Stoic Buddhism? Or Buddhist Stoicism? Or neither?

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Stoicism and Buddhism have many similarities, but significant differences as well. What follows is my attempt to modify Stoicism with aspects of Buddhism.

I also modify aspects of Stoicism I don’t fully agree with, such as describing a spectrum rather than a dichotomy of control, and saying that things that are not up to us (externals) don’t cause the greatest harm instead of saying they can’t harm us. Extreme circumstances can cause people to mentally decompensate, and dementia can result in loss of the ability to make effective choices.

Stoicism’s focus is aretê, usually translated as virtue or excellence—the best of what human nature is capable of. One’s practice of these higher ideals defines one’s character.

Buddhism’s focus is the cessation of suffering.  I argue that being people of character—reflecting the best humanity has to offer—would greatly reduce suffering.

Certainly the Buddhist focus on loving kindness—which I more generally refer to as goodwill—is among the best of what human beings have to offer. And goodwill toward self and others is a choice that is under our control.

I would even argue that goodwill is the common thread of values such as justice, courage, self-control, and wisdom (good judgement). As such, goodwill is integral to eudaimonia, or human flourishing. But kindness and compassion are sometimes weak spots for Stoicism.

And while similar to the Buddhist concept of nonattachment, I find the Stoic notion of indifference toward externals to be less realistic.

Further, while Stoicism seeks to restrain destructive emotions through reason, Buddhism seeks enlightenment by transcending the self (which is said to be an illusion). And I would argue that recognizing the illusion of a permanent self—along with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing—is a rational perspective that can decrease anger and greed while increasing compassion.

I hope what follows is a coherent framework:

  • We all suffer.
  • But the greatest harm comes not from things or events but rather from our judgments of them.
  • Thinking we can control anything other than our choices, values, and deliberate thoughts can result in actions that cause harm, especially to one’s character. We must realize that external things are not up to us.
  • Practicing goodwill toward ourselves and others is a choice that is up to us, and it’s the surest path to human flourishing (eudaimonia). To promote goodwill, reason must restrain overpowering emotions and focus on:
    • Correct understanding: the spectrum of control (externals are not up to us), interbeing, and the illusion of a permanent self. So we must practice nonattachment and realize that life is constant change—everything is impermanent.
    • Good intentions focused on values such as:
        • justice,
        • courage,
        • self-control,
        • and good judgment
    • Compassionate communication.
    • Non-coercive action based on the four values listed above, as well as recognizing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.
    • Pursuing our livelihood in an ethical manner.
    • Full effort.
    • Focus.
    • And mindfulness.

Practice combines Stoic exercises such as morning and evening reflections, and Buddhist-style meditation. And the inspirational texts of both philosophies are utilized.

This is a viewpoint that accepts modern science as the best explanation for the functioning of the natural world. But it’s open-ended regarding other metaphysical questions. Diversity of thought about God, atheism, life after death, rebirth, nirvana, free will and determinism, and so on is accepted.

And it is tolerant of disagreements regarding what political approach best produces human flourishing. Conservatives, progressives, libertarians, and others honestly believe their political ideals are best for humankind. But there are unacceptable ideologies, such as those that promote hate or deny human rights.

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Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

Both can agree that a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable.

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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona © Dave DuBay

Stoics and Epicureans were ancient rivals. And some modern followers of these philosophies may feel inclined to perpetuate that rivalry. But it’s unnecessary.

Stoics and Epicureans have different answers to what it means to live a good life. There’s no objective answer to this question, of course. Your chosen path is your responsibility.

Stoics believe that virtue—justice, courage, practical wisdom, and temperance—is the greatest good. And not letting negative emotions overwhelm us is essential in this endeavor. As such, it’s crucial to distinguish between what is up to us—our choices; and what is not up to us—external events. We must regard external events as indifferent, not because they don’t matter, but because good or bad is about how we choose to respond to them.

Both philosophies warn against anger and fear—especially fear of death.

Epicureans believe pleasure is the greatest good. But that doesn’t mean sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll. Epicurus taught that maximizing pleasure requires moderation and limiting our desires. Drinking a glass of wine is pleasurable but getting drunk causes pain in the long run. So avoiding pain is a greater pleasure than a desirable but fleeting physical sensation.

Stoics, however, point out that sometimes doing the right thing means doing something painful. And seeking pleasure or avoiding pain can at times cause pain to others.

Epicureans counter that virtue for virtue’s sake makes no sense—we seek to be virtuous because we find it pleasurable in the long run even if there are some bumps in the road.

But modernism clearly favors one philosophy’s ancient physics. Epicureans were and are atomists. Even in ancient times they believed we live in a material universe in which the gods do not interfere. Ancient Stoics, on the other hand, were pantheists. They believed the universe is God and that divine providence plays a central role.

While there are traditional Stoics who adhere to ancient Stoic theology, most modern Stoics have adopted a position similar to Epicurean cosmology. This doesn’t necessarily mean atheism or agnosticism, but it often does. Some modern Stoics are monotheists in the usual sense of the word, and a few are even practicing Christians.

Modern science means philosophical revisions for Stoicism far more than Epicureanism. The Stoic injunction to live according to Nature raises the question, What is Nature? Ancient Stoics said Nature is divine reason—the Logos. But that answer won’t work for a deist, an atheist, or an agnostic.

Nontheist Stoics reject the idea of providence and see fate as synonymous with blind cause and effect. Though Nature is still synonymous with reason, its basis is redefined as the best that evolution has endowed humanity with.

But despite their differences on how to live a good life, there is a common point for both Stoicism and Epicureanism: from a big picture perspective a virtuous life is usually more pleasurable than a life of vice. Individual moments are more problematic, but as a Stoic I hope if I’m tested I will choose to do the right thing even if it’s painful. Of course, I hope I’m never tested in that way.

Stoicism & Western Buddhism

The similarity of Buddhism and Stoicism is not a new observation. But Patrick Ussher in Stoicism & Western Buddhism offers a more nuanced perspective. The similarities apply more to Western Buddhism and modern Stoicism than to the ancient versions of either.

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© Dave DuBay

In both cases, Ussher argues, modern Westerners have revised ancient philosophies to fit current cultural sensibilities. Buddhism has a long history of adapting itself to new cultures. That’s why there’s so much diversity from Zen to Tibetan to Theravada Buddhism. Western Buddhism likewise departs from ancient Buddhism in several key respects: it detraditionalizes, demythologizes, and psychologizes traditional Buddhist beliefs.

The similarities between modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism, then, start from ancient seeds but have been nurtured by modern Western soil. One ancient seed is harmony as an ideal. Buddhism teaches that suffering is an inevitable part of life. Dukkha literally means “bad wheel.” Similarly, virtue is Stoicism’s goal, which is said to result in Eurhoia, or “good flow.” In both cases, wishing things were different results in emotional disturbance.

And while the Buddhist belief that all is mind can be interpreted variously, the Stoic belief that our thoughts are opinions—interpretations of the world—but not reality itself, is also possible in Buddhism.

That we are social beings with social responsibilities is central to Stoic ethics. Marcus Aurelius writes that people must work together like parts of the body work together. Because we are all connected, harming one harms all. This gels with Thich Nhat Hanh’s concept of interbeing.

There are important differences, however. Mindfulness is one example. Stoic mindfulness, Ussher writes, pays continual attention to the nature of judgments and actions. But Buddhist mindfulness is more expansive. It focuses on greater self-awareness, not only of one’s thoughts but also of one’s body. The Stoic goal is to live according to nature while Buddhism seeks the cessation of suffering.

Further, Stoicism has no tradition of sitting or breathing meditation like Buddhism does. And Stoics have no equivalent of Zen simplicity. Further, while Buddhism has a strong focus on compassion, Stoic virtues center on justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom.

Ussher also points out that modern Buddhist works by Jack Kornfield, Stephen Batchelor, and Thich Nhat Hanh are far more popular in North America and Europe than ancient Buddhist texts are. In contrast, Roman Stoic texts by Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, and Seneca are very popular among modern Stoics. However, there are significant themes in these texts that many Stoics today ignore—particularly Epictetus’s strong emphasis on God.

Ussher concludes that modern Stoicism and Western Buddhism could benefit from borrowing from each other. Buddhism’s meditation techniques and perspective on compassion can be beneficial even to non-Buddhists. And the same is true for Stoic ethics and practical approach to reframing our thoughts.

Reconsidering God’s existence (or, the value of agnosticism)

Knowing and believing are separate issues.

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Flagler University, St. Augustine, FL. © Dave DuBay

I’ve been an atheist for 20 years. Or more specifically, an agnostic atheist. That’s not a redundancy. Nor do I think that “agnostic Christian” would be an oxymoron, though I’ve never heard anyone describe themselves that way.

Agnosticism is about what we know or don’t know. Religious belief or atheism is about what we believe or don’t believe. You can say you don’t know if God exists. But this agnosticism says nothing about whether you believe God exists or not.

I became an atheist because there were too many supernatural beliefs—the virgin birth, resurrection, walking on water—that I could not honestly say I believed. On top of that, none of the alleged proofs of God’s existence actually prove anything. They may provide reasons that God might exist, but proof is a much higher standard.

So I decided that while I don’t know if God exists, it seems unlikely. I could not truthfully say I believed in God.

Of course, you can believe in God without believing that some dude walked on water. Perhaps God chooses not to suspend the laws of nature. But the biggest problem with believing in God is evil: if God were all-powerful He could stop evil, and if He were perfectly good He’d have to. Maybe there’s a bigger plan—which requires quite a leap of faith. Or God isn’t perfect. Or there is no God.

But a major objection to atheism is the question of why there is something rather than nothing. And while that raises the question of who created God, one strand of Christian theology holds that God is not a thing that exists but instead is existence itself.

In a previous post I argued that without God morality must be relative. This doesn’t mean atheists are less moral than religious people. No one (except psychopaths) believes that everything is permitted. But a relativist cannot say that certain things are wrong no matter what anyone thinks.

In a similar way, without God life has no meaning beyond what each individual might assign to it. Put differently, self-constructed meaning has no meaning beyond one’s ego.

Note that moral relativity and lack of universal meaning could be true. And we can’t say that God exists just because we want meaning and morality to be universal.

Further, even if God exists this does not automatically prove other Christian beliefs. I think Christians too often leap from “God exists” to “and therefore all Christian beliefs are true.” Instead, each claim must be taken separately. And this is a monumental task considering the Bible’s numerous contradictions and fantastical claims.

Earlier I wrote that we should trust no one who claims special knowledge about God, including whether God exists. And we should distrust our own beliefs about God most of all. The temptation for self-justification is too great.

I’m still doubtful of a personal God. Or if there is a God then I find it hard to believe that God is all-powerful.

On the other hand, the ancient Greeks articulated logos—the organizing principle of the universe—which pantheistic Stoics identified as God. This is perhaps more palatable in our modern scientific age. But we shouldn’t mistake this for a scientific viewpoint. And for many people I’m sure this is a doubtful abstraction.

The universe’s organizing principle—which I see as impersonal—is the closest I can get to something I could call God. But I don’t expect anyone to agree with me. It’s a personal opinion.

Stoicism & the problem of Nature

Ancient Stoic beliefs about Nature face challenges in the modern era.

Carefree, AZ. © Dave DuBay

Stoicism is experiencing a renaissance after fading away with the fall of the Roman Empire. But modern Stoicism departs from its ancient ancestor in important ways. Modern Stoicism is effectively agnostic. That is, some modern Stoics believe in God while others are atheists.

Contrary to the stereotype that Stoicism is about repressing your emotions, virtue (or being the best you can be) is the core of Stoicism. Emotions are okay but losing control is not because you’re at your worst when you lose control.

Ancient Stoics believed in living in accord with Nature. They were pantheists—the universe is God, which is a reasoning entity. To live according to Nature is to live in accord with Logos, or reason. And this leads us to the four cardinal virtues—wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation.

But critics of Stoicism often ask how Stoics define Nature and how they know that certain virtues are in accord with Nature.

The God question

Despite fake internet quotes attributed to Marcus Aurelius, ancient Stoics did not look at agnosticism favorably. Fake Marcus is alleged to have said:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.

In contrast, real Marcus wrote:

If the gods exist, then departure from the world of men is not frightening—the gods would never subject you to harm. And if they don’t exist, or don’t care what happens to us, then what is life to me in a world without gods or providence? But they do exist, they do care what happens to us.

Many modern Stoics are atheists, however, while others believe in God. I’ve previously written that atheism creates a vacuum. Human beings seem to need a comprehensive framework that provides a sense of moral order. Whether you think that moral order arose from evolution or from a transcendent source is another question.

But if you don’t believe God then on what basis can you equate reason with Nature? Does attributing reason to Nature imply that Nature has consciousness? If so does this mean that Nature is God, or is this universal consciousness not divine?

These questions might seem like a distraction, but Stoicism is philosophy and these are philosophical questions.

Morality without gods

Earlier I argued for a basis of universal human rights even without deities. In a nutshell I wrote that culture can build upon human psychology, which is the product of evolution.

We survive in groups, so being good team players evolved as part of our psychology. But human psychology is flawed. Our most basic moralistic impulse is selfish—”you shouldn’t do that to me.” The cultural concept of universal human rights is necessary to protect every individual’s hardwired sense of personal boundaries.

This argument is pragmatic, however. It asserts that virtues like justice are cultural concepts—tools, if you will—that are instrumental in creating the kind of society we all want to live in.

In other words, my framework doesn’t deny the importance of virtue or human excellence, but it’s not in total agreement with ancient Stoicism. Of course, modern Stoicism is free to update itself based on modern views of the world.

Virtue and modern Stoicism

This doesn’t mean that modern Stoicism has to abandon virtue. For many people modern Stoicism’s appeal is the idea of keeping your cool and putting things in perspective by distinguishing between what’s under your control and what’s not under your control. Perhaps it makes sense to start with the practical usefulness of Stoic ideas and to extrapolate from there that reason, wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation are the most effective values for maximizing the benefits of Stoicism.

Morality without deities

Everyone believes they have rights. But individual rights crumble without universal human rights.

Near Phoenix, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

The universe, or nature if you prefer, seems indifferent to me.

Species evolve then die out. And things go on.

An animal eats another animal alive, at great suffering to one and benefit to the other.

Millions of human beings have lived and died but today are completely forgotten as if they never lived.

Yet, human beings evolved a set of behaviors that enhance the survival of individuals who depend in part on the group to survive.

Those who did not play well with others in the evolutionary environment found themselves ostracized — and perhaps unable to survive without the group. And the group killed some for being a threat to other people’s survival.

Our innate moral sensibilities, in order of importance, are:

  1. You shouldn’t do that to me.
  2. You shouldn’t do that to people I care about.
  3. I shouldn’t do that to you if others will hold me accountable.

We’re first and foremost concerned about what happens to us, and how we treat others is often an afterthought — especially if we think there won’t be any consequences.

This sounds cynical and selfish. But everyone is self-interested. Those who deny this are the most dangerous of all because they fail to see their selfishness until it’s too late.

But just because selfishness is part of our evolutionary inheritance does not mean things ought to be this way. The fact that we can do better challenges excuses for acting selfishly.

Further, morality isn’t just a matter of personal preference. It’s true that no man is an island — even a hermit needs other people to survive.

An important aspect of morality, then, consists of standards generally accepted by a group for continued membership in that group.

And the recognition that we are incorrigibly egotistical is necessary to see the larger group picture.

That’s why various iterations of the Golden Rule — from the Far East to the West — tell us to treat others the way we want to be treated.

It’s a moral ideal precisely because it runs counter to our impulses.

The problem, however, is that a group might oppress a minority or an out-group without negative consequences. Tribalism is also an evolved feature of human behavior, and it has serious consequences for our treatment of foreigners, minorities, and so on.

On what basis can say this is wrong?

If our primary moral sensibility is that “you shouldn’t do this to me” then the rights of the individual are the basis for all human rights.

To put it selfishly, if you don’t support human rights for others then you have no reason to expect others to support your human rights.

Moreso, culture is the mechanism for promoting ideals such as universal human rights.

If limiting ourselves to our biological inheritance were sufficient then we’d still be living in caves. But we are capable of creating technology that improves our lives and reduces the capricious effects of nature.

Likewise for culture extending moral ideals beyond our selfish impulses.

Still, we cannot completely eliminate tribalism. But we know we’re failing when we point a finger at others.

Nietzsche vs Stoicism

Stoics talk a lot about living according to nature. But what exactly does that mean?

In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche calls the Stoic phrase “according to nature” a fraud of words.

He writes that living according to nature and living according to life are the same thing. And he rhetorically asks, “how could you do differently?”

It’s a good question. Human beings are products of nature. Evolution produced the human brain, which is the basis for human behavior. So human behavior follows the laws of nature just as rocks follow gravity.

Saying human behavior is natural doesn’t mean it’s good or bad. Bad things are a product of nature just as much as good things are.

When someone says something isn’t natural—take cannibalism for example—they really mean that’s it’s morally wrong.

But that’s the naturalistic fallacy—incorrectly assuming that whatever is natural must be good. Nietzsche claims Stoicism falls into the naturalistic fallacy.

Further, he says Stoics wish to dictate their morals and ideals to nature. That is, Stoics are creating the world in their own image, which is not only arrogant but self-tyranny.

This self-tyranny is found in the Stoic call to regard anything that neither contributes to nor detracts from virtue as a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

Nietzsche writes that to live is to resist indifference. Living is “valuing, preferring, being unjust, being limited, endeavouring to be different.” He says Stoics imagine that indifference is power, but he doubts anyone can truly live in accordance with indifference.