Nov 09 2020

Dr John Sellars, Department of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy, specialises in stoicism, an ideology that has become increasingly more popular during this time of uncertainty. We recently caught up with Dr Sellars to learn more about stoicism and why it has become popular.

1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and your role in the Department of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy?

I’m a Reader in the Department of Politics, International Relations, and Philosophy, which is the current home of the Philosophy programme at Royal Holloway. I work mainly on the history of philosophy and in particular Stoicism and its later influence. I teach a number of courses covering ancient and also medieval philosophy.

2. We recently celebrated Stoic week; have you found Stoicism becoming increasingly more popular during this period of uncertainty?

Yes, Stoic Week took place in October. It’s not so much a celebration as an experiment. The idea behind it is to gather data to test whether ancient Stoic advice and practices actually help people. Over the past few years that we’ve been doing this, the evidence consistently shows that people do benefit from following Stoic life guidance. Now that we are confident that it does help people, we are of course all the more motivated to promote it so that others can benefit as well.

There has certainly been a lot of interest during lockdown. There have been multiple pieces in the media on this very topic and Penguin reported a huge spike in sales of Stoic texts by Seneca and Marcus Aurelius at the beginning of the UK lockdown in the Spring. Back in May/June during lockdown we ran a month-long online Stoic programme – an expanded, more in-depth version of Stoic Week – and we had record numbers participate in that. Not only did people benefit (reductions in negative emotions, increases in resilience and life satisfaction) but it also showed that genuine Stoicism has nothing to do with the popular stereotype of repressed stiff-upper-lip stoicism. In fact, we found a negative correlation between the two.

3. Can you briefly explain what Stoicism is?

That’s a huge question so let me just pull out a couple of key themes that are central to what we’ve been doing. The first is the idea that when we get upset or frustrated about something, it’s not the thing itself that disturbs us, but our judgement about it, and it’s within our power to change our judgements. A second key idea is that we need to pay attention to what things we can control and what we can’t. We can control our judgements, but, ultimately, we have minimal control over everything else. We don’t control the external world, what other people think or do, or even our own bodies, which can and do get sick whether we like it or not. If we tie our happiness to something out of our control, then we are inevitably going to be frustrated and disappointed when it doesn’t conform to our wishes. Instead we ought to direct our energies to what we can control, namely how we think about things and the judgements we make. Closely connected to this is a further Stoic idea, which is that what matters most for anyone to enjoy a good, happy life is cultivating the right kind of character. We do that by paying attention to the judgements we make about things, focusing our efforts on our intentions (which we can control) rather than the outcomes of our actions (which we can’t). Pull these related ideas together and you get the claim that an individual can live well in any situation, no matter what difficulties they might face.

That gives a sense of the practical side of Stoicism (and most of it comes from just one Stoic philosopher, Epictetus). But Stoicism as a philosophical system is far more rich and complex, embracing logic and natural philosophy as well. Ancient Stoics made important contributions to logic and grammar, as well as meteorology and astronomy, over a period spanning almost 500 years.

4. Have you always been interested in Stoicism, and what inspired you to research more and specialise in Ancient Philosophy? 

I read the Mediations of Marcus Aurelius early on when I was an undergraduate (and I’ve now just written a book on him). Back then I was interested in a wide range of philosophers and over time started to notice that they had often been connected to Stoicism in some way or other. It soon became clear that Stoicism was the common denominator of all my seemingly disparate interests.

Working on Stoicism meant, in effect, positioning myself as an ancient philosophy specialist, which I was very happy to do. Most of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy is great fun to teach and there’s not much that philosophers have said since that cannot be found someone in an ancient philosophical text. Perhaps more importantly, though, is that ancient philosophy offers not merely theoretical arguments about obscure technical points but also vivid models of how one should live. This is true not just of the Stoics but also Epicureans, Pyrrhonists, Cynics, and many others. The greatest figure of all is of course Socrates, who comes alive in Plato’s dialogues as someone earnestly trying to discover how best to live a good life.

5. How do you like to spend your free time outside of work?

I don’t have any free time!

6. What do you enjoy most about working at Royal Holloway?

Over the last couple of years, before lockdown, I have especially enjoyed listening to the Choir each week during their performances in the Chapel. Superb live classical music on campus for free!