John Sellars | Aligning with Your Nature, Finding Meaning & the Stoic Approach to Emotions

John Sellars | Aligning with Your Nature, Finding Meaning & the Stoic Approach to Emotions

ABOUT OUR GUEST

John Sellars is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. He’s the author of a number of books on Stoicism, including The Art of Living (2003), Stoicism (2006), and Lessons in Stoicism (2019). He is also one of the founding members of Modern Stoicism, the organization that runs Stoic Week and Stoicon. 

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  • We should start to ask people why they got interested in Stoicism, because it’s not exactly clear why this philosophy has had such a resurgence in modern times. 
  • People are searching for a set of values and moral guidance, and life guidance. Religion once served this role, and to a large extent still does, but now people are searching for more secular ways of receiving the benefits which they previously found in religion. 
  • People also seem to be looking for rituals which can help them to practice living a better life, and this, too, may explain some of the excitement around Stoicism. 
  • Many people who currently are associated with religion are also getting involved with Stoicism because it aligns with their values.
  • Stoicism shifts the student’s idea of success from externals to internals. Where once a person may have wanted to buy nice things and live out society’s version of success, the Stoics teach us that our true home, and our real success is in the mind. 
  • Stoicism teaches us to focus on the process rather than the outcome. For example, in Stoic ethics they teach that we should do a virtuous act because it’s the right thing to do, and that we don’t need to worry about the outcome because as long as we act virtuously then we can achieve a sense of happiness or “flourishing”. 
  • An example of the above is that if someone wants to be a musician then they should simply focus on making beautiful music, and this will be a success whether they get a big break or not. If they love making music and they do it for the rest of their life, then this is a success. 
  • Stoicism can fit over many lifestyles or moral frameworks, and thus we see many people in various religions and backgrounds adopting Stoic principles. 
  • People take from Stoicism what they like, and in this way it can be of value to many people. 
  • As Stoics we are called to be in the crowd but not of the crowd. We’re social creatures, and so we definitely would prefer to be around people and to be of service to our communities. 
  • The Stoics also called for tolerance, because nobody chooses to be annoying or deceitful or angry. They become like this out of an ignorance of what’s right and wrong. But we who are aiming at virtue should be tolerant to those who aren’t, and we should aim to work with them rather than against them. 
  • We should study what we love because that will naturally lead us down a path where it’s easier to learn and grow. When you love what you’re learning then you’ll clearly learn much quicker. 
  • When you study something you love then learning is also much more enjoyable.
  • The Stoics taught that we should live in agreement with Nature, and this in part living in agreement with our own individual Nature. This can be interpreted as a call to listen to one’s own interests and natural inclinations.
  • Cicero talks about the “four personai theory” which is about living according to Nature and different senses. He highlights that living according to Nature shouldn’t only involve external Nature and human nature, but also our own nature - the things that are particular to us. Some people are drawn to sports, some to creative arts, some to law. We need to get to a point where we are in tune with exactly who we are so that we can follow the direction that Nature intended for us. 
  • In order to understand what your true nature is, it helps to pay close attention to and to observe your emotions for what they are, and to learn from these emotions. For example, it sometimes helps to do the wrong thing because if you listen to yourself then you can learn why it was the wrong thing to do. 
  • Listen to the directions which you’re drawn to go down, and wrestle with those feelings so that you can learn whether or not they would be good or bad for you. 
  • The Stoics didn’t talk much about the conscience, but they did suggest that we should attend to our judgements by gaining a distance from our cognition. We should view our perceptions for what they are so that we can aim at greater reason in our decisions. 
  • Marcus Aurelius coined the “view from above” technique which was the exercise of imagining oneself above the world looking down. This was almost a technique in cognitive distancing which could allow him to recognise the folly of many of his irrational thoughts. 

    • The Stoics encourage us to recognise that we’re not the centre of the world and that we’re just like everyone else. This can inspire rather than frighten us because we can see that we’re not the only ones who have faced the trials we face. We, like the millions of people who came before us, will face each challenge to the best of our abilities, and we’ll likely survive. So maybe we don’t need to experience so much anxiety over our problems seeing as we’ve been sufficiently equipped with the tools for the job. 
    • The view from above technique has the potential to lead us down a nihilistic path, but it all depends on the angle from which you view the fact that “none of it matters”. Either that can mean that you might as well kill yourself, or you can take it to mean that you should dance through life and follow what you love, because no matter what happens to you you’ll be doing something meaningful. 
    • The key is this: nothing matters, except how you behave. Virtue is the ONLY good in Stoicism, so as long as you aim at virtue you can pretty much make up the rest. 
  • The Stoics taught that we are simply fragments of the divine soul (Nature).  
  • Does this mean that our conscious minds are fragments of a single conscious mind? Sellars suggests not. 
  • The Stoics had many debates about this, and they argued over the position of the divine ruling part of the body. Some thought it was in the heart, others in the brain. We now know it’s in the brain.
  • They also debated over the position of the ruling part of the divine soul, which they tended to locate that in the stars. 
  • Sellars suggests that the Stoics did not believe that our minds are part of a “superconsciousness.” 
  • The Stoics believed that it is rationality which marks us apart from the rest of Nature, and that this is the one thing which they shared in common with the gods. 
  • The Stoics never spoke about emotions in the way that we in the west define emotions, and it many ways it is a matter of definition.
  • The Stoics had very specific and technical definitions for the kind of “emotions” which they spoke about. 
  • The “emotions” they spoke about are good and bad “emotions.”
  • The Stoics accounted for “first movements” which don’t necessarily count as emotions, but in the west are regarded as emotional responses. These first responses that they talked about are the initial instinctual or learned responses which we have when we’re frightened, sad, surprised etc. An example would be jumping out of fright. We might see this as an emotional response, but the Stoics saw this simply as a process of nature - a first response. “Fight or flight”. 
  • Seneca suggested that even crying isn’t an emotion, but rather it is simply a natural response to certain stimulus. 
  • The Stoics taught that “emotion” or “pathe” was the product of a value judgement, and something that hangs around for a long time. 
  • Example: someone who is grieving from the death of a loved one will naturally have a period of sadness. Having said this, the person who is still grieving three years from the death of a loved one is experiencing what the Stoics called “emotion” or “pathe” - a lack of judgement which leads to an excess in feelings. It’s kind of a pathological emotional response. 
  • Passion is the correct translation of pathe. 
  • Cognitive dissonance is the key to making better judgements and having better reactions. 
  • When you first have an “emotional response” or a first response to a stimulus, we need to be able to recognise these responses or interpretations for what they are - a process of our biology and learned behaviours which will always have their say. Our only job is to try to distance ourselves from those responses and to try and pair a more rational action to their call. 
  • The ancient philosophers stressed the importance of taking time to habituate correct behaviour. 
  • We need to see the philosophical journey as a long-distance sport. We need time and attention to make sure that the development of our character sets in and creates habits of correct behaviour. 
  • The philosophers all kept on developing their character until the day they died. This is a life-long pursuit. 
  • We should take many valuable lessons from various philosophies so that we can learn the best ideas which offer the most truth. 
  • We can learn much from Epicureanism as well as ancient Skepticism which can add to our lives in positive ways. 
  • The Skeptics taught that it’s by tying ourselves to dogmatic beliefs that we tend to frustrate ourselves. We should, therefore, suspend judgement and allow our minds to be in search of good ideas - not of ideologies. This is something that should be added to the cannon of ideas. 
  • We should never take Stoicism on authority. It’s a philosophy - we can read and learn and debate. We have to challenge the ideas so that we can see what stands. 
  • The Stoics often debated amongst themselves, and we should continue this discussion. 
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