Book review: Lessons in Stoicism, by John Sellars

There is a subtle but still significant difference between describing somebody as a stoic and describing them as a Stoic. The former simply means one who endures suffering without complaint (or, occasionally, one who is also indifferent to pleasure). If you’re a Stoic, however, then you are probably a student of the three great Roman writers, Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, all of whom were followers of the Greek philosopher Zeno, who taught in the Stoa Poikile (painted porch) in Athens until his death around 261BC, and whose writings are now lost.
John SellarsJohn Sellars
John Sellars

The mastering of emotions is certainly a key element of Stoic philosophy but – as this accessible and absorbing new study by John Sellars makes clear – it is only one aspect of a much more complex and (without wanting to get bogged down in the Sophists) sophisticated way of thinking about the world.

Sellars lectures in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, and he is also one of the founder members of Modern Stoicism, the group behind Stoic Week – an annual event in which members of the public are invited to live like a Stoic for seven days. So far, over 20,000 people have taken part, and Sellars claims that, on the whole, participants reported an improved sense of wellbeing. As you might expect from a writer so evidently committed to making classical philosophy relevant for today, this book is light on academic posturing and focuses instead on the practical applications and potential benefits of Stoic thinking.

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After dealing with Zeno and the genesis of Stoicism in an admirably pithy prologue, Sellars launches into the concept of the philosopher as doctor, as espoused by Epictetus, a former slave, originally from Asia Minor, who set up a philosophy school in a town called Nicopolis in western Greece towards the end of the first century AD. In his teachings, later written up by one of his pupils, Arrian, as the Discourses of Epictetus, he explains that the philosopher’s school is a “hospital for souls” – a concept, Sellars writes, that “extended back at least to Socrates”.

Like the Cynics, the Stoics believed that only a person’s character can be good or bad, and they referred to everything else – including money and success – as “indifferents”. Unlike the Cynics, however, who tended to reject wealth, the Stoics believed that it was natural for humans to pursue things that helped them survive; these things couldn’t be inherently good or bad, but they could still have value.

Moving on to the writings of the emperor Marcus Aurelius, Sellars takes this train of thought to its logical conclusion: events can’t be said to be good or bad either, they are merely things that happen that are beyond our control. However, while we can’t control events we can control our reactions to them (judgments), and if we can become masters of our own judgments, we can become, as far as is possible, in control of our lives.

With reference to Seneca’s essay On Anger, Sellars then goes on to show how this might work in practice. “Seneca says that anger is usually the product of a sense of injury,” Sellars writes. “So the thing that must be challenged is the impression that some injury has happened, which already contains within it a judgment... It is essential to pause, take a moment and reflect on what has just happened before making a judgment about it.” And if, after all this, you still end up feeling angry? Once the emotion is there, “there is nothing we can do but wait for it to subside” before deciding on a sensible course of action.

There is a lot more to this book, and – of course – a whole lot more to Stoic philosophy, but that is perhaps the nub of the Stoic worldview, and at times like these, when the world seems increasingly to be governed by instinctive, unconsidered reactions, it feels like something that bears repeating. Roger Cox

Book review: Lessons in Stoicism, by John Sellars, Allen Lane, 80pp, £9.99