The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, March 11, 2008. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at

Therapy by Job, Shakespeare, and Dostoyevsky

For much of history, there were no psychotherapists. Yet the impulse for people to seek help - and others to provide it - has always existed. If we review the history of literature, including the Bible, we find many examples.

Consider Job. When so many bad things happened to him, he became depressed: "Why died I not from the womb?" Therapists frequently find anxiety combined with depression, and such was the case for Job: "Neither had I rest." Job's friends added to his anguish by telling him he must have done bad things for God to punish him so.

Fortunately, Job then encountered Eliphaz the Temanite, who helped Job reframe his situation. Job then had a vision that his misfortunes were actually benefits: "Happy is the man whom God correcteth," Job divined. With this realization, Job prospered again.

Reframing is a modern technique employed in cognitive behavior therapy. Yet we shouldn't be surprised that the Bible anticipated it, since insight into human emotions and behavior long predates Freud.

ShakespeareShakespeare was a student of psychology. He used his gifts of penetration to highlight people's foibles, including those of would-be helpers (remember Polonius?). Consider Father Lawrence, in Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo turned to the cleric for help - but it wasn't religious succor he sought. Father Lawrence served as a confidant and adviser for the imperiled lovers. The good Father described Romeo this way: "A fine lad, but a little bit confused." And Juliet was only 13. The priest decided drug therapy was required: "I know just the thing. A potion to make her appear dead."

Like many modern psychiatrists, Father Lawrence didn't have full faith in his clients to right their situations without chemical assistance. But the FDA has warned that antidepressant treatment can have fatal consequences. Just as Father Lawrence's potion did, antidepressants can cause young people to take their own lives. We must wonder if Romeo and Juliet couldn't have learned more effective coping methods to deal with their problems.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is known as the progenitor of the modern psychological novel. In Crime and Punishment, the misguided and unhappy Raskolnikov kills two women, justifying the murders through a delusional sense of his omnipotence.

Along comes inspector Porfiry Petrovitch, whose style combines priestly confessor with Columbo-like inquisitor. Porfiry disclaims any suspicions of Raskolnikov. Instead, he challenges Raskolnikov's view that some übermenschen are permitted to do whatever they want.

Porfiry only asks Raskolnikov questions - he never directly accuses Raskolnikov. This technique forces Raskolnikov to justify the crime and confront his actions in light of his own moral framework. In religious terms, Raskolnikov is tormented with guilt. But in contemporary therapeutic terms, this is the process of motivational interviewing - a technique for creating tension in clients' minds about discrepancies between their behavior and their values.

Motivational therapy turns clients inward and asks them to rely on their own emotional resources. They are expected to do the work needed to come to grips with the incongruities in their lives. Porfiry succeeds in his therapy and Raskolnikov confesses. He is sentenced to only seven years in Siberia, and his paramour Sonya is waiting for him to begin a value-driven life together.

We learn from surveying "therapy" in religious and secular literature that the fundamentals of coming to grips with oneself are eternal. Therapeutic techniques actually embody universal truths. And, great literature tells us, therapy cannot short-circuit the moral process of self-correction if people are to change their lives.

Stanton Peele is the author of 7 Tools to Beat Addiction and Addiction-Proof Your Child.