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.


Who’s the most Stoic Star Trek character?

Mr. Spock is often seen as the ultimate stoic. Yet, Stoic philosopher Epictetus says not to be like a stone statue.

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Can you be emotional and stoic at the same time? No—that’s a contradiction in terms. But can you be emotional and Stoic at the same time? Yes—Stoicism has a nuanced perspective on emotion.

Whether the “s” is capitalized or not matters.

Kolinahr—the final purging of all emotion—is the ultimate Vulcan goal.  Leonard Nimoy, who played Mr. Spock in the original Star Trek TV series, said he didn’t play Spock as emotionless but rather as someone who was suppressing his emotions. This fits the dictionary definition of stoic: “not showing or not feeling any emotion, esp. in a situation in which the expression of emotion is expected.”

Characters without emotions are not compelling, though. Ultimately, Spock ends up rejecting Kolinahr.

Captain Picard from the next generation of Star Trek is similar to Spock in some ways. Picard values reason, and he’s particularly concerned with ethical resolutions to conflict.

But Picard is also a very emotional man. He’s compassionate, and he gets angry often. It’s rare, though, for Picard to let his anger overwhelm him to the point where doing the right thing is no longer important.

Roman Emperor Nero’s tutor was a Stoic who wrote a book On Anger. Living a good life is Stoicism’s ultimate goal, but intense emotions can cause us to act unethically. Seneca notes that passion can override reason, and that’s a problem. And anger is one of the most destructive emotions.

But what about anger in the face of evil? Gandhi could have been angry but wasn’t. Hitler shouldn’t have been angry, but was. Seneca asks us to imagine a ship in a storm. One sailor becomes angry at the sea, the wind, the ship, and his fellow sailors. Another sailor calmly but resolutely grabs a bucket and starts bailing water. Which sailor is going to save lives?

Seneca says that emotions start as an impression, and often this happens without us even noticing it. The first sign is often physical: tense muscles, churning stomach. Then our thoughts kick in, and this is where we need to cut things off at the pass. Once our imagination gets away from us we start to believe that other people really are malicious and deserve punishment. We need to pause, take a step back, think it through, and keep our focus on an ethical solution.

That’s more nuanced than simply suppression our emotions. Absent super-human self-control, it would be much hard to be consistently ethical using Mr. Spock’s approach to emotions compared to Captain Picard.

“A Sage wants nothing but needs many things; a fool wants everything.”

At first I found Seneca’s words from his ninth letter to Lucilius confusing.

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Seneca opens his letter explaining a common misconception: “Lack of feeling” in Stoicism means “a soul which rejects any sensation of evil,” not lack of emotion. That is, Sages “feel their troubles but overcome them.”

A Sage has friends but also is self-sufficient. “If he loses a hand…he’ll be satisfied with what is left. …But while he doesn’t pine for these parts…he prefers not to lose them.”

Seneca goes on to clarify that friendship prevents our nobler qualities from lying dormant.

But his disagreement with Epicurus, ancient Stoicism’s opponent, is that friendship isn’t about having someone by your side in a time of need. That’s a fair weather friend who won’t actually show up.

“Hence, prosperous men are blockaded by troops of friends”—but “a friend because it pays will cease when that pays.” Instead, the value Stoicism places on human connection means that friendship is about you being there in your friend’s time of need.

One who seeks friendship for favorable occasions strips it of all nobility.

This frames the Stoic view of self-sufficiency.

A Sage is self-sufficient when it comes to eudaimonia. Too often translated as “happiness,” Seneca defines it as “an upright soul.”

But a Sage still needs many things for mere existence. Sages are not gods.

It’s here that Seneca quotes Chrysippus, the third leader of Stoicism, whose writing are mostly lost to history:

The wise man is in want of nothing, and yet needs many things. “On the other hand,” he says, “nothing is needed by the fool, for he does not understand how to use anything, but he is in want of everything.”

Desire stems from dependency, but the Sage understands that “the supreme good…arises entirely within itself. If the good seeks any portion of itself from without it begins to be subject to the play of Fortune.”

If what is truly good comes from within then the removal of external objects of desire—the ploy of conquerors—has no power. That’s how the conquered conquers the conqueror.

In other words, the Sage “deems nothing that might be taken to be good.” A Sage practices non-attachment much like a Buddhist monk.

In the end, Seneca is distinguishing needs and wants. Not that he, or I, or you are Sages. It’s an ideal aspired to if rarely attained.

Judgmentalism reveals our insecurities

And that also puts other people’s judgmentalism into perspective.

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Everyone knows that a stronger person can overpower you. But perhaps that’s not quite true.

Physically, yes, you can be overpowered. But even if they threaten to kill you they still can’t make you do something that you think is wrong. Socrates chose to die rather than agree to something he thought was wrong. Jesus is probably the best known example.

They can’t even make you believe something that is false. If you verbalize agreement when really you disagree then they haven’t truly changed your mind.

Philosopher Epictetus points out that at noon when the sun is shining brightly someone cannot really make you believe that it’s nighttime, even if you say it’s night. If someone sincerely thought it was night they would be mistaken. That’s why he thought that most people hold false beliefs (which they might act on) not out of maliciousness but out of ignorance. Still, ignorance can have very destructive consequences.

Assent can only be given freely—coercion can merely appear to do so. Brainwashing can be resisted, though it may be a formidable challenge. And even if brainwashing succeeds we cannot say the asset was given freely.

Which brings me to feelings of anger, anxiety, and shame over being judged for a choice or opinion that belongs to me and not to the person rendering the judgement.

Judgment is a type of insult. It threatens social exclusion. And judgement springs from insecurities over someone else having a different viewpoint, and uncertainties over those opinions.

If I express my opinion on something—say a political issue—then someone who disagrees might judge me or even tell me what my opinion should be.

Of course, if my opinion was a judgement on something that’s none of my business, or if the facts demonstrably refute me, then they’d be right to object—but not in a way that attacks me personally.

Otherwise, they’re not entitled to judge me because my opinions don’t belong to them. I could point this out to them—but that would be defensive, and it’s likely to result in a pointless argument.

Instead, one simple statement would suffice:

“I do not assent to your judgements.”

What could they say to counter that? They could tell me I should assent. Or reiterate their judgements hoping that the repetition will overcome me. But if I remain firm there is nothing more they can do.

I can remain firm by reminding myself that they have no power over my choice to give or withhold assent. And by reminding myself that their misperceptions are probably due to ignorance rather than maliciousness.

Another scenario: Someone else expresses an opinion that I think is offensive—such as claiming that certain people are inferior.

My objections can be expressed without moralistic judgment, such as stating why I think opinions like that cause harm. I don’t need to attack the character of this person, which again are probably due to ignorance. Their opinions don’t belong to me, so I’m not entitled to judge them. But my opinions are mine, so I can express why I disagree.

Are they likely to respond to my objections with judgements and insults? There’s a good chance. I have no control over their judgements, so what would getting upset or retaliating accomplish except to show that they’ve bested me?

Besides, their judgements reveal their insecurities. That observation doesn’t need to pointed out to them—that would be petty. Marcus Aurelius wrote that the best revenge is to not be like your enemy. That means responding to your enemy with kindness rather than anger. Maintaining my composure but not backing down on my viewpoint is the best approach.

Self-interest isn’t anti-social

But where we locate our self-interest matters.

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It’s controversial to say self-interest is our primary motivation for whatever we do.

This claim seems to advocate selfishness. And what would a society built on selfishness be like?

Besides, there are examples of people taking great risks or even sacrificing themselves for people they don’t even know. How is that self-interest?

Perhaps someone wants to be a hero, or at least not be a coward. Perhaps someone strives to live by a particular moral code. Perhaps someone is concerned about the negative impact on their loved ones if they don’t act.

The difference between narrow self-interest and broader self-interest is important, however.

Being concerned only with the immediate impact on ourselves is selfishness. Though that’s not always a bad thing. Self-defense is one example.

Broader self-interest looks at the long term implications; the effects on people we care about and people whose assistance we might need later; and the impact on society, which can in turn affect us and those we love.

In his Discourses (1.19.11-17) Epictetus writes that

Every living creature…does everything for its own sake…And in general, he [God] has constituted the rational animal to have such a nature that he cannot obtain any of his particular goods without contributing to the common benefit. And so in the end it isn’t anti-social to do everything for one’s own sake.

What follows, then? When people come to hold absurd opinions about things that lie outside the sphere of choice, taking them to be good or bad, it is altogether inevitable that they’ll end up paying court to tyrants…and their flunkeys too!

But isn’t it in our self-interest to give in to a tyrant if he can do us harm?

Epictetus says no. A tyrant cannot force anyone to compromise their ethics. And history is full of people who have stood up to tyranny. They can kill the body but not the soul is how Jesus put it.

Epictetus’s distinction that failure to understand what lies within and outside of our control—and how this failure can lead to failure to understand what is good—is key.

We’re self-interested in things we think are good, but what are these things? He asks, if we value possessions then what’s to stop us from stealing them? After all, if it’s the object we value most then necessarily we value respect for other people’s property less (1.22.16).

But that only leads to all manner of conflicts. What is truly good, then, cannot lie in external things. We don’t control our possessions, circumstances, even our reputations—which can be conferred on us or taken from us by others or by circumstances.

The only things that are truly ours—things no one can take from us—are our deliberate thoughts, deliberate actions, and chosen values.

That’s where Epictetus locates self-interest. And this is self-interest in the broad rather than narrow sense of the term.

A Stoic perspective on the sexual assault crisis

Only we are responsible for our actions. That’s where sexual assault prevention starts. 

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What started with the downfall of one Hollywood mogul has become an avalanche of revelations of what we’ve known all along but have avoided acknowledging—sexual assault is rampant, especially by powerful men. Sexual harassment is even more widespread.

Epictetus opens his handbook (Enchiridion) by stating that nothing external is under our control. Only our chosen values and deliberate thoughts and actions are up to us. This can easily be misconstrued as an endorsement of passivity, but that’s not what he meant. Epictetus was a former slave who gained his freedom.

He gives an Olympian as an example. It is within the athlete’s control to train as hard as possible, make every sacrifice, and to seek every advantage. But there’s no guarantee the athlete will bring home the gold—circumstances could intervene, or the competitors could be more talented.

This does not mean the athlete shouldn’t try. In fact, the athlete should try as hard as possible. But the athlete must curb any sense of entitlement that the gold is theirs.

One interpretation of this is that pursuing something or someone is fine so long as we respect the boundaries. Another interpretation is that we can and should do everything in our power to change the current culture. And that’s up to every individual.

What we control

A Stoic perspective starts with the perpetrator. This is because sexual assault is within the perpetrator’s control, not the victim’s control. Related to this is the distinction between what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. We must protect what is ours while keeping our hands off of things that are not ours.

Stoicism is first and foremost about cultivating wisdom, justice, courage, and moderation. Domesticating (not suppressing) our emotions is a means to this end. And it is obvious to any rational person that sexual assault is ignorant, unjust, cowardly, and shameless.

Refusing to assent

An important Stoic focus is nipping our baser desires in the bud. Learning to recognize when a desire first arises and refusing to assent to it is a skill gained only from practice.

Sexual assault is usually motivated by a desire for power, and lust. Were it only about men gaining power over women then Kevin Spacey would have targeted women rather than men. Were lust not a factor then younger women and men would not be targeted more frequently.

Further, while all the news stories are about powerful men, we mustn’t forget the unpublicized stories of ordinary men and women who also commit sexual assault. People don’t need to have power in order to desire power.

Power is indifferent

Psychology Today profiled a study about sexual aggression when there’s a significant power difference between perpetrator and victim.

The study found that those who are insecure in their power (regardless of how much power they actually have) are more likely to harass or assault people with less power. The study also found “that the corrupting effects of power operate the same for men and women.”

The issue always circles back to the problem of power. Stoicism recognizes that power over people and externals things is a delusion. And power, sex, money, and so on are indifferent not because people don’t desire these things but because these things add nothing to positive values. Instead, it’s about how we conduct ourselves with regard to these things.

But perhaps the most important Stoic observation is that who we are is defined by our actions, not our beliefs or our stated values. This includes our actions even when no one is looking. A key question I, like you, must ask myself is what kind of person am I and what kind of person do I want to be?


Stoic compassion

Stoic compassion isn’t an oxymoron.

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Because being stoic (in common parlance) is equated with a lack of feeling, the notion that Stoicism promotes compassion may seem like a contradiction.

After all, Epictetus counseled his students not to get caught up in other people’s psychodramas:

When you see someone weeping in sorrow…don’t hesitate to sympathize with him or even…join in his lamentations. But take care that you don’t lament deep inside… Be ready at once with this thought, “It isn’t what has happened that so distresses this person…but rather the judgement that he has formed about it.”

At first glance that might sound like a disingenuous approach. But Buddhism—which is virtually synonymous with compassion—also teaches that we contribute to our own suffering because of the way we think about things.

Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh says that suffering is like a flower. Flowers are made of non-flower elements: without sun, water, soil, and so on there are no flowers. Reflecting on this shows us how everything is interconnected.

Suffering too is made of non-suffering elements: thoughts, feelings, perceptions, actions, and so on. And these interconnections can have serious consequences.

This echos Marcus Aurelius’s statement that “everything is interwoven in a sacred bond.” He continues,

We were born to work together like feet, hands, and eyes, like the two rows of teeth, upper and lower. To obstruct each other is unnatural. To feel anger at others, to turn your back on them: these are obstructions.

By looking at suffering’s component parts we can better understand where it came from, how it affects other people and things, and what to do about it.

Marcus says we should

See things for what they really are: its substance stripped bare—as a whole, unmodified. Call it by its name—the thing itself and its components, to which it will eventually return.

This approach can help prevent us from becoming emotionally overwhelmed.

It starts with ourselves. To react in anger is to lack compassion. And that creates suffering. So the first aspect of Stoic compassion is not to create suffering for yourself or others.

Further, getting mired in someone else’s suffering is unhelpful because we lose our objectivity. A person in deep emotional distress needs someone to lean on, but if we also become too distraught we can intensify that person’s distress.

Rather than compassion in the sense of suffering with another, being a support to your fellow traveler—which requires maintaining a cool head—can help that person gain perspective on the situation and the aspects of it that are and are not within their control.