], in contrast, rely on specific world views with clear conceptions of the true and good. If the worldview changes, then the form of therapy changes as well [Gowans, 15]. In medicine there is only one goal (health). The medical model cannot explain why there are conflicting goals in philosophical therapy.

The separation of the disciplines began with the development of individualistic therapies:

As a specialized science, a branch of psychology – ‘depth-psychology’ or psychology of the unconscious – it is quite unsuited to form a Weltanschauung of its own; it must accept that of science in general (Sigmund Freud, A Philosophy of Life).



Political and social philosophy

The term therapy is usually applied to an individual or a group. Attempts to reduce suffering on the cultural level are associated with the terms political philosophy and social philosophy. But in ancient times therapies were imbedded in worldviews and social ideals.

In Socrates’ day, almost all Greek thinkers assumed or argued that the polis, the community, was the correct and only environment for human moral flourishing – that a good polis created goodness in its citizens (…). As a moral philosopher, then, Socrates was also a political philosopher [Waterfield, 29].


Today psychotherapy is a specialized field within the social sciences. Philosophical therapy, in contrast, resumes the holistic and interdisciplinary view that was characteristic for the ancient world. It is not only concerned with the well-being of the individual, but also with the search for the objectively true and good [Martin, 21] [Van Hooft, 28]. Whereas psychotherapy delegates political questions to separate disciplines, philosophy works on normative answers. Reasons for resuming the ancient holistic view are among others:

-      The Freedom of speech is not a gift; it has to be (politically) defended. Philosophical knowledge cannot be passed on without freedom of speech.

-      It might be more efficient to improve living conditions than to occupy therapists with the result of miserable conditions [Stefan, 163-167].


Depression is the leading cause of disability as measured by YLD (Years lost due to disability). By the year 2020, depression is projected to reach 2nd place of the ranking of DALYs (lost years of healty life) calcuated for all ages, both sexes (WHO, Depression).

Couldn’t depression be a “normal” reaction to the current environment? If depression is allowed and reflected, it can show a way out of misery, whereas the treatment with medicaments circumvents change. Many depressions presumably represent a mechanism to protect the individual [Hell]. But what are the cultural conditions that cause depression? Possible answers are increasing competition (stress, pressure to perform) combined with fears about the future [Stefan, 5-6].



Moral questions

Besides associating a healthy life style with moral value – which is a controversial issue – medicine does not contribute much to the development of moral guidelines.

If we think that living well requires living virtuously, then the medical analogy is problematic (…). There are no actions that are characteristically expressive of being healthy. By contrast, there are actions that are characteristically expressive of being just, courageous, or compassionate. Hence the medical analogy is not naturally suited to philosophies like Buddhism and Stoicism that regard virtue as a necessary feature of living well [Gowans, 27].

One of the primary objections to tranquility philosophies is that anger is a morally required response to serious wrongdoing on the part of others. Both Buddhism and Stoicism directly reject this: they maintain that a virtuous response to wrongdoing is free from anger (…). Since the normative question cannot be avoided, any tranquility philosophy implies a response to it and regarding psychological well-being as analogous to physical well-being is not a helpful model for reflecting on this position [Gowans, 29].


Philosophers criticize those psychiatrists, who associate immoral behavior with mental diseases, without reflecting the cultural and historical background of the health ideal and morality.

Most philosophically minded thinkers who have looked critically at the concepts of mental health and mental illness have found them to be inherently laden with moral value (…). We pack our value preferences and aversions into these notions. Critics object that positive concepts of health

(like the WHO’s ideal of complete well-being [Banicki 2014, 16])

lead to the expansive pathologizing that alarms Marinoff and others (…). Unquestionably, our culture has been shaped dramatically by a therapeutic trend: the tendency to adopt health-oriented approaches to issues traditionally viewed as moral matters. As just a few examples, the DSM lists drug abuse, alcohol dependence, impulse control disorders, and a variety of personality disorders that in the past were discussed as character flaws. The replacement project seeks to replace morality with therapeutic outlooks (…). It is dangerous, insofar as it creates the "medical tyranny" of therapists who are implicitly given power in moral matters, under the guise of morally neutral science [Martin, 10-12].




1.     Philosophical therapy is more than a subdivision of psychotherapy. The medical model of philosophical therapy is just one of several conceptual models and is first and foremost of historical interest. Philosophical therapy established itself as a form of therapy, which aims at the clients' well-being without assuming that he/she suffers from a mental disease. It makes no sense to re-activate the terms health ideal and disease for the philosophical therapy of the 21th century.

2.     Philosophical therapy can probably best be understood by looking at the topic from different angles; see the conceptual models in chapter 4.1.


For more information on the relation between philosophical therapy and psychotherapy, see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.




8. Comparison with Religion



8.1 Ancient Philosophy


Most premodern thinkers believed that the nonphysical and the immaterial are somehow more real than what we can perceive and sense in this world [Rizvi, 133]. Under these premises philosophy was inseparably linked with metaphysical intuitions and speculations [Rizvi, 141-144]. But even materialist philosophers like the Stoics were not immune to religious emotions. The Stoic study of physics evoked the intuition that natural laws are divine and thus opened the door to a pantheistic form of mysticism.



Forms of Mysticism

Mysticism is a place of peace and reflection in a life that is characterized by expansionism and conflicts.

As an alternative to this "still further and further" people have always striven for a different conception of will and time:

Instead of going for "more and more" -> taking a break and looking for stability

Instead of insisting on the desired -> renouncing to one’s own will.

[Tugendhat 2007, 194]

Mysticism is a means to salvation. Salvation is primarily salvation from suffering, in particular the suffering from transience. One can find the meaning of life in the love to a person, in the love of the family or in a professional task, but then one despairs when this point of reference is lost [Tugendhat 2006, 112]. In the usual definitions of mysticism different points of view are mentioned:


1)    Outward-oriented view, transcendence of the self:

a)  Religious Western mysticism: Immediate making contact with God

b)  Non-religious Western mysticism and Indian Vedanta: Meditative merging with the ultimate reality


2)    Inward-oriented view, dissolution of the self:

a)  Theravada Buddhism and Samkhya Yoga: Leaving the phenomenal world

b)  Daoist mysticism: Remaining in the phenomenal world.

[Tugendhat 2006, 116-117].



Mysticism and religion

Hinduism emphasized that everything emerges out of a mystery and eventually returns to it. The mystery is not void, because it is able to produce animated worlds. The individual is confronted with an incomparable and enigmatic power (the numinous). To interpret this view as “a projection of the infantile experience of one's own littleness” as Freud did in The Future of an Illusion may be plausible in certain cases, but is an undue simplification in other cases. The feeling of powerlessness (Ohn-Macht) has real reasons such as disasters, accidents, illnesses, aging and death. Religion and mysticism emerge both from the experience of the numinous, but their target is opposed:

Religion tries to satisfy the human desires (for perfection, immortality, etc.) in a transformed world.

Mysticism tries to liberate from the human desires (greed, care, etc.). The self is transformed instead of the world, or the self is completely dissolved.

[Tugendhat 2006, 121-122].

According to this definition, there is a clear distinction between religion and mysticism. But traditionally the term mysticism is also used for specific practices within religion. Following an example:



Christian and Buddhist mysticism

In an effort to find universal character traits of all human beings [Tugendhat 2007] the commonalities of Christian and Buddhist mysticism are often emphasized. But the differences are actually more interesting. In the following the term Buddhist mysticism refers to the Vipassana meditation, which is practiced, among others, in Theravada Buddhism:

-      Realm of emotions: Christian mysticism is associated with worship, ecstasy and affirmation (the mystic is emotionally engaged), Buddhist mysticism is associated with inner peace, mindfulness and indifference (the mystic is emotionally absent).

-      Object of observation: Christian mysticism sees the object of worship in the external world, Buddhist mysticism focuses on inner conditions. Christian mysticism is related to bhakti yoga because it assumes that love needs an object. Buddhist mysticism attempts to get rid of objects.

-      Awareness of the self: The self is not given up in Christian mysticism (as opposed to Buddhist mysticism) but is given a transcendental expression through the union with God.

-      Biological Needs: The (medieval) Christian mysticism requires asceticism and sometimes even mistreatment of the body; the Buddhist mysticism rejects asceticism and seeks the "middle" way. The middle way of the Buddha, however, was still a very strict practice (see e.g The Price of Liberation, by Peter Masefield).

-      Method: Christian mysticism is based on faith, Buddhist mysticism on a process of cognition.


Hinduism before the Buddha already knew forms of mysticism similar to the Christian ones. There, too, the goal was to reach an ecstatic state through physical asceticism. Buddha practiced this kind of mysticism for several years, but finally gave preference to a knowledge-oriented form of meditation, combined with a technique to calm the mind (Vipassana and Samatha).



Mysticism in music

In some cultures, mysticism is associated with religious music, such as Sufi music or Gregorian chant.

For Indian musicians such as Hariprasad Chaurasia the scales of their ragas are symbols outside of time and space. They are regarded as the tonal representatives of a transcendent reality, a reality that can be experienced through the magic of the sounds (Die Welt ist Klang, Deutschlandfunk, 25.12.2012)

In Southern India there is a thousand-year-old tradition, which goes back to sacred writings such as the Vedas and Upanishads, as well as anonymous wise men (Rishis) and sacred musicians (…). They all proclaimed that good music is the key to self-discovery and to the salvation of the individual from its inner and outer conflicts (Carnatic Music, Wikipedia).

A mystic dimension is also ascribed to Thomas TallisSpem in alium and some compositions of Johann Sebastian Bach. It seems that certain kinds of music making are an alternative to meditation or can even be seen as a form of meditation.



Mysticism in poetry

In the personalizing Bhakti tradition there are forms of mysticism that are close to the Christian tradition, especially when they go with asceticism. In these cases, the same psychoanalytic diagnosis may be applied as mentioned above. The question is, however, whether such an analysis can do justice to the phenomenon. The dissolution of the ego necessarily contains regressive elements, but is, on the other hand, an adaptation to the reality of transience. Mysticism creates its own reality in which the assessments of the “struggle for survival” do not apply. Thereto a poem by the Bengali philosopher R.Tagore [Tagore]:





The Meeting


My heart longs day and night for the meeting with you,

For the meeting that is like all-devouring death.


Sweep me away like a storm;

Take everything I have;

Break open my sleep and plunder my dreams;

Rob me of my world.


In that devastation,

In the utter nakedness of spirit,

Let us become one in beauty.


Alas for my vain desire!

Where is this hope for union,

Except for you, my God?







Mysticism and entheogens

Entheogens have been used by indigenous peoples for thousands of years. Hemp seeds discovered by archaeologists at Pazyryk suggest early ceremonial practices by the Scythians occurred during the 5th to 2nd century BC, confirming previous historical reports by Herodotus. It has been suggested that entheogens played an important role in ancient Indo-European culture, for example by inclusion in the ritual preparations of the Soma:

“Splendid by Law! declaring Law, truth speaking, truthful in thy works, Enouncing faith, King Soma!... O [Soma] Pavāmana (mind clarifying), place me in that deathless, undecaying world wherein the light of heaven is set…”


The Kykeon that preceded initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries was an entheogen, as well as the opium poppydatura, and the unidentified Lotus (likely the sacred blue lily) eaten by the Lotus-Eaters in the Odyssey and Narcissus. The familiar shamanic entheogen that the Indo-Europeans brought knowledge of was Amanita muscaria. It could not be cultivated; thus it had to be found, which suited it to a nomadic lifestyle (Entheogen, Wikipedia).

(Indo-Europeans are, among others, ancestors of the Mycenaean Greeks. Latin and Sanskrit are old Indo-European languages).

One could also speculate that the (nomadic) Buddha made the acquaintance of entheogens [Winkelman] [Canton-Alvarez].


The ambrosia of various pre-Hellenic tribes may have been Amanita muscaria and perhaps psilocybin mushrooms of the genus PanaeolusAmanita muscaria was regarded as divine food, not something to be indulged in, sampled lightly, or profaned. It was seen as the food of the gods, their ambrosia, and as mediating between the two realms (Entheogen, Wikipedia).


In certain forms of mysticism, the universe is not seen as a unity in which the manifold disappears, but the multiplicity of things in space and time is maintained, but seen in a unified context [Tugendhat, 125]. It seems that certain hallucinogens can establish the felt connection between unity and multiplicity. For example, one participant in a scientific study of the effects of psilocybin described his experience as follows:

“I experienced directly and immediately the metaphysical theory known as emanationism, in which, beginning with the clear, unbroken, and infinite light of God, the light then breaks into forms and decreases in intensity as it passes through descending degrees of reality (...). The emanation theory and especially the detailed elaborated layers of being in Hindu and Buddhist cosmology and psychology had hitherto been for me only concepts and conclusions. Now they were the subject of the most direct and unmediated perception. I could understand exactly how these theories had originated, if their progenitors had had this experience. But far more than an explanation of their origin, my experience testified to their absolute truth” [Metzinger, 315].

The consumption of hallucinogens, however, carries considerable risk (psychosis, risk of accidents, horror trips). The attempt to achieve mystical experiences in an effortless way has its price.



Mysticism and the fear of death

The biological functionality of the fear of death [Tugendhat, 165] explains why death is associated with negative thoughts like coldness, loneliness, powerlessness, loss, deprivation, eternal night, etc. although these associations are completely misleading. Epicurus emphasized that being dead cannot be a negative experience, because it is no experience in the first place.

Lucretius pointed out that we emerge from nothingness. Nevertheless we do not shudder before this past nothingness. Why then do we shudder before the future nothingness? [Tugendhat, 162]

However, for many people it is difficult to overcome the fear of death by cognitive means. They can accept death only out of a mystical attitude [Tugendhat, 106]. The absorption in a cosmic consciousness like the Brahman fulfills the desire for immortality and thus facilitates the departure from the ego. The idea of being absorbed in Brahman is not seen as a loss of a large-scale perspective (the perspective of the five senses), but conversely as a liberation from being enclosed in a small-scale perspective. Similarly the Nirwana is often thought to exist as a celestial realm outside of the human mind.

Nirvāṇa is a term found in the texts of all major Indian religions – Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Sikhism. It refers to the profound peace of mind that is acquired with moksha and the liberation from samsara (…). The idea of moksha is connected to the Vedic culture, where it conveyed a notion of “immortality” or “timelessness”, and a notion of being "unborn", or "at the still point of the turning world of time" (…). The hope for life after death started with notions of going to the worlds of the Fathers or Ancestors and/or the world of the Gods or Heaven (Nirwana, Wikipedia).



Conflicts between philosophy and religion

Approximately in the 6th century BC, Indian and Greek philosophy began questioning the leading societal function of religion. The therapeutic goal (liberation from suffering) was set by reason and could be pursued rationally. Through a combination of emotion (meditative liberation) and reason, philosophy created meaning in life. The personified conceptions of polytheism were challenged by more abstract, pantheistic concepts. The representatives of these concepts got in conflict with the religious tradition, and thus philosophy obtained a subversive character. Buddhism, although it did not strive for societal power, conflicted with Brahmanism and Zoroastrianism [Beckwith, 43], whereas the Socratic search for truth conflicted with the representatives of the Pantheon. The power of Stoicism finally procured philosophy a socially acknowledged position. In the Roman society it reached its climax by the confession of Mark Aurel to the Stoa.




8.2 Modern Philosophy


Whatever form it takes, a larger world-view is a spiritual need that we all have and which both Plato and Aristotle thought grounded a fully happy life. Philosophy (along with theology, theoretical physics, art, politics, and possibly other human cultural forms) answers to this need. Accordingly, any counselling process that calls itself philosophical must go beyond offering pragmatic help to people. It must take them to what Raabe has called a level of transcendence [Van Hooft, 28].


The quest for transcendence is reminiscent of the close relation between philosophy and religion in antiquity. But what is a “level of transcendence” in contemporary therapy? First of all it does not imply teaching metaphysical doctrines. The focus is on techniques, which transcend the everyday perception. Following some examples:



Freud’s method of free association, which was developed out of the hypnotic method of his mentor and colleague, Josef Breuer, encourages the philosopher to transcend the ordinary way of thinking and enter an altered state of mind, a state of unlimited mental freedom, similar to a state of daydreaming.





René Magritte  Le Chateau des Pyrénées




Nietzsche created the idea of overman as a goal of humanity. The “overman” transcends the biological limits of human existence by means of cultural perfectionism. Nietzsche thought of cultural perfectionism mainly in terms of masterpieces in art, with its specific techniques to transcend the everyday perception. A technological interpretation of “overman” is the immortal transhuman. Transhumanism may eventually lead to the liberation from suffering.


Modern Stoicism

The Stoics proclaimed that rationality itself has a divine origin. In the Age of Reason the pantheistic world view was challenged by critical philosophy, see Pantheism Controversy. Nevertheless Kant still maintained that moral laws have the character of truths and can be discovered by rational thinking. His grave in the city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad) is an impressive metaphor for transcendence in science and ethics. It attracts attention by the following epitaph:





Two things fill the heart with ever new

and increasing admiration and awe:

the starry skies above,

the moral law within.


Immanuel Kant




Modern Stoics may have lost their admiration for divine forces working in the universe……with one exception: they have not lost their trust in the power of reason. A consequent form of transcendence, which resumes the Stoic ideal of cosmopolitanism, is the selfless engagement for a rational concept of justice.



Secular Buddhism

Secular Buddhist meditation techniques do not depend on metaphysical beliefs [Batchelor]. The positive experience of non-existence (of the ego) in meditation is the key for coping with transience and death. The boundary between religious and secular spirituality, however, is fluent.

An altruistic form of transcendence is the compassionate (selfless) engagement for suffering people. It stands in the tradition of the Bodhisattva ideal in Mahayana Buddhism.



Transcendence in the language

As mentioned in chapter 3.2, Wittgenstein thinks that the use of language is rooted in “forms of life”, which are ultimately ways of acting in the world [O’Grady, 239]. In each of the discussed philosophies transcendence is mirrored in a specific aspect of the language:


1.     According to Freud the essential difference between modes of thought characterized by primary (irrational, governed by the id) as opposed to secondary (logical, governed by the ego and external reality) thought processes is one of preverbal versus verbal ways of conceptualizing the world (Psychoanalytic conceptions of language, Wikipedia). Carl Jung suggested that there is a symbolic language stored in the unconscious, which transcends generations.


2.     The transcendent dimension of Nietzsche’s philosophy shows up in about every aspect of his work: topics, style and prophetic mission. Interestingly Nietzsche, who was one of the fiercest critics of religion, copied the style of the bible, referred to Zarathustra and wrote like a prophet and founder of a religion. Similar to religious texts, his writings are sometimes poetic and allow multiple interpretations.


3.     Plato thought that there is a perfect world which transcends the earthly world and that mathematics is the appropriate language to describe it. Similarly, the Stoics thought that natural laws have a divine origin and that the language used to describe them mirrors their perfection. In contemporary physics the description of reality transcends everyday perception more than ever.


4.     Buddhist meditation is far from the Western way to do philosophy. From a Buddhist perspective complex theories have an anti-therapeutic effect. Because intellectuality is tied to language, Zen-Buddhists uncoupled the attachments to terms and destroyed the logic of language. Zen-Buddhism stands in the tradition of the Advaita Vedanta. When we name something, then we give it a tag, and by giving it a tag, we put it in a box, limit its meaning and destroy its organic nature. Advaita, in contrast, attempts to reconstruct the holistic nature of things.


Buddha made clear that ordinary language cannot describe the Nirwana experience. Sometimes he used a metaphorical language to describe it, like the blowing out of a candle (the blowing out of the fires of desire) or the extinction of the three poisons passion (raga), aversion (dvesha) and ignorance (moha). On a deeper level, however, the only adequate approach to the Nirwana is the absence of language.



Transcendence and entheogens

With regard to the questions about transience and death the contemporary medicine men prefer a technical answer: chemistry in the form of tranquilizers, beta-blockers, neuroleptics, sleeping pills, painkillers, anti-depressants, and so on. Karl Marx declared that "religion is the opium of the people” but, conversely, opium is also a substitute for religion. Today’s medicaments may contain chemical components of the ancient entheogens (e.g. opioids) but they are administered without a spiritual context. In some areas this practice now appears to be changing.

Example: Taking Psychedelics Seriously, by Ira Byock (https://www.liebertpub.com)


For more information on the relation between philosophical therapy and religion see Philosophy as Therapy – A Review.






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Further Reading


1.  Davis Gordon (2018), Self-Sceptical Ethics and Selfless Morality: A Historical and Cross-Cultural Overview, Springer

2.  De Bravo Delorme Christian (2019), Socrates’ Dialectic Therapy According to Plato’s Aporetic Dialogues, Filozofia, 74, No 3, 169 – 180

3.  Deurzen, E. van (2002), Existential Counseling and Psychotherapy in Practice, London

4.  De Botton Alain (2000), The Consolations of Philosophy, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books

5.  Faust Volker, Psychosoziale Gesundheit

6.  Hampe Michael (2004), Rationale Selbstbefreiung, in Klassiker der Philosophie heute

7.  Heehs Peter (2019), Spirituality without God, Bloomsbury Academic, London

8.  Marinoff Lou (1999), Plato not Prozac! New York, Harper Collins

9.     Raabe, Peter (2001), Philosophical Counseling, Westport, Praeger

10.  Schuster Shlomit (1999), Philosophy Practice: Westport, Praeger

11.  Sharpe Matthew, Michael Ure (2021), Philosophy as a Way of Life: History, Dimensions, Directions, Bloomsbury Publishing, London

12.  Vukomanović Milan (2004), Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein: Filozofija i Društvo 24

13.  Zwiebel Ralf, Weischede G. (2015), Buddha und Freud – Präsenz und Einsicht, Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen, Germany




Appendix: Moods



Goals and moods

Goals in life are the highest order desires. Each goal is tied to a specific mood. If a goal gets a dominant position within the hierarchy of desires, then the corresponding mood also gets an accordingly dominant position: Shifting goals means shifting moods.


According to psychologist Robert Thayer, mood is a product of two dimensions: energy and tension. A person can be energetic or tired while also being tense or calm. People feel best when they are in a calm-energy mood. They feel worse when in a tense-tired state [Thayer].


If we assume that all our philosophers reside on the same level of energy, then Thayer’s data seems to favor the Buddhist and Stoic philosophy:




emotional detachment



emotional attachment








Roman Stoics






But Thayer’s data doesn’t say anything about

-      the effort which is required in order to attain a calm mood (e.g. an education that awards self-control, long periods of concentration, etc.)

-      the internal risks which are involved in attaining the calm mood (e.g. depression because of lacking spontaneity)


There is a hierarchy in the controllability of the mind:

1.     Affects can often be influenced by a few weeks of training (e.g. in behavior therapy)

2.     It takes months to reach a better understanding of moods (e.g. the understanding that a certain mood changes quickly because there is an unconscious readiness for the change)

3.     It may take years to change personality traits (like the ones defined in chapter 3.3) because they are partly hereditary. According to recent research, however, it is possible to change one’s character throughout life [Frankel].


In the future it will probably be easier to control the mind by means of drugs and medicaments [Hampe 2009, chapter 2]. For the time being there is a considerable risk that a short-time gain in control (by drugs) has to be paid by a long-time loss of control



Methods and moods

Philosophers use several methods to gain insight, but often emphasize one of them:


-      Spinoza (who was influenced by the Stoics) spent much time and energy on deriving rational conclusions from axioms.

-      Nietzsche spent most of his time on questioning axioms (and even rationality).






dynamics of value




disclose values



creative, antithetic thinking

contest values



analytical, deductive thinking

derive values



insight meditation


dissolve values



Each method is linked to a goal and provides corresponding insights. But each method also has its limitations and may prevent insights into a different area:


1.     A person who is in a free-association mood, neglects analytical thinking.

2.     A person who is in a problem-solving mood, cannot gain meditative insight.


Ancient philosophers combined analytical and meditative methods:

-      Buddhism aims at spiritual liberation but uses analytical methods to understand the material world.

-      Stoicism, with its emphasis on reason, nevertheless included spiritual exercises similar to some forms of Eastern meditation (see Stoicism, Wikipedia)

Modern philosophers replace meditation by different forms of mental liberation:

-      Freud’s psychoanalysis is an interaction of analytical thinking and free-association.

-      In Nietzsche’s work we find a combination of grim analytical diagnosis and dreamlike break-outs.


There are theses about the relation between moods and methods of thinking. It seems that

-      an optimistic mood tends to induce creative thinking and

-      a slightly depressive mood tends to induce analytical thinking


Possibly the converse is also true:

-      Creative thinking (e.g. free association) induces an optimistic mood.

-      Analytical thinking induces a slightly depressive (cramped) mood.