Did Buddhism influence Stoicism?

Both teach nonattachment, impermanence, and interconnectedness.

Both advise self-control, especially when strong emotions are involved.

Both teach that how we think about things determines how we experience life.

Both say that we create our own suffering by constantly yearning for more while failing to appreciate what we have.

And most of all, both place a strong emphasis on virtuous thoughts and actions.

But there are differences as well. Stoicism focuses on reason rather than mysticism. Concepts like Nirvana and rebirth are absent from Stoicism, as is the Buddhist practice of meditation.

The historical record is scant. I created this crude timeline to show the key interactions between Greek and Buddhist cultures:

buddhism-stoicism-timeline

 

 

 

You’ll notice that there is no known interactions between Buddhists and Stoics in ancient times. Stoicism grew out of Cynicism, however, and Cynic philosopher Onesicritus did interact with Indian ascetics after Alexander the Great reached the Indus River. We don’t know if these Indian ascetics were Buddhist, though they could have been. Besides, Cynicism had independently developed asceticism and non-attachment prior to contact with the East.

After Alexander’s empire split into smaller empires, Indo-Greek King Menander I became a Buddhist. And through trade routes it’s possible that some Buddhist ideas made their way back to Greece. And Caesar Augustus is known to have met with a Buddhist Indian king. A century and a half later the Stoic philosophy of Emperor Marcus Aurelius emphasized impermanence and interconnectedness.

But this is all circumstantial. It’s possible that Buddhist thought had an indirect influence on Stoicism, first through Cynic contact with the East and later through trades routes. But if so, it’s unlikely that Stoic philosophers knew the Buddhist origin of these influences.

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Is everything that happens just?

Seems like a silly question. If everything is just then injustice doesn’t exist. Just like if everything were yellow then red wouldn’t exist.

But in his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes,

If you attend well, you will find that whatever happens, happens justly. I don’t mean only in an exact order and destined connexion, but also according to justice, and from one who distributes according to merit. Go on in observing this, as you have begun: and whatever you do, do it so as you may still remain good, according to the intellectual and true notion of goodness. Observe this in all your actions.

Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona
Lemon tree in Phoenix, Arizona

This could be used to justify terrible things. Is every murder and rape in accord with justice and distributed by merit?

Such attitudes were common in ancient times, though. Elsewhere, Marcus says we should welcome whatever happens to us, even if it’s cruel, because it’s for the benefit of the universe (5.8).

His viewpoint is consistent with the ancient Stoic belief in Logos – that divine reason orders the universe, that it’s providential, and what follows from it is our fate.

In 1759 Voltaire made fun of the idea that everything is for the best in his short book Candide. Despite a series of tragedies, Dr. Pangloss comically denies reality and remains childishly optimistic. Before the movie Pollyanna, a naive person with rose colored glasses was called Pangloss.

Many modern Stoics don’t agree with Logos in the ancient sense. But this greatly alters Stoicism. No longer is the universe ruled by reason, though the exercise of reason is still a human ability that is central to Stoic philosophy.

And there is no providence. In my view, if Logos is even a useful concept in the modern world it must be brought in line with science. The laws of nature, as we currently understand them, follow from four forces of nature: the strong and weak nuclear forces, the gravitational force, and electromagnetism. Physicists are searching for a “theory of everything” that will bring these together to reveal the underlying principle of the universe.

But this will not be a conscious, providential principle like Logos. Instead, the universe is indifferent to our existence and is unaware of whether we suffer or not.

Natural disasters, then, are not unjust because there’s no intention behind it. Justice and injustice are human products, the result of the actions of billions of people. And this is where Stoicism is still relevant. The only thing one controls is one’s deliberate thoughts and opinions, and virtuous actions can only follow from virtuous thoughts and opinions. So everyone has a responsibility to contribute to justice and avoid injustice.

Seneca’s letters

img_1045Seneca was criticized in his own day (and in the 2,000 years since) for his hypocrisy. Maintaining his wealth and elite political status meant not always practicing what he preached.

Does this means his words are empty? Well, who am I to judge Seneca? Am I better than him? Am I less of a hypocrite than him? No. And neither are you.

 

Anger

Whatever his faults were, Seneca was an insightful man. Penguin Classics publishes an edited collection of letters he wrote to a friend in the days before Emperor Nero told Seneca to go kill himself. Let’s take a look at a few highlights.

I previously wrote about Seneca’s book On Anger.  Seneca said that anger is temporary insanity because it shuts off rational deliberation. Anger is about the desire to punish someone for real or imagined harm.

But what about righteous anger over oppression and exploitation? The logical conclusion is that the more inclined to anger someone is the more decent that person must be. But was Socrates an angry man? What about Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr? When we think of a wise person, we think of someone who is calm is the face of evil. Reason seeks fairness, but anger seeks only the appearance of fairness as a justification for lashing out.

Emotional independence

Seneca’s letters add to this line of thought. He writes that Stoicism doesn’t mean being emotionless. Instead, the goal of Stoicism is to feel your troubles without being overwhelmed. A sage doesn’t want to lose anything but also doesn’t pine for what’s been lost. A sage wants to have friends but can survive alone (#9).

Taking criticism while keeping your ego at bay is also important. Besides, someone’s criticism might be an uncomfortable truth, and listening could make you a better person.

But the flipside to this is handing out compliments sparingly. Flattery is manipulation. It’s better to praise people (without being patronizing) for what can neither be given nor taken away from them – which is their character. (#41).

Egotism

Stoicism helps keep egotism in check. Seneca observers that “We’re born unequal, we die equal” – much like Shakespeare’s observation in Hamlet that “a king may go a progress through the guts of a beggar” because “a man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm.”

Seneca’s ego deflating views may be a hard pill to swallow in the 21st century when so many seem eager to tell their tale of struggle and woe as if their suffering is unlike anyone else’s.

But Seneca says, look, everyone has to deal with life’s troubles. So why do we think our struggles are unique? We’re not as special as we think.

That’s only depressing if you think it is. Reminding yourself that life is a struggle for everyone, regardless of the face they put forward, puts it in perspective. And that leads to equanimity (#91).

You are what you think

It really is all about the way you frame it. Thinking that moving, travelling, finding a new romantic partner, being richer, etc. will make you happier avoids the real issue, which is that you need an attitude adjustment.

Someone once complained to Socrates that travelling abroad never did him any good. Socrates replied, “What else can you expect, seeing that you always take yourself along with you when you go abroad?” (#104).

Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full

Telegraph Pass Phoenix, Arizona
Telegraph Pass
Phoenix, Arizona

Stoicism is a major theme in Tom Wolfe’s 1998 novel A Man in FullBut Wolfe portrays Stoicism as a religion rather than a philosophy. Yet, while ancient philosopher Epictetus believed in Zeus, it’s hard to find a Stoic today who worships Greek deities.

In Wolfe’s novel, Conrad discovers Stoicism while in prison. An out of work father, Conrad leaves a job interview only to see his car being towed. He hadn’t parked on the sidewalk – a truck parked behind him had pushed his car out of its spot. Conrad argues with parking enforcement to no avail. Then he goes to the impound lot only to find that the fee is higher than he was told. So Conrad attempts to break his car out of impound. He fights back when the attendant tries to physically restrain him, and even attacks a police officer who intervenes. Conrad believes he was justified, however, so he turns down a misdemeanor plea bargain and is convicted of felony aggravated assault.

Maybe if Conrad had been a Stoic beforehand he would have handled things differently. His attempts at persuasion having failed, he might have realized that an impounded car is not within his control. He can’t force others to do anything against their will, and choosing assault must also come with choosing the consequences.

After escaping from prison, Conrad assumes a stolen identity and begins working as a personal care assistant for business tycoon Charlie Crocker, who recently had a knee replacement. Crocker is deep in debt, but a corrupt politician offers to pull some strings with the bank if Crocker will serve as a political pawn.

Crocker asks Conrad for advice, and Conrad says, “To a Stoic there are no dilemmas. They don’t exist.”

Confused, Crocker asks for clarification, and Conrad tells him the story of Agrippinus. Emperor Nero had asked Agrippinus and Florus to humiliate themselves by acting like clowns – or face execution. Florus didn’t know what to do, but Agrippinus says that Florus will act like a clown while Agrippinus will not.

Why? Because Florus had already considered the possibility of acting like a clown. Agrippinus, instead, tells Nero, “It’s up to you to do your part, and it’s up to me to do mine.”

Point being, your only true possession is your character.

Crocker decides to sacrifice his business empire (and lose his trophy wife in the process) rather than be the politician’s clown. Then he becomes a Stoic evangelist.

Wolfe does a great job of illustrating a central Stoic idea – that there are no dilemmas when you’re asked to sacrifice your character. Maybe that’s why Stoicism appealed to early Christians. It echos Jesus’ rhetorical question, “What does it profit a man to gain the world but lose his soul?”

This underscores the point that Stoicism is a philosophy independent of any religious tradition, though it can intersect with many different religions – or no religion at all.

How to become a better person, according to Epictetus

Tamarac, Florida
Tamarac, Florida

Most of us want to grow as individuals, to be better today than we were yesterday. But if we’re honest, we fall short too often.


We need a plan. And Epictetus has one.


He says we must focus on three things:

  • Our desires (including what we wish to avoid);
  • Our motivations to act or not act (and whether we’re organized or careless);
  • And what we assent to, including whether that assent is based on reason and reality, or if our judgments are hasty and based on false beliefs.

But as Mick Jagger famously put, you can’t always get what you want. When our desires are frustrated it’s easy to get upset and act irrationally. And then we fall into undesirable situations. That is, we unwittingly assent to things we’d rather avoid.

We can go too far in the other direction, though, becoming numb and detached. Epictetus warns against being “unfeeling like a statue.” This advice contradicts the stereotype that Stoics are emotionless – but the stereotype is wrong. Instead, he reminds us that we are social creatures and we should honor our natural desire to connect with others.


Life is like a banquet.


Epictetus says life is like a banquet. If something we want is offered to us, accept it – but don’t be greedy. If we don’t want it then decline it. If something we want isn’t offered to us then let it go.

We must remember that the entire world is interconnected. Virtue increases connection, but beliefs and actions that create disconnection can lead us to behave destructively. And anger (wanting to strike out against someone) and wanting to prove superior status through attachment to external things like money and power (which we can never really control anyway), all lead to disconnection.


Gimme three steps, mister.


The first step is to be honest with ourselves about what we truly desire, and what we wish to avoid. Otherwise, we’ll go about things in a backhanded way and end up where we don’t want to be.

The second step is to understand what’s up to us and what’s not up to us. Or put another way, what belongs to us and what does not belong to us.

The only things that are up to us are our values, motivations, and choices. Other people, events, and so on don’t belong to us. So if we desire something we must be willing to let go of it because realistically we know it might not come our way.

Finally, consistency is important – take note of moments when we’re not at our best and what lead up to it. Then we can be on guard in the future.

The paradox of confidence & caution

Is it paradoxical to say that we should combine confidence with caution? unadjustednonraw_thumb_16dDoesn’t caution seem like the opposite of confidence?

In book two of his Discourses, Epictetus says it’s a matter of knowing what to be confident about and what to be cautious about. And most of us get it backwards.

He says there’s no point in stressing over what might happen or what has happened because we can’t change the past and we don’t control the future.

But we should be cautious about things that are within our control – namely, our values, motivations, and choices. Yet, it’s far too easy to deceive ourselves about our selfish motivations.

Most of us, however, fear things that are not up to us. What if my flight is delayed? What if the stock market crashes?

But at the same time we can be overconfident, insisting we’re right and that our motivations are pure. Epictetus says this can lead to recklessness disguised as self-confidence.

To be deceived, then, or to act rashly, or to carry out some shameful act or harbor some shameful desire, we regard as being of no importance, provided only that we achieve our aim with regard to matters that lie outside the sphere of choice.

He reasons that outside events are neither good nor bad. But how we respond to them can be good or bad.

And when thinking about the best way to respond to these events we should second guess our true motivations. We must first make sure we’re not lying to ourselves about our true intentions. And we must make sure we’re not examining the situation with distorted thinking.

Epictetus even says we shouldn’t fear death. We’re all going to die one day anyway. Whether we lived a good life is what matters. But that can’t be decided on our deathbeds because the past is gone and there is no future.

We must decide to live a good life now.

 

Epictetus: Ancient wisdom for the modern world

Epictetus was a former slave turned philosopher. From his students’ notes IMG_0307we have four discourses, a handbook, and a few fragments.

In the Enchiridion (or handbook) Epictetus wrote that external events are not up to us. And though we can exert varying degrees of influence, our desired outcome isn’t guaranteed. But our goals, values, and actions are up to us. It’s important to know the difference, and what to do about it.

If that sounds familiar it’s because someone cribbed it and called it the Serenity Prayer.

Epictetus’s discourses have a different flavor, though. The same themes are repeated. But Epictetus talks a lot about God in his discourses – to the point where it almost reads like a religious text.

Ancient Stoics (like almost everyone in the ancient world) believed in deities. Other Stoic philosophers, such as Marcus Aurelius and Seneca, were not atheists but didn’t place as much emphasis on God.

Stoicism today is neither explicitly theist nor atheist. Stoicism is a philosophy not a religion, and it can accommodate almost any personal faith or lack thereof.


Knowing what is and isn’t ours.


Epictetus advises us to turn unfortunate circumstances to our advantage. Lust is an opportunity to cultivate temperance. Pain can help us improve our endurance. And verbal abuse is a chance to develop a thick skin and learn patience.

The key, Epictetus says, is knowing what belongs to us and what does not belong to us. Things that don’t belong to us are other people, wealth, power, and even our reputations. The danger is that wanting what someone else has means letting that person control us.

But how we think about our impressions of the world and what we choose to do about it are ours.


What can really harm us.


Most of us expect harm or benefit from external things, but wise people expect harm or benefit from themselves. The Stoic virtues of being just, temperate, and self-controlled are central to human excellence.

When people criticize us it’s often because they think they have a moral responsibility to do so – but usually they’re just projecting an internal psychodrama. But don’t confront them. Instead, we should remind ourselves that their opinion has no value.

Progress means less blaming and praising of others, being less defensive, and not being so swayed by flattery.

On the other hand, anxiety is caused by wanting something that’s not within our control. Nothing lasts forever. If we lose something, we should willfully surrender it.

Epictetus adds that life is like a banquet. If something is offered, accept it – but don’t be greedy. And it’s okay to refuse what is offered. But if it doesn’t come our way, forget about it.


Reason is a skill. Cultivate it.


Tying all this together is the Stoic view that reason separates humans from lower animals. As such, Epictetus advises us to learn to desire what we have, not what we don’t have. Expect the unexpected, even if it’s undesirable, so we can be prepared. Focus on our sphere of control – our values, choices, and actions.

He says life are like dice, which indifferently fall where they will. But making skillful use of where they fall isn’t indifferent. We should train ourselves to avoid vice and endure the things that peeve us the most.