What’s most important is within us and under our control, namely our attitudes, judgements, and character.
John Sellars is an academic who teaches ancient philosophy at the University of London. He has written mostly about Stoicism and its later influence, but also on Socrates, Plato and Epicureanism. At the moment he is about to start work on a short book on Aristotle.
How did you become interested in that area?
As a schoolchild I was interested in ‘big questions’ about the origins of the universe and the like, and so I enjoyed studying physics. As an older teenager I became interested in politics and was quickly drawn to questions in political philosophy about freedom, justice, and so on. I’d also had a longstanding fascination with ancient Greece and Rome. I went to university to study philosophy, and ancient Greek philosophy seemed to encompass all these seemingly disparate interests that I had at once.
What’s the most important concept or idea that you teach people?
Beyond my academic research I’ve spent quite a bit of time over the past few years talking to general audiences about Stoicism and how it might help them in their everyday lives. That’s involved teaching people about a range of core ideas in Stoicism, including what we can control, the emotions, how to deal with adversity, our place within nature, and the importance of developing a virtuous character. Many of these ideas go back to the founder of Stoicism, Zeno of Citium, who of course gained a good part of his own philosophical education at the Academy.
What do you think is the most important piece of practical advice that we can derive from your work?
One of the central ideas in Stoicism that people seem to benefit from is the idea that what’s most important is within us and under our control, namely our attitudes, judgements, and character. Many people seem to suffer a lot of distress worrying about external situations out of their control, and Stoicism argues that these things are in fact not that important for living a good life.
Do you have a favorite quote that you use?
I guess it would have to be Epictetus’ “It’s not things that upset us but our judgements about things”.
What advice would you give someone who wanted to learn more about what you do?
These days people are keen to record talks and do podcast interviews, and I’ve done a good number of these recently. But I always much prefer to read a physical book – at my own pace and with a pencil in hand to annotate – and so that’s what I’d encourage others to do. If people want to learn more about Stoicism and are new to it, they might want to start with my short book Lessons in Stoicism (which has also been translated into Modern Greek as Η τέχνη των στωικών).
Suppose you were able to give a talk at the original location of Plato’s Academy…
In 2019 I had the chance to visit Athens for the first time. I made a trip to the site of the Academy, wandered around the remains in the park, and visited the small museum (I also visited the sites of the Lyceum and the Painted Stoa). Although well off the usual tourist trail and tucked away in a residential area, it was nevertheless an inspiring and atmospheric place to visit.
It would be wonderful to be able to meet with people and talk about ancient philosophy there, an iconic location in the history of Western thought.