Book review: Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars

Book review: Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars

reviewed by Chris Richards

John Sellars’ Lessons in Stoicism is a slim volume introducing Stoicism to a new audience; inspiring readers to become followers. Any and all readers will find wisdom and tangible pathways to contentedness in some form. Like many of the best ideas and wisdom, once found these ideas are obvious, innate and sometimes echo childhood parental advice. Rather than a lecture, the writing is welcoming, gentle, persuasive and vivid.

Comprising of a Prologue, Epilogue, seven chapters in between, with Further Reading and References; rarely has so much knowledge fit so handily in a pocket. Each chapter is ten pages or fewer and touches lightly upon the Ancient Stoicism championed by three “great Roman Stoics” namely Seneca – a tutor to the Emperor Nero, Epictetus – a free slave turned teacher, and Marcus Aurelius – Emperor of Rome, from their own vastly differing contexts. 

As with many schools of philosophy, Stoics are concerned with what is Good, and how to become Good. Sellars writes with clarity and confidence about the nature of emotions, control – what little we have and how the rest is indifferent, what tools people can use to temper inevitable adversities, and how the unexpected should be less surprising or shocking. The modern relevance of the Roman Stoic’s anecdotes is seamless which makes them not only intriguing but also relatable and levelling. 

Some principles of Stoicism have been linked to the foundations of Rational Emotive Behavioural Therapy (REBT) and latterly Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) which are and have been prevalent talking therapies used to combat some causes of anxiety and depression by retraining conscious thought to recognise early triggers and break the cycle.  Lessons in Stoicism is not strictly a self-care guide but a broader presentation of the ancient philosophical school which has given rise to Modern Stoicism later founded by John Sellars and several others in 2012.

There is no clear target audience and prerequisites to reading the book seem to be even the slightest interest in either philosophy or ancient history, or just an open mind. Those searching to fill in the gaps that mindful colouring in cannot provide, may do well to start here and let inclination guide you. Impulses to read wider, with greater zeal and specificity are a side effect catered for in the well sign posted and generous Further Reading list. As with other academically structured texts the Reference section is extensive but accessible with insight and care delivered with consistent vivacity.

So, best read on a slow Sunday for a lingering insightful and vaguely smug feeling all week in the short term. In the long term a potential gateway to a global community of Stoics and a relatively unfettered mentality to be going on with. 

John Sellars is a philosophy lecturer at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a visiting research fellow at King’s College London. He has written two books on Stoicism, The Art of Living (2003) and Stoicism (2006).

‘Stoic Week’ is an annual public event inviting members of the international community to live like a Stoic for a week, with a view to improve overall wellbeing; this is supported and lead by the team at www.modernstoicism.com . This year’s ‘Stoic Week’ is taking place around a month after the publication of this book from October 7.

Lessons in Stoicism, published by Penguin books, is due out on September 5. It will be available from October Books in Portswood Road, Southampton, and other bookshops.