A 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.