Book Review: John Sellars’ Stoicism, a no-nonsense guide to the ancient philosophy

Pretty much the only thing to object to in John Sellars’ Stoicism is the cover (over which, likely, he had little say). It features “pseudo-Seneca” instead of the actual Seneca. Other than that, it’s one of the best, most clear and concise introductions to ancient Stoicism currently available. 

Originally published in 2006 and consisting of little above 200 pages, it is organized around six chapters. The first one is, unfortunately, simply titled “Introduction,” and so it is likely to be skipped by several readers. Do yourself a favor and read it. It includes a concise definition of Stoicism, a brief history of the philosophy from Zeno of Citium to Marcus Aurelius, and a section on the kind of historical sources from which we actually know about Stoicism, including Cicero, Plutarch, and Galen.

“Stoic philosophy is not merely a series of philosophical claims about the nature of the world or what we can know or what is right or wrong; it is above all an attitude or way of life. … Following Socrates, the Stoics present philosophy as primarily concerned with how one should live. The Stoics were not unique in this, however, and the same applies to the ancient Epicureans and Cynics among others.” (p. 2)

The second chapter is a guide to the structure of the Stoic system. One of the appealing features of Stoicism — at least for some of us! — is it’s high degree of internal coherence. One may or may not agree with all facets of Stoic philosophy, and it is certainly worth updating it to the 21st century. But one needs to appreciate and respect the fact that it is a philosophical system, where the different parts are there for a reason, and are connected together by argument, not arbitrarily. (Which means that any update can’t just be done by picking things one likes and discard those one doesn’t like; it has to maintain logical coherence.)

Sellars here introduces us to the notion of the Stoic sage, and then to the famous tripartite division of philosophy into “logic” (i.e., anything to do with better reasoning), “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), and “ethics” (i.e., how to live a life worth living). Again, these are tightly interrelated:

“The ethical goal of ‘living in accordance with Nature’ will naturally depend upon at least some understanding of the characteristics of Nature, the domain of physics. Similarly, the ethical goal of freedom from emotions will depend upon an understanding of the epistemological concepts of judgement and assent that give rise to emotions, which belong to the domain of logic.” (p.52)

Chapters 3, 4 and 5 then represent the core of the book, each devoted to one of the three parts of philosophy as conceived by the Stoics. These three chapters represent, in my mind, the best and most accessible treatment of the nature and interrelatedness of Stoic logic, physics, and ethics. As Sellars puts it:

“‘Logic’ translates logikē, and logikē is that part of philosophy that examines logos — reason, language or argument — in all of its forms, including formal arguments, rhetorical arguments, speech, grammar, philosophy of language and truth (i.e. epistemology). The formal abstract reasoning that now constitutes logic was known in antiquity as one part of dialectic, and dialectic was just one part of logikē.” (p. 55)

That is, for the Stoics, and indeed the ancient Greco-Romans in general, “logic” had a much more expanded definition than in modern times, because it served a practical, not just theoretical, purpose. If one does not understand the basics of reasoning, rhetoric, what we would today call elements of philosophy of language, and the basics of epistemology, then one is simply not prepared to work through any complex problem in life, let alone decide how to best live one’s life as a whole.

The chapter actually goes into quite a bit of details concerning different aspects of Stoic logic, so much so that it may be off putting to the general reader. But I strongly recommend making the effort, it will pay off handsomely just a few (somewhat hard!) pages later.

Sellars also discusses, still in chapter 3, Stoic epistemology, and rightly concludes that the Stoics were what we would today call empiricists, broadly speaking. They claimed that human knowledge, ultimately, derives from experience. They were, however, sophisticated empiricists, since after all they also thought that logic was important to study. Moreover, despite such strong empiricist leanings (among other things, they denied the existence of universals), the Stoics did make some room for what we may consider innate ideas, for instance insisting that we are naturally inclined toward virtue (i.e., prosocial behavior), since the moment we are born. As Sellars points out, in Discourses II.11 Epictetus rejects the notion that we have innate ideas of, say, triangles, but strongly suggests that we are born with some notion of what is good or bad. Modern research in comparative primatology backs up this idea.

The fourth chapter, on Stoic physics, begins with ontology, the branch of metaphysics concerned with what does and does not exist. Here we discover a subtle approach that distinguishes between “corporeal” and “incorporeal” things: only the former actually exist, while the latter “subsist.” The Stoics were materialists, so the only things that actually exist, for them, are those made of matter, which include the soul and “god” (i.e., the universe conceived as a living organism). But they also needed to account for what they called “sayables,” i.e., concepts such as void, time, and place. These things, the Stoics maintained, are real but do not exist (in the same sense as corporeal things exist).

I find this solution to the problem of incorporeals absolutely brilliant, and still viable today. Much confusion even in modern metaphysics originates from a sloppy, indiscriminate use of the word “exists.” When I say that unicorns, for instance, “exist” I clearly don’t mean that you can see one at the local zoo. When mathematicians say that numbers “exist” they ought not (on penalty of Platonism!) to mean that you can point a telescope to the sky and somehow spot the number 4. Here is how Sellars summarizes the Stoic take:

“Stoic ontology posits a supreme genus of ‘something’ under which there are two subdivisions of existing bodies or corporeals and subsisting incorporeals: For the Stoics, then, existence or ‘being’ is not the highest ontological genus. It is, contrary to Plato’s assumption in the Sophist, possible for something to be something at all without having to assume that it exists. These non-existing somethings, the incorporeals, do not exist but nevertheless they are real. We have, then, a highest genus covering all real entities, some of which are existing bodies and some of which are non-existing (but subsisting) incorporeals.” (p. 83)

Horses and mathematicians are real and they exist; unicorns and numbers are real, but do not exist (they “subsist”). Nice.

In this chapter Sellars also covers Stoic theology, cosmology, fate, and providence. All very interesting topics, which however I have already discussed elsewhere. (See here and here.) He then tackles Stoic psychology, which I have discussed recently on this site.

Chapter 5 is devoted to the crucial part of Stoic philosophy: ethics, or how to live a life worth living. Here Sellars begins with the famous Stoic concept of oikeiōsis, the notion that we are born with a natural instinct toward self-regard and self-preservation, and that we also naturally extend it immediately to our caretakers, and eventually to people that surround us (i.e., typically, our family). This is what the Stoics meant when they said that we are naturally virtuous. But natural virtue is not enough, so by the age of reason (in developmental psychological terms, about 7-8 year old) we can begin to expand our circles of ethical concern until, ideally, we become cosmopolitans. For a discussion of oikeiōsis see here, for one of cosmopolitanism here.

We are then treated to a clear explanation of the so-called (and so often confusing, apparently) preferred and dispreferred “indifferents,” one of the concepts distinguishing Stoicism from both Aristotelianism and Cynicism. Here is Cicero’s summary, one of the best available:

“All other things [outside virtue], he [Zeno] said, were neither good nor bad, but nevertheless some of them were in accordance with Nature and others contrary to Nature; also among these he counted another interposed or intermediate class of things. He taught that things in accordance with Nature were to be chosen and estimated as having a certain value, and their opposites the opposite, while things that were neither he left in the intermediate class. These he declared to possess no motive force whatever, but among things to be chosen some were to be deemed of more value and others of less: the more valuable he termed ‘preferred,’ the less valuable, ‘rejected’ [i.e. ‘non-preferred’].” (Academica I.36-37)

In practical terms: virtue is the only truly good thing and vice the only truly bad thing (and, luckily, they are under our control!). Health, education and wealth are preferred indifferents, so long as they don’t get in the way of virtue, while sickness, ignorance and poverty are dispreferred indifferents (not in the sense that they don’t matter, but in that they are not morally salient). And whether you prefer dark or milk chocolate is entirely neutral (though, seriously, milk chocolate?!?).

Chapter 3 also talks about the Stoic conception of emotions and its division in pathē (negative, disruptive ones, like anger, fear, and hatred) and eupatheiai (positive, good ones, like love, joy, and a sense of justice). See here for more.

The last chapter in the book covers the legacy of Stoicism, beginning with the influence of Stoic ideas throughout late antiquity and the Middle Ages, continuing with the Renaissance and early modern philosophy (through the brief episode of Neo-Stoicism), and ending with the 19th and 20th centuries:

“Stoicism has formed a pervasive, if sometimes diffuse, influence on Western thought. It formed an important element in the intellectual background for a wide range of key figures, from Augustine and Abelard to Erasmus and Montaigne, and infused the philosophical debates of the seventeenth century, contributing to the development of early modern philosophy. The Stoic authors Seneca and Epictetus continue to attract new readers and the details of Stoic ethical theory are being paid increasing attention in contemporary philosophical discussions.” (p. 156)

Of course, Sellars himself has made, and continues to make, important contributions to modern Stoicism, not just with books like this one (and a couple more we’ll discuss in the future), but also through his ongoing role within the Modern Stoicism group, the very same people that organize the annual Stoicon and Stoic Week events. Speaking of which: Stoicon 2019 will take place in Athens on October 5th. Are you going? ‘Cause I’ll be there, if Fortuna allows!

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