I mentioned in my last post that I had ordered a copy of John Sellars’ Stoicism (University of California Press, 2006). I’m enjoying it very much, and while I haven’t made much progress yet, I was struck by several things that I thought I would share.

Sellars begins his overview of Stoic philosophy by emphasizing that Stoics conceived of philosophy as “an art (techne) . . . concerned with transforming one’s way of life.” (Sellars at 32.)  He quotes Epictetus from one of the Discourses:

For just as wood as the material of the carpenter, bronze that of the statuary, so each individual’s own life is the material of the art of living. (Discourses, 1.15.1)

Philosophy as an Art

This is an interesting way to look at philosophy and at ourselves, and one can see how this analogy helps to clarify Stoic doctrines, and also how it can motivate us to continue studying the Stoics.

As to clarification, seeing Stoicism as an art emphasizes its transformative nature. Sellars points to a section of Seneca’s Letter 16, in which he writes:

[Philosophy] is not pursued in order that the day may yield some amusement before it is spent, or that our leisure may be relieved of a tedium that irks us. It molds and constructs the soul; it orders our life, guides our conduct, shows us what we should do and what we should leave undone.

Amusing us or relieving us of tedium, while arguably beneficial as a diversion from troubles, would not change us. Art necessitates transformation; “mold[ing] and construct[ing] the soul” would qualify. The artistic metaphor also highlights the primacy of the individual and his active role in shaping himself and, to some extent, his future.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Stoicism (under the “Philosophy and Life” subheading) elaborates on the transformative aspect of Stoicism:

[The Stoics] define philosophy as a kind of practice or exercise (askêsis) in the expertise concerning what is beneficial. . . . Once we come to know what we and the world around us are really like, and especially the nature of value, we will be utterly transformed. . . . Today many people still turn to Stoicism as a form of psychological discipline. Stoicism has never been ‘purely academic’ and modern adaptations of Stoic thought seek to carry on this tradition of self-transformation. 

As to motivation, imagine looking at your life and thinking to yourself, “This is something I am building.” For me, it is a powerful motivator to continue studying Stoicism. I want to have a sense of engagement with life, as if it were my own little work of art. When we have a project, we have a sense of purpose, which is crucial to happiness–and the importance of the accompanying sense of self-reliance and agency cannot be underestimated. (See this article by Martin Seligman for more on the role of meaning and purpose in well-being.) It is so much more fruitful, instead of becoming depressed about perceived flaws in yourself, to think of your life as a hunk of marble, and yourself as the sculptor.

Philosophy as (the Art of) Medicine

Further context for Epictetus’s statement from Disc. 1.15.1 is the view of philosophy as a cure for the sickness of the soul, as medicine treats sickness of the body. Sellars notes that an original Chrysippus work on the topic has since been lost, but that Cicero outlined this work and explored the medicinal analogy (not exclusive to Stoicism; it apparently was also mentioned in early Platonic dialogues). The analogy does not conflict with that of philosophy as art, but merely refines it by viewing medicine as another type of art.

The cause of the soul’s sickness, according to the Stoic view, is unsound judgments that create unpleasant emotions. Stoic philosophy is seen as the cure for these errors in judgment that bring us so much unhappiness. Cicero writes:

Assuredly there is an art of healing the soul–I mean philosophy, whose aid must be sought not, as in bodily diseases, outside ourselves, and we must use our utmost endeavor, with all our resources and strength, to have the power to be ourselves our own physicians. (Tusculan Disputations, 3.6.)

Philosophy may be a powerful medicine, but it will only work when we administer it to ourselves, not to anyone else. In the Epictetus discourse, when someone asks him how he could persuade his brother not to be angry at him, Epictetus says that “Philosophy . . . does not profess to secure for man any external possession.” Each individual’s “own life” is the material used in the art of living. It follows, then, that Epictetus has “nothing to say” to the man about how to ameliorate his brother’s anger; that is the brother’s material that he himself is using to building his own life. (Disc. 1.15.1.)

While something in this tugs at my conscience (shouldn’t we be helping our neighbors when they’re feeling down?), I love the realistic approach to other people’s problems. It goes back to one of the Stoic basics, in Epictetus’ Enchiridion 1, that some things are in our control and some things are not. While our own emotions are raw material we can work with and try to master, other people’s emotions are assuredly not. As Sellars notes, however, we may, like Socrates or Diogenes the Cynic, “try to encourage others to embark on that very same personal work for themselves.” (Sellars at 35.) Easier said than done (I’d advise you to duck after sharing this wise advice), but this approach may free you from undue stress over what your neighbor is or isn’t doing to improve her lot.


Free versions of some texts (different translations from those quoted above) may be found online; the text of the Epictetus discourse is here; the Seneca letter here; and the Cicero work here


One thought on “Stoic philosophy as art and medicine

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s