What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about our view of the world.

When the Ancient Greek philosopher Epictetus died in AD 135, he probably had little idea that his thinking, and that of other philosophers from around his time, would inspire two psychologists to formulate the idea of cognitive behavioural therapy over 1,800 years later.


Thanks to an excellent book by the British philosopher Jules Evans (Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations) I was fascinated to learn that Albert Ellis – one of the two CBT-inventing psychologists (Aaron Beck was the other) – acknowledged that the ancient Greeks knew a thing or two about the way our minds work.

Epictetus, for example, said: ‘What disturbs men’s minds is not events but their judgements on events.’

So true. When something happens, whether good or bad, we probably have more choice over how we react to it than we’re prepared to admit.

When we’re faced with a negative event, we might get angry, scared or despondent. We might instead choose to ignore it – or to face it, but refuse to be affected by it.

Our ‘judgements on events’ tend to be pretty ingrained processes – they’re learned behaviours which, left to their own devices, make us automatically react to situations in habitual ways.

But habits can be unlearned. We’re never too old to acquire new ways of judging the world.

It’s probably fair to say that neither you or I are going to mend our ways overnight, but simply becoming more aware of how we form our judgements is a great place to start.

Epictetus, we salute you. You were a wise old Greek.

6 thoughts on “What the Ancient Greeks can teach us about our view of the world.

  1. Yes! This reminds me of a story (apparently the ancient Chinese and the ancient Greeks were on the same train of thought):

    There once was a Taoist farmer who had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbors came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”

    A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbors became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”

    The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbors were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”

    A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbors congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.

    (from http://www.noogenesis.com/pineapple/Taoist_Farmer.html)

    1. Alexandra, this story is so great– and perfectly reflects the article–thanks for sharing.

      Mood Nudges, love the article and bringing applicability and awareness to Classical culture in modern times. Thank you for writing it.

  2. “there is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” – shakespeare – Hamlet. I tell you, that man never had an original thought in his head – he just put them in better words!

  3. I met a huge motorcycle accident when I was 19, was in coma for 2 days. First 1year, digressed, wondered why happened to me, didn’t seem to have a purpose to live. Then I cried until no tears came out. I began to feel how lucky I was to survive and no one died. It’s been 28 years, fortunate to have my beautiful wife and a 3 yrs old son.

    I learned:

    The event itself had no meaning until you give one.

    The quality of life does not measure by how much money, title, positions I accumulate over years. The quality of life is measured by simply how I feel about each event experience. Happy 4th of July : ). D. Tanigaki

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