How to Be a Stoic

Greek Buddha, part I


I often say that Stoicism is the Western equivalent of Buddhism, since there are many similarities between the two philosophies, based on what little I have read about Buddhism, and what I am told by friends and colleagues who know much more about it than I do. But could it be that some of these similarities are not the result of convergent cultural evolution, but rather of direct historical influence? It is not a crazy idea, given that we know that the Greeks came into extensive contact with Indian culture at the least in the time of Alexander the Great, and likely significantly earlier.

It is thus with more than a little curiosity that I tackled the reading of Christopher I. Beckwith’s intriguing Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia.

The book is not about Stoicism, which gets mentioned a total of seven times, but rather about Pyrrhonism, that is a particular form of skeptic philosophy that — Beckwith contends — is significantly different from everything else the Greek produced, with the difference being explained by the influence that early Buddhism had on Pyrrho, who was in fact part of the retinue of Alexander. Since Pyrrhonism did, in turn, influence Stoicism, as well as other Hellenistic philosophies, this is an intriguing suggestion, well worth exploring.

I should acknowledge at the beginning that I’m in no position to evaluate the more technical claims made by Beckwith in the book, especially those concerning academic disputes about the doctrines of early Buddhism. I have read some criticism of the book in that respect, and I’d like readers who are better acquainted with that scholarship than myself to chime in.

That said, let me start with a discussion, in this post, of the Preface to Greek Buddha, where the author makes some interesting general historical and philosophical claims. In the next post I will examine Beckwith’s broader discussion of the phenomenon of Greek enlightenment (his chapter 4) and its relationship to both Pyrrhonism and Buddhism.

Beckwith begins his story with the Scythians, who built a large empire in Central Asia, stretching to China, in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE. Eventually, they came into conflict with the Persian empire, and it is this particular clash of civilizations that provides the basis for the author’s main argument regarding the relationship between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism.

We are introduced to two great Scythian philosophers. The first one was Anacharsis, whose mother was Greek and who traveled to Greece around the time of the 47th Olympics (592-589 BCE). He eventually became so well known as to be counted as one of the mythical Seven Sages, and Sextus Empiricus describes Anacharsis’ treatment of the so-called Problem of the Criterion, one of the fundamental problems in epistemology: What do we know? How are we to decide in any particular case whether we have knowledge? Interestingly, Anacharsis’ discussion appears to be very similar to the one found in the Chinese Chuangtzu, and Beckwith suggests that the similarity is no accident, but rather the result of a possible transmission to China via the Scythian empire.

The second Scythian sage to which we are introduced is none other than Gautama Buddha, the historical Buddha. We don’t really know the exact dates of his life, though his personal name, Gautama, is recorded in the above mentioned Chuangtzu.

According to Beckwith, “the Buddha is the only Indian holy man before early modern times who bears an epithet explicitly identifying him as a non-Indian, a foreigner. … Buddha has been identified as Śākamuni ~ Śākyamuni ‘Sage of the Scythians’ in all varieties of Buddhism from the beginning of the recorded Buddhist tradition to the present.”

The next intriguing piece of the puzzle concerns the conquest of Central Asia by the Persian king Darius, who introduced Zoroastrianism to the area. This was a strongly monotheistic religion, which incorporated both the idea of absolute truth and that of the accumulation of “credits” for good or bad behavior (which later became the concept of “karma”), the balance of which determined whether a person would be “reborn” in Heaven. Indeed, “Zoroaster was … the first to teach the doctrines of … Heaven and Hell, the future resurrection of the body … and life everlasting for the reunited soul and body.” (Sounds familiar? It should, since these ideas also greatly influenced the Abrahimic faiths, and particularly what later became known as Christianity.)

Why is this of any concern for our story? Because Beckwith contends that there were two diametrically opposite Indian reactions to Zoroastrianism: early Brahmanism embraced the basic concepts of the foreign faith, while early Buddhism decidedly rejected them.

It is that rejection that eventually influenced Phyrro and his philosophy. He joined the entourage of Alexander, but he heard his teacher, Anaxarchus, being chastised by an Indian philosopher for pandering to Alexander. That reminded Phyrro of a poem he wrote in praise of the Macedonian conqueror, which in turn led him to isolate himself in shame. During his isolation, Diogenes Laertius tells us, he met a number of Iranic and Indian philosophers, who influenced his thinking.

Pyrrho “taught about ethics, specifically about the causes of pathē ‘passion, suffering’ and a way to be apatheia ‘without passion, suffering’, and thus achieve ataraxia ‘undisturbedness, calm’. … He urges us therefore to have no views, and to have no inclinations for or against any interpretations or views on ethical matters.”

Here the influence on Hellenistic philosophy is obvious. Apatheia is what the Stoics strove for, while ataraxia was the goal of the Epicureans (for the difference between the two see here).

Beckwith points out that no modern scholar has been able to explain the Pyrhhonian system as a whole in terms of its relations with other Greek philosophies, and adds that “Richard Bett has shown that the key distinctive point of Pyrrho’s thought that is unprecedented in Greece and sets it apart from all other Greek philosophy is that having ‘no views’ and choosing to ‘not decide’ leads to the goal of undisturbedness, peace,” adding that that take on the relationship between having no views and undisturbedness is an early Buddhist concept.

The Stoics, of course, very much did develop opinions and views in ethics, but they also retained the core idea that there are many things from which we need to detach ourselves in order to achieve apatheia. Those things are called (preferred and dispreferred) indifferents, and include everything that is not in our power, i.e., all things external to our will and judgment.