Monday, October 19, 2020

The Pocket Stoic John Sellars

Ages ago, I read stoic philosopher Epictetus’ wonderful book, in a very modern translation, which is given a variety of titles.  Discourses. The Book of LifeThe Art of Living.  And in the original Greek:  Enchiridion.  The teachings may be the foundation for the Serenity Prayer; at least that is what I have heard but I don’t know if this is true.

Recently, I wanted to learn more about the Stoics and came upon John Sellars’ Pocket Stoic.  This short book gives a solid overview of stoicism, specifically through the teachings of Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius. The three philosophers agree on the basic tenets of stoicism: 

  •  Accept that you do not have control over everything.
  • We are all going to die and we should live accordingly, making the best decisions we can given the knowledge we have.
  • There is no pure good/bad but we label circumstances through our judgments.

We are currently going through a time of great upheaval, and most everything is beyond our control.  Some people are committed to wearing masks during the pandemic while others see it as an infringement on their personal freedom.  And the United States is deeply divided along political lines, each side declaring the other wrong/bad.  And every day a group of brave people confront the wildfires that are burning in California and Colorado.

My mind was meditating on death even before I picked up this book.  The impermanence of everything.  How our lifestyle and how we live from day to day can be changed overnight.  In January, we had plans to travel more, to try new restaurants, and to save up for some luxuries that we have long put on hold.  Then the pandemic hit our shores and we sent into self-isolation.  At first it felt like it would only be a few weeks, maybe a couple of months, and then the numbers of new cases continued to rise. 

My point is that right now it feels like death is imminent. This is neither a good thing or a bad thing.  It simply is.  And in this moment, I can choose the path of the stoic—to accept the way things are—or I can sink into despair, because we are all still waiting on a vaccine.  Thanks to the stoic philosophy, I am choosing the former path:  acceptance. 

If you have ever been curious about stoicism, I highly recommend this book.  There are other longer books that may leave you feeling overwhelmed, but this slender book serves as a sort of introduction to stoicism, Stoicism 101, if you will.  When you are finished, you may choose to read another book about stoicism or read the stoics themselves.  I would start with Epictetus as his writings are the most approachable.  From there either Seneca or Marcus Aurelius.  There are also books recently published by contemporary stoics such as Ryan Holiday, William B Irvine, Jacob Martin, Laurence Becker, and others.  This book is an excellent place to start.


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