The Roots of Epicurean Humanism: IV – Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis was born of Jewish parents on September 17, 1913, in Pittsburgh. He trained as a psychotherapist at Columbia University, where he completed his PhD.

By the late 1940s  Ellis was developing what he called “rational therapy”,  an active and directive type of psychotherapy, and by January 1953, his break with psychoanalysis was complete. In Rational Therapy, the therapist aimed to help the client understand  that it was their personal philosophy that created unhealthy emotional states. This new approach stressed actively working to change a client’s self-defeating beliefs and behaviour by demonstrating their irrationality, self-defeatism and rigidity. Ellis believed that through rational analysis and cognitive reconstruction, people could understand their self-defeatingness in light of their core irrational beliefs and then develop more rational constructs.

Ellis has explicitly said that Stoicism is one of his influences, and he has frequently quoted with approval the line (From Epictetus, “The Enchiridion” sec 5) “folk are not disturbed by events, but by their beliefs about those events”.

Here is a short video from in which Ellis explains the core of his theory.

The approach taken by Epicurean Humanism to this is substantially the same, but tends to be couched in terms of “habits of thought” rather than personal philosophy. So we say that certain habits of thought – called “absolute value judgements” – are the cause of unhealthiness in our emotions, and that retraining those habits is the cure. This requires, not that the person should persuade themselves out of factual beliefs, but that they should inculcate the habit of viewing things from a relative perspective.


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