In an era of 24-hour news cycles, instant downloads, and frequent news updates, “new and improved” clearly rules the day. It seems we’re constantly alerted to the latest medical miracle, must-have iPad app, and groundbreaking psychotherapy innovation. All eyes look forward to the next big thing that’ll energize us and help us make sense of the world around us.

Irvin Yalom takes another approach. The 81-year-old psychiatrist, novelist, and unofficial grandfather of modern psychotherapy chooses, instead, to look back at the pioneers of psychological theory and technique. Following decades of teaching at Stanford University, working in his private practice, and writing graduate-school staples like The Theory and Practice of Group Psychotherapy and Love’s Executioner, he began to examine European philosophers through his novels When Nietzsche Wept, The Schopenhauer Cure, and his recently released The Spinoza Problem.

Why look back? What can a dead philosopher teach me that I couldn’t learn from, say, a particularly clever app? Exploring these brilliant minds reveals that many of our “new improvements” are neither original nor better. Yalom took a break from channeling the philosophic tradition of the past to share his vast therapeutic wisdom about life, mentoring, and the future of psychotherapy.


RH: Why are you determined to teach us about European philosophers?

YALOM: It goes back to when I was a psychiatric resident. Whenever anyone talked to us about the history of psychotherapy, there was always the idea that it had somehow just begun a hundred years ago in Vienna with Freud. But in my own reading of ancient philosophy, I kept discovering that, for thousands of years, certain important thinkers had been pondering the same issues that preoccupy therapists. I’ve written novels about Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, both of whom introduced concepts that are still central to therapeutic practice. In this latest novel, The Spinoza Problem, I focus on Spinoza, whose thinking that all our actions and thoughts are caused by previous experiences laid the groundwork for Freud’s whole analytic enterprise.

RH: Spinoza would seem to be a challenging person to write a novel about. As fascinating as he was as a thinker, it seems very little happened in his life.

YALOM: Although he was, in some ways, the greatest rebel in history, it was hard writing a novel about him because he lived his life so inwardly. As a young man in his twenties, he was excommunicated by the Jewish community of 17th-century Amsterdam because of the way he challenged the rule of authority and religion. He lived a very solitary life until he died at 44. There were no people in his life-no friends, no family. But his books and nonreligious way of thinking were absolutely explosive at that time. He couldn’t put his name on anything he published-he’d have been burned at the stake. The publisher didn’t even put his own name on the books.

RH: How did you become inspired to write about him?

YALOM: I got the inspiration for the novel when I visited Spinoza’s museum in Holland and learned that, centuries after his death, the Nazis had confiscated his books because one of the main Nazi ideologues believed that he had a “Spinoza problem.” The idea that the Nazis had some kind of a philosophical problem with Spinoza blew my mind. So I wrote a dual novel. A chapter on Alfred Rosenberg, the German who confiscated the books and had the Spinoza problem, followed by another on Spinoza’s life as I imagined it. I didn’t realize in advance that writing about two different historical time periods meant double the amount of research I was going to have to do. So The Spinoza Problem took me far longer than any other novel.

RH: Why should psychotherapists today care about Spinoza?

YALOM: In a strange way, I think Spinoza really changed the world. He challenged the rule of authority and the grip of religious superstition and introduced the concept of a democratic political state. Of particular importance for therapists is his thinking about overcoming the bondage of the passions, and how our passions run, and often ruin, our lives. Since he believed that reason is no match for the passions, he insisted that we need to turn reason into a passion.

As a therapist, that leads me to the idea of wanting to increase the patient’s curiosity about himself. I often say, “Isn’t it interesting that I seem more curious about you than you do about yourself? Why is that?” I like to help patients become curious about themselves so we’re both excited about our work together.

RH: With all your interest in philosophy, did you ever think you should have been a clinical philosopher instead of a psychiatrist?

YALOM: No, because clinical philosophy, by itself, is inherently limited. You just can’t read philosophy and try to help people. You have to know how to talk to people, work with them, and be empathic. Therapy is relationship plus ideas, and philosophers only have half of what they need.

RH: I’ve collected a few Spinoza quotes to run by you: “I do not know how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of established religion.”

YALOM: He certainly did that, and many Orthodox Jews still hate him for it. In addition to being excommunicated by the Jews when he was about 23, he was persecuted by Catholics and Christians, who banned all his books. That’s what first got my attention. I’m enough of an iconoclast to think, “God, he must have been doing something right; everybody was banning his work! This poor little philosopher, how come he had so much dynamite?” how to teach philosophy without becoming a disturber of established religion.”

Even though he uses the word God throughout his work-every other page has “God” on it-I think he was just trying to protect himself. Although he used the term God, he really meant nature. For him, the two words were synonymous.

RH: Here’s another quote: “He alone is free who lives with free consent under the entire guidance of reason.” I could see that statement offending some religious folk.

YALOM: Not just religious folks, but political folks as well. He really was a great champion of the contemporary democratic political state. Spinoza’s ideas about politics and freedom greatly influenced John Locke, whose thinking helped shape our own Declaration of Independence. By freedom, Spinoza meant being free from authority to tell us what to think, and to be free from false ideas and superstition. He believed we have to examine and find what’s true for ourselves. He was a champion of natural science.

RH: As a psychodynamic therapist, this quote jumped out at me: “All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love.”

YALOM: Spinoza strongly believed that we fall into difficulty by attaching ourselves to an object that’s corruptible or fickle. Then he says the only thing that we should attach our love to is something eternal and incorruptible, by which he again means the laws of nature. He says, “Look how much pain we have by attaching ourselves to fickle individuals for love.” As therapists, we might translate that into the importance of really finding a person whom you can count on, rather than an infatuation where you don’t know the person at all.

RH: One last quote: “Fame has also this great drawback, that if we pursue it, we must direct our lives so as to please the fancy of men.”

YALOM: Yes, that’s quite a wonderful quote. In effect, Spinoza is saying that if you’re directing your life toward accumulating fame, then you’re losing yourself. You’re being driven only by the changing fancies of the people around you, so you have nothing stable in your life. The same thing goes for objects-if you spend your life trying to accumulate objects, they eventually will have you; you don’t have them.

RH: I’m curious how this applies to you. Certainly, with all your books, you’ve achieved fame as the wise grandfather of psychotherapy. How have you managed not to direct your efforts toward pleasing the fancies of others?

YALOM: I have to be honest about this: pleasing others doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

I don’t care about the fame. I care about what I’m doing now, what I’m writing now. I try to be kind and generous to my patients and the people around me. I get a lot of fan mail and I try to make an effort to respond to each letter I get with a kind comment. But as for fame, I just don’t take myself that seriously.

RH: Do you feel an obligation to pass along some of your wisdom to the next generation?

YALOM: Lately, I’ve been feeling more and more concerned about the passing of psychotherapy. Everywhere I look, I see a total swing to these mechanistic, manual-driven methods of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy. I know CBT has its place, but too often I feel that if I want to get patients to a wise therapist in my community, there aren’t a whole lot of people I can find anymore. And when I look at training programs, I get really scared this whole thing is going to fade away someday. So it keeps me going. I want to keep writing and try to make these books as accessible as possible to students.

RH: What are we not teaching our students?

YALOM: We’re not teaching our students the importance of relationships and how to work on them, what relational pathology consists of-how to examine your own conscience, how to enter your inner world, how to explore your dreams. All this, all the psychodynamic stuff, is just not getting to students today. It’s just too hard to teach. It’s so much simpler to teach CBT.

Ryan Howes

Ryan Howes, Ph.D., ABPP is a Pasadena, California-based psychologist, musician, and author of the “Mental Health Journal for Men.” Learn more at