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:
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.
Stoicism is valuable.
Stoicism has a bad reputation. I’ve criticized it in the past. But my misunderstandings were based on the colloquial sense of stoic in contrast to Stoicism as a philosophy.
And Stoicism’s core idea is a good one: you can’t control anything except yourself, so don’t sweat the rest.
The problem with suppressed passions is that they come back to bite us in the ass. Besides, emotional detachment isn’t self-control. It’s cheating, like painting the exterior of your house without renovating the interior. It looks good until you peek inside.
But Stoicism isn’t about emotional detachment. It’s about how to deal with intense emotions. Don’t lose your cool. Think clearly. Keep a level head.
Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote, “You have power over your mind – not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”
Perhaps the closest modern equivalent is cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) – solution based psychotherapy focused on becoming more aware of how our thinking influences emotions and behavior. After all, emotions happen. We can’t stop that. But we can control our reactions. Marcus’s claim that, “very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking,” is CBT in a nutshell.
Or as Zeno of Citium put it, “Man conquers the world by conquering himself.” Zeno taught from a painted porch (stoa in ancient Greek) in the third century B.C. The serenity prayer from Alcoholics Anonymous is taken directly from Stoicism – change the things you can, accept the things you can’t change, and be smart enough to know the difference.
You can do what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
Stoicism is about:
- Doing what you want as long as you don’t fuck with other people and you own your shit.
- Being honest with yourself about how you feel even when it’s uncomfortable. But don’t suck others into your psychodramas. Instead, you should advocate for your needs in a calm, matter of fact way that takes personal responsibility rather than blaming others.
- Cooperation being your first move. Don’t retaliate if someone fails to reciprocate, but instead keep that person at a distance or simply walk away. Even self-defense should be limited to whatever is minimally necessary to contain the situation.
- Not playing into someone’s self-pity or enabling others by trying to save them from their self-destructive behaviors. Instead, put the ball in their court by asking them what outcome they want and how they plan to achieve that.
- Non-aggressively confronting someone who crosses your boundaries and holding them accountable. This means not telling other people what to do. And if someone tries to impose themselves on you, making it clear that it’s your choice to make, and you don’t accept their demand.
- Non-aggressive communication means approaching with empathy and keeping defensiveness in check. Speaking in the first person and taking responsibility (“My understanding is…” or “What I want to see happen is…”). It means not making it personal. Refraining from accusations, judgements, or psychoanalyzing others, and instead asking someone to further explain their viewpoint.