In a recent interview, John Sellars and David Fideler discussed the question, “What is the ultimate goal of Stoicism?” Here’s how the discussion went …
David Fideler: I have a final question here, which could have been the first question in our discussion. But what I’d like to ask you is this: What is the ultimate goal of Stoic philosophy? Because people think about it in different ways —
There’s the famous saying, “Follow nature.” So is the ultimate goal of Stoicism to follow nature? Is it to achieve peace of mind and lead a happy life? Or is it to develop your character in some way? And is it even possible that all of those things could be related in some way?
John Sellars: Yes, that’s a very good question. I definitely think that they are all related.
So what’s the ultimate goal? I think the ultimate goal is happiness or eudaimonia. So to live a good life. That’s really what the Stoics and many other ancient philosophers will say: “That’s the thing we’re all after, whether we realize it or not. That’s what the whole thing is trying to get us to.”
How do you do that? Well, you do that by developing your character. You do that by developing those virtues, those excellences. How do you become a good human being? By developing the excellent character traits that mark out a good human being. But it also involves developing your rationality, because they think that’s one of the essential characteristics of a human being.
It involves avoiding those negative emotions, and so escaping the “mental illnesses,” if you like, of irrational emotions. And then living in harmony with nature is closely connected with this in two ways, I think. In one way, as we were speaking about earlier: aligning your will with the will of nature, in order to live “a smooth flow of life.”
How can you live a good, happy, calm, content life if you’re constantly struggling with nature? So you’ve got to live in harmony with nature in order to avoid that discord.
But also there’s a sense in which living in harmony with nature is closely connected to the project of trying to understand nature. Trying to know how nature works. Once you’ve got that knowledge — once you’ve done that work — I think the Stoics would be committed to the kind of broadly Aristotelian idea that we’re naturally rational, inquisitive beings. If you’re going to be a good human being, you’re going to exercise your reason, and part of that is going to involve trying to understand the world around you. Right? That’s just part of what a good, rational human being would do. They’d engage in science.
Now that’s certainly a kind of Aristotelian view, but I don’t think the Stoics are particularly far away from that. And many Stoics did engage in science and scientific research: people like Posidonius, Cleomedes, and various others, as well as Seneca, in the Natural Questions. They were all doing this; they wanted to understand the natural world.
And so if you do understand how the natural world works, and if you’re engaging in that kind of intellectual work, then, inevitably, you’re going want to live in accord with that knowledge you’ve gained about the way the natural world works.
David Fideler: Right. I think that’s very important. And while we may not look at the world in exactly the same way that the Stoics did, we do have a lot to learn from them, in terms of the idea of natural law, I think, and the idea that, in some way, our own rationality is rooted in the type of rationality that we find in nature. Otherwise, you’re dealing with a large philosophical question of emergence — like, “How did human rationality come into existence if there was no precedessor for that within the structure of the natural world?”
It’s like Marcus Aurelius says, that “It’s not possible to understand yourself if you don’t understand the world.” So the study of nature I think is very important — not only for the Stoics, but for us today, because we obviously need to understand the world in which we live.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from the full interview, you can watch a recording of the complete interview on the Stoic Insights YouTube channel: Stoicism and the Art of Living: A Conversation with John Sellars
John Sellars is one of the leading scholars in the study of Stoicism and teaches at the University of London. He is the author of many books, including Lessons in Stoicism, which you can read about on his website.
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.