Enlightenment and Eudaimonia: Cultivating Wisdom from East to West
On the striking similarity between Buddhism and Stoicism
When spiritual teachers from the East first started arriving in the West in the 60s and 70s, many young people who had grown weary of the Judeo-Christian tradition and everything that it stood for in terms of societal and cultural norms found a brand new world laid open before them.
A whole generation “turned on” to Hinduism, Taoism and of course Buddhism. Here was a religion that seemed so different from what they’d grown up with: a life philosophy, at its core, that didn’t require faith in a Creator God, but instead offered practical exercises for cultivating wisdom, mental calm and compassion. Regardless of what you believed in, you could always sit down in a certain posture, watch your breath or practice mindful walking. Either it had an effect or it didn’t. It was this spirit of self-experimentation that deeply resonated with the counter-culture.
Curiously, it’s not that there were no similar philosophical practices in the West, it’s just that they had been largely forgotten. And while admittedly many contemporary streams of Christianity and Judaism still mostly rely on faith or devotional prayer as a core “practice”, the West has its own treasure trove of philosophical practices, we just need to dig a bit deeper.
The Emperor’s New Groove
The French philosopher Pierre Hadot, who is largely credited with recovering and reconstructing many so called “spiritual exercises” in the Western tradition wrote in his groundbreaking book The Inner Citadel about the Meditations by Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius: “For the ancients in general, but particularly for the Stoics […] philosophy was, above all, a way of life.” (emphasis mine)
Contrary to our notions of philosophy, this way of life was characterized by employing an extensive toolkit of practical techniques and leading to ever-greater levels of Eudaimonia, a Greek word commonly translated as happiness but better understood as flourishing or inner fulfilment.
“[T]he Meditations strive, by means of an ever-renewed effort, to describe this way of life and to sketch the model that one must have constantly in view: that of the ideal good man. Ordinary people are content to think in any old way, to act haphazardly, and to undergo grudgingly whatever befalls them. The good man, however, will try, insofar as he is able, to act justly in the service of other people, to accept serenely those events which do not depend on him, and to think with rectitude and veracity.” — Hadot, The Inner Citadel (p. 50)
Ironically, while in the 60s and 70s Eastern philosophies enjoyed great popularity among young Westerners, Graeco-Roman philosophy in general and Stoicism in particular was considered drab, dull and full of buzzkill finger-wagging.
This may have been partly due to the way ancient philosophy was and is still being taught in Academia: as a discipline of abstract logic and scholarly hairsplitting. You could get your PhD in philosophy and never even hear about the concept of “philosophy as a way of life”, as outlined by Hadot.
More importantly perhaps, the language of “virtue ethics” used by the Stoics and other schools had been successively assimilated by the Church and fused with its moral theology over the centuries, although the two systems are quite different, after all.
Last but not least, reading old translations of classic texts written in old King Jamesian English compounded the notion that the ancients had nothing new to offer for those interested in spiritual exercises and inner fulfilment and they had better look to the East.
In the following article I‘ll show some of the major ways in which Buddhism and Stoicism a philosophies of life are more similar than a cursory reading may suggest, and look briefly into possible reasons for this similarity.
The Art Of Living An Excellent Life
Although the ancient school of Stoicism founded by Zeno of Citium in the early 3rd century BCE encompassed a complex system of logic and physics, from the very beginning until its later period there was a strong emphasis on practical “ethics”, or to put it in modern terms: “how to live a good life”. Zeno himself for example defined eudaimonia as a “good flow of life” and Stoic ethics as providing the path and tools towards reaching that goal.
As mentioned above, at the heart of Stoicism lies a system of virtue ethics. The term “virtue” itself is problematic today, partly due to, again, being co-opted by theologians and mixed with “foreign” religious concepts, but in the classical sense the Greek word arete (virtue) simply meant excellence. In that sense, virtue ethics is simply “the art of living an excellent life”.
Similarly to Buddhist practice which aims to cultivate Pāramitās (perfections or completions) such as Khanti (patience and tolerance), Sīla (proper conduct) and Mettā (loving-kindness) the ancient cardinal virtues in the West, originally set forth by Plato in his Republic were: wisdom, courage, moderation and justice.
While these four virtues were considered “goods” by many ancient philosophical schools, the Stoics went one step further and said that they’re the only good worth striving for. Hence they put even more emphasis on practicing these virtues than other schools who had more metaphysical inclinations from the start, such as Plato’s Academy.
If enlightenment is the ultimate goal for Buddhists, and eudaimonia (or “good flow”) for Stoics, both paths aim to cultivate wisdom and other virtues as a means towards that goal and an end in itself.
Paying Attention: Mindfulness Practice
While the Buddhist practice of mindfulness (“being in the moment”) has become increasingly popular in Western culture and was even adopted into evidence-based approaches to psychotherapy as part of the “mindfulness revolution”, the concept itself isn’t foreign to Western culture at all.
“[For the Stoics] philosophy was a unique act which had to be practiced at each instant, with constantly renewed attention (prosokhē) to one-self and to the present moment. The Stoic’s fundamental attitude is his continuous attention, which means constant tension and consciousness, as well as vigilance exercises at every moment” — Hadot, 2002, What is ancient philosophy?, p.138
Part of the reason for practicing prosokhē pertains to the cultivation of virtues outlined above. The constant attention applied to one’s thoughts and emotions aims to help identify weaknesses and inculcate strengths of character. But there’s a second aspect to practicing Stoic mindfulness: bringing oneself to the present moment, the here and now, which contrary to popular belief is not an Eastern idea per se but has deep roots within the Western tradition:
“[T]he person who applies all his attention and all his consciousness to the present will feel that he has everything within the present moment, for within this moment he has both the absolute value of existence and the absolute value of moral intent. There is nothing further left to desire. An entire lifetime and all eternity could not bring him more happiness.” — ibid., p.194
Marcus Aurelius reminds himself in his Meditations :
“Every hour focus your mind attentively on the performance of the task in hand, with dignity, human sympathy, benevolence and freedom, and leave aside all other thoughts. You will achieve this, if you perform each action as if it were your last.”
Cultivating Kindness And Compassion
Stoicism often has the image of a stern, joyless philosophy that aims to turn people into emotionless robots, which is due to a common misunderstanding of their rather complex theory of emotions. For now let’s just note that the Stoics weren’t against feeling per se but working towards reducing destructive feelings instead.
So, not only did the Stoics aim to combat irrational anger and fear for example, they also put great emphasis on developing compassion for other people as part of their understanding of the cosmos as a living organism in which all parts work and belong together.
Perhaps most famously, the 2nd century Stoic philosopher Hierocles whose major works (like those of many other Stoics) were lost in their entirety, describes in a famous fragment preserved by Stobaeus how the human being exists within a number of concentric circles: family, local community, country or culture, and entire humanity. According to Hierocles our goal should be to increasingly draw the outer circle inwards, i.e. extending our natural care and affection to an ever wider range of people.
This is an idea that’s very prominent in Buddhism as well with its constant emphasis on cultivating care and compassion for all “sentient beings”, avoiding hatred or cruelty towards other people and even animals. In the Lamrim for example, the Tibetan “manual” of enlightenment students are urged to practice seeing every other human being as their mother, because due to the Buddhist theory of reincarnation, this person may have literally once nurtured them.
Similarly, although without the reincarnation theory, Hierocles suggests practicing labeling strangers or foreigners in one’s mind as “uncle” or “brother” to extend our natural familial affinity outwards to include other people.
As a quick aside, for people who struggle with familial dysfunction, which is unfortunately very common these days, seeing every other creature as one’s “mother” may do more harm than good. But I think the idea of extending natural affections we already have (for friends, role-models, etc.) to ever wider circles remains valid nevertheless, especially in our times where foreigners are routinely stigmatized and whole nations scurry to retreat behind impenetrable borders.
Suffering & Resilience
The “four noble truths” of Buddhism all revolve around suffering: the fact that it exists, how it’s caused, that it ends, and how to end it. What may sound somewhat depressing at first is actually more of a “hands-on” approach to dealing with the basic facts of life.
According to Buddhism suffering is created due to attachment to external things. If we get overly attached to a job, an object or a friend, and then we lose them, we suffer. The suggested solution is therefore to eliminate cravings and desires that lead to attachment in the first place.
Similarly, Stoics say that it’s not external things or people themselves that make us upset but our judgments or opinions about them. Notably, “externals” here are defined not as outside of our bodies but rather outside of our control.
As the Roman Stoic Epictetus puts it in the opening lines of the Enchiridion:
“Some things are under our control, while others are not under our control. Under our control are conception, choice, desire, aversion, and, in a word, everything that is our own doing; not under our control are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, everything that is not our own doing. Furthermore, the things under our control are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; while the things not under our control are weak, servile, subject to hindrance, and not our own. Remember, therefore, that if what is naturally slavish you think to be free, and what is not your own to be your own, you will be hampered, will grieve, will be in turmoil, and will blame both gods and men; while if you think only what is your own to be your own, and what is not your own to be, as it really is, not your own, then no one will ever be able to exert compulsion upon you, no one will hinder you, you will blame no one, will find fault with no one, will do absolutely nothing against your will, you will have no personal enemy, no one will harm you, for neither is there any harm that can touch you.”
The Stoic answer to the perennial problem of suffering is therefore a) never to desire those things that are outside of our control and b) not trying to avoid those things that are bound to happen anyway:
“Remember that the promise of desire is the attainment of what you desire, that of aversion is not to fall into what is avoided, and that he who fails in his desire is unfortunate, while he who falls into what he would avoid experiences misfortune. If, then, you avoid only what is unnatural among those things which are under your control, you will fall into none of the things which you avoid; but if you try to avoid disease, or death, or poverty, you will experience misfortune.” — Enchiridion 2
Who Copied Whom?
Both Buddhism and Stoicism seem to agree that at the root of our human suffering lies a misjudgement or misreading of reality, either due to being unrealistic about things such as disease, pain and death or due to being overly and falsely invested in external things.
Also, both philosophies include mindfulness practice for slowing down and managing one’s judgements or reactions to external things more consciously and appropriately, trying to curb harmful desires and emotions in the process.
Last but not least, Stoics as well as Buddhist see the world in general and humanity in particular as interconnected wholes, emphasising collaboration instead of conflict, and harmony instead of hatred, wherever possible.
How can it be that these two philosophies that developed out of ancient Greece and India are so similar? Did one copy the other? Which one was first?
While the actual date of death of the historical Buddha is somewhat disputed, the Third Buddhist Council, in which key doctrines were defined under the patronage of Indian King Ashoka (304BCE — 232BCE), took place a few decades before Zeno first founded the school of Stoicism.
Was there an exchange between Greek philosophers and early Buddhists? We know that Alexander the Great undertook a great expedition to India accompanied by a group of Greek philosophers. According to Greek biographer Diogenes Laertius the philosopher Pyrrho of Elis, considered the first skeptic, was heavily influenced by his experiences in India:
“[…] he joined Anaxarchus, whom he accompanied on his travels everywhere so that he even forgathered with the Indian Gymnosophists and with the Magi. This led him to adopt a most noble philosophy, to quote Ascanius of Abdera, taking the form of agnosticism and suspension of judgement.” — Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, 9.61
It’s not clear whether these “Gymnosophists” (‘naked wise men’) may have perhaps been Buddhists. But it’s not unlikely that there were exchanges between these two philosophies even outside of Indian territory. King Ashoka who ruled over an area bordering the Greek Empire in the third century BCE apparently also sent various delegations to Greece. While it’s not clear what the results of these meetings were, it’s not improbable that the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism may have some historical aspects.
Regardless of their origins, both Buddhism and Stoicism share a deep understanding of the basic facts of life and provide practical approaches to managing our emotions and desires, cultivating virtues, reducing suffering and increasing inner fulfilment in the process.