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Psychotherapy as a Humane Discipline (A paradigm for therapists)

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in holistic psychotherapy, originally published in issue 30 - July 1998

Many psychotherapists are uncertain about their values and confused about the general values of psychotherapy. One way to gain perspective is to look back at ancient Greece. While there was no notion of psychotherapy per se in Athens, one can readily see how the conduct of therapy may be considered analogous to what Socrates was trying to do; think of therapy as parallel to a Socratic dialogue.

Therapy deals with the general issue of human behaviour; and if we seek to explore this as a classic philosophic topic, we can find no better guide than Socrates.

In the Socratic view, the one great aim of men is to attain happiness, i.e. to make a "success" of life. Each man strives to make a success of his private life, and some try also for success in community affairs, as leaders or good citizens, this is what Socrates meant by being a good man – one who "conducts his own affairs and those of the city well." The words good and well are not used here in the usual narrow moralistic sense. To conduct one's business well means to make a success of it; the good man is the effective man. Since to make a success of life means to achieve good, Socrates concludes that all men desire good and nothing else. Although a man may prefer the appearance of some things in place of reality (e.g. one may prefer the reputation for a certain virtue he lacks to the actual possession of that virtue – he might prefer to being thought honest to actually being so). But no one ever prefers being thought to enjoy good to the actual enjoyment of good. Where good is concerned, says Socrates, everyone wishes really to have it, and not a mere counterfeit. If someone chooses what is not good, Socrates reasons, it is because he wrongly supposes it to be good. No one, he argues, ever knowingly chooses evil over good. This is the meaning of the classic Socratic paradox: "all wrongdoing is involuntary." He means that if one chooses what is bad, it is because he wrongly thinks it to be good. And so with the other paradox – that no man ever knows the good without acting on it. For it can't be true that we "know the good but do the bad;" since this implies choosing an evil known to be an evil, and such a choice, insists Socrates, is impossible.

Consider the diverse things usually called "good," – some are material possessions. Although many think that good means just owning lots of things, we easily see that such material things are not good, except for someone who knows how to use them. It's no good to have a piano unless you can play it? Pianos are good – for the one who can play. Similarly, it is no real good to own gold, unless you know how to use it. Again people think that physical beauty, strength and excellent health are very good things indeed. But strength may also be misused; it is good only for the man who knows how to make proper use of it. If he lacks this knowledge, and abuses his physical advantage, it might be better for him had he been less robust.

Thus, Socrates goes on to maintain that if health, wealth, and the recognised "good" things are to be really good, it is necessary that the user of these things should be good.

Now that which uses all other things, even our bodies, is called by Socrates the "soul." The soul is the man, and all else is merely what he has or owns. A man, in the Academic tradition, is a "soul using a body." Thus, Socrates concludes, the prime condition for enjoying real good and making a success of life is that a man's soul should be in a good or healthy state. What is this good state? – It is the wisdom or knowledge ensuring that "a man makes the right use of his body and of all else which is his."

Hence, the first duty of every person who means to enjoy good or happiness, according to Socrates, is to "tend his soul," to aim that "his soul is as good as it can be," i.e., to obtain the knowledge or insight which ensures that he will use everything rightly. And before a man is able to develop this quality of soul, he must first be brought to "know himself," i.e., to recognise the imperative need of wisdom and the dreadfulness of his present state of ignorance.

Thus, Socrates taught that "all the virtues are this one thing," – insight into oneself. And this is why he insisted the necessary preparation for a man who wants to make life a success is the "tendence of his own soul;" the first step towards this care is true self-knowledge.

(In a sense, we might say that psychotherapy is just this process of tending the soul.)

Further, adds Socrates, these same considerations explain the peculiar characteristic of his mission. He never claimed, as did teachers of medicine, music, etc., to have any ready-made knowledge to give anyone. Therefore, he denied having disciples. (So should it be with therapists!). Because Socrates, with humility, didn't claim to have attained the wisdom or insight of which he speaks, but only to have reached the perception that it is the one thing needed for the conduct of life. Socrates claims only that he makes it the point of his life to "tend his own soul" and he exhorts all his fellow citizens to do the same. In order to achieve this task, he has a certain power of making clear to others by his questions the danger of their ignorance of themselves.

Socrates saw his function as simply showing us how ignorant we are, to show us what we are not aware of (cf. therapists), and how we need to take care of our souls. His aim is not to preach theories, but rather only to arouse us, so that we will give our own personal care to the conduct of our life. So the therapist tries to convince us of the ignorance we customarily hide from ourselves by acquiescing in uncritical half-truths. The resulting day-to-day seriousness of such ignorance should by now be clear to us all. Thus does the therapist likewise wish to make us think purposefully about the proper concern of life, not to do our thinking for us.

Just as Socrates' task was not to give answers, but merely to raise questions to make men more aware of their ignorance, so is it with psychotherapy. The therapist cannot tell you who you are. His message is know thyself.


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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