Lessons in Stoicism
By John Sellars
Who is John Sellars?
John Sellars is a lecture in Philosphy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of several books on Stoicism including the Art of Living. He is a founding member of Modern Stoicism which runs the Stoic Week. This week encourages people to live like a Stoic for the week and to se the impact on their lives. The upcoming week (at the time of writing) is 6–12 November 2023.
What is a preferred indifferent?
Sellars talks about Zeno of Citium who was the first of the stoics and founder of the school and begins a discussion on the human want for food shelter, possession, health and status. These things are understandable and beneficial aims but they cannot be classified as “good” for Zeno, following Socrates, wanted to reserve the word ‘good’ for a ‘excellent and virtuous character’.
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. But – and this is the 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.
Sellars discusses the peril of judging something as good or bad. Once we make this judgement this impacts our actions and what we strive for. He mentions the emperor Marcus Aurelius who was an avid reader of Epictetus and would remind himself to pause and think about the physical nature of what he wanted. A fine meal is simply a dead animal and a fancy car is just a lump of metal and plastic.
Whatever value these things might seem to have is value that we attribute to them with our judgements, and not anything inherent in the things themselves.
The good news is that we have complete power over these judgements but must take time to reflect on why we believe something is good or bad and not make a snap judgement. As we can decide what is important to us and how we act we are in control of our own happiness.
Your an actor
Sellars talks about Epictetus’s propose to think of your life as if you were an actor in a play.
Remember that you are an actor in a play, the character of which is determined by the Playwright: if He wishes the play to be short, it is short; if long, it is long; if He wishes you to play the part of a beggar, remember to act even this role adroitly; and so if your role be that of a cripple, an official, or a layman. For this is your business, to play admirably the role assigned you; but the selection of that role is Another’s.
It is important to point out that Sellar’s is not suggesting that we have no control over our entire lives but that we must accept parts of the human condition we have no control over and not fight to try and change these.
Seneca on misfortune
Sellars discusses Seneca’s views on misfortune based on his essay On Providence. This essay argues that nothing ever actually bad happens as an event is not in itself good or bad. In addition, Seneca makes the point that one should be grateful for bad events as they strengthen character and lets us display our virtues. Therefore, people should welcome adversity when it comes and not turn away from it. In fact, Seneca argues that real misfortune is never ending luxury and wealth which will serve to make one lazy, complacent and ungrateful. This is real misfortune!