Ancient and Modern Stoicism: A Critical Response to Neel Burton by Greg Sadler

Last month, Neel Burton published an article in Psychology Today, “What’s the Difference Between Ancient and Modern Stoicism?”, promising in its subtitle to “[clear] up a common misconception about ancient Stoicism.”  It drew the attention of the Modern Stoicism team, not least because of several rather surprising claims boldly asserted by Burton. One of these is the identification he makes between “modern stoicism” and “the simple suppression or closeting of emotions“.

He argues towards the end of his piece that “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.”

His summary of key points includes the assertion that “people confuse ancient Stoicism with modern stoicism and dismiss the first on account of the second.”

You can imagine that as a member of an organization called “Modern Stoicism,” this careless and rigidly-expressed  dichotomy splitting ancient and modern Stoicism entirely off from each other would raise a number of red flags. Burton seems entirely unaware of the vast, diverse, decades-in-development worldwide movement that has been placed under the rubric of “modern Stoicism” for quite some time! It would be rather astonishing that anyone actually involved in contemporary applications and study of Stoicism wouldn’t know at this point that there is an organization that goes by the name “Modern Stoicism” (all caps), but he seems unaware of that as well.

Psychology Today is viewed by many people as providing a repository of accurate, researched, well-informed articles (whether or not that is the case, is another question!), so the Modern Stoicism team decided that we ought to provide some response to, and assessment of, this recent piece.  It might do some good to examine, qualify, and (in some cases) debunk some of the off-base claims made by Burton. Tim Lebon is planning to write up a piece for publication doing that in Psychology Today, but I thought it might be of value for the readership of Stoicism Today for me to also write and publish a similar critical assessment here.

The Meaning Of “Modern Stoicism”

It is clear that Burton doesn’t mean the same thing by this term as do most people in the present who are interested in Stoic philosophy and practice.  “Modern Stoicism”, as noted earlier, names a not-for-profit organization, which among other things hosts this blog Stoicism Today, puts on an annual Stoicon conference, and provides the yearly Stoic Week class. Members of the Modern Stoicism team devoted an entire online symposium to discussing the question “What is modern Stoicism?” here in Stoicism Today several years back, which then was incorporated into the recently published Stoicism Today Selected Essays Volume 3 ( here are those posts – part 1 & part 2).

The lower-case “modern Stoicism” denotes the worldwide movement and interlocking communities of people studying and applying ancient Stoic philosophy in their modern-day lives.  It includes discussion groups, online communities, books, articles, blog posts, videos, podcasts, events, organizations like the worldwide Stoic Fellowship. With Robertson and Fraga’s recently published Verissimus: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius, we can add graphic novels to that list.

We can say that, understood in this broad sense, even a number of self-identified Stoics, their communities, and their projects fall under this very broad tent of “modern Stoicism”.  This would include not only Lawrence Becker’s proposal for A New Stoicism (in the book by that name), and Piotr Stankiewicz’s reformed Stoicism (in his own book, A Manual of Reformed Stoicism) but also interestingly those people of the present who call themselves “Traditional Stoics” and who view other “modern Stoics” as compromising too much on classic Stoic teachings.  All of these are manifestations and instances of “modern Stoicism.”

So given this wide and pretty well-known extension of the term, how does Burton wind up ignoring or overlooking all of that, and equating “modern stoicism” with “the simple suppression or closeting of emotions”?  I think the most charitable interpretation would be that he ended up expressing himself poorly and engaging in some oversimplication. Burton would have done much better to have written, more precisely and accurately, about “modern conceptions of stoicism” or “stoicism as a term and concept in modern culture”.  Why?  Well, there’s two reasons.

The first is that reading through his short piece, it seems clear that what he intends to contrast is “stoicism” – understood as a broad character or personality trait – against “Stoicism” – the actual philosophical school, movement, and tradition, with its texts, thinkers, doctrines, practices, and outlooks. This distinction should be one quite familiar to many readers, not least since it is made frequently by many key figures in the modern Stoic movement! (here’s an excellent piece by Donald Robertson on that very distinction).  Burton is right in viewing this lower-case-s “stoicism” as something that develops within the modern era (used mainly with that sense from the 19th century on, if we’re being precise, not as Burton claims from the 16th century).

But second, what Burton’s piece betrays no awareness of is that there are literally hundreds of thousands of modern Stoics, that is, people in the present who study, discuss, apply, and reinterpret ancient Stoic philosophy, adapting and extending it within the present.  Stoicism with an upper-case-s is not a body of thought and approach to life that existed only in ancient times.  In fact, after fading out as an official school during the middle ages (and having a significant portion of its literature copied, discussed, and referenced first in monasteries, and then in the universities), Stoicism experienced a significant revival as a philosophy in the renaissance and early modern period. As an actual philosophical approach, literature, and movement, Stoicism faded in popularity in the 19th century but began picking up steam in the mid-to-late 20th century.  And in the 21st century, in addition to a vast popular movement of modern Stoicism there is also significant attention to Stoic philosophy in contemporary academia.

What Burton is reducing to “ancient Stoicism” and then contrasting against “modern stoicism,” includes and extends to modern Stoicism in the present day.  Again, extending some charity to Burton while reading his piece, perhaps he meant to acknowledge that there are myriad contemporary (i.e. “modern”) interpreters of actual Stoic philosophy, and would have included them under his rubric of “ancient”.  Then again, he doesn’t say that at all, and presumably would have said at least a little along those lines, if that is what he thought.

Oversimplifying Stoicism on Nature

Burton’s piece might also prove misleading for readers in other ways that don’t derive directly from the dichotomy between ancient Stoicism and modern stoicism which he rather  bollixes up.  In his efforts to articulate what upper-case-S Stoicism really is, he makes several questionable assertions.  In each of these, he isn’t entirely off-base, and starts off promisingly enough, but then doesn’t adequately present what it is that genuine Stoic philosophy teaches about central matters.

One prime example comes early on.  He tells us that “[a]t the heart of ancient Stoicism is the notion that human beings ought to act in accord with their nature.” So far, so good! That is a key Stoic concept and central doctrine. To be fair it is not usually framed as “act[ing], but rather “living in accordance with nature,” and in the case of Epictetus “keeping one’s prohairesis in accordance with nature”.  But acting is at least part of living, so perhaps that’s a minor quibble.

Burton goes on to tell us that this acting “means two things.”  And that’s also a good start, right?  Anyone who knows much about this “in accordance with nature” idea in Stoicism is aware that by the time of the third scholarch, Chrysippus, “in accordance with nature” was indeed interpreted in two key ways.  These don’t really correspond to Burton’s “two things”, though.  What are the two he reduces the classical Stoic doctrine of “living in accordance with nature” to?

First, we are social animals designed to work together “like hands, feet, or eyelids.”. . . 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.

This is all quite right, and in accordance with classic Stoic teachings, but as an articulation of what ancient Stoics meant (and many modern Stoics also mean) by acting or living in accordance with nature, it is seriously misleading by what it leaves out. Compare that to what Diogenes Laertes tells us about the development of this absolutely central Stoic concept.

Zeno was the first …to designate as the end “life in agreement with nature” (or living agreeably to nature), which is the same as a virtuous life, virtue being the goal towards which nature guides us …. Again, living virtuously is equivalent to living in accordance with experience of the actual course of nature, as Chrysippus says in the first book of his De finibus ; for our individual natures are parts of the nature of the whole universe. And this is why the end may be defined as life in accordance with nature, or, in other words, in accordance with our own human nature as well as that of the universe, a life in which we refrain from every action forbidden by the law common to all things, that is to say, the right reason which pervades all things… And this very thing constitutes the virtue of the happy man and the smooth current of life, when all actions promote the harmony of the spirit dwelling in the individual man with the will of him who orders the universe. (7.1.87)

Notice those two main ways that Stoics, from Chrysippus onwards, understood what “in accordance with nature” means.  Living in accordance with our human nature is certainly part of that, and it does include sociality and rationality, as Burton rightly notes. It also includes virtue, and it is really extraordinary to see that someone who tells his readers that he is an “author of a book on Stoicism” does not mention that absolutely central goal and guiding criterion for ancient Stoics, virtue, even once in his piece.  Nor does he mention any of the four specific virtues of wisdom, justice, courage, or temperance identified and advocated by the Stoics.

That’s already a significant omission, but an even larger one is not mentioning at all that living in accordance with nature for Stoics also means living in accordance with the nature of the universe, not just with human nature.  In fact, going from the summaries of Stoic doctrine and the history of this concept’s development not just in Diogenes Laertes but also in Arius Didymus’ Epitome of Stoic Ethics (6a), placing oneself into harmony with the universe as a whole appears to have been the earlier formulation.

If you read on further in either of those authors, it very quickly becomes clear that within the development of the early Stoa, this idea of “in accordance with nature” becomes yet more complexly worked out by Chrysippus’ successors, Diogenes, Archedemus, and Antipater. If we go on to the late or Roman Stoics whose works we possess –  Seneca, Musonius Rufus, Epictetus, Hierocles, and Marcus Aurelius – and we devote the time attentive reading requires, we will find that this idea of “living in accordance with nature” becomes even more complicated (if you’d like a little taste of how much so, here’s a talk I gave on the topic a few years back)!

Getting The Emotions Garbled Up

Burton equates “modern stoicism” with “the simple suppression or closeting of emotions”. And he is correct that lower-case-s stoicism, the character or personality trait, used as an imprecise term in our contemporary culture, does involve that. He’s also right in saying that “[t]he Stoic is not without emotions, but, ideally, without painful or unhelpful emotions such as anger, envy, and greed,” understanding this to apply to ancient, renaissance/early modern, and late modern contemporary Stoics.  He goes on to tell us that “the Stoics invited positive and prosocial emotions such as compassion, friendship, and gratitude.”

This last assertion isn’t entirely off-base, but it is once again rather misleading when we place it in the framework of what the ancient Stoics – who Burton is after all trying to appeal to – actually had to say about the emotions. Friendship is talked about by the Stoics. They in fact consider it a great good. And it does involve emotions. But friendship isn’t itself an emotion, and again it seems strange for someone who did enough research to write a book about Stoicism to get this wrong.

Gratitude does get discussed by Stoics, especially by Seneca, but is it actually an emotion?  He tends to frame it more in terms of what one does, the attitude one adopts, for instance in Letter 81 and in his work On Benefits.  Cicero of course famously tells us in his speech For Plancius that “gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues, but the parent of them,” and you’ll find Seneca also calling gratitude a virtue in the just-mentioned Letter 81.  A virtue, for the ancient Stoics, isn’t an emotion.  So, why does an author who understands Stoicism claim that it is, misleading his readers?

Compassion, to be sure, is an emotion for the ancient Stoics, that is, if we get away from the currently trendy term “compassion” and call it what they did, pity (eleos in Greek, misercordia in Latin).  Now is this really a positive emotion? Epictetus does advocate that if we’re going to feel anything when dealing with people who tend to anger us, it is better to feel pity that anger.  But there isn’t a unqualified endorsement of this emotion in classic Stoic texts.

The ancient Stoics, as I expect many of our modern Stoic readers already know, actually had a well-worked-out theory of the emotions, which we find a bit of in those summaries of Stoic doctrine by Diogenes and Arius, discussed in detail by Cicero (in particular in the Tusculan Disputations) and referenced at many points by Seneca and Epictetus. There’s actually a great modern book about this by Margaret Graver, titled Stoicism and Emotion, that reconstructs the Stoic theory of emotion systematically.

You would expect someone who wanted to rebut the mistaken take on Stoicism as advocating repression or elimination of emotions, by arguing that the Stoics recognized and advocated positive emotions, would actually bring up those that the ancient Stoics identified and discussed in detail. To be fair, Burton does bring up one of them, love, which Marcus Aurelius does bring up quite a bit.  Epictetus does as well, but it’s usually in terms of philostorgia, “affection” or “fondness”.

There is a pretty standard take on the Stoic’s views of positive emotions, summarized by Diogenes Laertes.

They say that there are three emotional states which are good, namely, joy, caution, and wishing. Joy, the counterpart of pleasure, is rational elation ; caution, the counterpart of fear, rational avoidance ; for though the wise man will never feel fear, he will yet use caution. And they make wishing the counterpart of desire (or craving), inasmuch as it is rational appetency. And accordingly, as under the primary passions are classed certain others subordinate to them, so too is it with the primary eupathies or good emotional states. Thus under wishing they bring well-wishing or benevolence, friendliness, respect, affection ; under caution, reverence and modesty ; under joy, delight, mirth, cheerfulness. (7.1 116)

This naturally leads one to wonder.  Why not bring up any of these?  Why mention “compassion, friendship, and gratitude,” two of which aren’t even emotions for the Stoics, rather than joy, caution, and “wishing” (or rational desire), or any of their subordinate emotions, which the Stoics clearly did think to be good emotions?  Once again, Burton misses valuable opportunities to accurately represent to his readers the very Stoicism he claims to be helping distinguish from contemporary misrepresentations of it.


Gregory Sadler is the Editor of the Stoicism Today blog.  He is also the president and founder of ReasonIO, a company established to put philosophy into practice, providing tutorial, coaching, and philosophical counseling services, and producing educational resources.  He teaches at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design. He has created over 200 videos on Stoic philosophy, regularly speaks and provides workshops on Stoicism, and is currently working on several book projects.

Leave a comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.