Bushido and Stoicism

Figs in Winter
Feb 27, 2020 · 7 min read
Samurai, circa 1860, Wikipedia

The more I think about philosophy as a way of life, the more I am convinced that there are profound similarities among philosophies and religions from different time periods and cultures. Of course, there are differences as well. Variety is the spice of life, and cultural variety is a hallmark of human evolution. But we are far more similar, biologically and culturally, then the popular emphasis on cultural relativism would grant. It is true that, as Socrates said, what goes in Athens does not go in Corinth — meaning that local customs are different in different cities and nations. But it is even more true that the people of both Athens and Corinth are fundamentally human beings, with the same basic necessities, and very similar aspirations and fears.

Which is why I’m always interested in comparisons between Stoicism — my chosen life philosophy — and other ways of answering the fundamental question: what kind of life is worth living, for a human being? Recently I discussed the convergence between Stoic and Buddhist ethics, today is the turn of Bushido, the code of the Japanese Samurai.

A good article summarizing the seven virtues of the Samurai has appeared recently in Medium, authored by Abel Chan. I will follow his exposition in order to make an orderly comparison with Stoicism.

As Chan says at the onset of his article, every morning the Samurai recommits to death. That makes sense, considering that the life of a Samurai was full of perils, and it wasn’t at all inconceivable that each morning could be the last one. However, the Stoics think that we should all regularly contemplate our death, because it will be the last test of our character, and because we have no idea when it will actually come:

We then come to the seven virtues of the Samurai. Obviously, there is no one-to-one comparison with the Stoic virtues, if nothing else because there are only four of the latter! However, Stoic ethics goes beyond the cardinal virtues of practical wisdom (referred to also as prudence), courage, justice, and temperance, so let’s see how the two philosophies compare in a broader sense.

Gi: justice, rectitude. The first Samurai virtue has to do with one’s power to decide the right course of action by way of reason. This includes, among other things, the willingness to decide when to die, if need be.

The Stoics similarly believe that reason — in adult human beings — is the foundation of virtue, and that we have a duty to behave justly toward fellow human beings, as they are members of the human cosmopolis.

Yuuki: heroic courage. Bushido makes an interesting distinction between courage and mere bravery: courage is acting morally despite risk or danger. Bravery, as Chan puts it, appeals only to juvenile minds, and is not a hallmark of the virtuous and thoughtful person.

Here again there is complete agreement with Stoicism. One of the crucial doctrines in our philosophy is the so-called unity of the virtues: one simply cannot be courageous without being also at the same time just (and temperate, and prudent — in the sense of practical wisdom). And we certainly do not require battles to exercise our courage:

Jin: benevolence, compassion. Despite, or indeed precisely because, they were warriors, Samurais were expected to exercise compassion toward other people. It’s relatively easy to approach a situation with violence, to rely on one’s sword to solve problems. It requires wisdom to display love and benevolence toward others, or magnanimity — greatness of soul.

Seneca wrote an entire book entitled On Clemency, in which he explores the virtue of magnanimity. The Stoics were certainly not averse to the use of violence, when absolutely needed. Cato the Younger took up arms against what he saw as the tyranny of Julius Caesar. So did Gaius Bossus, after his attempts at influencing much needed reforms in the Roman state failed and his friend Tiberius Gracchus lost his life in the process.

Rei: respect. The idea of rei is that a true warrior should not be cruel, and that cruelty is certainly not a path to gain respect. Rather, this is achieved by dealing justly with others, and by showing strength when the going gets tough. As Chan says, true strength becomes apparent during difficult times.

Here again the Stoics would agree. Cruelty is “against nature,” meaning that it goes contrary to our nature as prosocial animals capable of reason. As for difficult times, here is what Seneca says in this regard:

Makoto: sincerity. The Samurai does not have to make promises, because his word is as good as his actions. Indeed, without sincerity, virtue becomes an empty form.

And speaking of empty forms vs the substance of virtue, the Stoics again nod in agreement:

Meiyo: honor. The Samurai cultivates a strong sense of personal dignity and worth, what is often referred to as honor. Indeed, for him honor is worth losing his life over, by the well know ritual suicide, seppuku.

Although the Stoics did not have a direct equivalent of Meiyo, they did allow for suicide in cases that included the preservation of personal dignity. For instance, Seneca recounts the following episode:

Chugi: loyalty, duty. The Samurai has an obligation to keep his word whenever he has pledged loyalty — on penalty of damaging the integrity of his character. And he has duties that he has to follow regardless of the cost to himself.

The Stoics also were big on duties, though they understood them as broader than the Bushido seems to allow: we have duties not just toward individual human beings, but toward humanity at large, because we are all social animals capable of reason. Here is an example of the Stoic take on duty:

One final similarity between the two philosophies. Yamamoto Tsunetomo, cited by Chan, says: “There is certainly nothing more important in life than what we do in the present moment. A person’s entire life consists in nothing more than of moments piled on top of another, over and over again. Once enlightened to this, the warrior has nothing else to worry about, because he realizes that he has only to live in the present moment with the utmost intensity.”

Seneca says something remarkably similar:

Even though Bushido developed between the 16th and 20th centuries in Japan, under the influence of Neo-Confucianism, while Stoicism originated in Athens near the end of the 4th century BCE, the two philosophies of life display remarkable similarities, as I hope to have made clear above. While Bushido strictly speaking applies to the Samurai (in this sense, it is roughly analogous to the chivalric code of medieval Europe), Stoicism applies to every human being interested in improving herself and the world. Either way, both philosophies provide us with solid frameworks to achieve a life of meaning and serenity.

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Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

Figs in Winter

Written by

by Massimo Pigliucci. Stoicism, ethics, and philosophy of science. Complete index, by subject, at https://figsinwinter.blog/essays/

Stoicism — Philosophy as a Way of Life

Articles about Stoic Philosophy for modern living

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