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.

Equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, Capitoline Hill, Rome.

Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was succeeded by his long-time student Cleanthes of Assos (c. 330-c. 230 BCE).

Originally a boxer, Cleanthes arrived in Athens with no more than four drachmas to his name. He studied first under Crates the Cynic and then under Zeno, recording their teachings on oyster shells or blade bones because he could not afford papyrus. Other students called him “the ass” on account of his sluggishness, but he took pride in this, saying that it implied that he could withstand any load that Zeno put upon him.

To support himself, Cleanthes worked all night carrying water, digging the earth, and milling grain. Because he seemed to do nothing all day other than study philosophy, he was hauled before the Areopagus [the Athenian judicial council] to account for his way of life. He called to witness the gardener for whom he worked, and the woman who sold the flour that he milled, and his diligence so impressed the judges that they voted him the sum of ten minae [a thousand drachmas]. Even as head of school, he continued, between teaching and writing, to work with his hands, earning him another, this time laudatory, nickname, “the Second Hercules.”

Cleanthes loved poetry. He used to say that, just as the strictures of a trumpet can transform our breath into music, so the constraints of verse can heighten our thoughts—thereby echoing the Stoic principle that it is life’s obstacles that enable us to soar. He held that human beings naturally incline towards virtue, and remain incomplete without it, “like half lines of iambic verse.” One day, the playwright Sositheus attacked him from the stage with the line, “Driven by Cleanthes’ folly like dumb herds,” but he simply sat there in silence, without so much as altering his countenance, so that the audience applauded him and heckled Sositheus off the stage. When Sositheus later came to apologize, he brushed it off as but a minor slight.

The physical exertion and calm demeanour paid off, and Cleanthes lived into his hundredth year. In the end, gingivitis [inflammation of the gums] compelled him to fast for two whole days, after which he never ate again, saying that he was so far down the road to death that it would be too much trouble to retrace his steps.

How might we deal with insults and put-downs as well as Cleanthes did?

Check the insult

The first step, I think, is to ascertain that the insult truly is an insult. Whenever someone insults us, we ought to consider three things: whether the substance is true, whom it came from, and why. If the substance is true or conceivably true, the person it came from is known to be fair-minded, and his or her motive is benevolent, then the insult is not an insult so much as a statement of fact, and, moreover, one that could be very helpful to us. Hence, we seldom take offence at our parents or teachers, whom we know to have our best interests at heart. More generally, if we respect the person who seems to have insulted us, we ought to give careful thought to their remarks and learn as much as we can from them. If, on the other hand, we believe the person to be beneath our consideration, we have no reason to take offence, just as we have no reason to take offence at a naughty child or a barking dog. So, whatever the case, we have no reason to take offence.

Check our anger

Having ascertained that the apparent insult is a genuine one, we might respond in one of several ways. The untutored response is, of course, to get angry. Anger is the weakest possible response, and this for three main reasons: it reveals that we take the insult, and therefore the insulter, seriously; it suggests that there may be some substance to the insult; and it upsets and destabilizes us, which, as well as being unpleasant, invites further attacks, including, sometimes, physical attacks. Do we really want to end up in hospital, or in prison, because some idiot is behaving like an idiot? People have issues of their own that are nothing to do with us. If anything, they deserve our pity rather than our anger.

Check our impulse

An impulse that may or may not go with anger is to return the insult. Even in the absence of anger, there are some dangers with returning the insult. Our riposte has to be clever and cutting, or at least apt, and it has to occur to us at just the right moment. L’esprit de l’escalier [French, “staircase wit”] refers to the common experience of thinking too late of the perfect put-down. But even if we are as sharp-witted as Cato or Cicero, the perfect put-down is rarely the best response. The fundamental problem with the put-down, however brilliant it may be, is that it equalizes us with our insulter, bringing them up to our level and us down to theirs. This gives them, their behaviour, and their insult far too much credibility or legitimacy.

Find something to laugh about

 In other words, the witty put-down should only ever be used for humour, when it is also at its most effective. Cato the Stoic was pleading a case when his adversary Lentulus spat in his face. After wiping off the spittle, Cato said, “I will swear to anyone, Lentulus, that people are wrong to say that you cannot use your mouth. Gentle humour can be an effective response to an insult, and this for three main reasons: it undercuts the insulter and his or her insult, it brings any third parties on side, and it diffuses the tension of the situation. A similar strategy is to run with the insult and even add to it, in the genre, “Ah, if you knew me better, you would find greater fault still!”

Better still, ignore the insult

Humour, unfortunately, shares some of the same drawbacks as returning the insult. Our comeback has to be well-timed, well-judged, well delivered. All this requires precious mental energy, which we would do better to hold back for constructive purposes. Much easier, and, in fact, more powerful, is simply to ignore the insult, as Cleanthes did in the face of Sositheus. One day, a boor struck Cato while he was out at the public baths. When the boor realized that it was Cato whom he had struck, he came to apologize. Instead of getting angry or simply accepting the apology, Cato said, “I don’t remember being struck.” Subtext: “You are so insignificant to me that I don’t even care to register your apology, let alone take offence at your insult.” In ignoring our insulter we must take care not to seem haughty, which would amount to returning the insult. It can help at this point to recall the bigger picture, to remind ourself of what it was we were doing, for example, going to the baths, and to get on with it.

In summary

We need never take offence at an insult. Offence exists not in the insult but in our reaction to it, and our reactions are completely within our control. It is unreasonable to expect a boor to be anything but a boor; if we take offence at his bad behaviour, we have only ourself to blame.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.

Zeno, the founder of Stoicism, only came to philosophy after suffering a shipwreck. In this article, we imagine: how might he have dealt with his shipwreck had he then already been a Stoic?

Zeno (b. 334 BCE), the founder of Stoicism, hailed from Citium (modern-day Larnaca) in Cyprus, and may have been of Phoenician origin. As a young man, Zeno set sail from Phoenicia with a cargo of imperial purple, a dye obtained by crushing sea snails. Unfortunately, he lost this precious cargo in a shipwreck, and wound up in Athens with little more than the clothes on his back, if even that.

Now fully recovered from his ordeal, Zeno visited an oracle and asked what he should do “to live the best life.” The oracle replied cryptically that he ought to “have conversation with the dead.” Interpreting this to mean that he ought to take up the study of ancient authors, he began frequenting a bookshop in the agora, the central square of Athens. One day, Zeno picked up a copy of the Memorabilia, a collection of Socratic dialogues by Xenophon. Struck by Xenophon’s portrayal of Socrates, he asked the bookseller where such men might be found. At that very moment, the Cynic philosopher Crates of Thebes happened to be passing by. The bookseller pointed to him and said, “Follow yonder man.”

After agreeing to take him on, Crates gave Zeno a pot of lentil soup to carry across the Kerameikos, the potters’ quarter of Athens—a basic Cynic exercise for cultivating “shamelessness”, or disregard of popular opinion. Unused to such menial tasks, the self-conscious Zeno attempted to hide the pot under his cloak as best he could. Seeing this, Crates broke the pot with his staff, and Zeno darted off into the distance with lentil soup dripping down his legs. Crates called after him: “Why run away, my little Phoenician? Nothing terrible has befallen you!”

The incident with the pot of lentils suggests that Zeno, in those early days, was still a long way from wisdom. But how might he have dealt with his shipwreck had he then already been a Stoic? In other words, how might he have used reason to lessen his hardship by putting it into proper perspective?

1. Contextualization

Zeno might have begun by contextualizing his hardship, like so: “If I or anyone undertakes a sea voyage, there is always a chance of a shipwreck. So it is hardly extraordinary, even to be expected, that after so many successful voyages I came to suffer a shipwreck. At least I came out unharmed, and still have many advantages and assets, not least my sound mind and education. Things could be a lot worse—for many people, they are. After all, I only lost my ship because I had one in the first place. What will my misfortune amount to in five or ten years’ time, let alone a hundred? Who will care about my cargo then? Who even cares about it now? Imperial purple, how ridiculous!”

2. Negative visualization

After contextualization, Zeno could have tried a technique called premeditatio malorum [Latin, “premeditation of future evils”], also known as “negative visualization,” which in his case would involve imagining the very worst that could now happen and hopefully realizing that even that isn’t so bad: “So, I’ve lost my ship and cargo. At best, my bottomry contract [shipping insurance in the ancient world] will cover my loans. At worse, I’ll have to sell some property to pay my creditors, and start over on a more modest scale. Is that really so terrible?”

3. Transformation

My favourite technique is transformation, which involves turning hardship into an opportunity—which is, of course, just what Zeno did by attaching himself to Crates and becoming a philosopher. Had Zeno not “suffered” a shipwreck, he would not have been the subject of this article. In fact, there would have been no article. Given the influence of Stoicism on the Founding Fathers, there may have been no America either. As Zeno later put it, “I made a prosperous voyage when I suffered a shipwreck.”

My new book Stoic Stories is now out.

Stoic views on suicide.

The Suicide of Seneca, by Manuel Dominguez Sánchez (1871).

From the outset, I should clearly state that, while the Stoics may have recognized the potential glory of death before subjugation, they argued strongly against suicide on the grounds of despair or dissatisfaction with life. So, when it comes to suicide, what exactly did the Stoics believe, and how did those beliefs shape our knowledge of these men today?

On a recent trip to Tenerife, a local reminded me that it was in Tenerife that Admiral Lord Nelson lost his arm, before exclaiming, “Poor Nelson!” “Well, not so poor” I quipped: “If he hadn’t lost his arm, we wouldn’t know who he was.”

It was by killing themselves that the likes of Cato and Socrates gave birth to their legends. When Cato is depicted in art, it is always in the act of stabbing himself. Had Socrates simply fled Athens, as he could have done, we today would be living in different minds. In the words of Seneca, “It was the hemlock that made Socrates great. Wrest from Cato his sword, his guarantor of liberty, and you take away the greater part of his glory.”

After his defeat to Caesar in 46 BCE, the Republican general Metellus Scipio attempted to flee to Iberia to raise another army, but his ship, driven by a contrary wind, fell into enemy hands. Rather than surrender, Metellus impaled himself upon his sword. As he bled to death, he reassured his men that, “All is well with the general” [Imperator se bene habet]. Relating this story, Seneca concludes, “It was a great thing to conquer Carthage; a greater thing to conquer death.”

For the Stoic, death is not merely an event, or a tragic accident, but a challenge, an opportunity, and the proof and consecration of a lifetime of philosophy.

Seneca compared our life to a storage jar. The sediment sinks to the bottom of the jar, so that the purest parts are poured out first, until all that remains are the turbid dregs. Most of us let the better parts of our life be siphoned off for others and keep only the bitter residue for ourself. The more rancid the residue becomes, the more we value and cling to it. 

What matters, the Stoics argue, is not how long we live, but how well. And often, living well consists in not living long. Better to die than to live badly, or against our nature. A caged bird may be safe from predators, and a caged lion may never go hungry, but what bird or lion would choose such a life? Some indeed would rather starve to death.

But even in the strongest cage, or the darkest dungeon, the door is always open. “Life” says Seneca, “does not hold anyone by force… If it suits you, live; if not you are allowed to return from where you came from.”

The Stoics argued that we should not fuss over the timing or method of our death. Better to go a little too soon that risk leaving it until we are no longer able to act. As for the method, Seneca tells the story of a young Spartan who was taken as a slave. The first time he was ordered to fetch the chamber pot, he dashed his head against the wall and burst his skull. Seneca concludes, “With freedom so near at hand, how is anyone a slave? … Life itself is slavery when one lacks the courage to die.”

Musonius too was open to the idea of a rational or philosophical suicide, but with some important utilitarian caveats. Being social animals, we should not end our life if our continued living would be helpful to many—unless, that is, our dying would be helpful to more. 

According to Seneca, Epicurus warned against killing ourself simply out of disgust or despair at life, since disgust at life has more to do with us than with life itself, and despair at life is, at the bottom, born out of the fear of death: “What could be more absurd than to seek death when it is fear of death that has made your life unquiet?”

In short, we should not flee from life in an excess of passion, like most people who commit suicide, but dispassionately depart from it when the time is right. That the law (in most jurisdictions) does not yet allow it shows that Stoicism is a philosophy of the future as well as of the past.

Suicide can be metaphorical too. The perspective brought by imagining that we have already died can, like a near-death experience, free us from our anxieties and attachments and lend us a new lease of life. “Think of yourself as dead,” wrote Marcus Aurelius to himself, “You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.”

Socrates and Plato did not openly advocate for suicide because they realized that such a call would be misconstrued. But in On the Soul, Socrates says that, since philosophy is the study of the separation and release of the soul from the body, the philosopher aims at death, and can be said to be almost dead.

Paradoxically, perhaps, it is those who are most intimate with death who are also most intimate with life.

Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.