What’s the Difference Between Ancient and Modern Stoicism?

The Stoics argued that, like ants and bees, human beings are profoundly social animals.

As the author of a book on Stoicism, I am always asked, “What’s the difference between ancient Stoicism (with a capital ‘S’) and modern stoicism?” The difference matters because people ordinarily assimilate the two, and dismiss the first on account of the second.

At the heart of ancient Stoicism is the notion that human beings ought to act in accord with their nature, which means two things. 

First, we are social animals designed to work together “like hands, feet, or eyelids.” “Human nature,” said the Stoic teacher Musonius (d. 95 CE), “is very much like that of bees. A bee is not able to live alone; it perishes when isolated. Indeed, it is intent on performing the common task of members of its species—to work and act together with other bees.”

When we behave with naked selfishness, we are no longer being human—and it is only by being human, that is, by cooperating for the greater good, that we can be happy and fulfilled.

Second, while ants and bees, and maybe even wolves, may be more social than human beings, we are by a country mile the most rational of all animals, so that reason might be said to be our distinctive or defining function. Just as leopards ought to excel at running if they are to count as good leopards, so human beings ought to excel at reasoning if they are to count as good human beings.

If we aim instead to excel at running or swimming or making money, we have not adequately understood what it means to be a human being. Thus, of one who boasted of his diving, Aristippus asked, “Are you not ashamed to be proud of that which a dolphin can do?”

As human beings, we ought at every moment to be rational and social. Unfortunately, we are all too readily waylaid by unwise attachments and the destructive emotions to which they give rise. These attachments dangle the promise of pleasure or happiness but really offer only slavery—whereas, if only we could see it, nothing leads to pleasure and happiness as surely as reason and self-control.

Today, most people’s conception of Stoicism is coloured by modern stoicism, that is, the simple suppression or closeting of emotions. This misleading modern derivation originated in the sixteenth century and should not be confused with the much older philosophical movement. The Stoic is not without emotions, but, ideally, without painful or unhelpful emotions such as anger, envy, and greed.  

To be without emotion, were that even possible, would be to be reduced to the inanimate state of a tree or a rock, whereas the Stoic seeks, on the contrary, to exist and excel as a human being. Thus, the Stoics invited positive and prosocial emotions such as compassion, friendship, and gratitude, which pour out of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Already in Book 1, Marcus praises his tutor Sextus of Chaeronea for being “free from passion and yet full of love.”

Today, those familiar with Stoicism often came to it in a crisis but soon discovered that it is about much more than firefighting or even longer-term resilience building.

While I was writing Stoic Stories, a buttoned-up surgeon put me on the spot by asking how stoicism, the modern disposition, differs from Stoicism, the ancient philosophical movement. I ventured in reply: “Modern stoicism is about maintaining a stiff upper lip, whereas ancient Stoicism is about seeking to maintain the ultimate perspective on everything, which then raises many interesting questions.”

Unlike many modern interventions, Stoicism is not merely about feeling better, but about being better—which is, all considered, the surest way of feeling better, and not just better but better than ever before.