Books interview: John Sellars

The philosopher and author of The Fourfold Remedy: Epicurus and the Art of Happiness on Asterix, architecture, Aristippus and discovering the power of ideas

一月 17, 2022
John Sellars, author of ‘The Fourfold Remedy: Epicurus and the Art of Happiness’
Source: John Cairns

What sorts of books inspired you as a child?
The books I remember devouring as a child – each week at the local public library – were the Asterix series. I suppose that was my first introduction to the ancient world.

Your new book is about the continuing value of Epicureanism. Which books first piqued your interest in ancient philosophy?
In my late teens, I’d become interested in architecture and had vague ambitions to become an architect. But I was really more interested in the history of architecture and, out of curiosity, I read Vitruvius’ Ten Books on Architecture. In one of his prologues, Vitruvius mentioned a saying by the Greek philosopher Aristippus to the effect that the most valuable possessions people can have are those that they can carry with them from a shipwreck. That really struck me at the time – the idea that knowing things was more important than owning things. But the book that really brought things into focus was Pierre Hadot’s Philosophy as a Way of Life, which came out in 1995, just as I was beginning my MA and thinking about which direction my academic interests might go. He brought out what one might call the existential dimension of ancient philosophy that most anglophone commentary at the time ignored.

You have also written books about Stoicism, normally seen as opposed to Epicureanism. Can you recommend some works that explore how their insights can be fruitfully merged or reconciled?
The standard line is that these two schools of thought are diametrically opposed to one another. But when I started exploring ancient philosophy, some of the first books I read were Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations (Stoic) and Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things (Epicurean) – and I fell in love with them both. I’ve had a go myself at highlighting the common ground between them alongside the differences, in Hellenistic Philosophy. The differences are real, so they can’t be reconciled completely, but I do think it’s possible to learn from both on some issues. The Stoic Seneca did this, often quoting from Epicurus and Lucretius.

Can you recommend some autobiographical accounts of how people have turned to philosophy in helping them cope with crises?
A famous one is Courage under Fire: Testing Epictetus’s Doctrines in a Laboratory of Human Behavior, Admiral James Stockdale’s account of drawing on his previous knowledge of Stoicism while a prisoner of war in Vietnam. A number of others are nicely described in Jules Evans’ Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations.

What is the last book you gave as a gift, and to whom?
A biography of Charles Dickens, to my wife. I happened to see it the day after she’d mentioned an interest.

What books do you have on your desk waiting to be read?
Many! I’ve been reading a lot by and about Aristotle recently for my next book, so he’s piled up everywhere. One that’s sitting unread that I hope to get to soon is David McKitterick’s The Invention of Rare Books: Private Interest and Public Money, 1600-1840.

John Sellars is a lecturer in philosophy at Royal Holloway, University of London. The Fourfold Remedy: Epicurus and the Art of Happiness is shortly to appear in paperback (Penguin).


Print headline: Shelf life: John Sellars



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