What ancient philosophers teach us about how to live - Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars
In the past few years, stoicism has been making a comeback. But what exactly did the Stoics believe? In Lessons in Stoicism, philosopher John Sellars weaves together the key ideas of the three great Roman Stoics -- Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius -- with snapshots of their fascinating lives, to show us how their ideas can help us today. Their works, fundamentally, are about how to understand one's place in the world, how to cope when things don't go well, how to manage one's emotions and how to behave towards others. Consoling and inspiring, Lessons in Stoicism is a deeply thoughtful guide to the philosophy of a good life, and here you can read an exclusive extract from the prologue.
What if someone told you that much of the suffering in your life was simply due to the way you think about things? I don’t mean physical suffering like pain or hunger, but all the other things that can negatively colour one’s life: anxiety, frustration, fear, disappointment, anger, general discontent. What if someone claimed that they could show you how to avoid all of this? And what if they said that these things were in fact the product of looking at the world in a mistaken way? What if it turned out that the ability to avoid all of these things was completely within your control?
These are all claims that we find in the works of the three great Roman Stoics – Seneca, Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius – who lived in the first and second centuries ad. Seneca is remembered for his role as tutor to the Emperor Nero, Epictetus was a slave who gained his freedom and went on to set up a philosophical school, while Marcus Aurelius was Emperor of Rome. Their lives could not have been more different, and yet they all embraced Stoicism as a guide to how to live well.
By the time our three Roman Stoics were writing, Stoicism was already hundreds of years old. It all began in Athens. The founder of the school was called Zeno, originally from Cyprus. He was the son of a merchant who, on one account, visited Athens shortly before 300 bc to conduct business for his father. While there, he came into contact with philosophers in the city, and soon began studying with masters from a number of competing schools. Rather than committing himself to any one of these philosophies, he decided to become a teacher in his own right and started to lecture at the Painted Stoa – a covered colonnade – in the centre of Athens. He quickly gathered a number of followers, who soon came to be known as Stoics – the people who gathered at the Painted Stoa. The Stoic school developed under Zeno’s successors Cleanthes and Chrysippus, both of whom came to Athens from Asia Minor. Subsequent Stoics came from ever further east, such as Diogenes of Babylon. None of the works of these early Stoics survived past the end of antiquity, never making the transition from ancient papyrus scrolls to medieval parchment manuscripts, and what we know of their thought is based on quotations and summaries by later authors.
For our three Roman Stoics, by contrast, we have substantial literary remains. In the case of Seneca, we have essays on a range of philosophical topics, a set of letters to his friend Lucilius, and a number of tragedies. For Epictetus we have a series of discourses written by his pupil Arrian that purport to record lectures from his school, along with a short handbook that digests some key themes from those discourses. With Marcus Aurelius we have something quite different: private notebook jottings that record his attempts to grapple with some of the central ideas in Stoicism and to put them into practice in his own life.
The works of these three Roman Stoics have inspired readers ever since, speaking as they do to some of the day-to-day issues that face anyone trying to navigate their way through life. Their works, fundamentally, are about how to live – how to understand one’s place in the world, how to cope when things don’t go well, how to manage one’s emotions, how to behave towards others, how to live a good life worthy of a rational human being. In the chapters that follow we’ll explore some of these themes further. We’ll begin by considering what the Stoics thought their philosophy could offer, namely a therapy for the mind. We’ll explore what we can and cannot control, and how the way we think about things can generate sometimes harmful emotions. We’ll then think about our relationship with the outside world and our place within it. And we’ll conclude by focusing on our relationships with other people, which contribute so much to both the joys and the stresses of daily life. As we shall see, the popular image of the isolated and unfeeling stoic hardly does justice to the rich vein of thought that we find in our three Roman Stoics. Their works have been perennial classics, and for good reason. Their popularity remains undiminished today, with new generations finding helpful lessons in the works of these Stoics.
John Sellars is a lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London and a member of Wolfson College, Oxford. He is the author of The Art of Living and one of the founder members of Modern Stoicism, the group behind Stoic Week, an annual global event inviting members of the public to 'live like a Stoic for a week' to see how it might improve their lives