BMCR 2022.10.06

The pocket Epicurean and The pocket Stoic

John Sellars, The Pocket Epicurean. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2021. Pp. 126. ISBN 9780226798646. $12.50.

John Sellars, The Pocket Stoic. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2019. Pp. 124. ISBN 9780226682969. $12.00.

Sellars has done readers a favor with these two slim volumes. They do an admirable job of summarizing the tenets of these philosophical schools and feature valuable coverage of the heavy-hitters of Epicureanism (Epicurus, Lucretius, Horace, Philodemus) and Stoicism (Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, Epictetus). Sellars’ style is engaging and he often poses questions for the reader (such as “What aspects of your life do you really control?” or “Few people today worry about the vengeful thunderbolt of Zeus, so what lesson can we abstract from this?”) which are addressed by the various authors and schools. I found both volumes easy to swallow (like Lucretius’ honeyed cup), and I even slipped them into my pocket from time to time to read while waiting for my children to leave school. Sellars encourages reading the two together, remarking in the prologue (at p. 3) of The Pocket Epicurean (henceforth TPE): “This book is, depending on your point of view, either a companion or a competitor to my Pocket Stoic” (TPS), and this review will examine them in loose dialogue with one another. In general, these are strong introductions and should be assigned to students who know little about Hellenistic philosophy or even given as gifts to family members and others who want to know more about all those thick books you have on your shelves. Although there are a couple of moments that I think are missed opportunities (to be discussed below), I found Sellars to be a sure guide not only to the basics of these philosophical schools but also to ways they can be applied beneficially to our messy modern lives.

Although both schools originate in Athens at roughly the same time, the early evidence differs tremendously. We still possess quite a bit of Epicurus, even if we have lost his monumental 37-book On Nature, but the writings of the first Stoics are very fragmentary. This impacts Sellars’ narratives on a fundamental level – he includes quite a bit of Epicurus’ own words whereas Zeno, Chrysippus, and Cleanthes are barely mentioned and rarely quoted. One gets a good sense of life in Athens and at Epicurus’ Garden in TPE, but one is transported to the Roman Empire for most of TPS. The appealing picture of Epicurus that emerges highlights his belief in simple pleasures and philosophy as a sort of “psychological therapy” (16). In order to truly understand the “Path to Tranquillity” (the title of the second chapter of TPE), one has to rejig one’s mental state to cope with mental and physical suffering. Sellars concludes, “But already we can see that whatever external things may or may not be required, reflective philosophical thinking is the non-negotiable foundation” (36). At times this may seem unrealistic, but Sellars stresses that, by understanding one’s natural and necessary needs, that path to tranquility is actually much more viable. One sine qua non for Epicurus is friendship and the sense of community that Epicureanism valorizes is well-treated in chapter four of TPE, which leads to the celebratory quotation of Epicurus, “Friendship dances around the world, summoning every one of us to awaken to blessedness” (65). Horace and Lucretius, also help shed light on issues such as “Why Study Nature?” (Chapter Five), “Don’t Fear Death” (Chapter Six) and “Explaining Everything” (Chapter seven) covering atomism; Sellars judiciously employs their poetry to stress how we should focus on enjoying living our lives and attain peace of mind. A tangent delving into the Herculaneum papyri leads to Philodemus’ report of the tetrapharmakos“Don’t fear God / Don’t worry about death / What’s good is easy to get, / What’s terrible is easy to endure” – which Sellars tells us comes via John Hayter, the English clergyman who transcribed it “before the blackened papyrus crumbled away” in the late 1700s. These sorts of informative touches bring out the precarious nature of our evidence. (Additional ventures into transmission include Poggio Bracciolini’s discovery of Lucretius.) By the end of the volume, one has a good sense both of the importance of Epicureanism in the Hellenistic and Roman eras, its primary goals, and the ways in which one could still effectively apply Epicurean ideas to one’s own modus vivendi.

If The Pocket Epicurean emphasizes philosophy as therapy, The Pocket Stoic has a similar focus on the philosopher as doctor with remedies to “reconnect us with a sense of what we are as human beings and how we might live in the light of that knowledge” (13). Stoics would say that remedies revolve around the proper conception of ethics, physics, and logic, but Sellars prefers to delve into the particulars of ethics for much of TPS. That is understandable, given that few general readers really want to slog through logical syllogisms, and fits with the Roman focus of this volume. Sellars does devote a chapter to physics (“Our Place in Nature”), unraveling its importance for Stoic theology and, ultimately, ethics since “the lesson here is that we are but parts of Nature, subject to its greater forces and inevitably swept along by its movements, and we shall never be able to enjoy a harmonious life until we fully comprehend this” (73-4). Epictetus is marshaled to explain “What Do You Control?” (Chapter Two) and Sellars does a fine job explicating how “much of human unhappiness is simply due to misclassification, the product of thinking that we have control over certain things when in fact we don’t” (20). Some of these ideas resemble those of modern Rational Emotive Behaviour Therapy, and Sellars remarks on the influence of Stoicism in its development. Emotional control and dealing with adversity loom large in Stoic ethics and make up the heart of the third and fourth chapters, where works like Seneca’s De Ira and De Providentia help to illuminate the spiritual practices and the rational judgement that should help one through such ordeals. Sellars shows that there can be disagreement between Stoics about core issues, such as fate, and contrasts Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius on this point: “whereas Epictetus turned his attention inwards, to focus on what we can control, Marcus looked outwards to contemplate the vastness of what we cannot” (65). Like TPE, the penultimate chapter of TPS deals with death, but instead of questioning why people feel anxiety and fear about death, Sellars spends a majority of this chapter offering a summary of Seneca’s De Brevitate Vitae and Seneca’s lessons about how to live well, no matter the length of one’s life. The final chapter reviews Stoic ideas about the cosmopolis and the need to contribute to our local and global communities in some beneficial way.

Although Sellars concludes TPS with mention of cosmopolitanism and some modern groups that practice Stoicism and engage in “Stoic Week”, he does not mention other groups that utilize Stoicism for less respectable reasons. I am thinking of the Red Pill community and the problematic way that members of this community interpret Stoicism to justify their misogyny and racism.[1] Sellars does call attention to Musonius Rufus’ lecture that advocates for allowing women to study philosophy because all human beings have a similar claim to rationality and the pursuit of virtue, but I think he could have done more to address this troubling issue. The other missed opportunity I saw in these volumes was the lack of any mention of COVID in TPE. Although I know that publishers can be slow and the manuscript may have been completed before the outbreak, with a passage like the plague description at the close of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura to draw upon, it seems like it would have been a natural fit and would interest current readers. What should an Epicurean do when faced with a pandemic in this current Age of Anxiety? What does ataraxia look like now?



[1] Cf. Chapter two of Donna Zuckerberg’s Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age (Harvard University Press, 2018) reviewed here, and the PHAROS website for more information about the appropriation of Classics by hate groups.