Adam Gopnik has recently published in The New Yorker an in-depth review of the recent book by Robert Wright, Why Buddhism is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. It actually refers both to Wright’s volume as well as to Stephen Batchelor’s After Buddhism: Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age, which also came out recently. There is much of interest in Gopnik’s in-depth essay (and a few things to disagree with as well), but I’m going to focus on a series of remarks he makes about Buddhism as a philosophy of life because they apply also to Stoicism, with due caveats.
A major theme running through Gopnik’s commentary is the premise that both Wright’s and Batchelor’s books share: that it is perfectly possible — indeed, a good idea — to update Buddhism to the 21st century, in the light of modern science. Which is next door to the idea that one can shed the supernaturalist component of the philosophy essentially without loss. Since these are also major ongoing topics of discussion among modern Stoics, the parallels are obvious and significant for our community as well.
(Let me, however, make clear at the onset that I do not advocate for an atheist Stoicism to the exclusion of a religious one. My position has always been that Stoicism is a big tent, both theologically and politically. My interest here is simply in defending the possibility of a secular Stoicism, not to claim that it is the only game in town.)
Gopnik tells us that “Wright’s is a Buddhism almost completely cleansed of supernaturalism. His Buddha is conceived as a wise man and self-help psychologist, not as a divine being … His new version of an American Buddhism is not only self-consciously secularized but aggressively ‘scientized.’ … Meditation, in Wright’s view, is not a metaphysical route toward a higher plane. It is a cognitive probe for self-exploration that underlines what contemporary psychology already knows to be true about the mind.”
Gopnik is not convinced by Wright’s penchant for evolutionary psychological explanations of why Buddhism is “true,” and — with all due respect to Bob — I’m rather skeptical of evopsych in general myself. But this doesn’t really matter because, as Gopnik immediately adds: “Desires may arise from natural selection or from cultural tradition or from random walks or from a combination of them all [most likely, in my opinion] — but Buddhist doctrine would be unaffected by any of these ‘whys.’”
And neither would Stoic doctrine. This is the same reason I’ve been giving for my conclusion that Stoic “physics” (which includes theology and metaphysics as well as all the natural sciences) underdetermines Stoic ethics, so that the two are partially (though not entirely) decoupled. Yes, we should “live according to nature,” but in modern terms this just means “follow the facts (of science),” as modern Stoic Larry Becker has aptly put it.
Here is where Batchelor’s contribution comes in. For instance, he disputes the standard Buddhist account of the self as fundamentally illusory: “The self may not be an aloof independent ‘ruler’ of body and mind, but neither is it an illusory product of impersonal physical and mental forces. … We may have no control over the rush of fear prompted by finding a snake under our bed, but we do have the ability to respond to the situation in a way that is not determined by that fear.”
The second quote there sounds exactly like what a Stoic would say while explaining the difference between impressions and the assent we may give to or withdrawn from them:
“So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: ‘An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.’ Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, ‘Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?’” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 1.5)
But it is the first section of that quote that seems to me to further blur alleged differences between Stoicism and Buddhism, as well as striking a sensible, empirically informed compromise between those who wish to defend an essentialist notion of the self (which is kind of necessary if you want to talk abut a “soul”) and those who would dismiss it as “just” an illusion. The self is precisely what Batchelor describes: the sum total of our feelings, emotions, thoughts (both unconscious and conscious), very much like David Hume described it back in the 18th century. It isn’t a static thing, but rather a dynamic product of brain activity while it continuously — moment to moment, year to year, decade to decade — interacts with the external world via our perceptual apparatus. In that sense, indeed, the self is neither an illusion nor a static ruler of the mind.
I also found this bit from Batchelor (again, quoted by Gopnik) to be revealing:
“The only thing that matters is whether or not you can perform a task. When an inclination to say something cruel occurs, for example, can you resist acting on that impulse? … Whether your decision to hold the barbed remark was the result of free will or not is beside the point. … [The obsession with free will is a] peculiarly Western concern.”
Yes! In fact, it is a Western obsession that arises from the specific Christian concept of contra-causal “free” will (which is needed as part of the so-called free will defense against the argument from evil). The Stoics did not concern themselves with free will, but with prohairesis, which best translates to the modern term “volition,” used by psychologists to refer to our indubitable ability to make decisions. When you feel like being cruel, can you stop yourself? When you wish to insult someone, can you refrain? That, as Batchelor correctly says, it’s all that matters. The rest is what the Stoics would have condemned as hide logic chopping.
(See here for my explanation of Chrysippus’ take on volition, understood as a combination of internal and external causes.)
Gopnik goes on to point out a potential problem for modern Buddhism, which, interestingly, I don’t think is faced by modern Stoicism:
“What Wright correctly sees as the heart of meditation practice — the draining away of the stories we tell compulsively about each moment in favor of simply having the moment — is antithetical to the kind of evidentiary argument he admires.”
Why is that? Because a major point of Wright’s approach is to bring science into Buddhism, but science is a kind of story telling. Gopnik mentions the famous episode of Newton and the falling apple (which, incidentally, is a fabrication by Newton himself, in a letter to a friend), and concludes: “That’s a story we tell, not a moment we experience. The Buddhist Newton might have been happier than ours — ours was plenty unhappy — but he would never have found the equation. Science is putting names on things and telling stories about them, the very habits that Buddhists urge us to transcend. … The meditator’s project of being here now will never be the same as the scientist’s project of connecting the past to the future, of telling how and knowing why.”
He has a point, and I will await Bob’s response with interested curiosity. But clearly that’s not an objection to Stoicism. Stoic meditation is very much an exercise in story-telling. When Epictetus invites us to question our impressions, perhaps to uncover that they are not at all what they seem, that’s an inquiry similar to that of science, which is the quintessential discipline in which we question appearances in order to discover an underlying, truer reality.
Or consider the standard Stoic exercise of reflecting on your daily actions in a personal philosophical diary:
“Admit not sleep into your tender eyelids till you have reckoned up each deed of the day — How have I erred, what done or left undone? So start, and so review your acts, and then for vile deeds chide yourself, for good be glad.” (Epictetus, Discourses III, 10)
That too, very clearly is an exercise in story telling. When people criticize Stoicism for engaging in “mind tricks” they are right, and yet profoundly wrong. Our perception of reality is always a “mind trick,” it is always the result of our dynamic self relating to the perceptions it receives from the external world. And the Stoics (and the Buddhists) hit on the profound truth that much can be accomplished by retraining our self to carry out that operation differently:
“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion 5)
Finally, Gopnik comments on a crucial aspect of Buddhist practice which, again, I see having very strong parallels with Stoicism:
“Secularized or traditional, the central Buddhist epiphany remains essential: the fact of mortality makes loss certain. … The universal mortality of all beings — the fact that, if we’re lucky, we will die after seventy years or so — is not reformable. … To love less in order to lose less seems like no solution at all, but to see loss squarely sounds like wisdom.”
Stoic teachings — apparently just like Buddhist ones — are often interpreted by our critics as if they were pushing us not to care about things or people. But when Epictetus says:
“You must remind yourself that you love a mortal, and that nothing that you love is your very own; it is given you for the moment, not for ever nor inseparably, but like a fig or a bunch of grapes at the appointed season of the year, and if you long for it in winter you are a fool. So too if you long for your son or your friend, when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time” (Discourses III, 24.86)
I take him to mean that we ought to (i) enjoy what the universe gives us while it is available to us (notice that he uses the word “love” without questioning it); and (ii) accept with equanimity the fact that at some point what we cherish will not longer be there, because impermanence is the law of the cosmos. Let us appreciate figs when they are in season, and let us not foolishly long for them in winter time.