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Interview with John Sellars, Editor of The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition

'A unique and very impressive volume. The editor and contributors are absolutely first rate, and the topics and solidity of scholarship really asks the reader to rethink the scope, substance, and forms of a wide-ranging "tradition" of interpretation and reinterpretation that many might think is reducible to a few maxims.' – Aaron Garrett, Boston University, USA

The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition is the new Handbook from editor and author John Sellars. We interviewed him to find out more about the book.

1 - Why do you think there is a need for a Handbook on the Stoic tradition? 

It’s surprising that to date there hasn’t been a single volume study of the reception of Stoicism, at least not in English. Work on ancient Stoicism has flourished over the last few decades but it is only more recently that people are beginning to pay renewed attention to the later impact of Stoic ideas. Scholars of early modern philosophy have been paying more attention to the influence of Hellenistic philosophy on the period, while Foucault’s work on ‘cultivation of the self’ has brought Stoicism to a quite different audience. Beyond academia there has also been a resurgence of interest in Stoicism by people looking to put Stoic ideas into practice today. So from a number of different fronts I think that there is a much greater interest in the idea of Stoicism as a tradition running through Western thought than there has been for quite a while.

2 - How is it different from other books in the field?

 As I have said, there are few books that have tried to map the impact of Stoic ideas from antiquity to the present. There is a very good collection of essays in German, and a monograph in French that is now over 40 years old, but nothing in English that is comparable this volume.

3 - What do you hope readers will take away from the Handbook?

Well, as I say in the Introduction, there isn’t really a ‘Stoic tradition’ in the way one might talk about an Aristotelian tradition. There has not been a living tradition of people after antiquity who self-identified as Stoics. But almost every major thinker of note has grappled with, and usually taken something from, Stoicism, making it a constant theme in the history of philosophy. The volume is also deliberately multi-disciplinary and touches on the Stoic impact on religion and literature as well. There is more that could have been said about politics and science too, although it was impossible to include everything. What it would be nice for readers to take away is an increased awareness of the Stoic contribution to Western thought, which, once one starts looking, can be found almost everywhere. This might seem like a startling claim but it is worth remembering that for generations education began by learning Latin, and one of the first Latin authors people read was Cicero, who is probably our most important source of information about Hellenistic Stoicism. Via Cicero almost every educated person knew something about Stoicism, whereas these days it is all too often reduced to a specialist topic in ancient philosophy only sometimes offered as a supplement to the study of Plato and Aristotle. The more people understand the impact of Stoicism on a wide range of subjects and thinkers, the more they will hopefully realize the need to know a bit more about ancient Stoicism as well. 

4 - What findings in editing the book surprised you?

I have mentioned Cicero, but one of the things that surprised me was the extent to which Seneca was often the principal point of reference for people’s conception of Stoicism, combined with the fact that their image of Seneca was often based on spurious works that we no longer think he wrote! It has also been interesting to see the ways in which different people have championed or attacked Stoicism on the basis of a single Stoic doctrine, whether that be their doctrine of fate or their theory of emotions. Much of the story is inevitably an ongoing debate about the extent to which Stoicism is (or is not) compatible with Christian teaching. 

5 - What experience led you to edit this Handbook?

My own academic interest in Stoicism came about after reading about ‘Stoic’ ideas in the works of later philosophers, in particular Spinoza and Nietzsche. So I worked my way back to ancient Stoicism after first looking at various moments in the reception of Stoicism. There’s a sense in which this is the book I always intended to write from the very outset. For a short while I did indeed consider writing a book along these lines but it became clear very soon that the subject is simply too big for just one person to tackle. That is when the idea of an edited volume came about. 

6 - How can the ancient traditions of Stoicism impact/ be applied to our modern day lives? 

In the last few years there has been an increase in popular interest in Stoicism, mainly focused on the Roman Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius, but Seneca too. A text like the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (on which I am due to write a book for Routledge, for the new ‘Philosophy in the Roman World’ series) contains a whole series of very personal reflections on the stresses and strains of daily life and offers a range of strategies to cope with them. Although it is not a book taken especially seriously by most ancient philosophy specialists, it remains a hugely popular book with general readers. Over the last couple of years I have been involved in the ‘Stoicism Today’ project in which we have been trying to assess the effectiveness of following Stoic advice. We have been amazed by the interest in the project and the data we have gathered to date suggests that it does increase people’s own sense of wellbeing. 

7 - How is one’s well being affected by a strong belief or practice in Stoicism? 

One of the central Stoic ideas taken up by modern practitioners in the distinction made by Epictetus between things that are within our control and things that are not. The thought is that much of people’s frustration and unhappiness is generated by thinking that things that are not within their control are or ought to be. Too often people are angry at some aspect of the world because it won’t conform to their will. This is often combined with the thought that this same aspect is in some way necessary for their happiness. Epictetus puts forward three ideas aimed at overcoming this: first that we need to understand that most things are simply not under our control, second that if we attend to how we think about things rather than the things themselves we shall be much better off, and third that we perhaps ought to think a bit more about bringing our will into harmony with the world rather than expecting the world to conform to our desires. All of this, Epictetus claims, will improve how well our lives go. Many people do seem to find it helpful.

But it is worth saying that this is just one aspect of the work of one later, Roman Stoic. Stoicism is a rich and complex philosophical system, with a wide range of doctrines in logic, physics, and ethics. The Athenian Stoic Chrysippus was the greatest logician in antiquity after Aristotle; Seneca wrote about meteorology as well as how to control emotions like anger. So while it is nice to see many people drawing on Stoicism in ways that might help them, I think it is important also to remember that there is much more to Stoicism as a philosophical tradition than just that. 

'For a long time historians of post-Renaissance philosophy have been telling each other that they need to take into account the influence of the ideas and aspirations of the Stoics. But they've done so without knowing enough about the details of reception and transmission. Here, at last, is a comprehensive, complex and fascinating account of the Stoic legacy that will be a standard reference work for decades to come. It will be invaluable for those seeking to understand the philosophy of the past on its own terms.' - James A. Harris, University of St. Andrews, UK

The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition