Stoicism 101

Everything is material, there’s no supernatural realm, and you can reduce your suffering by changing your thinking about your problems: welcome to Stoic thought.

By Eric Vanderwall

“What if someone told you that much of the suffering in your life was simply due to the way you think about things?” This rhetorical question opens The Pocket Stoic, written by John Sellars and published by the University of Chicago Press in September 2020.

In The Pocket Stoic, Sellars offers a brief (pocket-sized, in fact) introduction to Stoicism by summarizing the major teachings of the three main figures: Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca. The book is an introduction for those who have no prior knowledge of the philosophy, and  it provides a list of suggested readings, both modern works and English translations of the ancient source documents.

Sellars has been engaged with Stoicism for many years. “I remember coming across the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius as a student and finding it interesting,” Sellars writes of his first encounter with Stoic philosophy. It was, he says, “quite unlike any of the philosophy texts I was studying as part of my degree.” This led him to study Stoicism intensively.

Sellars has now published nine books on Stoicism and Hellenistic philosophy and regularly publishes in academic journals. In addition to his position as Reader in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London, he is also a visiting Research Fellow at King’s College London and a member of Wolfson College, Oxford.

The prologue to The Pocket Stoic provides a brief synopsis of the philosophy’s origin and major figures. The origins of Stoicism are uncertain; as is true of much in of the ancient world, documentation of Stoicism’s formative years is fragmentary.

“None of the works of these early Stoics survived past the end of antiquity,” Sellars writes, “and what we know of their thought is based on quotations and summaries by later authors.” Only the writings of the late Roman Stoics—Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius—survive including: Seneca’s essays (many in epistolary form), transcriptions of Epictetus’s lectures made by his students, and the private journal of Marcus Aurelius (now known as Meditations).

What scant evidence survives of Stoicism’s origins suggests that, about 300 years before the Christian era, Zeno of Cyprus travelled to Athens and, after studying with the eminent philosophers of the time, founded his own school, which was named for the building where its members met: the Stoa Poikile, or Painted Porch. Not until the time of the Roman Stoics (Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius) does the historical record become more clear.

Following the prologue, The Pocket Stoic is divided into seven sections, each of which summarizes the views of the three major figures on a set of topics.The work concludes with an epilogue. Under these headings—“The Philosopher as Doctor,” “What Do You Control?,” The Problem with Emotions,” “Dealing with Adversity,” “Our Place in Nature,” “Life and Death,” and “How We Live Together”—Sellars has collected brief excerpts from the major figures’ works as well as his own summaries and glosses on the material. The chapters run about 15 pages apiece, as befits a pocket-dwelling book.

Sellars defines Stoicism as a philosophy rather than a religion because, as he wrote in an email, it “offers a series of arguments for its positions and does not expect anyone to take anything on faith,” arguments that are themselves based on core principles but vary in presentation among the main figures. As such, even in the brief glimpses afforded Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius in this pocket compendium, a portrait of distinct strains of Stoic thought emerges.

The picture of Stoic philosophy that comes through The Pocket Stoic is of a worldview meant to help practitioners come to grips with impermanence, mortality, emotions and desires, and the fact of limited control over circumstances. 

“Everything that exists is material,” Sellars wrote about Stoic metaphysics in an email. “There is no supernatural realm.”

It is here that the philosophy/religion divide Sellars delineates in his email is most apparent. The Stoics sometimes referred to “God” or “the gods” or “Nature,” but these are best understood as terms describing a universe “that is a single living organism, of which we are all parts,” an ancient analogue to the modern Gaia hypothesis. What to modern ears sounds theological, a metaphysical assertion positing a particular being, is more properly understood as a model that understands the world as a conglomeration of many interrelated, interdependent systems that work harmoniously as if governed by some overarching principle. 

The earthy pragmatism of Stoicism, with its minimum of abstraction, puts it at odds with much of modern philosophy as pursued in the academy, a comparison Sellars made in an interview with David Fideler of the YouTube channel Stoic Insights. Stoicism takes as its concerns the actions (mental and physical) conducive to a virtuous life and impermanence, withholding comment on metaphysical structures of existence and anything not rationally knowable. It is fundamentally a pragmatic philosophy, one that developed as thinkers and statesmen worked out a model of what constituted a virtuous life. 

Although not a dominant philosophical school in our day, Stoicism was broadly embraced in ancient Rome, when it was part of the liberal education of statesmen and intellectuals, such as Cicero. Early Christian communities developed their ethics based on Stoic principles, although the metaphysics of Christianity is derived elsewhere. There is ongoing debate on the extent to which Stoicism informed Paul’s Epistles to the Corinthians and certain of his speeches in the Acts of the Apostles. Stoicism is also considered to be an antecedent to cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and rational emotive behavior therapy, both of which are employed by today’s therapists. Treatment with CBT entails the patient learning to recognize cognitive distortions (misguided thought patterns, such as believing that one always fails or that one is universally hated) that adversely affect his or her mental wellbeing, and then continually working to modify these thought patterns to reduce anguish. Although CBT is not exactly equivalent to Stoicism, its emphasis on awareness and mastery of one’s own mental processes reveal its strong resemblance to Stoic philosophy.

The Pocket Stoic is part of a wider popular interest in Stoicism. Sellars is a founding member of the Modern Stoicism organization, which offers courses, publishes a blog, and organizes the occasional convention. There are also public figures outside academia, such as Ryan Holiday, whose bestselling books on Stoicism seem to present the philosophy as a form of personal development that will lead to financial success. Many other online personalities present themselves as experts on the subject. In addition to what appears to be a renewed popular interest in reading the original texts, some of the phenomenon seems to indicate an interest on the part of contemporary people to identify with whatever the idea of Stoicism has come to signify, which may not always coincide with what the ancient thinkers meant.

Come spring 2021, the University of Chicago Press will publish Sellars’s The Pocket Epicurean, which the author says is, “depending on your perspective, either a companion or competitor to The Pocket Stoic!”