The melancholic philosophers: A look at ancient Greek views on mental health

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Ancient Greece, with its rich tapestry of myths oracles and pioneering thinkers, was a breeding ground for philosophical exploration. These philosophers did not just dwell upon the outer world; they turned their gaze inward, plumbing the depths of the human psyche long before the term “psychology” was coined. They explored emotions, cognition and the very nature of existence. In a society where physical health was paramount, embodied in the ideal Olympic athlete, these thinkers also realised the significance of mental well-being. As we grapple with an increasing array of mental health challenges in our modern age, the insights of these ancient Greeks offer not just wisdom but practical advice.

In this article, we will journey back to antiquity, seeking to understand how luminaries like Socrates, Aristotle and Plato viewed the intricacies of the human mind and its profound connection to overall health.

Socrates: The unexamined life

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Socrates, often considered the father of Western philosophy, famously proclaimed,

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”

This statement encapsulates Socrates’ belief in self-awareness and introspection. To Socrates, mental well-being was intertwined with your ability to understand yourself, question beliefs and reflect upon actions. He believed that true knowledge came from acknowledging your own ignorance and continuously seeking wisdom. This process of self-examination can be likened to modern psychotherapy, where individuals are encouraged to introspect, challenge irrational beliefs and gain insight into their behaviours.

Socratic questioning, a method which seeks to get to the root of beliefs by asking a series of probing questions, is reflected in modern cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT). In CBT, therapists employ a similar approach, guiding patients and clients to confront and re-evaluate their harmful, irrational thoughts. This enables them to break the cycle of negative thought patterns and subsequently influence their actions and emotions more constructively.

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Aristotle: Achieving eudaimonia

Aristotle, a student of Plato and often considered Socrates’ philosophical successor, introduced the concept of “eudaimonia”, often translated as “flourishing” or “well-being”. For Aristotle, eudaimonia represented the highest human good, a state of living in accordance with virtue and realising one’s full potential. He recognised that human beings had innate needs and desires and that achieving a balance was crucial for mental health.

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics delves into this, suggesting that virtues like courage, temperance and wisdom are habits we cultivate, lying between deficiencies and excesses. This idea echoes in modern-day mental health practices where balance in emotions, thoughts and behaviours is emphasised. For instance, the principles of Aristotle’s “Golden Mean”, a balance between opposing states of mind, can be seen in contemporary treatments for bipolar disorder and depression, which aim to bring emotional states to a balanced middle ground.

Aristotle’s emphasis on the importance of social connections, purpose and community for achieving eudaimonia also resonates strongly with modern understandings of mental health. Today, therapies often integrate strategies to enhance social connections and find purpose, recognising their pivotal role in overall mental well-being.

Stoicism: Finding peace amidst chaos

Stoicism, founded in Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BCE, is another influential philosophical school that has rich implications for understanding mental health. The Stoics believed that while we might not always have control over external events, we certainly have control over our reactions and attitudes towards them. It is this internal control, they believed, that can lead to tranquillity and peace.

Central to Stoic philosophy is the idea that unhappiness and evil arise from internal factors, namely our judgements and desires. By refining these judgements and aligning our desires with what is naturally in our control (our own actions and thoughts), we can achieve a state of “ataraxia” or undisturbed peace. This teaching aligns with modern cognitive therapies that emphasise the role of cognitive distortions in mental distress.

Another significant Stoic principle is the focus on the present moment. Like the modern mindfulness practices, Stoics believed in immersing oneself in the current moment, accepting it without judgement and refraining from undue concerns about the past or future. This can be particularly beneficial for those battling addiction, helping them focus on their recovery journey and internal progress rather than regrets about past behaviour or worries about relapse.

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Epicurean pursuit: The quest for inner contentment

The Epicurean philosophy, founded by Epicurus in the late 4th century BCE, offers another lens through which to view mental health. At its core, Epicureanism is about seeking pleasure and avoiding pain, but not in a hedonistic sense. Instead, Epicurus advocated for the pursuit of intellectual and spiritual pleasures over fleeting physical ones. He believed that understanding the natural world and cultivating intimate friendships were key to achieving ataraxia, a state of serene happiness.

For Epicurus, most human anxieties, including the fear of death and the divine, stem from misunderstandings about the nature of the universe. He believed that by studying and understanding nature, you can dispel these fears and achieve a peaceful state of mind. This mirrors modern approaches to anxiety, where cognitive restructuring is used to challenge and modify fear-inducing beliefs.

The Epicurean emphasis on simple, natural living and the cultivation of personal relationships also aligns with current understandings of well-being. In the age of materialism and digital disconnection, there is a growing realisation of the importance of genuine human connections and a balanced lifestyle in mental health. This reconnection with real-world interactions and the prioritisation of deep relationships over superficial ones can be pivotal in addressing feelings of loneliness, a significant contributor to various mental health issues.

In the realm of addiction, the Epicurean pursuit can also offer important insights. The philosophy’s focus on long-term contentment over short-term pleasure can be a guiding principle for those seeking recovery. By understanding the transient nature of the highs from substances and the more lasting and profound joy from other aspects of life, individuals can be better equipped to resist temptations.

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Plato’s tripartite soul: Understanding the human psyche

Plato, the renowned student of Socrates, put forth a theory of the human soul that offers another foundational perspective on mental health. He proposed that the soul is divided into three distinct parts:

  • The Rational Part: This is the logical thinking aspect of the soul, which seeks truth and knowledge.
  • The Spirited Part: This part of the soul is responsible for emotions like anger and feelings of indignation or the desire for honour. It acts as a mediator between desires and reason.
  • The Appetitive Part: This encompasses our desires, appetites and physical urges, including those for food, drink and other bodily needs.

For Plato, mental health and harmony are achieved when these three parts of the soul are in balance, with the Rational part governing and ensuring that the Spirited and Appetitive parts don’t overpower each other or dominate the individual. He believed that a loss of this balance could lead to internal chaos, with unchecked desires or emotions leading a person astray.

The parallels between Plato’s tripartite soul and modern psychological theories are evident. For instance, the Rational part aligns with our conscious, logical thinking; the Spirited part resonates with our emotional responses, while the Appetitive part parallels our instinctual, sometimes subconscious drives. Understanding these components and their interplay can be crucial in therapy, helping individuals recognise which part of their “soul” might be dominating their actions and decisions.

Final thoughts

Ancient Greek philosophers grappled with questions of existence, happiness and mental well-being, much like we do today. Though formulated in a vastly different context, their insights remain remarkably pertinent, offering us profound wisdom on the nature of the human psyche. By revisiting their teachings, we not only pay homage to modern psychology’s roots but also enrich our understanding of mental health. When combined with contemporary therapeutic practices, these time-honoured perspectives provide a holistic approach to mental well-being.

In our quest to understand the complexities of our minds, it’s crucial to both reflect on the knowledge passed down through millennia and seek contemporary professional guidance. As we continue to advance in our understanding of mental health, let’s remain open to the lessons from the past, ensuring that we pave the way for a future where mental wellness is prioritised, understood and compassionately addressed.

If you are struggling with mental health issues or are just looking for new ways to improve your well-being, contact UKAT London Clinic today. Our expert mental health and wellness teams combine tried and tested approaches with cutting-edge innovations to provide bespoke support and life-changing breakthroughs.

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