Revisiting the similarities among Stoicism, Epicureanism and Buddhism

chinese-buddhism-242829A reader has pointed out to me that back at the beginning of 2013 I wrote a blog post (for the now archived Rationally Speaking) comparing Stoicism, Epicureanism and Buddhism. This was well more than a year in advance of my renewed interest in, and practice of, Stoicism, so I thought it would be interesting to go back to see what I said, and ask whether I have changed my mind about it, now that I see Stoicism from the inside, so to speak.

The basic idea of that post was that there are both historical and philosophical similarities among the three approaches, and I stand by that view. As I wrote then:

“all three philosophies arose in similar times, both chronologically and in terms of social setting … [they] arose and thrived in times of social and political turmoil, within their respective geographical areas … [and they] have in common the idea that it is wise to attempt to understand the world as it actually is”

So far so good. At the time I seemed to be more sympathetic to Epicureanism than Stoicism, with Buddhism — though interesting — clearly in third place in terms of how the approach spoke to me personally.

Briefly, this was my reasoning:

1. Epicureanism has the most palatable (by modern standards) metaphysics: it’s all about atoms bumping in the night, so to speak (though I didn’t like their concept of the “Swerve,” introduced to account for free will). God exists, but doesn’t really care for or interfere with human affairs, and indeed organized religion is seen as pernicious and a major source of human fear and unhappiness. Ethically speaking, I liked Epicureanism’ emphasis on the importance of friendship.

2. I saw Stoicism as attractive in many respects, but plagued by dubious metaphysical concepts, like the Logos, and seemingly cultivating a detached attitude — despite talk of furthering positive emotions and only rejecting negative ones (the Discipline of Assent).

3. As for Buddhism, again a problematic metaphysics — for instance the concept of karma — and an overall approach that was far too “mystical” for my taste, the reason, I argued, why Buddhism throughout its history has been just as much a religion as a philosophy, unlike the other two.

(I did note, of course, that historically Buddhism has continued to exist and branch into different directions, while both Epicureanism and Stoicism ended with the rise of Christianity, formally being closed down with the rest of the philosophical schools by Emperor Justinian I, the prick.)

In the original essay I also drew analogies among the concepts of ataraxia (freedom from worry and pain) in Epicureanism, that of apatheia (tranquillity of mind) in Stoicism, and that of nirvana (the end of suffering) in Buddhism. Again, of course, with the obligatory distinctions, both philosophical and metaphysical.

Finally, I saw all three philosophies as inclined toward a degree of withdrawal from involvement with social causes, especially in the case of Epicureanism. Even Buddhism, despite the doctrines of Right Speech, Right Action, and Right Livelihood (three of the components of the eightfold path) came across to me as somewhat inward looking. At the time I did not have an appreciation for the Stoic Discipline of Action.

These days I have — I hope — a more nuanced view of these three approaches, particularly of Stoicism of course, but also of the other two, since comparisons with Stoicism repeatedly pop up anyway. For instance, I have come to realize that while some traditions of Buddhism definitely qualify as “mystical,” and are therefore not to my taste, others are characterized by a rational-discursive approach that actually makes it much more similar to Stoicism than I had initially thought.

My ranking of Stoicism and Epicureanism has, obviously, reversed, which is a surprising to me, actually. The main reason is that I think that, among the three philosophies under discussion, Epicureanism truly is the one that is inherently most withdrawn from social life and political action, while metaphysically I can deal with the Stoic Logos (which I re-interpret a-theistically as the principle of universal causation) better than I can manage the Swerve: Stoic compatibilism about free will is philosophically more modern than Epicurean libertarianism (which seats really uncomfortably with the rest of their metaphysics anyway). Buddhism keeps being somewhat foreign to me, which is not surprising given that it is rooted in Eastern religious and philosophical traditions, with which I am simply far less familiar.

All of the above said, however, I think there are two points that are now clear in my mind:

a) As William Irvine says in his A Guide to the Good Life, the important thing is to adopt (and adapt) a reasonable philosophy of life, independently of one’s specific choice (though not all choices will do, see the “reasonable” caveat in this sentence). That’s because a philosophy of life helps us frame things, make sense of things, and navigate situations, while at the same time it nudges us toward at the least occasionally asking ourselves what we are doing and why. The unexamined life, and all that…

b) I think there are important similarities not just among Stoicism, Epicureanism and Buddhism, but in fact a number of other philosophies and philosophical religions (Judaism, Christianity — I know much less about Islam) that need to be emphasized and cultivated. Different approaches and traditions speak to different people, and the intellectual (and even “spiritual”) kinship I have developed for Epictetus and Marcus Aurelius someone else might feel for Epicurus, Diogenes the Cynic, or Siddhārtha Gautama. It doesn’t matter, so long as these philosophies will affect your life in positive ways, making you a happier (in the eudaimonic sense) and better person.


26 thoughts on “Revisiting the similarities among Stoicism, Epicureanism and Buddhism

  1. jbonnicerenoreg

    Although there are many simarities and differences among these three I compare them (and Skepticism) by making desire (wanting, needing, hungering) the central concept. For Buddhism desire is to be completely eradicated; for the Epicurean desire is to be fulfilled unless it causes more pain; for the Stoic desire is moderated and controlled by virtue; for the Skeptic desire disappears once a state of not-knowing arises.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Massimo Post author

    Joseph, my focus is not Buddhism, and I have alerted the reader that my comments are therefore very limited. I am more than willing to be educated on the matter, but the very fact that you say that “some” schools do without metaphysics does not seem to undermine my general claim here. (Also, I don’t actually believe any school of philosophy, let alone Buddhism, can do without metaphysics. What would that even mean?)


  3. Douglass Smith

    Thanks Massimo, excellent observations. There are differences between say early Buddhism (or some versions of contemporary Secular Buddhism) and Stoicism. Advanced, diligent, or nit-picky practitioners will have to come to terms with those differences eventually. But from a practical, day to day perspective, those differences pale in comparison to the similarities. Further, I think each has perspectives, insights, and techniques that can be useful to all. For that reason I think a broad, ecumenical perspective that includes these similar approaches to wisdom and eudaimonia is liable to be most fruitful.


  4. Douglass Smith

    Couple of minor clarifications on Buddhism: desire is not to be eradicated, clinging or identification is. That is, unhealthy or unskillful (akusala) desires are to be eradicated. Indeed it is not clear what it would mean for desires to be completely eradicated: even an enlightened being would have some (albeit healthy) desires.

    Re. metaphysics, this word does not translate well into Buddhist terminology. That said, I think the main attacks on metaphysics in Buddhism were in the later, Madhyamaka and Zen traditions in particular. (Although even there it can be argued that they did have their own metaphysics). Buddhist literature generally is rife with metaphysical claims and speculations, even while it asserts that (other) such claims are pointless or unanswerable.


  5. joseph nunez (@flaneur9)

    “I think the main attacks on metaphysics in Buddhism were in the later, Madhyamaka and Zen”
    I would include the Theravada Forest Tradition as well. Buddhadasa Bhikkhu is a good example

    It seems to me that the earliest suttas eschewed metaphysics entirely. But it could just be my flawed interpretation.
    Paramatthaka Sutta: On Views
    translated from the Pali by
    John D. Ireland
    © 1994
    Alternate translation: Thanissaro
    “A person who associates himself with certain views, considering them as best and making them supreme in the world, he says, because of that, that all other views are inferior; therefore he is not free from contention (with others). In what is seen, heard, cognized and in ritual observances performed, he sees a profit for himself. Just by laying hold of that view he regards every other view as worthless. Those skilled (in judgment)[1] say that (a view becomes) a bond if, relying on it, one regards everything else as inferior. Therefore a bhikkhu should not depend on what is seen, heard or cognized, nor upon ritual observances. He should not present himself as equal to, nor imagine himself to be inferior, nor better than, another. Abandoning (the views) he had (previously) held and not taking up (another), he does not seek a support even in knowledge. Among those who dispute he is certainly not one to take sides. He does not [have] recourse to a view at all. In whom there is no inclination to either extreme, for becoming or non-becoming, here or in another existence, for him there does not exist a fixed viewpoint on investigating the doctrines assumed (by others). Concerning the seen, the heard and the cognized he does not form the least notion. That brahmana[2] who does not grasp at a view, with what could he be identified in the world?

    “They do not speculate nor pursue (any notion); doctrines are not accepted by them. A (true) brahmana is beyond, does not fall back on views.”


  6. Massimo Post author

    Douglass, again, thanks for your constructive feedback! Right, desire cannot be eradicated in Stoicism either, it is an inevitable part of what it means to be human. But, in Stoic terminology, one can exercise one’s faculty to give or withdraw assent to any particular desire. So, one more similarity!

    Douglas and joseph, again, I’m not sure how it is possible for any religion, philosophy, or even science to do without metaphysics. It may be hidden, not called by that name, but it has to be there. Of course, whether a particular metaphysics is reasonable, or what counts as warrant for a metaphysical position is an entirely different issue.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. doug1smith

    Hi Joseph and thanks for your interesting comments and the important citation you provide. I wrote up a long answer that was just swallowed by the system (it seems to be having trouble accessing my Google account) so I will try to reconstruct it.

    I think there is a critical difference in early Buddhism between what might be termed asserting or claiming things that nowadays we would say have metaphysical import (such as that the mind and body are made up of certain causally interrelated elements), and clinging to a ‘view’. The former is done often, the latter is always counseled against.

    Clinging to a view essentially involves an emotional attitude of self-identification: taking the view as in some sense ‘I, mine, or my self’. It also involves ‘conceit’, which in Buddhism involves a self-comparison with three characteristics: taking oneself as the same, as worse, or as better than others.

    Clinging should be understood as an emotional attitude rather than as a kind of cognitive assent.

    The alternative is ‘right view’, so-called which essentially involves an attitude of non-clinging and non-identification with all things, including views (ditthi). If you are interested, Paul Fuller has an excellent book out on this called “The Notion of Ditthi in Theravada Buddhism”. It deals with the early (Nikāya) material and commentaries.

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  8. viennahavana

    Thanks Massimo, for your update on the previous article. I like the idea of comparative philosophy.
    I’m wondering if the Buddhist “attitude of non-clinging and non-identification with all things” could be comparable to the Stoic “indifference”? Personally, I have always found the Buddhist idea of “detachment” (non-attachment) very challenging to living in the modern world, whereas Stoic “indifference” seems easier. The Stoic way seems to imply an emotional relationship informed by reason regarding any thing to which one might become attached. Therefore the Stoic doesn’t have to completely “detach.” Merely having the option to be indifferent toward something allows for one to make a better (healthier) choice. For instance, seeing chocolate cake on the table and “detaching” seems impossible, while being “indifferent” to chocolate cake on the table because one is trying to practice self-discipline on a healthy diet is psychologically manageable. But perhaps this is semantics.
    Also, there is no way I can get over the metaphysical Buddhist concept of someone attaining “enlightenment” in their lifetime (or in a series of lifetimes). The Stoic concept of Zeus or Socrates as metaphors for the wise sage are the closest I can get. The goal of “enlightenment” strikes me as similar to the concept of “heaven,” which frankly makes me angry.
    Also, the “empty mind” concept of Buddhist meditation is completely contrary to my political and philosophical views. I don’t know if Epicureans had a similar practice, but Stoic meditation is different and challenging–and humanistic–in this regard.
    I’m not a Buddhist scholar, so apologies if this is a misunderstanding of that philosophy.


  9. doug1smith

    Google is still giving me problems so I will stick with my wordpress account to respond to viennahavana’s interesting points.

    Cross cultural comparisons are always difficult but I think Stoic indifference is similar to Buddhist notions of equanimity, which is related to non-attachment. (An aside: I would not use the term ‘detachment’ in this context, since it has connotations of emotional frigidity or even aversion that are contrary to the goal).

    The point is to get to a place where we see the cake for what it is, a source of temporary pleasure and potential regret, rather than for what it is not, which is something that I must have to make me truly happy.

    As a secular practitioner I have similar problems with the notion of permanent human perfection. However to demystify it a bit, enlightenment should be understood as the extinction of greed (= unskillful desire), hatred, and ignorance re. the basic features of lived reality. (Its unsatisfactoriness, etc.)

    “Empty mind” is a later accretion, particularly prominent in Zen, which I also do not really appreciate. It stems from certain states of deep meditation known as ‘jhāna’ that were most likely pre-Buddhist, and that can be actually extremely pleasant and practically useful, if difficult to attain. (Increasingly so for the deeper levels associated with emptiness per se).


  10. sethleon2015

    Very interesting discussion. As someone who really enjoys and values the Zhuangzi I think there are also many very close parallels between the philosophy expressed in the ‘inner chapters’ and both Stoicism and the Buddhism described here by Douglas. In my view it seems that the Zhuangzi has the weakest commitments of the 3 to a supernatural basis (which is one reason I value it), but that is certainly open to interpretation. In any event I’m not a Taoist and look to gain what understandings I can from all of these sources.

    I am currently reading a fascinating book from the philosopher Mark Johnson ‘The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding ‘. I mention it here as it presents an interesting theory on the relationship between percepts and concepts or how emotion, feeling, logic and reason as a meaning forming process. I’m only about halfway through but highly recommend it.


  11. Massimo Post author


    that’s pretty much how I see things. Buddhism doesn’t speak to me as much as Stoicism for metaphysical reasons, and because of their (or is it just the Zen tradition?) take on the self, as far as I understand it. But as I said above, these days I’m more interesting in seeking commonalities than differences, so I’m happy to travel the same (partial) road as Buddhists!


    again, thanks!


    I’d be curious to hear more about Johnson’s book, if you feel it is relevant to our general discussions.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. viennahavana

    Doug, thanks for your additions. I appreciate your thoughts on the “empty mind” however I call it sleep–and it is very pleasant !
    I seem to get stuck on definitions with writings about Buddhist concepts, for instance “detachment” vs. “non-attachment” and the difference between them confuses me.
    “Detachment” implies that we have (or have had) an emotional connection to some thing-place-person and then de-attach ourselves. Whereas “non-attachment” implies (to me) that it might be possible to never be emotionally attached to some thing-place-person.
    So, based on this interpretation, I would argue that not ever being emotionally attached is not actually possible for human beings. (Would this make it a metaphysical concept? I’m not sure) I would also argue that there is something oddly disturbing–and maybe socially problematic–about imagining a life without ever being attached to the world and its pleasures/pains. Pulling back and de-attaching from things in the world is not problematic, if it is based on rational thought (in pursuit of virtue, perhaps).


  13. doug1smith

    Hi viennahavana and thanks again for the questions. The problem with a concept like “emotional attachment” is that it covers too much ground. There are good emotions we may have, such as compassion, kindness, the ability to enjoy others’ success, and equanimity. But in the Buddhist way of seeing things these are compatible with non-attachment. Indeed they are really only fully realizable under conditions of non-attachment.

    By “non-attachment” we mean getting away from the egoistic way of viewing the world in terms of greed and hatred: what the world can do for me, basically. This is our ordinary way of living in the world. Living in a non-attached way means no longer seeing the world in terms of I, mine, or myself.

    Ah and jhāna are deep states of one-pointed meditation, they are certainly not sleep! But I expect you knew that. 🙂


  14. viennahavana

    Yes, Doug, but every time I’ve tried Buddhist meditation I end up having the best naps… I really see no benefit to “emptying” a mind anyway. I am much more interested in filling it with great thoughts (music, literature, philosophy) in the very precious time I have left. But I understand how some people may have neurophysiology in which “emptying” the mind brings some peace and respite.
    Just one more clarifying question: your “no longer seeing the world” in a non-attached way seems to imply that someone was previously attached. So is this just a language issue based on a conceptual perspective? or are non-attached and detached truly different concepts?


  15. Massimo Post author


    the Stoics too make a distinction between bad emotions (e.g., anger) and good ones (e.g., love of fellow humans), and their Discipline of Assent is supposed to help denying (or at the least minimizing) the former and cultivating the latter.


  16. sethleon2015

    Hi Massimo,

    As I mentioned I am only approaching the mid-point of Mark Johnson’s book so I couldn’t give a complete review yet. My thoughts are still in a relatively early stage of organizing around his arguments.

    I do think the book is relevant to this post due to the key differences between Stoicism and eastern philosophical traditions in the way reason, drives, emotions and ‘felt sense’ are conceptualized. I also think it would be of interest in general to anyone interested in virtue ethics as Johnson presents a theory for origins of meaning (from the body extended in the world).

    I think you might have a number of issues with his framework. He is not kind to the way the analytic tradition has dealt with meaning (staying in the propositional realm, not making use of non-propositional felt sense). With your far superior philosophical background I expect you will see holes in his argument that I am blind to. On the other hand you may not have encountered an argument as comprehensive as Johnson’s from his point of view. Johnson synthesizes philosophical work from the pragmatic (mostly Jame’s & Dewey),phenomenological (Merleau-Ponty, Gendlin), and embodied mind schools with cognitive neuroscience (Damasio, LeDeaux, Don Tucker). A major point is that there is no pure realm of reason, no pure realm of spirit or consciousness, but that reason and ‘felt sense’ not separable, they are part of one process.

    I expect you are somewhat familiar with Johnson’s work with Lakoff on conceptual metaphor theory. This newer book I feel is really well written, and easily accessible for a layperson like myself yet retains rigour. While Johnson provides commentary on the work of others I haven’t yet gotten to the section where he spells out his own particular implications. I also haven’t yet gotten to his chapters on aesthetics which appear to be an important part of the the book.


  17. doug1smith

    Yes, the point in meditation is not to empty the mind, with the exception as I say of certain very advanced levels of jhāna. The point is to take a quiet and calm attitude so that we can focus on the present moment and see it for what it is, both in its external worldly aspects and in its internal mental aspects. It is also to turn the knob down on the inner chatter and obsessive self-talk that wastes so much of our energies.

    There are also other meditative techniques as well; indeed there isn’t really a word in Buddhism that means ‘meditation’. The words used really mean things like ‘cultivation’. Ideally one should have a meditative attitude throughout one’s life, that is one that is focused on ‘right effort’, cultivating the positive and weakening the negative. Part of this process however involves cultivating quiet and calm so we can see clearly what is going on.

    I’m not sure I understand your last question. We are all truly attached in daily life to all kinds of things. And yes, I think in common English parlance there is a critical difference between ‘non-attachment’ and ‘detachment’. They are different concepts.

    Apologies Massimo for going on in the comments to your excellent blog post. I hope it’s OK, if not just tell us to move on.


  18. doug1smith

    Thanks Massimo for your mention of the discipline of assent. Our comments overlapped. I am not terribly familiar with this concept, but it sounds similar at least to the notion of right effort which I mentioned above.

    Interestingly Buddhism appears to have no notion of ‘weakness of the will’. What it has instead is wrong intention, which is related to wrong effort. The point of practice is to turn wrong into right intention through repeated effort, and through seeing — really seeing close up, forcing our noses into it — the results of wrong intention. That’s part of what we do in meditation. This is suffering! This is what it feels like to get ourselves into messes. Over time our desires shift.

    You will perhaps know whether or how this maps onto the discipline of assent.


  19. Massimo Post author


    “He is not kind to the way the analytic tradition has dealt with meaning (staying in the propositional realm, not making use of non-propositional felt sense). With your far superior philosophical background I expect you will see holes in his argument that I am blind to”

    Thanks for the kind words, but I don’t think of myself as an analytic philosopher (nor a continental, a fortiori!). I prefer to identify with the deeper philosophical tradition that goes back to the pre-Socratics, which may or may not present a problem for Johnson’s analysis of meaning.

    “A major point is that there is no pure realm of reason, no pure realm of spirit or consciousness, but that reason and ‘felt sense’ not separable, they are part of one process.”

    Depending on how he cashes this out, I may not actually have any objection to it.

    “I expect you are somewhat familiar with Johnson’s work with Lakoff on conceptual metaphor theory”

    Yes, I even used it, I think in Answers for Aristotle.


    “Apologies Massimo for going on in the comments to your excellent blog post. I hope it’s OK, if not just tell us to move on.”

    By all means, this seems relevant to my ecumenical approach!

    “You will perhaps know whether or how this maps onto the discipline of assent.”

    It sounds pretty close. Interestingly, the Stoics hardly talked about weakness of the will (that was mostly Aristotle), though they explicitly stated the obvious: human beings have a really hard time to deny assent to negative emotions, or to give it to positive ones.

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  20. ToT

    Hi Massimo,

    You say: “Finally, I saw all three philosophies as inclined toward a degree of withdrawal from involvement with social causes”.

    This is precisely my biggest problem with Stoicism. It appears to me as a conformist philosophy. It is almost implied in this post that you don’t believe this to be true. I would really like to hear more about that!


  21. Massimo Post author


    that’s right, I have changed my mind about Stoicism’s alleged withdrawal from social causes. While Stoicism does not endorse any particular political position, the Stoic discipline of action very clearly says that we should be concerned with social justice, and indeed justice is one of the four cardinal Stoic virtues. Add to that that many of the famous Stoics were very much involved in social life (they were teachers, politicians, generals), and it seems to me undeniable that there is a component of social involvement in Stoicism.

    Buddhism seems to have something like this, for instance in their concept of right action, but that interpretation is much more debatable.

    As for Epicureans, they were very explicit about withdrawing from social action in order to achieve ataraxia, or freedom from desire.

    I hope this helps!


  22. doug1smith

    One can find very many interpretations of ‘right action’ in Buddhism, as you mention Massimo. The Buddha himself seems to have been a complete pacifist and more or less withdrew from political issues, except to counsel peace and certain somewhat modern notions of just action for kings. (He gave more extensive, prudential and ethical advice to lay householders).

    Soon after the Buddha’s death we see Buddhism more directly integrated into political action, most centrally in the reign of 3rd c. BCE King Aśoka Maurya, whose conversion to Buddhism led to his becoming a pacifist who propounded freedom of religion among other things:

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