Organism or River: Comparing Rogerian and Stoic Metaphors

Courtney Shipley

The cosmos is a living being: The cosmos is a whole being- The appearance of parts is a way of viewing things and not at all a reflection of things as they are. When we look at a river, we may see different parts; turbulence here, stillness there, ripples, reflections- we may say that that part of the river is saltier or siltier. We have the view that the river is a divided being but in fact its ‘parts’ bleed into each other- the river is a flowing, continuous whole whose parts blend into one another and yet stand out as definable and identifiable features. Nonetheless, we could not pluck one eddy from the river, for the eddy is just a movement within the body of the river.

But as a heuristic, we can say that the cosmos has the appearance of discrete parts, and we can work with this appearance yet remain aware of its heuristic status.

In this article I want to make a few observations about the use of metaphor as a way of looking. I am suggesting that our metaphors are methods by which we might begin our philosophical enquiries. These ways of starting out take us on to new discoveries about the world and to conclusions that we might draw about our own place in it. As such, the metaphors that we take seriously, play an important role in informing the methods we develop that go on to shape our ‘selves’ and our interactions with other. Once our metaphors are well drawn, we might be in the position to cross reference our worldview with others and find helpful synergies. With this idea in the background, I’d like to consider the overarching metaphors used by the influential psychologist Carl Rogers, and those that resonate with or appear in Stoicism.

Carl Rogers was an American psychologist who was influential in the development of Humanistic psychology and was the founder of the ‘Person-Centred Approach’. His influence has had a profound effect on the development of modern psychotherapies. It was Carl Rogers who emphasised the importance of creating an empathetic and supportive therapeutic relationship with the client. He spoke about the importance of the therapist being as fully themselves as possible. This idea of genuineness and authenticity is a corner stone of psychotherapeutic practice today and is a basis for establishing a healthy client-patient relationship. It is also Rogers indelible mark on psychotherapy, when we hear of the necessity to treat clients with empathy and unconditional positive regard. Even in the fact that we speak of ‘clients’ rather than ‘patients’, we see evidence of Rogers influence, given his emphasis on positive, affirming and client empowering language.

Rogers’ influence is apparent in many forms of talk therapies, including Schema therapy, Gestalt, Humanistic-Existential therapies, Motivational Interviewing and has elements in Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. We also can see his legacy in Positive Psychology, which develops the Rogerian view that client autonomy and empowerment is central to the pursuit of a happy and fulfilling life.

Rogers’ theory is more a way of seeing the world- of which metaphor and experience play a central role in this formation. Of his theory, Rogers says, “the facts are friendly” (1953/67, p. 25) and theory is attempt “to contain and explain the observed facts” (1951, p. 481). Theory “must follow experience, not precede it” (1951, p. 440). Rogers’ ideas were established in his experiences growing up on a farm, giving him a love of nature, an appreciation for the objective methods of science and an awareness of the importance of practical results. Despite his interest in an objective science however, Rogers appears to critique the methods of the experimental psychologists of his time. His foundational view that human life is not so different from all other organic life and is directed towards constructive ends by actualising and formative tendencies opens the way for a new (yet old) perspective. The metaphor underpinning the theory is descriptively organismic; that the human being is an organism that is directed by forces within its own nature toward its self-fulfilment. Such a fulfillment is not viewed in terms of pleasure but in the wholistic actualisation of the self- that the innate striving in us is towards our best potential selves. This teleological view is based on metaphors provided by nature, starting from the view that just like a plant we grow up towards the light, and that a healthy environment is analogous to appropriate nutriment in the soil and water surrounding the striving little plant. Importantly, nature is benevolent in Rogers’ view and there seems to be no hint of an original defect in the organism. The impetus for its development is ‘good’ and appropriate for the organism. The result of Rogers metaphor is a view that treats human beings as growing towards their appropriate ends. Their striving is seen as natural and good and the therapist’s role is to be as genuine and caring as possible, to completely support the persons impetus by providing a normatively healthy and positive environment that allows the person to shed restrictions and to grow towards their potential.

Part of the reason I would like to present Rogers views alongside Stoic ones, is that there has been a long-standing emphasis on the similarities between Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy (and REBT) and Stoicism. In the background here I want my reader to be aware of the different metaphors at play and to consider the role they play in making a theory therapeutic in delivery. At the heart of CBT is arguably a mechanistic metaphor that might account for Stoicism as a set of techniques that can be used to deconstruct our inner mental life, whilst making little reference to the ways in which human life is intimately embedded in social structures. The result of such metaphors (if that’s what they are) might be, as we see in the Cartesian critique (e.g., Foucault, 1988; Husserl, 1960), a human being abstracted from its lived context. One that is temporarily effective at reducing distress by actively disputing and creating alternative cognitions. And as Descartes’ cogito, we find a being who with the death of God has been decoupled from reality and still waits to be replanted in new and fertile soil. Our modern and mechanistic human being might be deprived from a deeper awareness and commitment to the lifeworld it inhabits. We see both in Rogers own views and that of traditional Stoicism a stark contrast to this view and it seems wise to me (as a biased lover of Stoicism), to make sure our metaphors are ones of life, and necessarily vibrant and vital. That they commit us to engage in a living world that supports us and is benevolent and giving of our every need. After all, it takes only a little bit of awareness of our condition as rational beings to deeply appreciate what we have been give by nature. As Epictetus says in his ‘Discourses’-

“This body does not belong to you, it is only cunningly constructed clay. And since I could not make the body yours, I have given you a portion of myself instead, the power of positive and negative impulse, of desire and aversion – the power, in other words, of making good use of impressions. If you take care of it and identify with it, you will never be blocked or frustrated; you won’t have to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone” (1.1.11-12.).

What we do with such an awareness is ‘up to us’ and we can go in either direction depending on what the world means for us. Whether we are aloof and just shoring up our own resources so we can maximise our own individual benefit- or whether we see ourselves as a part of a whole, deeply embedded and with complex commitments to those around us. In this last view we are not ever separate from our world, the impressions we have of things are not irrelevant but rather, the views we take of things form the diagnosis for the state of our soul as a being-in-the-world. This latter view I take to be the authentic one and a normatively healthy perspective.

I agree with the position put forward by Carl Rogers in his 1979 paper ‘The Foundations of the Person-Centred Approach’, which seems to me to resemble in some useful ways Stoic physics. His view, which he considers derived from real world investigation (observations of his clients in psychotherapy), is that there are two related tendencies which act on organic life and loom so large in his estimation of their importance that he considered them to be the “foundation blocks of the person-centred approach” p. 98.

Briefly, the first of these, the ‘actualising tendency’ is characteristic of all organic life. Of this tendency Rogers says, “there is in every organism, at whatever level, an underlying flow of movement toward constructive fulfilment of its inherent possibilities. In man, too, there is a natural tendency toward a more complex and complete development” p. 99.

Regardless of the type of living creature, oak tree, earthworm, or man- this tendency is characteristic of all organic life. Life is an active process, never passive: its behaviour “can be counted on to be in the direction of maintaining, enhancing, and reproducing itself” p.99.

Furthermore, even under the most unfavourable conditions, behaviour can be understood as a movement towards the objectives of life. Speaking of some of his most unfortunate patients Rogers noted that, “So unfavourable have been the conditions in which these people have developed that their lives often seem abnormal, twisted, scarcely human. Yet the directional tendency in them is to be trusted. The clue to understanding their behaviour is that they are striving; in the only ways they perceive as available to them, to move toward growth, toward becoming” p. 99.

And it is not merely that the living being’s growth tendency is toward all of the potentialities of the organism. The being is selective about what potentialities are constructive, for example it does not “tend toward developing its capacity for nausea, nor does it actualise its potentiality for self-destruction, nor its ability to bear pain… It is clear that the actualising tendency is selective and directional, a constructive tendency if you will” p. 100.

There appears to be in all organic life a movement towards its appropriate ends, in other words the living being is governed by ‘selective and directional’ processes; directed towards its telos. The Stoics had a similar understanding of basic drives regarding the constructive directionality of organic life and like Rogers- the Stoics were able to take these observations and apply them in practice. In De Finibus III, Cicero reports the view held by the Stoics describing it as-

“… the first appropriate action (for that is what I call kathekon) is that it [i.e. the agent] should preserve itself in its natural constitution; and then that it should retain what is according to nature and reject what is contrary to nature”.

Also, in Diogenes Laertius VII we see the same idea expanded to include a more definite description of activity toward the being’s appropriate ends-

“They say that an animal’s first [or primary] impulse is to preserve itself, because nature made it congenial [oikeios] to itself from the beginning… for in this way it repels injurious influences and pursues that which is congenial to it” (Inwood & Gerson, 1997, p. 191).

Such an organismic perspective helps to understand human behaviour (no matter how strange) as a striving towards becoming and identifies a very real ethical ground for coming to the aid of others, clearing away obstacles to their striving. However, as Stoic philosophers, we hold the view that the human being, has moved beyond the demands of merely biological ends, and as a rational creature is now governed by rational ends.

Therefore, our ethical commitments to others would likely involve removing obstacles to their own understanding of the use of reason. Given that reason cannot be restricted by external things, the kind of obstacles we are talking about must be self-imposed. As part of the whole, we act relationally upon one another- the Stoic philosopher, then, acts within their community as a being who supports the right use of reason- and they do this in a manner that respects the rational integrity and autonomy of others. The Stoic fortified by his care of others, sees clearly enough the cause of failings and refrains from condemnation as cure. As Epictetus points out in the ‘Discourses’-

“What grounds do we have for being angry at anyone. We use labels like ‘thief’ and ‘robber’ in connection with them, but what do these words mean? They merely signify that people are confused about what is good and what is bad… ‘Well, shouldn’t we do away with thieves and degenerates? Try putting the question this way: ‘Shouldn’t we rid ourselves of people deceived about what’s most important, people who are blind- not in their faculty of vision, their ability to distinguish black from white- but in the moral capacity to distinguish good and bad. It is as if you were to say, ‘shouldn’t this blind man, and this deaf man, be executed?’” (1.18.3-6.)

Epictetus points the finger back at the one who blames and suggests that it is their own evaluations that compromise their own rational integrity, that if we could safe guard the use of reason then we would be content in all things and more effective in our capacity to care. In so doing he makes clear that our care for self, the importance we place on our own wellbeing, is the same kind of care we should have for others.

One short coming of Rogers’ conception of the ‘actualising tendency’ is that it does not go far enough in the direction of appreciating the importance of the rational life to the human being. Such a being indeed strives- but we should recognise that the motivation for this directionality is found in an innate awareness of the good. The being qua rational, has developed an awareness of itself and the part of itself most obviously like universal Reason is individual reason. This ‘part’ gives us the capacity to use reason to conduct our affairs in the world according to Nature. The source of the good is not merely within us, and it is neither solely in the world, but rather the good lies in the correct use of reason in response to the world. This view gives us insight again into the proper conduct of the Stoic philosopher; seeking not avoidance or denial of the world, nor unwise commitments to external things but rather knowing that there is a unity made between their own use of reason and worldly objects- and that this unity is good.

The second tendency observed by Rogers, he calls the ‘formative tendency’. This is a principle in the universe that operates counter to entropy and is seen as “the ever-operating trend toward increased order and interrelated complexity evident at both the inorganic and the organic level. The universe is always building and creating as well as deteriorating. This process is evident in the human being too” p. 102.

Here, Rogers appreciates the appearance of our human consciousness and rational capacity as an example of this development towards complexity. His evaluation of human consciousness as an extraordinary peak of development in nature is an observation he shares with the Stoics. Further, he draws particular attention to the role of our ability to focus conscious attention-

“The ability to focus conscious attention seems to be one of the latest evolutionary developments in our species. It is a tiny peak of awareness, of symbolising capacity, topping a vast pyramid of nonconscious organismic functioning. Perhaps a better analogy, more indicative of the continual change going on, is to think of the individual’s functioning as a large pyramidal fountain. The very tip of the fountain is intermittently illuminated with the flickering light of consciousness, but the constant flow of life goes on in the darkness as well, in nonconscious as well as conscious ways. It seems that the human organism has been moving toward the more complete development of awareness. It is at this level that new forms are invented, perhaps even new directions for the human species. It is here that the reciprocal relationship between cause and effect is most demonstrably evident. It is here that choices are made, spontaneous forms created. We see here perhaps the highest of the human functions” p. 102.

This observation regarding the importance of conscious attention and the role it plays in rational activity is deeply shared by the Stoics. As part of their particular tool kit, the Stoic philosopher takes ordinary conscious awareness and turns it into a spiritual discipline. Epictetus tells us to

“Direct aversion only towards things that are up to you and alien to your nature, and you will not fall victim to any of the things that you dislike… Restrict yourself to choice and refusal; and exercise them carefully, with discipline and detachment” (Ench. 2).

The Stoic philosopher strives to remain aware and vigilant of their use of reason; they watch as impressions arise and screen out any evaluative beliefs (especially of the type that make external things appear to have inherent moral value). Constant vigilance is required in the case of the Stoic, who recognises the difficulty faced by the rational being who is unable to effectively direct attention.

Rogers alludes to the importance of the rational capacity yet in the end, unfortunately underplays the role of conscious attention, or perhaps he is unaware of any such intervention to strengthen it (or make its use a central activity in itself). He makes the point that-

“With greater self-awareness a more informed choice is possible, a choice more free from introjects, a conscious choice which is even more in tune with the evolutionary flow. Such a person is more potentially aware, not only of the stimuli from outside, but of ideas and dreams, and of the ongoing flow of feelings and emotions and physiological reactions which he senses in himself. The greater this awareness, the more surely he/she will float in a direction consonant with the directional evolutionary flow” p. 105.

Rogers is in clear agreement with the Stoics, that conscious attention, attention to self-awareness is required for the human being to be able to formulate choice. Being free from introjects means that the person knows what is ‘their own’ relative to ideas and stimuli taken in from the environment and operates from a sense of rational integrity. Having conscious attention differentiates the being from the ‘outside’ world; it knows itself as a cause of its own activity and is able to therefore act autonomously.

Rogers seems happy enough with this kind of choice without saying more about any other requirements. We are told that the human needs only a minimally supportive environment because the actualisation tendency will lead them in the positive direction toward their organismic goals.

The Stoic philosopher on the other hand, is not yet so optimistic. As previously discussed, the philosopher must manage ongoing attention- in fact, to make it a habit of life- constantly mindful that a tendency exists to confuse apparently good choices with good rational activity. Epictetus, after giving counsel on the use of continual practice and the formation of good habit, advises, “Don’t let the force of the impression when first it hits you knock you off your feet; just say to it, ‘Hold on a moment; let me see who you are and what you represent. Let me put you to the test’” (Diss. 2.18.24)

So far, I have attempted to outline some of the similarities shared by Carl Rogers and the Stoics. Rogers found great success as the founder of the ‘person-centred’ theory, and we can learn much from a study of his method. However, I argue that Rogers’ view underestimates the ultimate role of human reason. His excessive faith in the actualising tendency to inevitably produce good results, fails to take into account the observations that the Stoics make, that good activity (and associated wellbeing) is dependent on beliefs and that disciplined vigilance is probably required given the ubiquity of impressions. Rogers gets us part the way there by suggesting that there are internal drives towards ends, but he ignores the cognitive dimensions of rational nature, and fails to notice that beliefs can be mistaken. As a result, Rogers seems unaware that beliefs are routinely misused- for not only do we misuse reason ourselves (the ultimate cause of our troubles) but that also, systems and institutions that wish to govern their people can just as easily shape belief and influence common opinion. Belief unregulated by a normative reason, will result in the acceptance of a world that is not in accord with Nature.

Rogers’ approach to therapy, being significantly influenced by a cosmic view similar to that held by the Stoics may however be a rich vein to mine. His theory brings with it the necessary use of the highest human relational attitudes- unconditional positive regard and a deep respect for all rational beings. His method provides insightful clues for understanding the worldview of those we live with and teaches us to listen more effectively and in so doing being more able to respond to the fears and concerns of others. We can do all this with Rogers’ method and used alongside the Stoic insight regarding the central role of reason in discerning the good, we can ensure that we make the best use of reason in our interactions with others. In short, we will “never be blocked or frustrated; never need to complain, and never will need to blame or flatter anyone”. Stoicism has much to offer as a philosophy of love and care, but Rogers makes that explicit and shows us exactly how to do just that.

Finally, just as heuristics allow us to present appearances in a new light and offer new inroads for exploring ideas, so do metaphors. Rogers favours organismic metaphors, speaking in terms of growth and striving- suggesting that therapeutic encounters are curative given the fertile soil of the therapeutic environment (including the genuineness and positive regard of the therapist themself). But such metaphors may fall short when the focus on organic growth is at the apex of the developmental spectrum. Plants and non-rational animals differ from us precisely because of our capacity to reason. The great leap forward is to realise that unlike much of organic life, we are required to reflect on the use of reason and to critically examine our beliefs about ourselves and the world we inhabit.

I have used the metaphor of a river as it encourages me to conceive of human life, like Rogers, from a cosmic and natural perspective, but unlike Rogers and more aligned with Stoic physics, the world as ‘river’ is seen as a flowing unity of which its parts are inseparable from the whole. If I am but a ripple of self-awareness moving in the current, then I will flow wherever the river takes me. Perhaps I will make it around the next bend… we will see, but either way I hope to be happy with whatever comes my way.

Such a conclusion echoes the view put forward by Epictetus, who using the vibrant, lively metaphor of communal life, speaks of the festival goer, “a few people in the crowd are capable of reflection; what is this world, they want to know, and who runs it?… That’s what occupies a few, who spend all their spare time seeing and learning as much as they can about the festival before the time comes to get up and leave” (Diss. 2.14.28).

In all cases our metaphors are part of the substrate of our souls and their products take real form in the world in the ways in which we care for ourselves and others.


Cicero, M. T., & Rackham, H. (2018). De Finibus Bonorum et Malorum.

Epictetus, & Dobbin, R. F. (2008). Discourses and selected writings.

Foucault, M., Martin, L. H., Gutman, H., & Hutton, P. H. (1989). Technologies of the Self: A Seminar with Michel Foucault. Contemporary Sociology, 18(1), 153.

Husserl, E. (1960). Cartesian meditations. In Springer eBooks.

Inwood, B., & Gerson, L. (eds) (1997) Hellenistic Philosophy: Introductory Readings. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company

Rogers, C. R. (1951) Client-Centred Therapy. London: Constable.

Rogers, C. R. (1967) ‘This is me’ In On Becoming a Person (pp. 3-27). London: Constable. (Original work published 1953)

Rogers, C. R. (1979) ‘The Foundations of the Person-Centred Approach’ Education, 100,2, p.98-107

Tudor, K., & Worrall, M. (2006). Person-Centred therapy. In Routledge eBooks.






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