Lessons in Stoicism: book notes, and commentary

My to-read list is long, and books can wait years to get read. I select a mix of interests, and try to make sure my reading is well rounded. It’s thus fairly unusual that I read Lessons in Stoicism quickly after finding it. I find the subject matter (modern takes on Stoicism) interesting but it’s also pretty short and I find the cover design extremely pleasing. Even the fanciest systems are undermined by the simplest things.

My reaction when I finished reading the book was that it was okay, but nowhere near as good as A Guide To The Good Life (aff link), which was one of the first of the modern Stoicism trends and remains one of the best. A Guide To The Good Life explores how to live according to Stoic rules at a deeply practical level. It’s a popular book: it’s supported by the original Stoic text but it’s very much a fresh interpretation.

Lessons in Stoicism is similar, but it’s much more rooted in the original texts. Indeed, looking back at my notes, I didn’t note much but what I’ve got down here is very good.

The most interesting section for me is covering Seneca’s essay On The Shortness of Life. The author extensively interprets the essay for the 21st century and it’s very good. My notes are below.

The other particularly interesting thing here is the analysis that’s missing. Stoicism is a philosophy popular with wealthy white men. There are exceptions, but on the whole this is true. Two of the most well known Stoic authors: Seneca and Marcus Aurelius were exceptionally wealthy. Marcus Aurelius was the Roman Emperor and literally the most powerful man in the world at the time.

Today, Stoicism is a hit with wealthy technology self-improvement types, typified by the advocism of Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday. I watched Ryan Holiday’s talk from Stoicon, a Stoicism conference, the other day, and somebody asks: “why are there so many white dudes here?” Ryan says he doesn’t know, but the lessons from Stoicism are useful to everyone. That may be true — somebody other than me would need to answer — but reading my notes it became apparent: Stoicism is the ultimate individualist philosophy. It’s perfect for 21st century capitalism. Everything is on you: master your feelings and ignore your situation, and you’ll be happy! Don’t worry about material possessions! That’s a whole lot easier to say when you don’t suffer from systematic oppression, as people like me don’t. It’s also easier to say when you at least have the option of buying things you don’t need. I’d love to read more on this from sources better qualified to speak to it.

There are valuable lessons to be learned from Stoicism, though, and Lessons in Stoicism isn’t quite the popular and fun text that A Guide To The Good Life is, but it is a very good complement to it.

Below are my notes, and here’s an affiliate link to Amazon.

Lessons in Stoicism by John Sellars: book notes

We might judge so quickly that something is good, and do it so often, that we start to assume that the thing in question just is good in itself. But nothing external is inherently good; it’s all just matter in motion. Only a virtuous character is genuinely good. The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who was an avid reader of Epictetus, often tried to remind himself of this by pausing to think about the physical nature of seemingly desirable things before passing judgement on them: a fine meal is merely the dead body of a pig or a fish.

The good news, according to Epictetus, is that we have complete control over our judgements, and with some reflection and training we can soon overcome the tendency to judge things unthinkingly. If we can do that – if we can become masters of our own judgements – then we’ll be in complete control of our lives. We’ll decide what’s important to us, what we desire and how we act. Our happiness will be completely within our own control. On the face of it Epictetus seems to be saying that we don’t have control over very much at all, but in fact he is saying that we have control over everything that truly matters for our wellbeing.

His point is that even if you think they are good, the fact is that you have no control over them. If you make your happiness dependent on one of these things, it will be extremely vulnerable to forces out of your control. Whether it be a romantic relationship, a specific career ambition, material possessions or a certain physical appearance, if your sense of wellbeing depends on one of these sorts of things, then you have effectively handed over your happiness to the whims of something or someone else. That’s not a good position to be in . If you think you do have control over these things, when the plain fact is that you don’t, then frustration and disappointment are almost guaranteed.

Epictetus proposes thinking of your life as if you were an actor in a play. You haven’t chosen your role, you don’t get to decide what happens, and you have no control over how long it will last. Rather than fight against all these things which are out of your control, your task is to play the role you find yourself in as best as you can.

If we let our attention slip we can quickly lose whatever progress we may have made. So, we need to integrate periods of reflection into our daily lives. Marcus Aurelius describes practices of morning reflection during which he prepares himself for the coming day, contemplating the sorts of challenges he is likely to face so that he will be better placed to handle them. Similarly, Seneca outlines a process of evening reflection during which he goes over his day, thinking about what he did well, where his attention may have slipped, and how he might do better tomorrow. Epictetus goes even further: like the mariner sailing the ship, it is essential that we remain focused every single moment of the day, prepared for whatever might happen next. We must keep our key philosophical principles always ready to hand, so that we don’t fall back into making mistaken judgements. This is philosophy as a daily practice and a way of life.

he insists that nothing bad ever really happens, given that all external events are neither good nor bad in themselves. Someone who keeps this idea in their mind and doesn’t rush to hasty judgement will simply accept what happens for what it is, without judging that something terrible has occurred.

Adversity in life works in a similar way: it lets us display our virtues and it trains them so that we can improve. If we can see this, then we’ll happily welcome adversity when it comes.

excessive good fortune is in fact really bad for us. When are we ever tested if we never experience any difficulties? How will we ever develop the virtues of patience, courage or resilience if everything always goes well? There is no worse luck, Seneca says, than unending luxury and wealth, which will serve only to make us lazy, complacent, ungrateful and greedy for more. This is real misfortune! By contrast, whatever adversity life throws at us will always be an opportunity to learn something about ourselves and to improve our characters .

In his essay On the Shortness of Life, Seneca says that, for many of us, by the time we are really ready to start living, our lives are almost over. It’s not that our lives are too short; the problem is that we waste so much time. We procrastinate, pursue things of little or no value, or wander aimlessly through life with no clear focus. Some people strive to achieve success so that they can be wealthy enough to buy luxury goods that will end up discarded in a rubbish bin long before their lives are done. In so doing they waste the greater part of their lives. Others strive for nothing, just going through the motions of daily routines without any sense that the most valuable commodity they have – time – is slipping away. Some people have a clear idea of what they want to do but, paralysed by fear of failure, put off and delay things and conjure up excuses for why now is not the time to act. All these different types, Seneca says, fail to live. It is only in rare moments that most people really feel alive. The bulk of life is reduced to merely passing time. So what’s the remedy? How does Seneca think we can take control of our lives and live them to the full? First of all we should stop worrying about what others think. Don’t try to impress others; don’t pursue their favour in order to secure some advantage. Too many people care about what others think of them, but pay little attention to their own thoughts. They sacrifice their time to others but rarely set aside time for themselves. Yet it’s absurd, Seneca suggests, that someone might be so protective of their money and possessions and yet so freely give away their far more valuable time. We also need to hold in our minds the brute fact that we shall die. Our time is not unlimited. A good part of whatever time we shall have is gone already. Not only that, we have no idea how much is left to come. Today could, in fact, be your last day. Perhaps tomorrow will be your last. You might have weeks, months, a couple of years – the truth is that none of us know. It is all too easy to assume that we’ll all make it to eighty or ninety years old, but perhaps not all of us will. The assumption may be false and, whether it is or not, it encourages us to put off things into a future that may never come. Seneca mocks the person who postpones all their plans and dreams until retirement. Do you really know you’ll make it to then? If you do, are you sure you’ll be in good enough health to do whatever it is that you’ve been postponing for so long? But even if all goes well, why postpone life until the bulk of it is already over?

There’s also the question of what’s worth pursuing. For a good many people, the goal is success in some form or other, whether that be wealth and fame, respect and honours, or promotion and high office. Yet Seneca notes that, more often than not, people who attain such things are far from satisfied, for with success comes a whole host of demands and pressures. Having gained everything they ever wanted, there’s one thing they now lack: time, time for themselves, for peace and quiet, leisure and retirement.

But it is not just the demands that come with success. It is all too easy to live in a perpetual state of distraction, never fully attending to what it is that we should be doing, what we really want to be doing, or even the sheer experience of being alive. Constant noise, interruption, news, media, social media – all these things can demand our attention to the point that it becomes difficult to focus enough to complete anything. As Seneca puts it, ‘living is the least important activity of the preoccupied man’. They are effectively taken up with doing nothing. Once this habit develops they fall into a continual state of restlessness, unable to relax or to concentrate on anything. Such people become fully conscious of the value of life only when it is almost over.

If we don’t address these issues, Seneca argues, it doesn’t matter how much longer our lives continue. Even if we lived for a thousand years, we’d fritter most of the time away. The task, then, is not to strive to make our lives last as long as possible; instead, we ought simply to make sure that we enjoy and make full use of each day as it comes, not forgetting that it could perhaps be our last.

Learning to live well is, paradoxically, a task that can take a lifetime. The wisest people of the past, Seneca adds, gave up the pursuit of pleasure, money and success in order to focus their attention on this one task. Although they might not have agreed on an answer, Seneca insists that preserving one’s time and devoting it to oneself is essential: Everyone hustles his life along, and is troubled by a longing for the future and weariness of the present. But the man who spends all his time on his own needs, who organizes every day as though it were his last, neither longs for nor fears the next day.

With this renewed sense of the value of time and a determined effort to prioritize our own leisure, what does Seneca think we ought to do? He quickly dismisses the playing of games and sports, as well as the popular holiday activity of what he calls ‘cooking one’s body in the sun’. Indeed, he attacks many of the things that are often referred to today as ‘leisure activities’. Instead, he recommends philosophy as the finest and most worthy activity, by which he means thinking, learning, reading history and literature, reflecting on the past and the present. This is the opposite of rushing around in the pursuit of worldly success, which, he says, is ‘won at the cost of life’.

Seneca’s essay is a polemic against what he saw as the shallowness of the culture of the relatively wealthy in first-century Rome. It is striking – in some ways frighteningly so – how relevant all this remains today. We like to think that humanity has moved on, and hopefully improved, over the last two thousand years, but Seneca shows us that many of the issues that people grapple with today are no different from those that preoccupied the inhabitants of imperial Rome.

Epictetus likens life to the Olympic games: the contest is upon us, you cannot defer any longer, and everything depends on what you do right now, on this single day.