„Now if at our birth nature had granted us the ability to discern her, as she truly is, with insight and knowledge, and under her excellent guidance to complete the course of life, there would certainly have been no occasion for anyone to need methodical instruction (…) The seeds of virtues are natural to our constitutions, and, were they suffered to come to maturity, would naturally conduct us to a happy life.”
Cicero: Tusculanae disputationes, III, 2
Why is it this hard to follow nature and to develop our innate virtues as rational beings (ζῶον λόγον ἔχον according to Aristotle)? Cicero paints a negative picture of the state of humanity in his Tusculanae disputationes to which he indeed ascribes the natural faculty of the logos but which is nevertheless ailing: „The Fates lead the willing; they drag the unwilling.”1 The ideal is the wise man – a philosopher – who is capable of reigning in his appetite (ἀταραξία), knows his righteous place on earth (οἰκείωσις) and who lives according to reason. So, what enables people to stand up to fate in Senecas thinking? It is the soul hardened by virtue that makes people strong and invulnerable according to Seneca’s consolation Ad Helviam matrem de consolatione XIII, 2. This mental strength is achieved through the study of the „liberal education” (VI).
But can philosophy truly be a kind of therapy and what exactly does it cure? In order to find some answers to those questions, philosophers such as Plato, Cicero, Augustine and Wittgenstein shall be heard in a tour d’horizon.
The ancient Greek term φιλοσοφία etymologically denotes the love of wisdom2 and of spiritual pursuit. The verb θεραπεύειν means to foster, to heal or to thoroughly educate the soul (τὴν ψυχήν). If philosophy is therapy, then it trains the soul to strive for wisdom and thereby makes it whole again. But what does philosophy heal? Primarily, it influences our thinking patterns and thus, reflects on the ailing soul.
Plato’s allegory of the cave in Politeia VII, 514a-517c is one of the most impressive similes in the history of philosophy and it shows what philosophy is capable of: It leads the ignorant to the light of knowing. But it also shows that not all of the people living in the cave would wish to incur this painful ascension to knowledge and therefore resist it. This ascent is an allegory for philosophy which teaches people to recognise the truth with the help of reason. According to Plato, philosophy helps to see the transcendent of the good (500b8-e5). He distinguishes dialectical understanding (νόησις) from mathematical reasoning (διάνοια). This distinction results from Plato’s theory of the soul that emanates from a tripartite division of the soul: reason (λογιστικόν) – spirit (θυμοειδές) – appetite (ἐπιθυμητικόν). Plato introduces the chariot allegory in Phaedrus 246a-256e in order to determine the nature of the human soul which consists of rational and irrational parts. Similar to the charioteer who drives a pair of horses, it it reason that is ruling the irrational parts of the soul. And thus, it is the task of philosophy to free man from his attachment to the sensual world (shadows in the cave) and to lead through reason to the contemplation of the Form of the Good as the highest form of knowledge.
In Tusculanae disputationes II, 4 Cicero writes the following: „Philosophy, which is the medicine of our souls; it banishes all groundless apprehensions, frees us from desires, and drives away fears: but it has not the same influence over all men; it is of very great influence when it falls in with a disposition well adapted to it.” Not all souls are prepared for the receiving of the seed of philosophy. According to Cicero, a soul in a bad state is disordered and disturbed (III, 5) due to evil habits and erroneous opinions3. In contrast is the wise man who is of a certain soundness of mind (IV, 8 und 13). For Cicero, philosophy as medicine (animi medicina in III,6) is a means of self-healing that doesn’t come from the outside but from within.
It was Cicero’s dialogue Hortensius (which is lost today except for fragments) that would later have a lasting impact on Augustine of Milan by leading to his first conversion to philosophy4. Under the inspiration of this oeuvre, Augustine experiences the impulse to „re-mount from earthly things” in search of wisdom (Conf. III, 8 and 17) which ultimately leads to the second conversion in the search for God. However, this is an arduous endeavour and Augustine writes of illusions that tortured him, of a lashed soul (VIII, 18) and of the „great contention of (his) inward dwelling” (VIII, 19). He was his own opponent.5 According to Augustine, it is not philosophy that offers therapeutic help although it is the first step in the right direction but ultimately (it is) God.
Wittgenstein purports in his Tractatus logico-philosophicus 4.112 that philosophy is not a theory but an activity that „aims at the logical clarification of thoughts”. Philosophy helps making sense of what is conceivable6 and it „is a battle against bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language”7.
As different as the philosophical answers are, one thing remains the same: Philosophy is about me as a thinking subject in that the philosopher is thinking about life and about himself as an object. But to what extent is that therapy? Philosophy is a means to train reason by solving logical fallacies and by exercising critical thinking (with the help of logic, dialectic and rhetoric). Thus, I am what I am thinking (as a modification of Descartes’ „je pense donc je suis”). Our world arises from our perception of the outer world and our mental processing of the senses.
If we turn our thinking into a philosophical one, it may help to see ourselves and our perception as well as our perspective in a new light. Therefore possibly lifting the mental fog8 that hinders critical thinking and a deeper understanding of judgements. As therapy, philosophy enables self-reflection, self-correction and self-healing – depending on the nature of the thinker.