This is the first of a set of interviews with the experts lined up to be speakers at this year’s online STOICON, which will be taking place virtually this year on October 17. Here is the link where you can register and view the schedule of events. Our first interview is with our first speaker, John Sellars. To those who have been following research and contemporary literature about Stoicism, or the modern Stoic movement, John practically needs no introduction. But we’re going to give him one anyways – or rather, allow him to introduce himself!
How would you introduce yourself and your work to our readers?
I’m an academic based in the UK. I currently teach philosophy at Royal Holloway, part of the University of London. I first became interested in Stoicism as a philosophy student in the 1990s. I wrote my PhD on Stoicism, finishing it in 2001. Since then I’ve written a number of books on Stoicism. Among these I’ll mention Lessons in Stoicism, a very short primer for people completely new to the subject, that came out last year (and about to come out in paperback, and about to be published in the US as The Pocket Stoic). This year I also finished a book on Marcus Aurelius that came out in July. I’m one of the founder members of the Modern Stoicism group and I organized our first public event in London in 2013, as well as Stoicon 2018, also in London.
How do you currently make use of Stoicism in your work?
In all sorts of ways! I teach Stoicism: I’ll be doing so this year as part of a course on Hellenistic philosophy at Royal Holloway. I continue to write on ancient Stoicism: at the moment I’m completing a couple of pieces on Epictetus, for an edited book and a conference. I’m also editing books on Marcus Aurelius and on Musonius Rufus at the moment. I’ve also always been interested in the ‘afterlife’ of Stoicism – the ways in which it has influenced others since antiquity – and I’m currently working on discussions of Stoic approaches to the emotions in the fourteenth century.
When and how did you first become interested in Stoicism?
I think my first encounter was probably reading Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations in the early 1990s while a philosophy student. It wasn’t part of a course, just a book I stumbled across. Although it was obviously very different from the more technical philosophy that I was studying in my degree, I had a sense that there was something more substantial standing behind Marcus’s notebook reflections, and I became curious to find out what that was. The book on Marcus I finished this year is – finally! – my attempt to set out what I see as going on just below the surface of the Meditations
At the same time I was reading Marcus as a student, I was studying the philosophy of Spinoza and really connected with his ideas – that we are small parts of a unified Nature, that we ought to be guided by reason rather than emotions – and then came across articles connecting him with Stoicism. The same happened with other philosophers I found congenial. Before long Stoicism seemed like the common thread or original source of a wide range of things that I found interesting. That’s one of the reasons I’ve worked on the later influence of Stoicism, because my way into it was in large part via traces of Stoicism in the subsequent history of philosophy.
What’s the most important aspect of Stoicism to you?
I think it is probably the directness with which the Roman Stoics write and the way in which they can still speak to us today, despite how many things have changed since the time they were writing. Jules Evans, who was a key contributor to Modern Stoicism at the beginning and indeed coined the title ‘Stoicon’, once said that the reason why people should read the Roman Stoics rather than modern self-help or psychotherapy books is that they are not merely sources of interesting ideas but also great works of literature. They are also so varied. Seneca’s carefully crafted essays, Epictetus’s punchy direct dialogues, and Marcus’s thoughtful reflections are all quite different in tone but each stands on its own terms as an inspiring read. It’s that literary ability to connect that makes their work so powerful.
In terms of ideas, I think the one thing that has always connected with me most is the thought – especially strong in Marcus Aurelius – that we are ultimately tiny insignificant specks within the vastness of time and space. We are but parts of Nature and will be swept along with its changes whether we like it or not. That strikes me and both true and a healthy antidote to the self-absorption and egotism that is often so prevalent in contemporary culture.
In what ways do you think Stoicism still matters today?
It matters today because people can still benefit from it today, and they do. Part of the idea behind Stoic Week was to see if people can still benefit from Stoic ideas, and the evidence that we have gathered suggests that they do. Indeed, over the years we’ve been running Modern Stoicism I’ve encountered numerous people who have reported that Stoic ideas have literally changed their lives (for the better!).
That’s what it’s really all about. If people just said ‘Hmm, that’s interesting’ and then just continued on as before, there’s no reason why Stoicism would be any more interesting than any other long-dead school of thought in the history of philosophy. But instead for some people it has the power to transform how they see themselves and their place in the world. Of course, not everyone will connect with it, but for those who do, the impact can be considerable.
How has Stoicism affected the way you live your life?
I suspect it probably has in various subtle ways; I’ve been reading this stuff for quite a long time now! But – and I may have mentioned this in previous interviews – there’s always a question over how much it has actually changed my attitudes and how much it resonates with attitudes I already had. On some issues I was probably ‘a Stoic without realizing it’, a phrase I’ve heard many people use. I suppose what it has done the most is make connections between different views I already had and showed how they could all be connected into a single coherent world view, as well giving arguments for why those views make sense to hold.
What’s one of your favorite Stoic quotations and why?
It’s so hard to pick just one. There are dozens in Marcus’s Meditations alone. There are so many striking turns of phrase in Seneca too. But here’s one I re-read just the other day that may or may not have something to say to current politics in multiple countries: “If you take on a role that is beyond your capacity, you both disgrace yourself in it and leave undone a role that you could have fulfilled” (Epictetus, Handbook 37). But putting politics to one side, at a personal level this offers some important advice. We each need to work out what our own capacities are, what we are good at and most suited for, and make our choices with this self-knowledge in mind. We are often presented with a ‘one size fits all’ model of success, and some people might feel pressured to try to conform to that generic image of what being successful is supposed to look like. But here Epictetus (and he’s following similar advice from earlier Stoics such as Panaetius, reported by Cicero) is saying that would be a mistake. First, we need to work out who we are before we can decide what we ought to be doing and what a successful, happy life might look like for us as individuals.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about Stoicism?
Do Stoic Week! It is designed as an introduction to some of the practices mentioned by the Roman Stoics and hopefully it is way in to learning more about the underlying philosophy too. It also helps us with our research into the effectiveness of these practices. The popular literature on Stoicism is ever expanding and there are plenty of modern guides out there. But the works of the Roman Stoics, as a noted earlier, are all highly readable and engaging on their own right, and they speak to people directly nowadays just as well as they no doubt did when they were first written.
Do you have anything else that you wanted to mention while we have the chance?
Modern Stoicism is run by a group of volunteers who for the most part are not paid, doing this in their spare time on top of other commitments. We’ve been doing this for some eight years now, simply out of the conviction that the ancient Stoics have something to say that might benefit people, and we think people ought to hear about it, in case it can help them. We have always made all of our courses and materials free and open to all. We have no regular funding but what we do is not without costs, so if you’d like to support us in our work, please do consider donating to Modern Stoicism.