John Sellars explores the timeless benefits of Stoic philosophy.

Book Review by David Fideler


Lessons in Stoicism, the new book by John Sellars, starts off with a provocative series of questions:

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 these things was completely within your control?

These claims, in fact, were made in the writings of all the famous Roman Stoics — Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius — to which Lessons in Stoicism is a short, pocket-sized guide, weighing in at less than ninety pages.

In seven very short chapters, Sellars introduces the general reader to a series of ideas that all of the classical Roman Stoics held in common, offering an economical and engaging overview of ancient Stoic philosophy, and how Stoic ideas are relevant today.

Chapter 1, “The Philosopher as Doctor,” looks at the ancient idea of philosophy as a kind of medicine or therapy for the mind.

Chapter 2, “What Do You Control?,” explores the idea of what is within and what is not within our control, and how we make ourselves vulnerable to suffering by placing too much emphasis on things that are not within our control.

Chapter 3, explores the Stoic ideas about emotions, and how emotions arise from inner judgements. It also takes aim at some ancient and modern myths about Stoicism, for example that Stoics are unfeeling.

Chapter 4, “Dealing with Adversity,” explains how Stoics viewed the unavoidable adversities people face in life, including how encountering obstacles can provide beneficial experiences for growth, and how to anticipate future adversities to lessen their blow.

Chapter 5, “Our Place in Nature,” provides an overview of the Stoic view of the world, including the idea that rationality exists in nature, and how the functioning of the physical world relates to leading a happy life: “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.”

Chapter 6, “Life and Death,” looks at how we can live well given the fact that we have a limited amount of time allotted to us as mortal beings, and why we should not be anxious about death.

Finally, chapter 7, “How We Live Together,” explores the social side of Stoic philosophy, or how we should relate to the greater world and to other people: “Our final lesson is that we are by nature parts of a whole series of communities, both local and global. We are simply mistaken if we think of ourselves as isolated individuals who can ignore wider society.”

John Sellars is a leading scholar of Stoicism, known for his many academic works in the field. He’s also one of the founders of Modern Stoicism. In Lessons in Stoicism, he provides a very accurate, clearly written overview of key Stoic teachings but in the shortest compass possible, so that the book can easily be read in one sitting. It also gives the reader a sense of how various Stoic ideas relate to one another and fit together into a larger whole.

As such, Lessons in Stoicism is an ideal book for beginning readers who would like a quick but beautifully written overview of the most central Stoic ideas. At the same time, it’s also a delightful work for more experienced readers, and a good reminder of how simple the main, common-sense ideas of Stoicism really are, and how they harmoniously fit together.

Note: Lessons in Stoicism is published in the UK by Allen Lane. It will be published in the United States as The Pocket Stoic by the University of Chicago Press in September 2020.

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David Fideler holds a PhD in philosophy, is the editor of Stoic Insights, and the author of Restoring the Soul of the World and other books. You can read more about his work here. He’s currently writing a guide and introduction to the Stoic philosophy of Seneca for W. W. Norton.

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