I have wide interests in the history of philosophy, especially ancient, renaissance, and early modern. I have particular interests in Stoicism and its later influence, and in the idea of philosophy as a way of life. I explored these two together in my first book The Art of Living: The Stoics on the Nature and Function of Philosophy (2003; 2nd edn 2009). My second book, Stoicism (2006), has been described by reviewers as ‘excellent’, ‘outstanding’, and ‘the best introduction to the subject’. I have recently edited The Routledge Handbook of the Stoic Tradition (2016) and I am currently finishing a book that will be a general introduction to Hellenistic philosophy.
I have written a number of invited pieces on Roman Stoicism, including contributions to Wiley-Blackwell’s Companion to Marcus Aurelius (2012), Brill’s Companion to Seneca (2014), and The Oxford Handbook of Roman Philosophy (in press). I have also compiled annotated bibliographies on Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius for Oxford Bibliographies Online. I have an invited contract to write a book on Marcus Aurelius.
My more substantive research, however, has focused on renaissance and early modern philosophy (16th-17th centuries), usually in connection with the reception of ancient philosophical ideas. I have been primarily interested in the impact of Stoicism, but have touched on Aristotelianism as well. Along the way I have developed a keen interest in Cambridge Platonism. Below I list some recent and forthcoming journal articles:
- Sellars, J., ‘Is God a Mindless Vegetable? Cudworth on Stoic Theology’, Intellectual History Review 21/2 (2011), 121-33
In the late sixteenth century a number of influential writers claimed Stoicism to be compatible with Christianity but by the mid eighteenth century, Stoicism had come to be associated with atheism. What happened during the course of the reception of Stoicism in the intervening period? While it remains unclear who was the first person to call the Stoics atheists, there is no doubt that the most philosophically sustained analysis of Stoic theology during this period is to be found in Ralph Cudworth's True Intellectual System of the Universe, published in 1678. Cudworth's aim in this work is to catalogue and then attack all existing forms of atheism and one of the four principal forms of atheism he identifies he calls ‘Stoical’. However, in Cudworth's complex taxonomy of different forms of theism and atheism, Stoicism appears twice, first as a form of atheism but also as a form of imperfect theism. The aim of this study is to examine Cudworth's claims about Stoic theology, assessing their fairness, but also placing them within the wider context of the early modern reception of Stoicism.
- Sellars, J., ‘Stoics Against Stoics in Cudworth’s A Treatise of Freewill’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 20/5 (2012), 935-52
In his A Treatise of Freewill, Ralph Cudworth argues against Stoic determinism by drawing on what he takes to be other concepts found in Stoicism, notably the claim that some things are ‘up to us’ (eph’ hêmin) and that these things are the product of our choice (proairesis). These concepts are central to the late Stoic Epictetus and it appears at first glance as if Cudworth is opposing late Stoic voluntarism against early Stoic determinism. This paper argues that in fact, despite his claim to be drawing on Stoic doctrine, Cudworth uses these terms with a meaning first articulated only later, by the Peripatetic commentator Alexander of Aphrodisias.
- Sellars, J., ‘Stoic Fate in Justus Lipsius’s De Constantia and Physiologia Stoicorum’, Journal of the History of Philosophy 52/4 (2014), 653-74
In his De Constantia of 1584, Justus Lipsius examines the Stoic theory of fate, distancing himself from it by outlining four key points at which it should be modified. The modified theory is often presented as a distinctly Christianized form of Stoicism. Later, in his Physiologia Stoicorum of 1604, Lipsius revisits the Stoic theory, this time offering a more sympathetic reading, with the four modifications forgotten. It is widely assumed that Lipsius’s position shifted between these two works, perhaps due to a better grasp of the Stoic position by the time of the later work. I argue that in fact there is no great distance between the two accounts and that both find only one point of difficulty with the Stoic theory, a point that Lipsius himself presents in both works as merely a matter of expression.
- Sellars, J., ‘Pomponazzi contra Averroes on the Intellect’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 24/1 (2016), 45-66
This paper examines Pomponazzi’s arguments against Averroes in his De Immortalitate Animae, focusing on the question whether thought is possible without a body. The first part of the paper will sketch the history of the problem, namely the interpretation of Aristotle’s remarks about the intellect in De Anima 3.4-5, touching on Alexander, Themistius, and Averroes. The second part will focus on Pomponazzi’s response to Averroes, including his use of arguments by Aquinas. It will conclude by suggesting that Pomponazzi’s discussion stands as the first properly modern account of Aristotle’s psychology.
- Sellars, J., ‘Shaftesbury, Stoicism, and Philosophy as a Way of Life’, Sophia, in press (published online August 2015)
This paper examines Shaftesbury’s reflections on the nature of philosophy in his Askêmata notebooks, which draw heavily on the Roman Stoics Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius. In what follows I introduce the notebooks, outline Shaftesbury’s account of philosophy therein, compare it with his discussions of the nature of philosophy in his published works, and conclude by suggesting that Pierre Hadot’s conception of ‘philosophy as a way of life’ offers a helpful framework for thinking about Shaftesbury’s account of philosophy.
- Sellars, J., ‘Henry More, Reader of Marcus Aurelius’, British Journal for the History of Philosophy, commissioned for special issue, forthcoming 2017
I examine Henry More’s engagement with Stoicism in general, and Marcus Aurelius in particular, in his Enchiridion Ethicum. More quotes from Marcus’s Meditations throughout the Enchiridion, leading one commentator to note that More ‘mined the Meditations’ when writing his book. Yet More’s general attitude towards Stoicism is more often than not hostile, especially when it comes to the passions. I shall argue that while More was clearly an avid reader of the Meditations he read Marcus not as a Stoic but as a ‘non-denominational’ ancient moralist who confirms a range of doctrines that More finds elsewhere in ancient philosophy (and in the Enchiridion Aristotle is the key point of reference). In this sense More continues the Neoplatonic practice of downplaying doctrinal differences between ancient philosophers in order to construct a single ancient philosophical tradition. This is quite different from the approach of his contemporary and fellow Cambridge Platonist, Ralph Cudworth, who was keen to highlight doctrinal differences between ancient philosophers. The paper will aim to shed light on i) More’s own ethical position, ii) the reception of Marcus Aurelius in the seventeenth century, and iii) the differing ways in which Cambridge Platonists engaged with the history of philosophy.