Socrates and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT)


If we have suffered serious childhood trauma the research indicates that we are more likely than those who enjoyed a relatively stable childhood to develop clinical depression during our adulthood (all else being equal). In this article, I want to look at what CBT has in common with the teachings of Socrates (469-399 BC) who is probably the most famous of the Ancient Greek philosophers. In many ways, Socrates’ beliefs anticipated CBT in the way I describe below.

CBT informs us that our emotional disturbances lie more in the way we interpret events and the meaning we subjectively attribute to those events than the events per se. Indeed, the psychologist, Ellis, developed a model that illustrates this idea, namely the ABC model which I summarise below:

A – the event occurs

B – we attribute our own idiosyncratic meaning to this event

C – the meaning we attribute to the event in stage B, above, determines how we feel about event A.

Implications of the ABC model:

From this model, Ellis explains, it follows that we can often alter for the better how we feel about the events in life that we experience by altering how we view and interpret them.

How this fits in with the views of Socrates:

Socrates and the Stoic philosophers took a similar view to that of Ellis, ie. that it is the meaning that we give to events rather than the events themselves that determine how we feel.


To give an everyday example: some people may feel depressed if they fail an important examination as they interpret their failure as meaning that they must be ‘stupid’.

Another person, however, may fail the same exam and yet NOT be dispirited by the failure as they do NOT interpret the failure as meaning they are stupid or unintelligent as intelligence is made up of many, many diverse factors which are in no way associated with the exam.

Toxic Beliefs :

The individual who interpreted his/her exam failure as meaning s/he ‘must be stupid’ could be said to have been holding a toxic belief and that it was this toxic belief that led to his/her unhappy response to the failed exam.

Implications :

It is, therefore, incumbent upon us to try to change our toxic beliefs by replacing them with more rational, reasonable, and less self-destructive ones (according to both Socrates and modern-day CBT theorists).

Changing our Toxic Beliefs: The Socratic Method :

In order to change our toxic beliefs, one of the founders of CBT, Beck,  said that it was necessary for us to make use of what he called THE SOCRATIC METHOD: Rather than ‘sleep-walk through life, like an automaton, as many do, we need to CRITICALLY EXAMINE what we are doing, how we are acting and behaving, and how we are feeling and coming to the decisions we make (there is a well-known quote, I forget by whom, that ‘ the unexamined life is not worth living’). Gaining more insight into ourselves gives us more choices and increases our general efficacy in life.

In order to decide what, in the lives we find ourselves living, it is in our own best interests to change we need to try to think more independently, rather than merely think (and, consequently, act) according to the beliefs and values that have been inculcated into us by parents, friends, associates, teachers, politicians, the press, television, society and the culture within which we exist.

To help us to achieve this, we need, too, to try to bring our core beliefs, which are likely to reside, for much of the time, below the level of consciousness and have an enormous effect on how we think, feel and behave, into our conscious mind and critically examine and evaluate them. In this way, we give ourselves the chance to discover which of these beliefs are toxic (ie. spoiling our lives and holding us back from achieving fulfillment).

Once we have identified our toxic thoughts we are in a position to be able to replace them with more rational and helpful ones that allow us to change, positively, how we interpret the world around us. If we can achieve this, our emotional and even physical health are likely to improve significantly.



David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).


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