Buddhism vs. Stoicism: Compare and Contrast

Nov 23 2019
Interest in Stoicism has grown lately—as has interest in Buddhism, particularly the Buddhist idea of mindfulness. Is this just a coincidence, or do these two schools of thought have something in common, something that speaks to a widely felt contemporary need? A while ago, I had a podcast conversation about this with philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, author of the book How to Be a Stoic and a leading figure in the Stoic revival. That conversation has proved popular in video and audio form, so we thought we’d transcribe it and share some of its highlights with newsletter readers. Hope you like the result.

WRIGHT: So I wanted to do a compare and contrast with Stoicism and Buddhism. You write in How to Be a Stoic that you personally find Buddhism “a bit too mystical, its texts opaque and hard to interpret.” At the same time, you acknowledge that there really are some fundamental commonalities, or commonalities of perspective, between Buddhism and Stoicism. So I thought what we would do is a kind of compare and contrast...

We should also pause and say that this book is part of a larger project: you have for some time now been kind of resurrecting Stoicism. Maybe not quite single-handedly, but you’ve certainly been in the forefront, and this book is part of that. I think it makes perfect sense for a relatively secular age when people are looking for philosophies to live by.

PIGLIUCCI: I agree. The reason I got into it initially was a combination, as it often is in these cases, of serendipity and choices. One of the things I was doing is looking for some time for a better, more organic philosophy of life. I grew up Catholic, [but] was done pretty early, when I was a teenager. And then for a number of years I considered myself a secular humanist—to some extent I still do—but the problem is that secular humanism increasingly felt more like a laundry list of things that I liked, really, than an actual organic philosophy. And so I was kind of dissatisfied; this was a number of years ago. And finally, through secular humanism, I rediscovered, if you will, virtue ethics...A lot of secular humanists are into virtue ethics, in particular Epicureanism or...and Aristotelianism. Some of them are into Epicureanism because of the metaphysics of the Epicureans: the idea that the cosmos came out of random chaos of atoms and things like that. And also, even though Epicurus was not an atheist, he certainly was at the very least a deist. He thought that...if there is a god, it's out there, it's not doing anything, and we really shouldn't be afraid of punishment after death and all that sort of stuff. Those are, according to Epicureanism, inventions that are exploited by other people to make us fear things and do things that we don't necessarily want to do.

So I did explore a little bit of Aristotelianism, a little bit of Epicureanism, and I wasn't quite satisfied with either one of them...

In the case of Aristotelianism, it tends to be a little bit of an aristocratic philosophy. Aristotle said that, yeah, the eudaemonic life, the life worth living, is mostly a life of virtue, but you also need a few other things: you need to have a little bit of wealth, a little bit of education, a little bit of good looks, even. And I was like, “Eh, I don't know about that.” 

Epicurus was interesting; he said a lot of things that that certainly resonated with me, but Epicurean philosophy is also detached from social engagement and political engagement, because the main point was to decrease pain throughout life, especially of the emotional kind. Epicurus thought that if you if you get yourself involved in social issues and politics, you're definitely going to ask for it, so don't do it, and I don't think that a good human life is acceptable without a social and political involvement. 

So I was kind of looking around and maybe even making up my own little version of things. Then all of a sudden, I got a tweet three years ago that said “Help us celebrate Stoic Week!” and I said, “What the hell is Stoic Week?”...But out of curiosity, I signed up for it and so for a week, I was practicing. There was a different theme every day, a different exercise every day, and I thought, “Oh, this is kind of fun.” And once I finished that week, I thought, “You know, this is actually interesting. Let me let me continue for a little bit longer.” That year Stoic Week was in November, so I continued until the end of the year. I got to the end of the year I said “Hey, this is actually helpful. I need to think and learn more about this stuff.Let me commit to another year.” And now we're three years later—a book a blog and all that stuff—so clearly it's working for me...

One thing that Buddhism and Stoicism have in common is an emphasis on maintaining equanimity in the face of circumstances that might be considered adverse.. and in the extreme case, if you become a true kind of master in either realm, equanimity under any circumstances whatsoever, right? That's the ideal?

Ideally yes, right.

And is there,, I don't want to say a ranking system...but I mean, in Buddhism, there are laypeople of course, but there are monks, and then there are, in theory, people who have attained enlightenment. Now, I gather that in Stoicism, “sage” is a kind of aspired-to level of attainment that very few people reach. Is that right?

Yeah, that's about right. I mean, the figure of the sage in Stoicism is a little bit controversial, even among the ancient Stoics. Some of them seem to say that the sage is just an idea, or it's not something that anybody can actually reach in their lifetimes. Other people say, “yeah, somebody can potentially become a sage, but it's a really rare thing.” The thing that I do like about Stoicism—again, beginning with the ancient variety, but also in the modern version—is that in a sense, to use a Christian way to put it, we’re all sinners, we're all imperfect. But so long as we're trying to work on things, we're trying to improve—the term is “Prokopton,” “the one who makes progress”—So long as we're trying to do that, that's really the goal. As Seneca famously put it, “I’m not aiming at being perfect, I’m aiming at being better than yesterday.”

Now that leads to a question. First of all I would say there's very much a similar kind of argument, at least in Western Buddhism...In Asian Buddhism, I don't think there's any doubt that enlightenment is in theory attainable; certainly the Buddha reached it. But in Western Buddhism...people argue, is anyone truly enlightened—and I've talked to people who consider themselves enlightened—or is it just something you would approach asymptotically and never reach? And you have this same argument there. 

You mentioned this Christian idea that we're all sinners—one thing Buddhism has in common with Christianity something you could call a “theory of the nature of being human” if not a “theory of human nature” that accounts for this problem. So Christianity has original sin: we inherited the sin.. or simply...something not great that goes all the way to Adam and Eve. Buddhism has something comparable; the idea is you are born with some degree of confusion about the actual nature of reality and liberation, or just alleviation from suffering, will lie in dispelling the confusion, the ignorance, and getting a clearer view of reality. So there's a theory about why we suffer to begin with. Does Stoicism have something like that? 

The Stoics do have something like that. It's much more similar to the Buddhist variety; that is, for Stoics, suffering and unhappiness are derived from the fact that we have fundamental misconceptions about the nature of reality, and in particular, we do not take seriously the so-called “dichotomy of control,” which is that some things are, you know, up to us, and other things are not up to us, and that we should focus our efforts on the

things that actually are under our control. And “under our control,” turns out, is only our behavior, our values, and our judgments--everything else is outside, and you should treat it as “an indifferent”, indifferent to your ability to live a good life, a life that is worth living.

Now, it's not indifferent in the sense that you don't literally care about it -- in fact, that's what the Stoics introduced this distinction between preferred and dispreferred indifference. This wonderful oxymoronic phrase does help in making a fundamental point, which is: [therea are] certain things you do want to go after, the same things that Aristotle and everybody else will value: you know, education, wealth, friends all that sort of stuff. And other things you want to stay away from as much as possible: poverty, sickness, and so on and so forth. 

But all of those, both the positive and the negative ones, are indifferent, meaning that they are not the things that make your life worth living. What makes your life worth living is right judgment and behaving as a person that is concerned about his or her moral integrity. That's what makes your life worth living. If you're going to go after riches, for instance, or anything else, any positive, “preferred” indifferent, and in doing so you compromise your moral integrity...--then those things are definitely not worthwhile. You should be detached from them, you should really not care about them.

Okay, so the basic distinction between things that are in your control and things are not, is reflected in the Christian serenity prayer, right?


“God,” well, how does that go? “God grant me the courage to change the things I can, serenity to accept the things I can’t, and the wisdom to know the difference”?

That's right, and the serenity prayer is actually fairly recent. It was introduced by a theologian in the early part of the 20th century. 

It's generally attributed to Reinhold Niebuhr although there's a little controversy..

Yeah, as usual with these things, But I found out in researching it for my bookthat similar sentiments are also found in medieval Jewish philosophy; I believe in Buddhism as well; and certainly Epictetus’s version is very similar and goes back to the second century. 

I don't think a big deal is explicitly made of that distinction in Buddhism, in part because the aspiration in Buddhism is so radical: to be able to be indifferent to all forms of adversity. There isn't as much emphasis on reaching out and controlling the things you can. 

I should say that, of course, Buddhism is so diverse and far-flung, and because it has been a living and geographically spreading tradition ever since 2,500 years ago...you cannot say much about Buddhism generally. But with that as a caveat...

Let me stop you there for a second. When I'm asked by people about the similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism, other than telling them that I don't have expertise in Buddhism, that I only read a few things and I talked to a few people like you, I also tell them that [this is] one of the major differences in terms of cultural tradition. 

Stoicism existed in a fairly compact way between the third century BCE and the second century [CE]. I mean, the Stoics did disagree among themselves. There were things that changed over those five hundred years, but not that much. And then there was basically a hiatus of one and a half millennia or more before modern Stoicism arose. And of course, that makes Stoicism actually a much more compact philosophy and much more genial(?) philosophy. When I say it compares with Buddhism, I [also] say you should think about Buddhism as a family of philosophy, or or talk about Buddhism in the plurals, you know, “Buddhisms,” because there's a variety of ways of interpreting it and it has evolved in a number of different ways.

Right, and there's the fact that Buddhism, as lived by most Asians, is a religion with deities and all that stuff, and the version of Buddhism that has come to dominate the United States, or at least gets the most attention, is more secular, naturalistic. It does put a lot of emphasis on the practices...


...meditative practices, and on the philosophy, but for many people the religion part has dropped out. 

Stoicism had what we might call a religious dimension; they were basically pantheistic. You alluded to this a little I guess...There's the idea of the logos, which entered Christianity. There’s a philosophy about what the universe is, and your place in it, that at least has religious overtones, right?

Yeah, to some extent that's right. 

So the thing is, first of all, the Stoics themselves, again, disagreed about the importance of this thing. For instance, Marcus Aurelius is very clear in the Meditations: he says that, whether there are atoms or there is Providence, whether there is chaos or there is a God, it doesn't really matter, because I still have to behave in a certain way. I still have to deal with fellow human beings. 

So even they were cognizant of the fact that, as a modern philosopher would put it, their metaphysics under-determined their ethics. That is, there wasn't a one-to-one correspondence between metaphysics and ethics. But yeah, I think it's fair to say that Stoicism was never a religion. In fact, Zeno, the originator of Stoicism, explicitly said in his book Republic that there would be no temples in an ideal Stoic society.


So it was not a religion, you were not supposed to worship anybody. But it is true that different Stoics differed in their interpretation of the concepts of Providence and God. 

Some Stoics basically use the word God or Zeus as synonymous with nature or the web of cause and effect, [but, for example,] Epictetus sounds at times almost like a Christian. He keeps talking about God in a little more personal way. 

I think it's fair to say that they were in fact pantheists, broadly speaking. So they thought that God is immanent in nature and it is physical. And in fact, we are literally bits and pieces of God. That’s how they interpret the logos

But one of the things that I do like about Stoicism is that, because of the fact that the logos can be interpreted in a number of ways, it is actually a fairly ecumenical philosophy, right. So if you're actually a pantheist then you're fine, you're pretty much on the same page as the ancient Stoics.

And do you want to tell people what you mean by logos? I don't think we've actually defined the term.

Right, so the logos is this idea that the universe is structured in a rational way, that there

is reason in the universe. 

Now, you can take that in a variety of ways. You can say, “Well, that's the manifestation of the fact that the universe is a living organism that sort of self-organizes.” That's the way in which most of the ancient Stoics interpret it and that's what makes them pantheists. But you could also go the Christian way—and the Christians did absorb a lot of notions from from the Stoics—say “yeah, sure, the logos is the Word of God, there is a God that is outside the universe, creator of the universe, and the logos is his word made flesh or made real.” Or you can go the other way, what is sometimes referred to as Einstein's God, which is something that an agnostic or an atheist would be fairly comfortable with: you interpret the logos as the observation that the universe is organized according to rational principles. If you were not, then we wouldn't have science we can understand.

Okay, so yeah, there is the idea of the logos. It had, as you say, a lot of influence in the ancient world. The first line in the book of John in the Bible is “In the beginning was the word.” “Word” is a translation of “logos” and would have had the philosophical connotations that logos had then, which is more than the word “word,” it was the unfolding of divine will, in the form of a logical kind of natural algorithm.

That's right.

And in thinking about what Buddhism has...Buddhism does not have the idea of an omnipotent creator god. There certainly is implied a kind of a natural order that you want to accord with. 

William James...said religion generally is characterized by the belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in aligning ourselves with that order, or something like that. And in my book, I argue that Buddhism has a version of that in a couple of senses: one of them is that there is the idea in Buddhism that there's an alignment of three things. 

First of all, the things you do to alleviate your own suffering make you a better person. So there's the assertion of an alignment between you might say self-help, and moral improvement, and then both of those are aligned with seeing the world more clearly. 

So the quest for truth and clarity is both the quest to improve your own well-being…[and] to become a morally better person. And they make a pretty good case. I kind of defend the case in the book, but in any event, the premise is that the universe is set up that way. I mean, they don't talk about that a lot, so far as I know, as some kind of evidence of divine will, but there's clearly the sense—and I gather there is in Stoicism as well—that the universe is in some sense benign. And all the more so if you understand that fact, understand the way it works.

Yeah. I think you're right...Everything you said in the last couple of minutes could have been said by a Stoic. 

The Stoics had a recurring phrase: “You should be living according to nature.” And living according to nature doesn't mean that you should go naked in the woods and hug trees, it means that you should understand how the world works: both the world at large, the cosmos itself, and, in particular, human nature. You should have the best understanding possible of the kind of being that a human is. 

And for the Stoics, the two most important aspects of a human being are the fact that we're a social animal—we're dependent on each other—and [that] we are capable of reason, so we can apply reason to improve our life, basically.

And as you just said a minute ago, if I understood you correctly, the Stoics also did not really make this sharp distinction that we make today, that is often made today in moral philosophy, between self-interest and the interests of others. If you help other people, you are helping yourself, but not in a direct reciprocating kind of way. Not in a sense of, you know, what biologists call reciprocal altruism--I scratch your back, you scratch my back. But just because that is in the nature of a social being: you will feel better, you will live in a better environment, that's what you're supposed to be doing because you are a social thing.

So in that sense, I really don't see a lot of difference between the [Stoicism and Buddhism]. 

Now, as far as the universe itself being sort of benign, I think that was definitely [the case] in ancient Stoicism. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, Seneca, they're all very clear that the universe, it doesn't have a plan as such, but it behaves in a certain way that is conducive to good action. 

One of the analogies that both Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius make, which I like, is that,

when something happens to you that you don't like and you think “why is this happening to me?”, one of the ways you should put [this] in perspective is [to] think of yourself as an organ of a larger organism. So you're the foot, and the larger organism has to go home. And in order to do so, it has to step through mud. Well, as a foot, you're not going to like stepping into the mud, it doesn't feel good. But it is what you do as a foot, because you're part of a larger organism. I like that image. I think that is a very nice image.

Now, as a secular person myself who thinks that the universe is pretty much neutral...I don't feel comfortable buying the idea that the universe is somehow organizing things, either from the inside or from the outside, for the better. I just think that things do happen. 

But that doesn't mean we're not interconnected. It doesn't mean that there aren't roles, both social and biological, that we play in our lives, and that our lives aren’t going to be much better if we play those roles better. And doing so means understanding what those roles are, understanding how you fit in the rest of the world, particularly in the human world, but also the world in general. And that will both make you feel better and actually make things better for you in your life.

Yeah, I'm just thinking about how that compares to Buddhism. I mean, one thing we should say is, isn't part of this idea in Stoicism that your welfare and another person's welfare are deeply intertwined, if not identical? It’s a cosmopolitanism, right? 

Correct, yes.

These were early Cosmopolitans?

That's right, in fact, the word “cosmopolitan” was introduced by the Stoics’ cousins, the Cynics. 

The Cynics were those people...The word meant “doglike” because they were going around living like dogs in the streets, basically. They had no possessions, there were very minimalist kind of people. 

And sometimes very colorful ones like Diogenes of Sinope who was the guy that Alexander the Great went to see and tried to be sort of magnanimous and said “So I'm Alexander the Great, you're the most famous philosopher, can I do something for you?” and Diogenes famously replied “Well, you can get out of the sun because you're blocking it.” 

So those were the Cynics. Now, the Cynics did introduce the word “cosmopolitanism,” which means literally “citizen of the world,” but the Stoics were the ones who really took it and ran with it. 

Particularly Hierocles, who was a Stoic of the late Roman period, came up with this wonderful image of the concentric circles, and the idea was that you can imagine yourself at the center of your own circle of concern. You know, there's this you, and then outside of you there is your family, and then outside your family there are your friends, and then there are your fellow citizens, and then the people that have your same nation, and then finally the world at large. And the idea that Hierocles said is “Look, since we are all members of the same family really, what you should try to do in your mind is to contract these circles and bring them closer and closer to you.” And he said, in order to practice that so that this is not just a theory, you should go around referring to other people as brother and sister, or depending on the age, you know, uncle and aunt, or something like that, in order to constantly remind yourself that you literally fit all in the same boat. You're the same family, even though they're not directly related to you. That was the first early articulation in the Western world of the concept of cosmopolitanism.

Although Socrates himself, who was a big influence on the Stoics, famously said “don't ask me if I’m from Athens or Corinth, I'm a citizen of the world.” That's the basic idea.

In terms of the idea that there's no real distinction, in a certain sense, between your welfare and someone else's, or at least no distinction between the importance of your welfare and the importance of theirs. Either way, I'd say Buddhism gets there largely through a different path. 

Certainly one avenue to that idea is the Buddhist idea of not-self, the idea that the self is an illusion. That has a number of dimensions to it, but one of the dimensions is the idea that the bounds of the self are, in a sense, illusory. And that this is an actual meditative apprehension that you can have. You can get to the point where you kind of feel that degree of continuity between yourself and everyone else. 

Now, there's a subtle philosophical argument that we should largely avoid about whether that means we are all one, or actually we are all nothing. Hindus would be more inclined to say we are all one, because they believe the self does exist, and that ultimately the self is really absorbed in the larger universal soul. 

Buddhists, because of this other doctrine of emptiness that's important in some parts

of Buddhism, some of them are reluctant to say “we are all one,” but the

ethical implication is the same, which is that there is no difference between you and other people. And interestingly, if you talk to people who are really, really adept meditators and have gotten to depths greater than ones I will ever get to, some of them actually say they feel this, they just don't feel a strong need to feed their appetites and they don't feel that their well-being is more important than that of others. So...

The Stoics have something very similar, but they do arrive at it from a different perspective. So the Stoics do believe there is a self. I mean, t not necessarily the self in the sense of an essence of you, but the self as in, you know, you’re recognizably distinct from other beings like you. 

But first of all, the fact that we’re all bits and pieces of the universe and we're all bits and pieces of the logos makes it so that, at a very minimum, your self is not more important in any sense than anybody else. But as I said earlier, it's actually more than that. It's really that your welfare benefits from--your own life benefits from the fact that everybody's life is getting better, that society is getting better. 

But the way they arrive at it is also via meditation, but in a very different sense and a sort of a meditation based on reflection rather than [something of] a Zen variety. And the reflection is this: they tend to insist over and over that you should keep thinking about what your place in the universe is, and this is sometimes referred to as “the view from above”...

Right, you actually visualize, that's a visualization exercise? 

Right, it is a visualization exercise. Marcus Aurelius does it in writing basically. He writes to himself: “think, remind yourself every time do you have a problem, every time you have an issue with other people, remind yourself of the big picture. You think about the extent of time, think about the extent of space, and the part that you are within it, and you will see that, (a) your particular concerns are actually not that important, but also, (b) that you are connected to everything else and that therefore the rational thing to do for you as a human being is to try to do your best to improve society at large. 

So they are rather similar, very, very similar ethical conclusion, but from different metaphysical starting point.

Illustration by Nikita Petrov.

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