Remembering Aaron Beck (1921–2021)

The Man Who Brought Truth and Logic Back into Psychotherapy

The passing of Aaron Beck (1921–2021) earlier this month offers a fitting opportunity to give thanks to the man who helped academic psychology partly catch up with classical and Christian wisdom.

But who was Aaron Beck and what was his significance? To answer this question, we must understand something about the history of psychology.

The Holistic Psychology of the Ancient Greeks and Romans

The ancient Greeks and Romans knew nothing about the artificial division between metaphysics, ethics, religion, politics, and psychotherapy. The various philosophies in the classical world (i.e., Aristotelianism, Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neoplatonism, etc.) each described the nature of reality (metaphysics), prescribed a certain vision of the Good Life (ethics), taught us how to fulfil our duty to the gods (religion), offered templates for the ordering of society (politics), as well as provided explanations for mental and emotional flourishing (psychotherapy). Patristic and later Christian thought built on the classical foundation by offering a worldview that similarly integrated the metaphysical, ethical, religious, political, and the psychological, though to even speak of these categories with separate words is anachronistic.

Because of their holistic approach, the ancients understood that our thoughts and interpretations of the world impact our feelings and behavior. The first-century Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, underscored this understanding when he said, “Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” Accordingly, a key to psychological healing is to have correct principles and notions about reality.

The Holistic Psychology of the Christian Tradition

Similar ideas can be found in the desert fathers and Eastern monastic literature to the present, with their continual emphasis that the way to address emotional problems is to attend to prior dysfunction in our thoughts, especially the narratives we believe about ourselves and others. As the Athonite monk Fr. Alexis Trader has shown, ancient Christian psychotherapy often involved addressing maladaptive feelings through challenging disordered cognitions.

This tradition has underscored that because the human will, mind, emotions, and spirit influence each other in complex webs of reciprocities, the way to work towards long-term transformation in one’s emotional life is first to strive towards healthier behavior, spiritual practices, and thoughts (especially challenging thoughts rooted in untrue scripts we believe about the world and ourselves). Let’s take a closer look at the important role of cognitive scripts.

The Role of Cognitive Scripts in Emotional Health

All of us have likely experienced the powerful role cognitive scripts play in feeding disordered feelings and behavior. In my book Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong, I give an example of some typical scripts:

  • “I’m unlovable.”
  • “It would be better if I were more like so-and-so.”
  • “I can’t learn new things.”
  • “I’m ugly.”
  • “My personality stops me from being able to do such-and-such.”
  • “I’m worthless.”
  • “I don’t deserve to be happy, so I’ll block myself from enjoying this.”

By attending to these and other narratives we tell ourselves, we can take control of our thought life, and thus influence the emotions that are downstream of cognitive activity.

Although the interconnection between thoughts and feelings may seem like common sense, it was lost for most of the modern history of psychology.

From Freud to Behaviorism

The modern discipline of psychology, while having roots in earlier European thought, was really the child of the 19th century reaction to Enlightenment rationality. As such, comparatively little attention was given to the classical and Christian idea of changing maladaptive feelings through addressing thoughts and behavior. Under the influence of Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and his successors, much late-nineteenth and early twentieth-century psychologists saw feelings as uncontrollable impulses from a dark unconscious, the result of processes over which we have little control.

The mid-twentieth century, with its fetish with mechanization and materialism, saw a swing of the pendulum away from Freud. Behaviorist theories pioneered by men like B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) began emphasizing only what is measurable and observable. Behaviorism was part of a movement to buttress psychology’s standing as a science, not a discipline based on speculative theories about consciousness. While behaviorism yielded significant insights about the ways that human beings and animals learn and develop habits, it adopted a simplistic approach to feelings and thoughts, as if these are merely responses to controlling variables rather than aspects that can be controlled through personal agency (behaviorists like John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner actually rejected free will).

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Enter Aaron Beck. After graduating from Yale Medical School in 1946, he planned to be a neurologist. But after being required to take a residency in psychiatry, his interests shifted towards psychology. Beck had been trained in Freudian techniques, where patients would lie on a couch and rehearse their internal conflicts using free association and other techniques. But Beck, like the emerging behaviorist school at the time, quickly realized that Freudian assumptions didn’t always transfer to real life. Beck was struck by the fact that there was often a conflict between a person’s self-image and the objective facts about the person (i.e. a brilliant physicist who thinks he’s stupid, or an abusive mother who thinks she’s just loving her children). The solution is not to go deeper into internal conflicts but to use truth to move out of those conflicts.

Beck removed the couch from his office and replaced it with a chair. He began helping patients become self-aware of the scripts they were telling themselves, and to examine those scripts in the light of reality. He taught patients to engage in problem solving to identify engrained beliefs that were influencing their feelings and guiding their behaviors. He identified and categorized some of the most common ways automatic thoughts distort reality and contribute to conditions like anxiety and depression. He helped patients perform reality checks on the scripts they were believing about themselves, analyzing these scripts in the light of objective truth.

You help patients apply reason and logic to their problems,” Beck once explained, “so they can confront them consciously, here and now.” At a minimum, that means that a person seeking healing must be helped to move towards correct beliefs. As Beck put it in 1976, “Cognitive therapy seeks to alleviate psychological tensions by correcting misconceptions. By correcting erroneous beliefs, we can end the overreactions.

Beck’s model, which integrated behaviorism with work men like Alfred Adler were doing on the importance of cognitions, became known as “cognitive behavioral therapy” or CBT for short.

CBT in the 21st Century

CBT wasn’t perfect. At its worst, practitioners locked into the CBT paradigm can present a one-size-fits all approach to emotional dysfunction. This can foster the assumption that an emotionally troubled person can think herself out of any trouble, without adequate attention to social, spiritual, and perhaps medical needs. Moreover, CBT only partially recovered the holistic psychology of the classical and Christian traditions. We still have a long way to go in reappropriating the insight of the ancient Greeks that metaphysics, ethics, religion, and politics are all the handmaid of psychotherapy.

But we can be thankful that at least Beck helped integrate correct thinking back into the picture. Living now in the chaos of the 21st century, it is no small thing to have a giant of secular psychology advocating for the centrality of truth and logic within the psychotherapeutic process.

At a time when psychology, psychiatry, and psychotherapy are all hampered by moral relativism, the post-truth movement, and new forms of pseudo morality, Beck’s emphasis on bringing truth into therapy seems like a relic of the mid twentieth century. Today therapists are increasingly told to simply affirm whatever identity and lifestyle choices the patient has chosen, regardless of reality. Yet Beck stands as a stark reminder that psychological healing is only possible when grounded in reality.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and writes for a variety of publications. He has a Master's in history from King’s College, London, and is currently working on a Master’s in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma. He is editorial assistant for the Fellowship of St. James and a frequent contributor to Salvo and Touchstone magazines. He operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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