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Seneca on Mental Illness

Updated: Feb 1, 2021

It is true that Stoics practice in order to come to a better acceptance of the way the world works. It is also true that surviving Stoic texts rarely talk about anything that could be described in the contemporary terms as mental illness. This is one of my struggles with Stoic practice: even though the Stoics maintain that the will is under your control insofar as it deals within natural limits, I always wondered about feelings brought on by mental illness that exists outside the practitioner's control. I think this is where I need to be really clear to my clients: Stoic Coach is not something that should be substituted for severe cases of mental illness. In these cases, I definitely suggest going to see a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist.

Fortunately, Seneca writes something on the subject. In Letter XI in Moral Letters, Seneca talks about Lucilius' talented friend. After a brief description of the friend's character, Seneca writes, "... no amount of wisdom enables one to do away with physical or mental weaknesses that arise from natural causes; anything inborn or ingrained in one can by dint of practice be allayed, but not overcome." Seneca implies here that mental illnesses can be a). inborn or b). ingrained. This has a striking similarity in the way modern psychologists describe personality traits as the result of nature (inborn) and nurture (ingrained).

The second thing implied by the passage suggests that things that are inborn and ingrained can be softened by diligent practice, but not eliminated. How is it possible to cope with cognitions that have either been planted in genetics or molded (or more severe, indoctrinated) through education? Even though Stoic physics lacked a lot of the scientific knowledge we have today, it looks as if they had somewhat of a grasp on mental illness. It is important for Stoic counselors to realize the limits of the practice when it comes to mental health diagnoses.

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