Lessons in Stoicism – John Sellars


Hardcover: 96 pages ISBN-10: 0241382777 ISBN-13: 978-0241382776



A brief but well-written introduction to Stoicism that would be a good starting point for a beginner wishing to learn more about the philosophy. (Also a handy reference for those already familiar.)


In his Discourses, Epictetus is quite clear about what is role is as a philosopher. The philosopher, he says, is a doctor, and the philosopher’s school is a hospital – a hospital for souls.

In an important argument later taken up bu the Stoics, Socrates sought to show that something like great wealth is, in a sense, worthless. To be more precise, he argued that material wealth is value-neutral, because it can be used for good or bad ends.

What does this tell us? It shows that the real value – the source of what is good or bad – resides in the character of the person who has the money, not in the money itself.

This led Zeno to call these things ‘preferred indifferents’ in his technical vocabulary. All other things being equal, we’d all prefer to be rich rather than poor, healthy rather than ill, and respected rather than despised. Of course we would; who wouldn’t? But – and this is a key point – because a virtuous character is the only thing that is truly good, we ought never to compromise our character in the pursuit of such things. Nor ought we to think that any of these things can, on their own, make us happy.

What is involved in having an excellent character? To use a very out-of-fashion word, it means to be virtuous. In particular it means to be wise, just, courageous and moderate – the four cardinal virtues according to the Stoics.

The things that we can control – the things in our power – include our judgements, impulses and desires. Pretty much everything else is, Epictetus suggests, ultimately out of our control, including our own bodies, our material possessions, our reputation and our wordly success. He goes on to say that much of human unhappiness is simply due to misclassification, the product of thinking that we have control over certain things when we in fact don’t.

We might judge so quickly that something is good, and do it so often, that we start to assume that the thing in question just is good in itself. But nothing external is inherently good; it’s just all a matter in motion. Only a virtuous character is genuinely good.

Whether it be a romantic relationship, a specific career ambition, material possessions or a certain physical appearance, if your sense of well-being depends on one of these sorts of things, then you have effectively handed over your happiness to the whims of something or someone else.

It is also important to remember that, although we have control over our actions, we don’t have control over their outcomes. Things don’t always turn out the way we might have hoped or intended.

If we tie our happiness to achieving the outcome, we run the risk of being frequently disappointed, but if we make our goal simply doing the best we can, then nothing can get in our way.

The central claim is simply this: our emotions are the product of judgements we make. Consequently we are in complete control of our emotions and responsible for them.

There are thus three stages to the process, Seneca suggests: first, an involuntary first movement, which is a natural physiological reaction out of our control; second, a judgement in response to the experience, which is within our control; third, an emotion that, once created, is out of our control.

This is why, he continues, it is important not to react impulsively to events. It is essential to pause, take a moment and reflect on what has just happened before making a judgement about it.

However, Seneca goes further. Not only does he think that we ought not to see apparent misfortunes as genuinely bad; he also thinks that we ought to welcome them as things that can benefit us. The good person, he says, treats all adversity as a training exercise.

There is no worse luck, Seneca says, than unending luxury and wealth, which will serve only to make us lazy, complacent, ungrateful and greedy for more. By contrast, whatever adversity life throws at us will always be an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to improve our characters.

The idea is that one should reflect on potentially bad things that could happen, so that one is better ready to handle them if they ever did happen.

Grief hits people hard, Seneca says, because they don’t anticipate it.

We shouldn’t just assume that everything will work out as we hope or expect, for it’s unlikely to do so. This is an important, if uncomfortable, lesson.

For Stoics such as Marcus, accepting the reality of fate – of causal determinism – is essential. It’s not just that some things are out of our control; it’s that they couldn’t be any other way.

For the Stoics, thinking about fate is a central element to the remedy for adversity, because part of coming to terms with unpleasant events is accepting that they had to happen.

It’s not that our lives are too short; the problem is that we waste so much time. We procrastinate, pursue things of little or no value, or wander aimlessly through life with no clear focus.

It is only in rare moments that most people really feel alive. The bulk of life is reduced to merely passing time. So what’s the remedy? How does Seneca think we can take control of our lives and live them to the full? First of all we should stop worrying about what others think. Don’t try to impress others; don’t pursue their favour in order to secure some advantage. We also need to hold in our minds the brute fact that we shall die. Our time is not unlimited. A good part of whatever time we shall have is gone already.

It’s worth stressing that Seneca isn’t suggesting that we try to think that this reallyis our last day. Instead, he is reminding us to contemplate the fact that it could be.

With this renewed sense of the value of time and a determined effort to prioritize our own leisure, what does Seneca think we ought to do? Instead, he recommends philosophy as the finest and most worthy activitiy, by which he means thinking, learning, reading history and literature, reflecting on the past and the present.

The Stoics would also agree with Aristotle when he said that human beings are by nature social and political animals.

Moreover, the Stoic turn inwards, as we have already seen, is primarily focused on cultivating good, virtuous character traits and avoiding harmful, antisocial emotions, such as anger. The whole point of it is that afterwards we turn back outwards to play our parts as more effective members of the various communities of which we are necessarily a part.

The key thing to note here is that we are members of both communities, with responsibilities to our local community but also with a duty of care to all humankind that transcends local customs and laws.

For the Stoics, then, people are people, all equal in their shared rationality and instinct for virtue. This focus on sociability and equality challenges the idea that Stoics were indifferent to other people. 

So, if you are trying to develop some new, positive habits, it may be best to avoid the company of those whose lives embody everything you are trying to escape. Instead, try to spend time with those whose values you share or admire.