Book Review: Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars

What Ancient Philosophers Teach us About How to Live

What Ancient Philosophers Teach us About How to Live

Lessons in Stoicism: What Ancient Philosophers Teach us About How to Live (2019) is a new introduction to Stoic philosophy by John Sellars, published by Penguin books.

Sellars is a lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London and a member of Wolfson College, Oxford. He is also the author of two other well-received books on this subject: Stoicism (2006) and The Art of Living (2009), and the editor of the recent Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016). He’s one of the founder members of Modern Stoicism, the group behind Stoic Week. (For transparency: I’m a member of the same team.)

This is a very small book, only 96 pages, but that’s part of its appeal. It presents a very concise and yet authoritative account of Stoic philosophy aimed at the lay reader, although written by a leading scholar in this field. In that respect, it reminds me of Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood, professor of philosophy and classics at Yale. More and more books on Stoicism are appearing and there are many articles now on the Internet, although the quality varies and often articles and even books on this subject perpetuate basic misconceptions. Sellars’ book, like Inwood’s, helps to address this problem by presenting Stoicism in an accessible manner, while nevertheless being based upon many years of serious academic scholarship.

Lessons in Stoicism is currently available in hardback, ebook, and audiobook formats. (I hope the audio version helps make it accessible to a wider audience.) The table of contents provides a good flavour of the book:

  1. The Philosopher as Doctor

  2. What Do You Control?

  3. The Problem with Emotions

  4. Dealing with Adversity

  5. Our Place in Nature

  6. Life and Death

  7. How We Live Together

Sellars begins by emphasizing that what I call the “medical model of philosophy”, the idea that philosophy is a psychotherapy, was explicitly stated by the Stoics and, as Sellars notes, goes back at least as far as Socrates, and quite probably even to earlier Greek philosophers. The school that placed most emphasis, though, on the notion of philosophy as a psychological therapy was Stoicism:

The philosopher, [Epictetus] says, is a doctor, and the philosopher’s school is a hospital — a hospital for souls.

It’s important to spell this out because several modern critics of Stoicism-influenced self-help have (rather bizarrely) tried to argue that modern psychotherapists, myself included, are completely wrong to interpret it in this way. The Stoics made it crystal clear, though, that they conceptualized philosophy as being, among other things, a form of medicine or therapy for the psyche. It’s not a new idea!

The task of the philosopher, conceived as a doctor for the soul, is to get us to examine our existing beliefs about what we think is good and bad, what we think will benefit us, and what we think we need in order to enjoy a good, happy life.

Sellars also dedicates a whole chapter to the fundamental Stoic doctrine that some things are up to us and other things are not. Earlier authors such as William Irvine somewhat confused readers by implying that this distinction was meant to distinguish between external things which they assume to be under our influence to varying degrees. (Hence, Irvine suggested introducing a “Trichotomy of Control”.) Sellars makes it clear, though, that Epictetus said he was distinguishing between our own voluntary judgments and everything else. Moreover, as Sellars highlights, the Stoics recognized that much, perhaps most, of what goes on in our minds is involuntary. It’s specifically our voluntary judgments, though, that they’re interested in demarcating from the rest of our experience.

Sellars also directly tackles the mistaken tendency to conflate Stoicism, the Greek philosophy, with stoicism, the modern concept of an unemotional “stiff upper-lip” coping style.

In modern English the word ‘stoic’ has come to mean unfeeling and without emotion, and this is usually seen as a negative trait.

That is definitely not what “Stoicism” means, although the two things are frequently confused, including in many articles on the subject on the Internet.

Contrary to the popular image, the Stoics do not suggest that people can or should become unfeeling blocks of stone.

The ancient Stoics themselves frequently explained that their goal was not to be unfeeling like a man made of stone, i.e., a statue. It is unnatural and inhuman for someone to be totally unemotional, as though they have a heart of stone or iron, and it is therefore unStoic.

The Stoics certainly do not envisage turning people into unfeeling blocks of stone. So, we’ll still have the usual reactions to events — we’ll jump, flinch, get momentarily frightened or embarrassed, cry — and we’ll still have strong caring relationships with those close to us. What we won’t do, however, is develop the negative emotions of anger, resentment, bitterness, jealousy, obsession, perpetual fear or excessive attachment. These are the things that can ruin a life and that the Stoics think are best avoided.

Sellars frames Stoic metaphysics and theology in relatively naturalistic terms:

The official Stoic view is that there is a rational principle within Nature, responsible for its order and animation. They call this ‘God’ (Zeus), but it is not a person, and nothing supernatural — it simply is Nature.

He compares this to the “Gaia Hypothesis” of environmentalist and futurist James Lovelock. “For the Stoics,” writes Sellars, “‘God’ and ‘Nature’ are just two different names for the same single living organism that encompasses all things.”

Sellars also helps to refute the misconception that Stoics are somehow passively fatalistic — something obviously untrue when we consider the lives of real historical Stoics such as Cato the Younger and Marcus Aurelius.

Our actions can and do make a difference. They can themselves be causes at play that contribute to the outcome of events. As one ancient source put it, fate works through us. We are ourselves contributors to fate and parts of the larger natural world governed by it.

The point the Stoics were making was basically that once things have turned out as they have there’s no point complaining or wishing that they were otherwise. Sellars rightly notes that this “philosophical attitude” toward adversity, which accepts the reality of our situation and urges us to get on with life regardless, is foundational to the ancient Stoic therapy of the passions. He quotes Marcus Aurelius:

Nature gives all and takes all back. To her the man educated into humility says: ‘Give what you will; take back what you will.’ And he says this in no spirit of defiance, but simply as her loyal subject.

Some (almost fundamentalist) modern proponents of Stoic theology are very hostile to the mere suggestion that ancient Stoics could have seriously considered any form of agnosticism. They even deny that any modern scholar would ever entertain such a view. However, that’s demonstrably not the case. Sellars, for instance, has repeatedly noted that Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius were willing to at least question the providential nature of the universe.

While Seneca stressed the providential order within Nature, Marcus focuses more on the inevitability of events. In a number of passages in his Meditations, he appears to express agnosticism on whether Nature is a rational, providential system or merely a random accumulation of atoms banging together in an infinite void. Marcus was no physicist, and his duties as emperor hardly left him time to investigate the matter in detail himself. In any case, his final view was that for practical purposes it doesn’t matter a great deal. Whether Nature is ruled by a providential deity, a cybernetic feedback system or blind fate, or is simply the chance product of atomic interactions, the response from us should always be the same: accept what happens and act in response as best we can.

Whether Providence exists or the universe is ruled by mere physical chance — “God or atoms”, as Marcus put it — either way Stoic Ethics is still the most philosophically justified philosophy of life. Whether or not we believe that the cosmos is a single living creature, which the Stoics called Zeus, what matters is that we’re able to view our own lives as part of a greater whole:

The lesson here is that we are but parts of Nature, subject to its greater forces and inevitably swept along by its movements, and we shall never be able to enjoy a harmonious life until we fully comprehend this.

Sellars broaches the subject of our own death through references to the concept of making the best use of our time, from Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.

Learning to live well is, paradoxically, a task that can take a lifetime. The wisest people of the past, Seneca adds, gave up the pursuit of pleasure, money and success in order to focus their attention on this one task.

Sellars goes on to discuss Epictetus’ portrayal of life as a gift, which can be taken away at any moment. Rather than bitterly resent this or deny it, we should embrace our mortality and make the best use of the opportunity that life affords us to excel by cultivating wisdom and virtue.

Another all-to-common misconception of Stoicism is the idea that it’s somehow self-centred. Many modern fans of Stoicism see it in this way, unfortunately. It’s actually quite baffling because one of the major themes of The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius is how to live in harmony with the rest of mankind: social virtue, cosmopolitanism, brotherly love, natural affection, etc. How can anyone read The Meditations without noticing that these and similar ideas are emphasized on virtually every page?

As Sellars notes, the Stoics, like Aristotle before them, asserted that “human beings are by nature social and political animals.” Sellars, however, links this to the notion found in Epictetus, and earlier Stoics, that we have a duty to fulfill certain natural and social roles to the best of our ability, such as being a good parent, being a good spouse, doing our job well, and so on. However, our ultimate duty is to be a good human being in the broadest sense.

Beyond specific roles, such as being a parent, we might also think more broadly about being a member of a much wider community of people, and most broadly of all as simply being a member of the human race. Does this involve any duties or responsibilities? The Stoics think it does. We have a duty of care to all other human beings, and they suggest that as we develop our rationality we shall come to see ourselves as members of a single, global community of all humankind.

As Seneca puts it, we have two levels of social duty: one toward the universal city, embracing all of mankind, and another toward the specific community to which we have been assigned by accident of birth. For Stoics, to neglect our social obligations and kinship with the rest of mankind is to wrench ourselves unnaturally apart from humanity, which is essentially a pathological form of spiritual and psychological alienation. “For the Stoics,” writes Sellars, “people are people, all equal in their shared rationality and instinct for virtue.”

“This focus on sociability and equality challenges the idea”, as Sellars puts it, “that Stoics were indifferent to other people” — something which is in fact another surprisingly widespread misconception of the philosophy.

He also links this to a discussion of the Stoic doctrine that we should be cautious about the company we keep because of the effect it has upon us. It’s worth quoting in full what he says here because it bears on the modern development of Stoic communities:

So, if you are trying to develop some new, positive habits, it may be best to avoid the company of those whose lives embody everything you are trying to escape. Instead, try to spend time with those whose values you share or admire. This is one of the reasons why philosophers in antiquity tended to group together into schools. It also probably stands behind the monastic traditions of various world religions. It is why aspiring Stoics gathered together in antiquity, in places such as Epictetus’s school, and it’s why today people who want to draw on Stoicism in their daily lives are often keen to make contact with others trying to do the same, either in person or online.

Ancient Stoics did not live in a bubble, isolated from the rest of humanity. They married, had children, formed communities, taught students, wrote books, engaged in politics, fought in defence of their nations, risked and even sacrificed their lives standing up to tyrants — for the welfare of their communities and ultimately the benefit of mankind.

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