Cognitive Therapy and Divination

Valéry Laurand is a philosopher with practical and academic interests in psychoanalysis at the University of Bordeaux (Michel Montaigne) in France. He invited me to address a joint seminar of therapists and philosophers in February 2019. I chose the title “Thérapie cognitive dans un monde spirituel: le cas de la divination stoïcienne” (“Cognitive Therapy in a Spiritual World: the Case of Stoic Divination”).

The paper starts from the observation that ancient Stoic psychological theory and exercises are very influential among cognitive behavioral therapists today. It then brings up an element of ancient Stoic theory and practice with which modern Stoics and academics tend to be uncomfortable: their defence of the reality of divination — in other words, reading signs of otherwise unknowable truths in the flight and songs of birds, thunder and lightning, the entrails of animals, dreams, the stars, or even muscular spasms. Rather than bracketing this as a “superstition” we should either deplore or apologize for, I bring it into dialogue with the growing attention to spirituality in modern psychiatry. Giving particular attention to the often-remarked overlap between psychotic and spiritual “non-ordinary states of consciousness,” such as “delusions of reference,” I attempt both to illuminate the phenomenology of Stoic divination and to explore how it could actually contribute to mental wellbeing. However, I am careful to note that we must never fall into the lazy suggestion that psychosis is nothing other than spiritual awakening distorted by secular western culture.

Here is the French paper. I’ll be reworking some of this material in English for a conference at KU Leuven in Belgium in November 2019.

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