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Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, February 01, 2013

Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Stoicism

by Massimo Pigliucci

However many holy words you read, however many you speak, what good will they do you if you do not act on upon them? (Buddha)

It is folly for a man to pray to the gods for that which he has the power to obtain by himself. (Epicurus)

Adapt yourself to the things among which your lot has been cast and love sincerely the fellow creatures with whom destiny has ordained that you shall live. (Marcus Aurelius)

I have been pondering for a while that there are some striking similarities among the three ancient philosophies of Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism. Let me premise that I don’t know as much about the first as about the latter two, and even there I’m certainly no expert, so take what follows with a commensurately sized grain of salt.

Buddhism is the more complicated of the three, largely — I think — because it has a much longer history as a live philosophy. It has therefore had significantly more time to develop diverging schools of thoughts and interpretations. It is also different from Epicureanism and Stoicism in belonging to the Eastern rather than the Western philosophical tradition, which means that it is more imbued with mysticism and much less grounded in the Greek style of logical argument (it is not by chance that Buddhism, but not the other two, is often referred to as a “religion,” though even there the term only applies partially and only to some Buddhist traditions).

Interestingly, all three philosophies arose in similar times, both chronologically and in terms of social setting. The founder of Epicureanism was, of course, Epicurus, a historical figure about whom we know a good deal. He lived between 341 and 269 BCE in Greece. Stoicism was established, also in ancient Greece, by Zeno of Citium (334-262 BCE), who was therefore a contemporary of Epicurus (indeed, the two schools were rivals throughout the Hellenistic and Roman periods). The birth of Buddhism is much less clear, but it originated in the northeastern Indian subcontinent in the 5th century BCE (so about one and a half centuries before Epicureanism and Stoicism). Not as much is known about the actual life of its founder, Siddhārtha Gautama, but there is no reason to believe that he was not an actual historical figure and that the general course of his life took place along the lines accepted by tradition.

Perhaps more interestingly, though, all three philosophies arose and thrived in times of social and political turmoil, within their respective geographical areas. This is relevant because I think it may go some way toward explaining some of the similarities I am interested in. Of course, Buddhism still thrives today, with hundreds of millions of followers. Epicureanism and Stoicism, on the contrary, largely exist in textbooks, the main reason being Christianity: as soon as the Christians took over the Roman empire they put their newly found political and military might in the service of the one true god and persecuted both Epicureans and Stoics. Both schools were officially abolished in 529 CE by the emperor Justinian I, that prick.

There are several interesting aspects of all three philosophies that I will simply ignore here, particularly their more scientific ones (such as, most prominently, Epicurean atomism, which was inherited from pre-Socratic thinkers like Leucippus, Democritus, Heraclitus and Parmenides). I will concentrate instead on the metaphysics and ethics of the three schools. I also need to add that I am quite skeptical of the attempts that various people make of attributing almost miraculous “scientific” insights to ancient philosophies. Yes, the Epicureans were talking about atoms, but that concept had very little to do with modern physics. The same goes for the Buddhist idea that the self is an illusion, allegedly anticipating modern neuroscience. Indeed, in the latter case, I think that treating the self as an illusion is a profound mistake, based on a misunderstanding of neurobiology (but not of Buddhism, which really does claim something along those lines!). But that’s another story for another post.

Let’s begin, then, with the basics of Epicureanism. Of the three, it was by far the least mystical set of doctrines. Epicurus was a pretty strict materialist, and even though he believed in the existence of a god, said god had nothing whatsoever to do with the origin of the universe or human affairs, and indeed he was made of atoms just like everything else.

Thanks to sustained Christian slurring, we moderns associate Epicureanism with hedonism, but Epicurus’ principle of pleasure had very little to do with sex, drugs and rock ‘n roll. His basic idea was that human suffering is caused by our misunderstanding of the true nature of the world (a thought common also to Stoicism and Buddhism), and to our preoccupation with human matters such as — ironically — sensual pleasures and political power. All of this, according to Epicurus, interfered with the real goal of human existence, reaching a state that he called ataraxia (which usually translates as tranquillity). To achieve ataraxia one has to eliminate both bodily and mental pains, and particularly one has to conquer the fundamental fears of death and punishment in the afterlife. Hence, Epicureanism’s profoundly anti-religious, and eventually anti-Christian, character. Indeed, Epicureans’ only social involvement was in the fight against religion and superstition, which they regarded as a principal cause of human unhappiness.

It seems to me that the Epicurean concept of ataraxia, as well as their teachings on how to achieve it, are not that different in spirit (though they certainly are in detail) from the Buddhist idea of nirvana, the highest happiness possible for a sentient being. Indeed, nirvana derives from a Sanskrit word that means something along the lines of “cessation of craving and ignorance,” an idea that both Stoics and Epicureans would have been very comfortable with (though nirvana has a decidedly more mystical meaning than either the Stoics or especially the Epicureans would have been comfortable with).

Basic Buddhist  teachings begin with the Four Noble Truths. (I noticed that Buddhists have a penchant for numbering things: there are four noble truths, the noble path is eightfold, there are four “immeasurables,” three “marks of existence,” “three jewels” to seek refuge in, five precepts for basic Buddhism, and so on. You get the idea.) The four noble truths are: i) that dukkha (suffering) originates from physical and mental illness, the anxiety engendered by constant change, and a general dissatisfaction pervading all life forms; ii) that the origin of dukkha can be known by human beings, and that its roots are craving and ignorance (see Epicureanism above!); iii) that the cessation of dukkha is indeed possible; and iv) that such cessation is achieved through the noble eightfold path.

Said noble eightfold path, in turn, is essentially a recipe to achieve the cessation of dukkha and eventually nirvana, the eight components being meant to be pursued in parallel, not sequentially: 1) Right View, viewing the world for what it is, not as it appears to be (easier said than done, but still); 2) Right Intention, the pursuit of renunciation, freedom and harmlessness; 3) Right Speech, speaking truthfully and without harming others; 4) Right Action, acting without harming others; 5) Right Livelihood, living without causing harm; 6) Right Effort, that is making an effort to improve oneself (yes, you will notice the recurring deployment of the notion of self in Buddhism, despite the fact that it allegedly doesn’t exist); 7) Right Mindfulness, which means awareness of both how things are and of the reality within oneself (!); and 8) Right Concentration, engaging in meditation or concentration of the right kind.

One of the most problematic Buddhist concepts, I think, is that of karma, which refers to a cosmic force driving the cycle of suffering and rebirth of every being. The idea is that one’s actions during a lifetime determine one’s rebirth at the next cycle. (I think that there is a fundamental contradiction between the Buddhist rejection of the idea of an enduring self and the very concept of beings that go through different lifetimes. Buddhists do have answers to this objection, of course, but I find them extremely unconvincing.) The goal, so to speak, is to be reborn on higher “planes of existence” (there are 31 of them, grouped in 6 “realms”), until eventually one achieves enlightenment and escapes the cycle of rebirth altogether.

I say that karma is problematic for a variety of reasons. To begin with, it seems to be plucked out of nowhere, with neither empirical or even logical support. It amounts to an automatic cosmic scoring chart which will affect a new being who has, in fact, no memory of what his “predecessor” actually did to gain positive or negative karma points. Ethically, it is hard to imagine why one should be responsible for (or should gain from) the previous round in her or his “dependent arising.”

Be that as it may, the idea that there is a cosmic framework within which we act is reminiscent of  (though it is quite distinct from) the Stoic idea of logos, which is a sort of universal reason that determines the unfolding of events. For the Stoics too, the goal is to become clear about reality, and a major objective is to develop a degree of self-control that allows one to overcome destructive emotions (which arise precisely from errors of judgment about how the world works). Again, the parallels with both Epicureanism and Buddhism seem obvious.

Stoics aimed not at getting rid of emotions (despite the popular caricature of Stoics as Spock-like figures), but rather to channel them in a more productive direction. This was achieved through a combination of logic, concentration and reflection, and eventually evolved into various contemporary forms of cognitive behavioral therapy. (In this sense, both Buddhism — with its various meditative techniques — and Stoicism have entered the realm of modern practices, which can be pursued essentially independently of the philosophies that gave origin to them.) The ultimate goal of the Stoic was apatheia, or peace of mind, which I think is akin to both the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia and the Buddhist goal of nirvana (again, with due consideration given to the significant differences in the background conditions and specific articulation of the three philosophies). And of course Stoics too had a ready-made recipe for their philosophy, in the form of a short list of virtues to practice (nothing compared to the above mentioned panoply of Buddhist lists though!). These were: courage, justice, temperance and wisdom.

I am sure one could continue with this conceptual cross-mapping for a while, and of course scholars within each of the three traditions would object to or modify my suggestions. What I am interested in here, however, is pursuing the further questions of what the common limitations of the philosophies of Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism are, as well as what positive contributions they have made to humanity's thinking about (and dealing with!) the universe.

I am inclined to reject both Buddhism’s and Stoicism’s metaphysics, being significantly more happy with the Epicurean view of the world. I don’t think there is any reason to think that concepts like logos or karma have any philosophical substance, nor do they do any work in actually explaining why things are the way they are. The Epicurean embracing of a materialist metaphysics, instead, is in synch with the development of natural philosophy and eventually of modern science. True, there are no “atoms” in the sense in which Epicurus and his predecessors where thinking of them, and the free will-enabling “swerve” seems a rather arbitrary conceit that has been superseded by better philosophical treatment of the problem it was supposed to address. But all in all I think Epicurean metaphysics handily beats the other two.

However, of concern is the limited social engagement of all three philosophies. While they do differ in degree on this count too, Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism all preach a level of detachment that seems alien to being human and that may easily lead to social disengagement. On this issue,  I’m with David Hume (and with much modern neuroscience) when he argued that emotions aren’t something to get rid of or overcome (or drastically alter), but instead they are the very reason we give a crap about anything to begin with.

All three philosophies certainly imply a good measure of compassion for our fellow creatures, but the Epicureans in particular expressly rejected involvement in politics, and their only social engagement was manifested in their relentless attack on religion and superstition as the primary causes of fear. The Stoics were opposed to slavery and preached brotherly love, but their insistence on understanding and accepting whatever the logos set out easily slides into a somewhat passive stance devoid of social action. And even in Buddhism it is hard to find much in the way of political or social engagement, outside of a general attitude of compassion (and, again, acceptance) for the suffering of creatures. I won’t go as far as agreeing with Marx that the point is not to understand the world, but to change it, but surely a positive philosophy has to explicitly engage with how to improve the human condition, not just at the individual level, but socially.

As I mentioned earlier, though, perhaps this common degree of passivity toward the social and emphasis on the individual’s understanding and acceptance of the world resulted from the fact that all three philosophies were born at a time of social turmoil and uncertainty, when surely an attitude of recoiling into one’s internal world must have seemed like the only available option in the face of events that were hard to control and that often resulted in painful consequences for large swaths of society.

On the positive side, I am a firm believer that philosophy is a continuous source of valuable insight into the human condition, so I think most philosophies offer something that is worth plucking and adding to the store of our collective wisdom. In the cases of these three, and despite my reservations about their dearth of social engagement, there is quite a bit to be recommended.

Epicureans insisted on the value of friendship, for instance, which I do believe is a fundamental component of a flourishing existence. Their assault on fear-engendering superstition can also be counted as one of their most enduring legacies. Both Buddhists and Stoics, for their part, developed techniques to improve people’s mental well being, and there is good empirical evidence that those techniques do work (though my personal preference is for the more reflective Stoic approach rather than the overly meditative Buddhist one). And all three philosophies have in common the idea that it is wise to attempt to understand the world as it actually is, as opposed to the way it superficially appears to be (though, again, I think the Buddhists were more off the mark than the other two, particularly the Epicureans).

In the end, I don’t consider myself an Epicurean or a Stoic, and I am certainly no Buddhist. But this does not preclude me from appreciating what some of the greatest minds of human antiquity had to say to their fellow travelers. Their thoughts still resonate vibrantly more than two millennia after they were first conceived, and that is no small accomplishment by any human standard.


  1. Great ancient throwback

    Re: self, no-self, Buddhism

    I don't think your post does justice enough to the Buddhist's rejection of 'self'. The theory of anatman is against the self-as-Atman, that is, a "constant", "unified", "substantial", or "permanent" self.

    The positive account of self is one wherein the self is part of the interconnected world, and can be thought of as similar to a 'wagon', in that a wagon does not have some "essence" beyond its parts.

    I completely agree with that you briefly mentioned, that the reconciliation of Karma with Anatman can seem somewhat like a patch job.

  2. Thanks for that, Massimo. As you know (since we've been in contact on this) I blog for the Secular Buddhist Association website (http://secularbuddhism.org/author/doug/ ); a general agreement with skeptical claims regarding karma and rebirth make many of us interested in a "secularized" Buddhist approach. That is, we're interested in a contemporary approach to Buddhist philosophy that rejects its supernatural elements.

    I have also written a short comparison between a secularized Buddhism and Secular Humanism:


    One point I must take issue with in your treatment, however, is the nature of the self in Buddhism. It's a typical misunderstanding (even among some Buddhists) to claim that Buddhism is a philosophy of no-self. To understand better what is going on, one must see the context. The Buddha was arguing against the common Brahminical interpretation of the self as an everlasting, substantial "atman", which was the focus of religious and soteriological importance. So when the Buddha is said to have rejected the self, what he is rejecting is basically a Cartesian substantial soul.

    In contrast, the Buddha proposed a more Humean (or nowadays we might say "Parfitean") interpretation of the self as a bundle of mental functions, without a substantial core. Persistence through time depended on causes and conditions, rather than being fixed by literal numerical identity.

    The Buddha described his notion of the self as being a middle way between a substantial, Brahminical "atman", and a complete non-self.

    So for the Buddha the self was real. But its reality depended on causes and conditions, one of which was an ongoing desire for existence, and the self's continual reification through karmic action.

    As contemporary philosophical naturalists, we can reject the karmic story and the literal rebirth. What we're left with is a notion that the self is real but causally constructed and impermanent.

    One other small point regarding Buddhism's penchant for numbering: others have commented on this as well. To an extent this is a feature of Eastern philosophy, and may have something to do with their historical roots in memorization. But it is also a feature of the deep analytic tradition in Buddhism. The Buddhist Abhidhamma, as well as many later schools of Buddhist thought in Tibet and elsewhere, are as analytically rigorous as anything one might find in the West. Though intellectual history being what it is, many of these schools developed in more esoteric or even obscurantist ways.

    1. Doug,

      thanks for the clarification about the self, it really helps! Now, has anyone told San Harris about it? ;-)

    2. I should have said that the self is a bundle of mental *and physical* functions for the Buddha, since the first of the five aggregates is "name-and-form". "Form" is physical form, and "name" is the name we give to that form.

      (The five aggregates are: name-and-form, feeling (like/dislike), perception, volition, consciousness. These make up the conventional self for the Buddha, much like perceptions, ideas, and their relations do for Hume).

    3. Eh. To be clear, the five aggregates are form, feeling, perception, volition, consciousness. Name-and-form is another way to describe the self.

    4. Dougsmith:

      Which of the Orthodox Hindu traditions do you believe actually argued for a "Cartesian"-like substantial soul?
      In my studies last semester, my prof argued that the dominant view of atman (from Advaita Vedanta and others) was somewhat mis-characterized by the Buddha's "anatman", in that what was being denounced wasn't actually posited as atman in the first place.

      I was thinking Nyāya and Vaiśeṣika could be exceptions.. Thoughts?

      Also, great contemporary work on Buddha-Advaita on (no)Self:

      And free sample chapter:

    5. Hello KWB Dyami,

      The tradition to which the Buddha taught in opposition predated Hinduism. It is known historically as "Brahmanism", and was a Vedic tradition around the time of the earlier Upanishads. (Many of the Upanishads post-dated the Buddha, as did Hindu texts such as the Mahabhārata and the Ramāyana).

      The most famous illustration I know of the Brahminic position about the atman would be in the Chāndogya Upanishad, with the statement "Tat tvam asi" or "You are that", which under the advaita interpretation identifies the permanent self (atman) with universal being (Brahman).


      This obviously has its differences from a traditional Cartesian self, but it is relevantly the same in identifying the self as an everlasting substance.

      That said, there were doubtless other, competing versions of the Brahminical self at the time. The Buddha responds to several in his Brahmajāla Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 1).


    6. But, Buddhists in general DON'T reject metaphysical stances, contra both Sam Harris and alleged stances of the Dalai Lama. (The Dalai Lama has, in places, indicated that if it's a pretty solid scientific statement against the existence of reincarnation, he's staying with reincarnation, contra those who only tout other statements of his.)

      Because of this, I have to disagree with Massimo in one way, and say most types of Buddhism are religious -- metaphysical beliefs + practices designed around such beliefs.

    7. To riff on Doug, and Batchelor ... how much metaphysics can you remove from Buddhism and still call it Buddhism?

      To turn Harris' version of Gnu Atheism on its head, I can take the book of Ecclesiastes, with little trimming, and posit "secular Christianity" or "secular Judaism."

    8. Isn't "Secular Christianity" what Don Cupitt is doing with his "Sea of Faith" approach? Aren't many Jews following a secular approach to Judaism? I keep on coming across the "I don't believe in God, but I'm still Jew" comment.

  3. Great post! As for the "numbering" thing in Buddhism, as a student of Chinese culture and philosophy I'd like to note that it is not unique to Buddhism and not even originating from it, but it is an important piece of Asian (particularly Sino-Tibetan) thought, which Buddhism probably inherited. The Chinese have a real obsession with numbers, and have tons of numbered lists for almost anything you can imagine.

    1. Hi Riccardo,

      I doubt the numbering was inherited from Sino-Tibetan thought, since the numbering in the Canon predated its Sino-Tibetan elaborations. That is, I believe it's consistent in both the Chinese Agamas and the Pali Canon, both of which originated from the Prakrit oral tradition in the first centuries BCE in India.

  4. I'm a fan of the Stoics, and think Stoicism provides a sensible guide to living. As you no doubt are aware, it seems to be enjoying a kind of renewal these days, even among professional philosophers (John Lachs, Lawrence Becker for example). I don't think it's quite as disengaged from life and society as you may think, though certain statements made by them may be interpreted as recommending disengagement. With Epictetus, we must remember that what we read are the notes and impressions of his student Arrian, though. Stoicism was very influential in the development of the law as we know it, particularly the law derived from Roman law. Many of the great Roman jurists were Stoics.

    I think you're correct that Buddhism, Stoicism and Epicureanism are related in certain respects. In fact, Stoicism significantly influenced Christianity, which assimilated so much of ancient pagan thought and religious beliefs.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Truth is much more simple than thought.
    Be One,


  7. Nice post.

    In addition to the comments on the Buddhist interpretation of 'no-self' I think the concept of inter-dependent arising was giving short-shrift. This concept is very similar to the Taoist foundational concept of complementary opposition and I think gives context to 'no-self'. I also think this insight is quite relevant to current science such as quantum mechanics, and it's philosophical interpretations.

    1. I thought I would follow-up on my 1st post with an example since I'm not sure I stated it well.

      Don Ross has a new paper out 'The World in the Data' that argues against the 'Many Worlds' interpretation of quantum mechanics and for Bohrs 'Copenhagen' interpretation which is based on complementarity. Central to the argument is the idea that relations are more fundamental than things. Here is a relevant quote:

      'the important real patterns in science are not reducible to facts about the intrinsic properties or natures of individual objects.'

      So I do think Buddhist and Taoist insights like 'interdependance' and 'complementary opposition' were quite visionary although I too would not use the term 'miraculous'. They not only claim that relations are more fundamental than things, but also give us I think a very useful framework for thinking about how inter-relations unfold.

  8. Another ancient philosophical tradition that would have fit well into your group of three is pyhhronist skepticism. Supposedly Pyrrho met some yogis or Buddhists while traveling with Alexander the Great and then brought it back to Greece. I doubt that this is exactly what happened, but there is a good chance that there was contact between Buddhists and Greek philosophers around the time of Alexander.

  9. Also, although I agree that Epicureanism seems more compatible with secular modern values, I'm not crazy about this type of approach where one pics good guys and bad guys and then makes the winners (i.e. The Epicureans) the friends of posterity (i.e. us). Secular academics (and especially classicists) tend to view Epicureanism this way, and it's funny that they are not willing to forgive the Stoics for the logos or the Buddhists for reincarnation, but they are willing to forgive Epicureans for the swerve and the particularly odd notion that the gods do exist but for some reason don't care about people. Let's also not forget that Epicurus said we have dreams about gods because little tiny flecks of matter float into our heads from outer space. By contrast, one could praise the Stoics for the idea of the logos because it recognizes a clear order to the universe, a basic idea that modern science presupposes.

    I'm impressed that ancient philosophers had any notion of an atom at all, but the ancient epicurean notion of something that literally cannot be cut (a-tom) is not only inconsistent but totally at odds with modern physics (in which there really isn't any hard matter or indivisible stuff). At best the Epicureans foreshadowed Newtonian physics.

    In a similar way as modern people praise Epicurus for the atom, you could also praise Buddhists for foreshadowing psychology.

    1. Jason,

      you make good points, but just to make clear: my intent here wasn't to pick a winner, it was to explore the similarities and to see what can be retained as good and valuable. I don't actually subscribe to any of these philosophies in their entirety.

    2. Massimo,
      Don't get me wrong. I appreciate what you wrote and think this is a worthwhile endeavor. I'm a classicist who works a good bit on Hellenistic philosophy and also a practicing Buddhist with a more secular perspective, so I'm happy to have the chance to engage in this kind of east-west dialogue. My criticism was definitely not that you are subscribing to Epicureanism, but you did clearly pick out Epicureanism as the most valuable of the three. Even as someone who practices Buddhism and has a bias, I wouldn't pick out Buddhism as the best of the three. As you mention, one big difference is that unlike Buddhism, Epicureanism and Stoicism do not have unbroken traditions extending to the present day. I find incredibly valuable insight from all sorts of (often conflicting) philosophical traditions, and if Epicureans and Stoics had living traditions and created facebook pages, I'd probably 'like' both of them. And I would definitely 'friend' Plato AND Aristotle. :)

      If you don't know it already, you should take a look at A. Kuzminski's book Pyrrhonism: How the Greeks Invented Buddhism. I don't agree with his historical argument but he points out a lot of interesting similarities between Greek skepticism and Buddhism. I did a review of it a while back. Thomas McEvilley has also written on this topic.

    3. Better yet, Massimo, IMO, read Miles Burnyeat's book on the history of skepticism, "The Skeptical Tradition," if you haven't.

    4. Thanks for the great post, Massimo!

      On a similar point on similarities (pun intended), I was very impressed recently, when I found that statements such as "as above, so below" or "all is mind", which I always thought were "eastern", where in fact ancient Greek. Mixing cultures after Alexander the Great produced very interesting results!

      1) http://www.religionfacts.com/buddhism/history/hellenistic.htm
      2) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greco-Buddhism
      3) http://www.historum.com/asian-history/23396-greco-buddhism-unknown-influence-contribution-greeks.html

  10. One aspect of Buddhism is that it might be receptive to paraconsistent logic and dialetheism, though it's not entirely clear (interview with Graham Priest @ www.3ammagazine.com/3am/logically-speaking/). That might be a valuable aspect of Buddhism that can be useful.

  11. Stoicism may have been officially banned in the 6th century, but, as ciceronianus points out, much of it was incorporated into mainstream Christianity. I think we need to give some credit to Christian thinkers and institutions, not only for saving Greek texts but also for keeping elements of Greek philosophy, including Stoic ideas, alive.

    And modern science, with its more applied focus than Greek science, was unarguably largely a product of the Western Christian tradition.

    Naturally we tend individually to favor this or that strand of past traditions. However, it may be better not to see our cultural and intellectual history as providing a smorgasbord of ideas from which we can pick and choose, but rather as a complex, changing whole, with good and bad, rational and superstitious all mixed up together (and often interdependent).

  12. One thing I admire about Buddhism is that once you buy their basic premises that there is a cycle of rebirth and karma, it is remarkably consistent. Christianity is a much simpler religion and it has far more contradictions.

    Anyway, according to the traditional account of Siddhartha Gautama's life, he walked out of his mothers womb and declared "I will become the king of the three worlds", or something like that. That can't be right.

    About karma. I think most people don't understand how nominalist Buddha was. Karma is an abstract concept, and it doesn't exist out there in the universe anymore than an abstract triagle exists out there in the universe.I think in this respect, he was very much like wave-function non-realists, who believe that the wave-function is not real, but just an abstract model that is useful in explaining and predicting observations. The only problem is, in the case of the wave-function, there really are observations it explains. In the case of karma, there is none. The concept of karma had been developed by other philosophers even before Siddhartha Gautama was born. I think they started with the notion that bad things must happen to bad people, so they invented karma. Since it is obvious that this is not the case, that good things happen to bad people sometimes and bad things happen to good people, they invented samsara to explain that. Buddha took those concepts and refined them into a consistent body of knowledge. In fact,I believe once he even took 64 other philosophies and explained why they were wrong.

    About non-self(anatman) and rebirth, yes there is a contradiction. I'm not sure why Buddha rejected the notion of self (atman). It's one of those things that he realized while meditating. The idea is that self is an illusion. This raised questions like if it is an illusion, who is seeing that illusion? Who feels like he has memory and so on. To be honest, this is a challege even modern science face, in my opinion. None of my constituent quarks has the same quantum state it had just a fraction of a second ago. In seven years, all my cells will be replaced with new ones. So who am I? Why do I feel like there is some personal continuity going on? No matter how difficult it is for science, it is even more difficult for Buddhism, due to this rebirth thing.

  13. Interesting post. You still haven't mentioned Owen Flanagan, though. Hmmm.

    I think Buddhism has what I call the three ignoble lies: Karma, reincarnation and ineffable enlightenment. Any system of thought that relies on these things (let alone the devils, and spirits of, say, Tibetan Buddhism) cannot be considered a philosophy. It is, instead, a sneaky religion.

    Flanagan makes a heroic attempt at an apologia of buddhism, and I think he fails. But at least he's very lucid about the over reaching claims of brain studies purporting to prove that "mindfullness" and "meditation" are the key to happiness.

  14. Seth,

    > Central to the argument is the idea that relations are more fundamental than things. <

    Yes, I’m familiar with Ross (and Ladyman’s) arguments for ontic structural realism, but, again, to draw parallels between these ideas and Buddhism is similar to claim great insights for the Epicureans into modern physics. I think it’s a stretch because the meanings of the terms used in modern physics vs those ancient philosophies are very different, and because those philosophers had nothing like an articulated theory (let alone empirical evidence!) for what they were claiming. At best these parallels are curious footnotes to the history of human thought, but shouldn’t be taken as a serious accomplishments of said philosophies.


    I don’t mention Flanagan in the same way I don’t mention any modern philosophers. The post was simply meant to be a summary of my own musings on these three philosophies. That said, I do agree with your take on karma, reincarnation and so forth. One of the reasons I don’t like attempts like that of Flanagan is because I think they are bound to be forced, picking, choosing and reinterpreting. And whatever comes out at the other hand is nothing like Buddhism, Stoicism, or other ancient philosophies. But that doesn’t mean we should retain whatever positive insights those traditions had, and incorporate them into *new* philosophies of our own making.

    1. For whatever it's worth, I recall that Flanagan admits (e.g. in The Bodhisattva's Brain) that it might be more appropriate to call "naturalized Buddhism" (i.e. the outcome of his naturalistic analysis of Buddhist concepts) something other than "Buddhism."

      After all, his stated objective is basically to separate the (philosophical) wheat from all of the (superstitious) chaff.

      That said, one can make too much out of the semantics here. If nothing else, it is a linguistic convenience to describe, say, Gautama's version of virtue ethics as "Buddhist", so as to distinguish it from, say, Aristotle's version. But if that's still too vague, then that's what adjectives are for (e.g. "naturalized" and "secular").

      BTW, Flanagan himself makes this comparison & contrast between the virtue ethics of Gautama (a.k.a. "The Buddha") and Aristotle - particularly in how they each defined & envisioned well-being/flourishing. I found it most enlightening (so to speak).

    2. My main problem with Flanagan's approach is that he tried to find a single definition of happiness that fit all of the multifarious sorts of Buddhism that have propagated down the millennia, from the Pali Canon and Theravada tradition to Nagarjuna; from Mahayana and the old Tibetan tradition to contemporary sociopolitical figureheads like the Dalai Lama. I think that's too big and undefined a project, one that lends itself to oversimplification and misunderstanding. I'm not at all convinced there is a single, simple definition of "Happiness-Buddha" that covers them. And if there is, a whole lot more work needs to be done to find it.

      Re. "picking, choosing, and reinterpreting" as Massimo puts it, that should be our aim in any approach to contemporary philosophy and practice:


      The issue for contemporary western philosophers, I think, is the near-complete unfamiliarity with the Buddhist tradition, particularly in its earliest and most rigorous elements. The western tradition has pretty well digested Hellenism over the last few centuries since the Renaissance, and philosophers like Plato and Aristotle go farther back, forming a central part of Christian theology. Before we begin picking and choosing from the East, let's at least get some detailed understanding of what was said and why. Although people like Flanagan have made a start, I think much more needs to be done.

      (And BTW, I assume, Massimo, that you meant to say "that doesn't mean we *shouldn't* retain whatever positive insights those traditions had". Of course, in that we are in complete agreement).

      Re. Buddhist notions of happiness, I've hung back a bit on the question of nirvana, since it's thorny. But there is nothing that demands we take it as any more mystical or ineffable than Aristotle's eudaimonia.

    3. Doug,

      Indeed, I meant that we should be able to retain whatever has value in the project of updating or building philosophies!

    4. Massimo,
      I know of your familiarity with Ladyman & Ross as it was through your blog that I became aware. Thanks for that.

      It may be my philosophical naivite, but I think the the Taoist idea of complentary opposition is much more than a curious footnote. My understanding is that Bohr and Pauli were both interested in the writings of Lao Tsu. It seems to me there is applicability across the sciences. Terrence Deacons model of life from non-life is based on the idea of systems complementing each other through mutual constraint. In phisiology the general pattern of negative feedback systems reflect the same principle.

      Whenever ideas have regions of conflict, like those you recently discussed between utilitarianism and virtue ethics I think there is often a usefulness to be found in the way they necessarily mutually constrain each other. I also think this concept can help us to see the value in uncertainty and to guard against the confirmation bias.

      Others here are better equipped to the discuss the Buddhist principle of interdependence then me. I may be stretching the Taoist concept of complementary support but I don't think I am. Just as the argument in realism points to the unreasonable effectiveness of science, I think that the principle of complementary support has an unreasonable reach of applicability.

      I'm not a Taoist but am biased towards this particular concept.

    5. To Doug Smith .... and Buddhism wasn't the only "reform movement" ca 600-500 BCE. There was an Indian skeptic movement, there was Jainism, and then there was reform within Hinduism.

  15. Massimo, it is an interesting proposal that all three philosophies advocate limited social engagement specifically because they arose and thrived in times of social and political turmoil.

    However, as social animals, the biology based components of our emotional experience of durable well-being were selected for by the reproductive fitness benefits of engagement in groups. So I expect that achieving durable well-being is unlikely without some level of social engagement. This does not contradict your point about the three philosophies “limited” social engagement. But it does suggest that the most prudent take-away message is to optimize social engagement group size for the local social circumstances, and I would add individual personality, rather than blindly adopt the level of engagement originally advocated in a different age.

    Understanding “durable well-being” and what to do to maximize it is nicely illuminated by the goals of the three philosophies as you describe them: Stoic apatheia or peace of mind, Epicurean ataraxia or tranquility, and Buddhist nirvana or “cessation of craving and ignorance”. My thoughts on how to increase durable well-being in a culture have been focused on optimizing enforced cultural norms (moral codes) regarding engagement with other people to maximize the benefits (mainly the psychological benefits) of that engagement. Your post reminds me of the obvious importance to personal durable well-being, independent of enforced moral codes, of our internal attitudes toward our circumstances as advocated by the three philosophies.

  16. Epicurus didn't advocate social disengagement. He advocated disengagement from _politics_. And for a good reason: in his time politics was lethal... literally. Instead he urged people to be good friends and neighbors, to follow justice, and in general to "live unnoticed." It was much better for ataraxia than wanton meddling in politics.

    The reason that you think that the only social engagement Epicureans had was criticism of religion, is that christianity was a main target... This bias has nothing to do with Epicurus' actual philosophy.

    And finally the reason that these three resemble each other is that by Epicurus' time there was flow of people and ideas between Greece and India through the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and because Epicureanism was influential on stoicism, e.g. Marcus Aurelius is about fifty-fifty Epicurean and stoic.

    1. Ilkka,

      You are correct, but to me disengagement from politics means disengagement from a large chunk of the social. And yes, it is sensible advice in turbulent times, but certainly a rather passive way to deal with those times.

    2. Passive perhaps. But what were the risks? Socrates was _voted_ to death. The original 'democracy' in action... And it says much of Socrates' sanity that he accepted the sentence. This is the type of politics that was the norm in Epicurus' time. And by 'passivity' he survived in the same city to leave behind a school that lasted 600 years. I don't think that 'passive' is the correct word here.

      Today the stakes of politics might not be as high on an individual level, but they are harmful nonetheless. For instance, the teaching of evolution in the US is threatened by politics in Texas, women's rights are in peril because misogynists are still being elected into office... Here in Finland we just had _two_ major corruption trials end. An MP was found guilty and sentenced to prison (suspended)... And he is _still_ an MP.

      If politics were an important chunk of the social (which it isn't), it would be a chunk *deserving* of being cut out.

    3. Ilkka,

      May I butt-in on this conversation?...

      Isn't politics inescapable? If you try to make a statement that is non-political, you *implicitly* make a political statement in favor of the status quo (things are fine the way they are -- no need to comment on them). Not to comment on Slavery as it is going on all around you is to implicitly condone Slavery.

      You point out the deleterious effects of politics (anti-evolution groups, women's rights in peril) -- but aren't the effects of non-action just as deleterious (or more so?) Dante said that the darkest places in hell are reserved for those who remain neutral in times of moral crisis.

      Remember, women only recently *obtained* their rights in the U.S. through political action. Evolution is taught today due in part to political action (the Monkey Trial, etc.).

      It seems to me that rights aren't handed out due to the kindness of the ruling class, but are won by hard fought political action -- that's how Slavery was ended, and most rights obtained in the first place.

      It seems to me that people who advocate cutting politics out of the picture are lobbying for the preservation of the status quo -- a very politically conservative message.

    4. Tom,

      I think your definition of politics is too broad, and so the concept becomes empty. If anything and everything is political, then nothing is...

      I'm sure that you've commented on many ills of this world, but which have you not? And therefore you have condoned them? I don't think that non-commenting can be seen as condoning in any important sense. It simply isn't humanly possible to systematically comment on every aspect of the world. You must take a stand on the issues that come across _your_ life, but that isn't politics... it's ethics.

      Dante's words, as well as any hell, are fiction. I have _never_ come across a situation where politics was ahead of morality... most often it's dead weight slowing ethical progress. And I'm sure that politics has caused more moral crises than it has ever solved.

      Women didn't gain their rights... they've had all the rights since the days of Homo Habilis. What they gained was freedom from the political suppression of their rights. Democracy is a terrifying thing when it's fueled by misogyny and sense of entitlement. Epicurus' school, btw, had equality for women from the beginning (by cutting out politics).

      If everyone ceased doing politics (as the Epicureans urge) the status quo would be swept away overnight. The first thing to go would be the power of lobbyists...

    5. Illka,

      I don’t mean to be argumentative. I am interested in what you write, and would like you to clarify some things if you would.

      You wrote,
      “You must take a stand on the issues that come across _your_ life, but that isn't politics... it's ethics.”

      How do you distinguish between politics and taking a stand on ethical issues? Epicurus himself said, “Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering.” It would seem to me that making an argument with a view towards relieving human suffering is a bona fide example of politics.

      If my definition of politics is too broad, isn’t your definition too narrow?
      You seem to equate politics with everything evil, and forget that politics can lead to many positive changes. (i.e. the establishment of teaching evolution, not just political criticism of the teaching of evolution).

      I read this article (“Epicurus on Politics: So What?”, see http://shaunmiller.wordpress.com/2008/08/23/epicurus-on-politics-so-what/)

      I’m not expert enough on Epicurus to know if the author accurately summed up the Epicurian philosophy, but the article indicates that Epicurus believed that politics never leads to any meaningful change and should be avoided for that reason.

      What is your point of view on political comment vs. ethical comment? Do you agree with the notion that politics never leads to meaningful change?

      Thanks for your comments.

    6. "How do you distinguish between politics and taking a stand on ethical issues?"

      Taking a stand is a question of speech: Stating one's opinion, Approving or disapproving an action or statement, etc.
      Politics is a matter of acting to effect the government: lobbying, calling elected representatives, trying to run for office, trying to effect legislation... etc.

      “Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering.”

      Epicurus' statement here is more broad than mere politics. Philosophy was for him a kind of mental hygiene: the cleaning away beliefs and irrational fears that cause suffering. The warning against politics is a part of this relieving of suffering. In general, politics tend to cause more suffering than solve it, so we should refrain from it.

      "If my definition of politics is too broad, isn’t your definition too narrow?"

      Perhaps narrow, but I haven't seen a convincing argument that my (or Epicurus') definition is 'too' narrow. To me it makes a practical distinction between politics and not-politics, without leaving out anything important.

      "You seem to equate politics with everything evil, and forget that politics can lead to many positive changes."

      There are many things that are 'evil' but not political. Discussion here is about politics, though.

      I don't deny that some effects of politics can be positive, but I deny that politics are a _necessary_ condition of such effects. The dangerous thing about politics is that if you seek positive things through it, you *must* accept the negatives too. If you want to be consistent in your beliefs, that is... Letting politics control the teaching of science (e.g. evolution) is to make it a game of popularity. And when you lose that game you have only yourself to blame. Never let the wrong side define the rules... :)


      Epicurus' argument against politics in general was wider than merely lack of "meaningful change". There was also the factor of letting other people dominate your Happiness, and pursuit thereof. For instance, it's harmful to the politician to place their life, work, status, livelihood, self-esteem, etc. in the hands of voters (they are a fickle lot, vulnerable to the propaganda of others... *coughfoxnewscough*). It's equally harmful for the voters to put their lives in the hands of the politicians... who are vulnerable to the lobbyists.

      "What is your point of view on political comment vs. ethical comment?"

      A comment is a comment... and most comments can be seen as both. There is little to be gained by trying to define individual comments either way. Generally the criterion should be action taken on the comment.

      "Do you agree with the notion that politics never leads to meaningful change?"

      No, I don't. 'Never' is an absolute. And only the Sith deal in absolutes.

  17. You can add to the list the Taoism of Chuang Tzu, who wrote in the era known as The Warring States Period (475-221 BCE). There is the same negative attitude to the emotions, limited social engagement, and rejection of political involvement.

    On the emotions, I prefer the rather more nuanced approach of the novelist J G Ballard, who once wrote: "I believe in the death of the emotions and the triumph of the imagination." Provocative stuff! The point is that, unlike the imagination, the emotions channel our actions onto well-determined paths (that's precisely why we have them!) They're all right in their place - the immediate family, say - but in the 21st century they restrict us. Particularly fear, anger, and desire. "They reinforce the status quo. They set up a kind of tyranny rather like the psychology of a very small child, which may be entirely governed by passionate emotions that are in fact very limiting." There seems to be a lot of that in political discussions ...

  18. Your understanding of karma is incorrect. It is the oversimplified Western view of Karma. Rather than try and explain, I think it is just easiest to point you toward this Wikipedia page. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karma_in_Buddhism


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