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.

Reprinted from Rationally Speaking, Feb 1, 2013