“Modern Psychology” is, of course, a huge topic. But there are two components of Epicurean Humanism that find support in current psychological thinking. Epicurus’s thinking is reflected today in Positive Psychology; and the Stoic philosophy is paralleled by Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy – the first explicitly cognitive-behavioural therapy.
Positive Psychology is a wide-ranging and (as yet) not especially unified body of research. The work of Martin Seligman (who coined the term “positive psychology”) and Daniel Kahnemann (who uses the term “hedonic psychology”) is central to the field.
There’s an excellent Wikipedia article on this.
Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy
In 1953 Albert Ellis started publishing his new psychotherapy (which he called Rational Therapy, and which we now call Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy, or REBT for short). He explicitly based it on Stoic thought, but brought to it a great deal of scientific rigor and experimental psychology. It was the first Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, and still the best suited for everyday, non-clinical, use.
In explaining his key concept, Ellis quotes the Stoic teacher Epictetus, who said “it isn’t events that disturb us, but our beliefs about those events”
Healthy and Unhealthy Emotions
A healthy emotion is one that does the job it evolved to do – fear prompts you to escape, for example, and embarrassment prompts you to keep a low profile. Once you have committed to a course of action, the best thing is for the emotion to fade down.
But sometimes emotions are so absolute that they can’t be overridden, or won’t fade away when they no longer serve any useful purpose. So, for example, anger may manifest in either healthy or unhealthy forms: in its unhealthy versions it might appear as (for instance) rage, or bitterness, or resentment.
Absolute and Relative Values
Every emotion includes, at its heart, a value judgement. “This is good” or “that is bad”, “that was unforgivable/unbearable/uncomfortable” and so on.
These are not testable claims about the observable world, there is no fact-of-the-matter about whether a certain thing is nasty or nice. In saying something is nasty, I am not asserting a fact, I am expressing a preference.
A relative value is a preference that can be trumped, that can – for a good enough reason – be sacrificed. An absolute value is one that will not allow itself to be trumped.
If there are no circumstances in which I can bear to be insulted, for example, then my demand to be respected is an absolute one. If, on the other hand, I can hear someone insulting me and still choose not to avenge the insult, then my preference for being respected is a relative preference.
Values and Emotions
The key teaching of REBT is that unhealthy emotions rest on absolute values, while healthy emotions rest on relative values.
This teaching forms the basis of the set of methods that constitute Rational-Emotive Behaviour Therapy – which we seek to incorporate into Epicurean Humanism.