Lessons in Stoicism - by John Sellars
Last updated: 10/14/2019
John Sellars is a dedicated academic whose goal it is to make Stoicism accessible to a wide range of people. In his newest work, Lessons in Stoicism, Sellars shows in just 79 pages what it means to practice Stoicism and what benefits it gives.
If you're relatively new to Stoicism and want to get a practical overview of the philosophy, then this a perfect starting place.
As you'll see, this book is chockfull wisdom. Don't let its size fool you.
What if someone could show you how to avoid anxiety, frustration, fear, disappointment, anger or simple discontent? And what if that person told you feel like this because of how you think, of how you look at the world, and that it’s within your control to change this? That’s what the ancient Stoics did.
We have works from three major Stoics: Seneca, who left us philosophical essays, letters to his friend Lucilius and a few plays; Epictetus, whose student Arrian recorded his discourses and produced them in writing along with a handbook; Marcus Aurelius, whose personal diary survives to this day, in which he reminds himself of the central ideas in Stoicism.
“Lessons in Stoicism” covers how ancient Stoics were doctors of the mind, what we control and cannot control, how we think of things produce our emotions, and how to see our place in the world (including our relationship with other humans).
The Philosopher as Doctor
Epictetus was clear about his role as a philosopher: he’s a doctor, and his school is a hospital for souls.
Socrates said that the task of the philosopher is to take care of one’s soul, just like a physician takes care of one’s body. For Socrates, taking care of the soul is the most important as it determines the quality of our lives.
To Socrates, money was neither good nor bad. It depends on how money is used, as it can be used for good and bad ends. The only true good is an excellent character, and the only true bad is a vicious character. All other things are indifferent.
To take care of your soul means you live virtuously; living to be wise, just, courageous and moderate. Living virtuously means being a good (social) human.
Socrates and the ancient Stoics held that no one chooses to be vicious; everyone thinks what they do serves some good, even if their thinking is twisted.
The philosopher challenges our beliefs about what’s good and bad, what will benefit us, and what we need to live a happy life.
To live a happy life it’s necessary to live in harmony with our (human) nature and the external world (Nature). We’re reasonable and social animals, but when we lose sight of this we become unhappy.
What Do You Control?
What aspects of life do you really control?
Epictetus teaches us that we can only control our judgments and what actions come out of them. We can’t control sensations, memories or what emotions arise.
Judgments are important because they determine how we act.
We often judge quickly and unconsciously, so we start to assume things are good. However, the only thing that’s truly good is an excellent character.
If you think you have control over something when in fact you don’t, this is a source of frustration and suffering.
Like an archer, we can only strive to do the best we can. We can’t control the outcomes of our actions; once the arrow leaves your bow, it’s out of your control. When you tie your happiness to achieving an outcome, you’re bound to be disappointed.
Go with the flow. Accept what happens. Work with rather than against whatever happens.
Philosophy is a daily practice and a way of life. We must remain focused and be prepared for whatever situation presents itself. To avoid mistaken judgments, we need to reflect daily.
The Problem with Emotions
We cannot control other people’s emotions, because they fall into the category of things not up to us.
Our emotions are the product of the judgments we make. Consequently, we are in complete control of our emotions and responsible for them.
The important Stoic claim is not that we should deny or repress our emotions; it is rather that we should try to avoid having them in the first place. Stoics do realize this is easier said than done.
Chrysippus (the third Stoic scholarch) likened having an emotion to running too fast. Once you’re going, you cannot simply stop. In the same way, you cannot simply turn off an unwanted emotion. What you can do is keeping the next emotion from picking up momentum to the point it’s out of control.
Seneca described emotions like anger and jealousy as temporary madness. Once anger takes over, it takes over the whole mind. This is what Stoics warn against.
Stoics are not made of stone. We all experience nervousness, shock, excitement or fear from time to time. These initial emotions are called ‘first movements’ in Stoicism, and they’re outside of our control. For the first movements to become proper emotions, the mind needs to judge something terrible has happened and then act on it.
There are three stages of emotions:
1) The involuntary first movement;
2) A judgment in response to the experience;
3) An emotion that, once created, is out of our control.
According to Seneca, we become angry because we think we’re injured in some way.
Epictetus: “Remember, it is not enough to be hit or insulted to be harmed, you must believe that you are being harmed. If someone succeeds in provoking you, realize that your mind is complicit in the provocation.”
To remain calm, it’s essential to pause and reflect on what has happened before making a judgment. If someone said something critical of you, first see if they are right. If so, you can use their criticism to improve. If they’re wrong, they have still not harmed you in any real sense.
Dealing with Adversity
One of the central tasks of philosophy is to help people navigate through the ups and downs of life.
External events are neither good nor bad in themselves; they’re indifferent. We need to accept what happens for what it is, without judging something bad has happened.
Seneca believed that we should welcome misfortunes as things that can benefit us. Everything is training. The wrestler can only become better by having a skillful sparring partner or opponent. Adversity in life brings out our virtues and trains us to become better.
Excessive good fortune is bad for us. How are we tested if everything goes well? Whatever adversity life throws at us, it’s an opportunity to learn.
What happens to us is determined by fate, Nature, God. The Stoic God is not a person, but the physical principle that underlies all order and organization in the universe. Stoic fate is the fate of physics; the web of cause and effect. The Stoic God has nothing to do with superstition.
To prepare ourselves, we’d do good to engage in the premeditation of future evils. This is an exercise in which you reflect on things that could happen so that you’re better able to handle them if they ever did happen. For example, grief hits us harder if we never contemplated the possibility of our loved ones dying. It’s good to keep in mind that we’re vulnerable, we all die, we can lose anything we have at every moment, and things could always be worse.
Reflecting on what could happen and on what will happen can help lessen the blow when adversity strikes us.
Our Place in Nature
The Stoic view is that there’s a rational principle in Nature that’s responsible for its order and life. This is what Stoics call God, Zeus, or simply Nature. The Stoic God is not a person but a single living organism of which we’re all parts.
The idea of the Stoic God has many parallels to the Gaia hypothesis by James Lovelock. This hypothesis posits that life on earth is best understood as a single living system that’s made up of organic matter, inorganic matter and the atmosphere. We cannot see plants and animals in isolation, as it’s one unified biosphere. This biosphere regulates itself for its own benefit.
The world is ruled by cause and effect, ‘fate’ in Stoic terms. Fate works through us humans, and we’re contributors to fate and to the larger system we’re part of.
Understanding fate will make it easier to accept unpleasant events; they had to happen that way.
Regardless if we believe in fate or not, to live a happy life we need to accept what happens and work with it the best we can.
Life and Death
According to Seneca (On the Shortness of Life) we have enough time in life, but we waste most of it. Wasting time makes us fail to live.
One way we waste time is by worrying about what others think. At the same time, we don’t pay enough attention to our own thoughts.
We need to hold in mind that one day we’ll die. Our time is limited. Most of your life has likely already passed.
Instead of wasting time, we’d do better to enjoy life and making the most of each day as it comes. At the same time, we should keep in mind that today could be our last day.
According to Seneca, instead of seeking relaxation we should spend our time on philosophy. This includes thinking, learning, reading history and literature, and reflecting on the past and present.
Life is like a party; it must come to an end at some point. So be a good guest, say thank you for the gift of life, and be prepared to give it back.
Nothing be kept forever because we won’t be around forever. Thinking that death is something terrible is nothing more than a judgment.
How We Live Together
As Stoics, we need to turn inward to work on our character. But we’re also social animals, so the point is to return to society to be the best members of the Whole we can be.
Everyone plays different roles in life. We can be a son, daughter, parent, sibling, friend, co-worker, etc. The trick is to play each role the best we can.
If we want to live the good life, we need to be good human beings. A good human embraces his rational and social nature and accepts the responsibilities that come with it.
We have the duty to take care of humankind, as we’re part of the human family.
Hierocles taught us the circles of concern. We’re in the middle, and there’s a series of expanding circles around us; our immediate family, then our local community, then humankind as a whole:
It’s clear the idea of cosmopolitanism originated with the Stoics.
For Stoics, all people are equal. We all share rationality and instinct for excellence.
Even though we’re social animals, we need to be concerned about who we spend time with. It’s difficult to break free from bad habits if those around us still live that way. Instead, it’s better to spend time with those whose values we share and admire.