May 25, 2024

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How ancient Greece contributed to modern counseling theories

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Ancient Greece, with its legendary philosophers, poets and thinkers, was a cradle of intellectual and cultural growth. As with so many areas of human thought and study, the Greeks played a pivotal role in shaping our understanding of the human psyche. 

More than 41.7 million people in the US saw a therapist in 2021, a clear indication of how popular counseling has grown over the years. For thousands of years, human beings have been helping each other solve mental health problems. Ancient Greeks believed in the concept of “a healthy mind in a healthy body” making mental well-being a big part of physical wellness. Their way of thinking paved the way for Western intellectual traditions. 

Let us delve into how the beliefs and ideas of ancient Greece influenced the development of modern psychological counseling theories.

Philosophical foundations

One cannot discuss the contribution of ancient Greece without acknowledging its philosophers, many of whom pondered questions about human behavior, cognition, and emotions. Good Masters in Mental Health Counseling Online programs cover the history of major theories in psychology and counseling. For instance, the Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (CMHC) at American International College (AIC) traces philosophical roots from ancient Greece to current times. This helps students understand how society today is influenced by history and make informed decisions on mental health treatment plans.

Socrates

With his famous Socratic method, Socrates encouraged individuals to introspect and question their beliefs. This is a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue wherein an individual seeks to stimulate critical thinking and draw out ideas and underlying presumptions. This method involves asking and answering questions to stimulate logical thinking and illuminate ideas. It’s not just about getting answers, but about understanding and challenging underlying beliefs and assumptions. This reflective thinking is a fundamental component of modern cognitive therapies especially Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), where individuals are urged to question and challenge their negative beliefs and thought patterns. The foundational principles of the Socratic method have certainly played a role in shaping how therapists engage with clients to challenge and change maladaptive beliefs and behaviors.

Plato

Plato was a student of Socrates and further expanded his ideas. Plato’s idea that the soul comprises reason, spirit and appetite can be paralleled to Freud’s structural model of the psyche (ego, superego and id). In his work “The Republic,” Plato posited that the human soul is divided into three parts:

  • Rational (Logistikon): This part of the soul seeks truth and is responsible for logical and critical thinking.
  • Spirited (Thumoeides): This is the part that loves honor and, in some translations, can be thought of as the emotional and ambitious part of the soul.
  • Appetitive (Epithumetikon): Concerned with desires, appetites and bodily urges, this part of the soul seeks pleasure and is responsible for basic drives.

Both Freud and Plato acknowledge internal conflict within the psyche. For Plato, a just and virtuous life is achieved when the three parts of the soul are in harmony. For Freud, psychological health is maintained when the ego successfully mediates between the id and the superego. Plato’s emphasis on reason and self-awareness aligns with the principles of cognitive therapy. Plato’s maxim “Know Thyself” and Freud’s emphasis on making the unconscious conscious are both foundational ideas in many therapeutic modalities.

Aristotle

Aristotle’s ‘Nicomachean Ethics’ touches upon eudaimonia, or the concept of flourishing and achieving personal well-being. Virtues (excellences of character) are crucial for eudaimonia and the practice and cultivation of virtues lead to a good life. This idea is foundational in positive psychology, which focuses on individuals’ strengths and potential. Aristotle’s idea of flourishing encompasses a holistic sense of well-being that is not just about fleeting moments of happiness but about living in accordance with one’s true nature and potential. Modern cognitive therapies, especially positive psychology interventions, aim to promote not just the alleviation of symptoms but holistic well-being and fulfillment in life. 

Early recognition of mental health

Ancient Greeks differentiated between diseases of the body and the soul, recognizing that emotional and mental disturbances required different kinds of interventions. Hippocrates, often regarded as the father of medicine, argued against the prevailing notion of the time that mental illnesses were caused by supernatural forces. Instead, he believed that such conditions arose due to natural causes and imbalances in bodily fluids, known as humors. This early attempt to understand mental health in physiological terms paved the way for a more systematic and scientific approach to mental health. Asclepius, the Greek god of medicine, had sanctuaries where dream interpretation was used as a therapeutic technique. This practice resonates with modern-day psychoanalytic therapies, emphasizing the significance of dreams.

Holistic approach to well-being

The Greeks believed in the unity of mind and body. Their famous maxim, “Mens sana in corpore sano” (a sound mind in a sound body), underscores the importance of physical health for mental well-being. This philosophy aligns with contemporary holistic and integrative approaches in therapy that consider the entire well-being of a person, including physical, emotional and social dimensions.

The birth of rational emotive thinking

The Greek philosophical tradition emphasized rational thought and careful observation. This emphasis on reason and empiricism laid the groundwork for the empirical methods that are foundational in modern psychology. Stoicism, a school of Hellenistic philosophy founded in Athens, taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment. Stoics believed that individuals could achieve tranquillity and happiness by transforming their way of thinking. This is reminiscent of Albert Ellis’s Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT), which postulates that it’s not events but our beliefs about them that cause emotional distress.

Theatrical therapies

The ancient Greeks used theater as a therapeutic tool, with tragedies serving as a cathartic experience for the audience. The act of witnessing and empathizing with the characters’ emotional struggles allowed viewers to process and release their emotions. This therapeutic use of drama paved the way for modern expressive therapies, including drama therapy.

Final thoughts

While the terminology and methods of ancient Greece differ from those of modern psychological counseling, the foundational concepts remain strikingly similar. From introspection to the interconnectedness of mind and body, the ideas sown by ancient thinkers have blossomed into the diverse therapeutic approaches we see today. By understanding these roots, we gain a deeper appreciation for the timelessness of human introspection and the continuous journey toward understanding our psyche.