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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Drifting deeper into agnosticism

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Certainty and agnosticism are about what we think we know or don’t know, while religion and atheism are about what we believe or don’t believe. My position for the past 20 years has been agnostic atheism, or “weak atheism”: I don’t know if God exists, but I doubt it. Lately, however, my emphasis has leaned more heavily toward agnosticism.

Few people are really moral relativists

There are two reasons I can’t be certain that there is no God. One is the observation that most people, myself included, reject moral relativism. If you agree that a murderer did nothing objectively wrong because what’s right or wrong is up to the individual (or to the culture) then you’re a relativist. But most of us think certain actions are wrong no matter what some people might think, which implies objective morality.

Further, Arcdigital.media editor Berny Belvedere points out that the idea of progress implies a standard of higher and lower morality. If there’s no objective moral standard then the abolition of slavery was a horizontal shift rather than a vertical incline toward a higher morality.

In my opinion, God is the most straightforward way to assert objective morality. But there’s widespread disagreement on what God’s moral standards are. You could even argue that God’s morality is relative because God could have a divine change of mind (though most religions say this wouldn’t happen). But even then God’s morality would still be the final standard.

An alternative is to use observable suffering as a metric—including the fact that in most circumstances we all wish to avoid suffering. However, as Jonathan Haidt points out in The Righteous Mind, avoidance of suffering is inadequate to fully explain human morality. In other words, avoidance of suffering is a type of relativism, albeit a robust one.

Something must exist without causation

The second issue is that most of would agree that some things can exist without having been caused. The question of who created the universe (or multiverse) leads to the question of who created God, and an infinite regress. Theists say God is self-existent, but many scientists say it’s the universe that is uncaused.

But what’s the difference between an uncaused God and an uncaused universe? Conscious intelligence is a deeper question. If God exists then presumably God acts intentionally. But the universe is not conscious. Cause and effect is mindless.

The scientific challenge of claiming the universe is without a cause—even that cause and effect didn’t exist before the big bang—is falsifiability. But neither can God’s existence be proven. If God is infinite then quantification of the divine is impossible. Besides, if God could be proven like a geometry problem then faith would be unnecessary.

Deism

The belief in a conscious intelligence that created the world, including moral standards, is emotionally appealing to me. But I’m cautious about believing something just because I want to. And I cannot honestly believe all the details of Christian belief, such as the virgin birth, resurrection, and other events that suspend the laws of nature.

My inclination is to shrink God to something more palatable: a God who is powerful enough to create the initial conditions for a life sustaining universe but not powerful enough to control every detail of how it unfolds; and a God who is primarily a morally inspirational force rather than one who intervenes directly. But to a certain degree this approach seems contrived.

Outrage: Passion as a disease of the mind

What Stoicism says about resisting manipulation.

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Resisting cultural forces requires constant effort. The unending stream of media and entertainment is background noise that influences us more than we’re aware of or care to admit.

And as Russ Roberts points out on his Econtalk podcast, the internet age enables us to customize our newsfeeds to amplify our biases and suppress viewpoints we disagree with. It’s not that human nature is more tribalistic today. It’s just easier to indulge our tribalism compared to decades past.

To make the walls of my bubble less opaque I follow conservative publications such as the National Review and Fox News; progressive outlets including The Nation and The Progressive; and Reason, a libertarian magazine.

What they all have in common, however, are headlines designed to elicit outrage. If you don’t share their bias then the outrage often seems silly. But if you do share their bias then the headline easily evokes anger.

Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca writes in letter LXXV that,

“Passions” are objectionable impulses of the spirit, sudden and vehement. They have come on so often, and so little attention has been paid to them, that they have caused a state of disease.

This disease of the mind is

a persistent perversion of the judgment so that things which are mildly desirable are thought to be highly desirable. Or if you prefer we may define it thus: to be too zealous in striving for things which are only mildly desirable or not desirable at all.

This doesn’t mean, for example, that we shouldn’t oppose separating children from parents who have illegally entered the United States. But outrage over minor things like the latest mean tweet can diminish the seriousness of issues such as separated families. Furthermore, anger and outrage, including wanting revenge, can cloud our judgement and lead to irrational behavior that fails to achieve justice—or which in the long run might actually make things worse.

Notice how our reactions to harmful things is too often an overcorrection. Street drugs can be harmful, so we throw a pot smoker in prison for 10 years along with murderers and rapists. Globalism sometimes neglects local concerns, so the president declares NATO a foe. Capitalism someones exploits low income people, so we must turn to socialism—even though capitalism has greatly reduced poverty.

But outrage is seen most loudly on social media. Its anonymity—particularly that you don’t actually have to face the person you’re insulting—incentivizes people to say all sorts of horrible things. The problem isn’t just that they think they’re doing no wrong. Most do so self-righteously, implying their moral superiority. The desire to punish transgressors can create irrationality to the point of causing even greater harm. That’s why murders of intimates are often more vicious than murders of strangers.

Stoics philosophy claims that events don’t harm us. Rather, our thoughts about these events harm us. That is, we can choose to put our passions aside and do the right thing even when something unfortunate or harmful happens. Physical or psychological harm may occur, but only we can harm our souls.

If we fail to pay attention to the constant barrage of daily outrages, however, we can get caught up in a pattern which can lead to a disease of the mind—a pervasive anger that never quite seems to resolve. And by paying attention I don’t mean becoming outraged, but rather being aware of the attempt at manipulation so that we can step back and not take the bait.

Stoicism might not be a bummer after all

I’ve heard the Dude is Epicurean. He follows the pleasure principle. Take ‘er easy.

And he’s anything but unemotional. I’ve never heard anyone say Mr. Spock is a dude.

But wait a minute. The Coen brothers film The Big Lebowski is a tale of the Dude being very unDude.

A carpet pisser ruins his rug. And that’s a bummer, man. That rug really tied the room together.

There are two Jeffrey Lebowskis. The Dude is an unemployed aging hippie. The other Lebowski is a millionaire (sort of) whose young trophy wife owes money to known pornographers. It takes the goons a while to figure out they’re at the wrong Lebowski residence.

The Dude was about to realize it’s all part of the durned human comedy. Except his bowling buddy Walter convinces the Dude that he’s entitled to compensation. And the Dude gets uptight and decides to confront the Big Lebowski.

A Stoic dude would have been like, “Amor fati, man. It’s just a rug.”

But in the Dude’s mind the rug is not a preferred indifferent. The soiled rug didn’t mess with his eudaimonia. The Dude’s belief that he was done wrong did that.

The serenity prayer is Stoicism in one sentence: change the things you can and accept the things you can’t change.

Stoicism isn’t emotionless. That’s just being a human paraquat. Calmer than you are. Shoosh.

So someone peed on your favorite rug? Sometimes you eat the bear. And sometimes the bear, well, he eats you.

A wiser dude once said, “Life is change, but that’s only a bummer if you think it is.” Is that some kinda Eastern thing? Far from it. It’s Marcus Aurelius. Maybe I paraphrased a bit. Whatever, man.

Back in the day, Stoics and Epicureans were bowling for different teams. Maybe we still are. But it’s not about winning the semi-finals. It’s how we play the game.

Putting negative emotions in perspective makes us chill. Anger, greed, lust, fear, jealousy are just different words for uptight. In the final estimation Stoicism is about being a good person. And it’s hard to be dudely toward other people if you’re uptight.

But not freaking out over stupid stuff takes a little self-discipline. The Dude wouldn’t have had to put up with all those ins and outs if he hadn’t been greedy for a cut of Mr. Lebowski’s money in the first place.

Stoicism and Dudeism are compatible. Parts, anyway. Some guy peed on your rug? Forget it. Let’s go bowling.

Keeping partisanship out of Stoicism

Honest people may disagree on what is just.

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Stoicism is primarily about justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom. Mitigating negative emotions by distinguishing between what is up to us and what is not up to us—and what belongs to us and does not belong to us—is a way to practice these virtues.

But politics, like religion, is increasingly a moralistic endeavor. Conservatives, progressives, centrists, and libertarians all believe that their political ideology is the wisest and most just. It was simply a matter of time before some Stoics would start suggesting that a true Stoic must endorse this or that political ideology.

Partisan politics, however, undermines trust and respect in a group. It shows a failure to understand what’s your and what’s not yours.

I’ve seen a few Facebook posts promoting psychologist Jordan Peterson as a Stoic hero. Peterson’s big idea is that you will only create chaos if you try to change the world before you get your own life in order.

But his politics often overshadows his self-help message. Peterson shot to fame with his vocal opposition to adding gender identity to Canada’s civil rights law.  Most legal experts, however, disagree that people will be forced to use alternative gender pronouns.

Peterson sees pronouns as a symptom of a larger problem. He rails against “postmodern neo-Marxism” (a straw man conflation of two different things). And his caricature of the left has caught the alt-right’s attention, though Peterson condemns the alt-right.

Meanwhile, left leaning Stoics are pushing progressive politics. Author and philosopher Massimo Pugliucci recently wrote on his blog that of course Stoics should call themselves feminists and support other progressive social justice causes.

I disagree with Massimo, however. I don’t disagree that feminism is about women’s equality. But women’s equality and gender equality, though related, are not the same thing. Further, feminism is only one of many ways one can support women’s equality. And I disagree with feminism’s frequent anti-male rhetoric, the way it ignores issues other genders face, and the popular claim that conservative women cannot call themselves feminists (especially if they’re pro-life).

I also disagree with the frequent progressive failure to reject bigotry as a matter of principle (e.g. “It’s not sexist when women say derogatory things about men,” “African-Americans can’t be racist,” or “Religion is just an excuse to discriminate.”).

Not being a progressive doesn’t imply lack of support for social justice. I believe that the equal rights of the individual are the basis for universal human rights. Further, these rights exist independent of government, and government’s first task is to protect these rights by not placing restrictions on how you live your life (so long as you don’t impose yourself on others). And I endorse the belief that people should be judged by their character, not by their race, sex, gender, religion, etc.

But I am not about to say that Stoics should be classical liberals. Other people’s choices don’t belong to me. Rather than say that Stoics must adopt certain political labels or causes, my position is that if a Stoic claims to value justice, courage, moderation, and practical wisdom then it is that Stoic’s responsibility to develop political positions that reflect this. Honest people will disagree, however, so this means there will be conservative Stoics, progressive Stoics, centrist Stoics, libertarian Stoics, and so on.

The best response to someone who says that a Stoic should adopt this or that political label or position is: “That’s not up to you.”

Stoic & Epicurean rivalry

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

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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.

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.