Aristotle: the first person-centred therapist?

“Freedom is obedience to self-formulated rules.”

– Aristotle

Person-centred therapy, widely attributed to Carl Rogers, is based upon the assumption that each person has within them a ‘self-actualising’ tendency; like little potatoes, we will begin to sprout shoots and, given the right conditions, our shoots will be healthy and green.  However, our capacity to grow to our full potential is hindered by environmental constraints such as ‘conditions of worth’ that are imposed upon us during childhood, which limit our ability to feel free to do what is right for us, since this is overshadowed by our quest to get the approval of the people we love and depend on.  The potatoes kept in the dark basement of Rogers’ home could only produce ‘sad, spindly spouts’ trying to grow desperately towards the light from a tiny window.  The therapeutic relationship is therefore one in which the therapist cultivates the best environmental conditions to facilitate the self-exploration and personal growth of the client.

However, over two thousand years before Rogers started messing around with stem vegetables, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle had a lot to say about this journey of self-discovery, and how to work out the best way to live.  For Aristotle, we are fundamentally social animals, with our innate capacity for language providing evidence for nature’s ‘intention’ for us to live in social groups.  From his perspective, it is only in a well-developed society that we can have our basic survival needs met, whilst also benefiting from exposure to culture, literature, art, music, education: everything that it takes for a human being to thrive.

In addition to this, Aristotle recognised that, as rational creatures, we are capable of using our reason to work out how to develop ourselves towards ‘excellence’ or ‘virtue’.  From his perspective, the best (and happiest) people are those who act to develop their own ‘excellence’, using reason.  A person doing so will eventually achieve eudaimonia, which translates loosely as ‘flourishing’ or ‘well-being’.  This is the highest aim of human life, and what we all strive to achieve, even if environment or circumstances may hinder us.

For Aristotle, there are certain virtues or excellences that are good in themselves.  These would include moral virtues (such as courage, justice and self-control), as well as intellectual virtues (such as scientific knowledge and reason).  The moral virtues cannot be taught; instead, Aristotle claims, we are what we do, and virtue can only be cultivated through habit.  In short, if I want to become more of a courageous person, or be known for having a courageous character, I must start to develop courageous habits in my life.

The way in which you may cultivate virtue in your life depends entirely upon your personal disposition and circumstances.  For example, offering an idea at a meeting may require an incredible amount of courage for some people, whilst for others the courageous action may instead be found in confronting their fear of heights.  Some may choose to become more charitable by giving money to charity, whereas others may choose to participate in a voluntary project.  Regardless of individual disposition, we must look for opportunities for ourselves to develop our own excellences, keeping in mind that the outcome of this will be very different for every person.  Action is key; it is not enough just to know what we must do, but we must also live it, until it becomes us.

Aristotle recognises that eudaimonia is not achieved simply through cultivating one type of virtue in one area of life; instead, we must look at our lives and use our self-awareness to explore how we can develop virtue in every respect.  How can I use my self-knowledge to work out ways in which I could challenge myself a little further?  How can I flourish creatively, intellectually, physically and emotionally?  How can I create opportunities for myself and others to flourish, in the context of the social circumstances in which I find myself?  These questions can only adequately answered by someone with the best knowledge of who we are, how we feel and what our experience of life is: ourselves.

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