Another one on Stoicism & Buddhism, the self, and even free will

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.

(Interested readers may want to check out my video conversation with Bob Wright about the similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism, and our fun “Buddhism & Stoicism advice for life” video.)

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.


Categories: Psychology, Stoicism & other philosophies


24 replies

  1. The last point is nicely described by Dogen: flowers fade when we admire them; weeds flourish as we despise them!
    Letting thoughts/feelings pass through consciousness during meditation is not opposed to story telling as such. I take it to simply mean to drop the narrative self which goes up to strengthen the ego (or Selfhood of William Blake.) We can still use story-telling in other aspects of life as Buddhists! How could a Buddhist scientist operate if he did not buy into story telling?
    But we must de-couple self-story telling to avoid self-making – ie my self against your self in a confrontational manner.

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  2. It seems to me that Gopnik is mistaken here:

    “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.”

    Meditation drains away the power and the compulsiveness of the stories. It does not eliminate stories. It dethrones them and makes them secondary to what is evident.

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  3. A weed is just an unwanted flower. Some of the “seasons” are ours and not external ones.


  4. To put a clinical spin on previous comments, Buddhist-derived mindfulness and self-compassion practices work against rumination, which has a dimension of story-telling to it – say, as one dwells on thoughts of causes and consequences in one’s personal experience. But rumination also has negative emotional valences, like worry about the future and regrets about the past.

    Now, as a philosophy that places high value on relieving suffering in sentient creatures like ourselves, it is no wonder that Buddhism might take a more qualified view of narrative thought, given its association with rumination – in other words, that there’s such a thing as too much of good thing. But if you’ve ever read from the Sutta Pitaka, then you already know what a rich tradition of story-telling Buddhism has to offer.


  5. It seems to me that Gopnik’s question ” What is the difference between secularism and secular Buddhism” also can be asked of Stoicism “What is the difference between (scientific) secularism and secular Stoicism? If there is no difference, why dredge up ancient religions and philosophies? For me there is a clear difference for both modern versions. The Buddhist is still trying to reach the transcendental state of Enlightenment and the Stoic is still knowing that virtue is the only good.


  6. I recently heard a podcast interview with philosopher Todd May who has written a book called “The Fragile Life – Accepting Our Vulnerability”, which is essentially a critique and challenge to what he calls “The Doctrines of Invulnerability” – specifically Stoicism and Buddhism. May’s position seems to have a Existential Psychology flavour to it, which I find myself more aligned with.

    “It is perhaps our noblest cause, and certainly one of our oldest: to end suffering. Think of the Buddha, Chuang Tzu, or Marcus Aurelius: stoically composed figures impervious to the torments of the wider world, living their lives in complete serenity—and teaching us how to do the same. After all, isn’t a life free from suffering the ideal? Isn’t it what so many of us seek?

    Absolutely not, argues Todd May in this provocative but compassionate book. In a moving examination of life and the trials that beset it, he shows that our fragility, our ability to suffer, is actually one of the most important aspects of our humanity.”


  7. Roger,

    Interesting, but – obviously – I don’t buy it. To begin with, suffering because it allegedly makes us human seems a rather strange goal in life. And very few people would want to pursue it. Second, Stoicism isn’t about not suffering (both Seneca and Epictetus explicitly say that suffering is human, and that it would be inhuman not to), but rather about approaching life with equanimity. When tragedy strikes close to you, remember that it has stricken countless others before in a similar way. That’s just the way life is, but you have the resources to take it and go on


  8. Yes, there is also a huge difference between what has been called primary suffering and secondary suffering! Someone gets cancer – that’s primary suffering (not under our control)- part of Dukkha which the Buddha said is inevitable – how you react to it: if you become bitter is secondary suffering (which is under our control). Mindfulness and zazen etc are the means we avoid secondary suffering.

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  9. Thanks for writing about this, Massimo. I am now reading through Wright’s book after having finished yours.

    Doug Bates is right here about Gopnik misunderstanding the Buddhist message re. stories. The point isn’t to eliminate stories or not to have them. The point is not to identify with them. They become part of the objective furniture of the world, like tables and chairs. And like tables and chairs they are, as I understand the Stoic sense, “indifferents”.

    Not incidentally this sort of cognitive approach to stories makes us I think more capable of distinguishing true from false ones, since we strive to untangle ourselves from them.

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  10. Yes. Thus the Buddha’s famous parable of the second arrow. The first arrow, pure physical pain and suffering, is unavoidable. The second arrow is our avoidable mental pain and suffering laid on top of the unavoidable suffering.


  11. You mention that our perception is always a ‘mind trick’, while I like the explanation, I do not think all (ancient) Stoics had this view. For example, Marcus Aurelius in Meditations book 6,

    “Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realising: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love—something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid.
    Perceptions like that—latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are.”

    He does suggest practising the ‘mind tricks’ you suggested, but this does sound there is one true perception that can be attained. The words “realising” and “see what they really are”, only make sense if you believe there is a right or true way to look at things. Although, I admit this could easily have been created by the translation. (please let me know if it is)

    I think this is also a good example of where Stoicism can be updated by discoveries from science & philosophy.


  12. Jop,

    Very interesting point, and I think your citation of Marcus is on target, it’s not an artifact of translation. But the same goes for Buddhism, which also claims that changing our perspective following the Buddhist way brings us closer to how things really are.

    But I don’t think this contradicts my point about mind tricks, nor does this particular issue require a special update of Stoicism or Buddhism. What I meant was that our perception of reality itself is a “mind trick,” meaning that we dont’ access the world as it is, but always in a mediated fashion. That doesn’t mean all “meditations” (i.e., all reconstructions of the world the brain presents itself) are equally good. Some are better than others, and in my mind at least, the Stoic and Buddhist ones are both closer to the truth and more practically efficacious as a guide to human life.

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  13. Thanks for that Marcus Aurelius quote; brilliant! Of course, Theravada monks used to (still do?) meditate among corpses and I often say to myself as I pass a butcher’s – oh it’s the dead animal shop! I’m struggling with Thich Nhat Hanh’s Nothing to Do-Nowhere to Go which is about the ancient Chinese Zen Master Linji’s very subtle but down-to-earth teaching. He has a lot to say about the distinction between subject and object disappearing. (As does Dogen too.)The mind and objects of mind are thought of as distinct in everyday consciousness. I wonder, is this the same as Blake Single Vision?? I would need more time to consider this initial train of thought in more depth – which I will, as I have to try and articulate it better for my book on Blake and Buddhist practice. In any case, Nhat Hanh’ book is highly recommended. I say ‘struggling’ but Thich Nhat Hanh’s insightful commentary makes a lot of sense!


  14. I have been meaning to comment on this, so I’m happy I found it again.

    Caveat: I have not read Wright’s book, though I heard him interviewed. I did read Batchelor’s book and Gopnik’s article.

    I had the impression, reading Gopnik, that he, or perhaps Wright, may be reducing Buddhism to the experience of meditative practice. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a daily mediator, and I think meditation is a vital part of Buddhism. But there are also the teachings.

    To address your point about stories, I’d bring up the teachings on the three marks of existence: impermanence, non-self and unsatisfactoriness. By impermanence, we mean that every “thing” is actually a process, continually changing. By non-self we mean that every process engages with other processes — there are no isolated processes. And as for unsatisfactoriness… That’s where stories come into it.

    Nature makes narratives. A continuously changing process, influenced by other continuously changing processes — that’s a narrative, just about by definition.

    But our stories, the ones we quite naturally make, are not exactly the same as nature’s narratives. Because of the way our perception works, we have to divide continuously changing time into discrete events. We reduce processes to snapshots of those processes, which is to say, things. We classify things based on their utility to us, grasping some and pushing others away. We imagine that our personal process is separable from all other process and that there is a single, basically immutable self that acts on things and is the hero of its own story.

    To the extent that our stories differ from nature’s narratives, we experience unsatisfactoriness. When we see our experience, moment by moment, in meditation, that is a step forward, certainly. But we need teachings like the marks of existence to show us how to go on from that insight, gradually reduce our misunderstanding, reconcile with reality and thus eliminate the unsatisfactoriness of being ambushed by reality.


  15. Massimo,
    I completely agree with your points, except I do think works on how all knowledge and views are mediated can and should be recognised and can be used to update stoicism on this point. I think based on the idea that views are always mediated, the aim of the practice should change from ‘finding the true meditation’, to ‘finding other coherent/valid meditations’. This certainly is not a major shift, as the practice is still changing your perspective, but I do consider it a significant change. It gives more opportunities to practice, and I think it makes the practice more useful.

    To illustrate, I like Marcus’s changed meditation example, as it takes out the ‘magic’ of something and makes things look more ordinary. I like to think practising this helps me become less gullible to smooth talking salesmen.
    The opposite practice, of trying to see things are more ‘magical’ or ‘grand’, I believe is useful as well. For example, looking at my office chair as a great support which is there for me daily when I need it, can give me gratitude for something I might otherwise have taken for granted. Also, I think practising changing perspective (without the belief there is only one correct one) trains one’s capacity to understand other people and take their perspective. Both, I believe are valued in both Stoicism and Buddhism.
    I think it counts as updating Stoicism, as it is both a change to its philosophy (it changes its epistemology), as well as that it leads to changes in recommended practices (although arguably minor).


  16. Erikleo,
    Thank you for your comment. The idea of the subject/object distinction disappearing is an idea I have heard of. I understand how the lines are somewhat arbitrary and created by our perception, and I consider it very interesting since the distinction seems fundamental to my way of thinking (maybe even fundamental to thinking in general?). While I understand this, I cannot say I have truly experienced losing this distinction, but it sounds like a great experience to have. I believe this could open up my mind greatly. I will have a look at Thich Nhat Hanh’s book you suggested.
    In line with what I said to Massimo, I think the ability to switch perspectives in itself really useful (which is one reason why I would love to experience losing the subject/object distinction), as long as we can also be critical of them and examine their advantages/disadvantages/limitations/incoherencies. I expect that making an object/subject distinction has some great advantages as well. For example, the object part creates the idea there is an (objective) truth, free of context, free of who observes it. In turn, a search for that kind of truth will create knowledge that is widely applicable. I consider this very useful and believe science has achieved great things by taking this approach.
    In that sense, I can believe a view without the subject/object distinction might suffer less from an arbitrary and inconsistent border of where the self ends, but I think we should be careful with discarding the perspective with the subject/object distinction. (Nevertheless, there are certainly views that can be discarded because they are not useful, too inconsistent, incoherent with our experiences, or we have better alternatives)


  17. Hi Jop
    As with most things in Buddhist practice we don’t set out trying to obliterate the distinction between subject and object; just, as you imply, with a change of outlook and consciousness the boundary becomes less distinct. Maybe it also is similar to the experience of ‘oneness’ described by all religions and traditions.
    I have experienced it on at least two occasions; once when listening to and watching a nightingale (which sounds very Keatsian!) and once during zazen. I describe the former experience on my blog – I think it is titled Keat’s Nightingale if you are interested.
    The experience certainly existentially endorses anatta – there was no restricting sense of self I remember.


  18. Batchelor’s story about Buddhism is itself a story indeed, and quite arguably, a “packaging” of Buddhism.

    Re volition vs. free will, per discussions on your main site, I don’t think they’re quite so separable as this. It’s not entirely semantics, as I can see them as somewhat separate ideas, but I don’t think they’re that separate.


  19. Socratic,

    I think the concept of volition ought to replace once and for all that of free will. The latter is inherently nonsensical, and a leftover of Christian theology. The former is not just a return to the Stoics and other ancients, but a modern, science-informed way of looking at the issue.


  20. Massimo,

    I wanted to comment on the point that science is also story telling and that this might be antithetical to the Buddhist practice of not taking stories too seriously or to actively discard stories to get to the “real” experience.

    Now, (albeit not being a philosopher) I found a specific approach to what science is very compatible with the Buddhist practice, namely Karls Popper’s critical rationalism. Popper’s main point is exactly that science is just a story. It is a special story in that it has to adhere to some constraints (logical consistency and empirical falsifiability) but it is a story nonetheless.

    Even if a theory is logically consistent and has (so far) not been empirically falsified, this does not mean that this story is “true” in any way or that it describes “reality”. As far as I understand it, critical rationalism accepts that there is a reality beyond our mind, our mind will never be able to fully grasp it but only to tell stories about it which will always be (to a lesser or larger degree) false.

    Thus, while scientific stories may be consistent with actual experience, they are certainly not the same thing.


  21. Massimo, he posts to “public” on Facebook, so everybody can read it. David Hoelscher has a post about Wright’s new book. I have several comments related to philosophy of religion and whether or not secular Buddhism should still be called Buddhism, or a religion, if it totally rejects ALL metaphysical ideas (reincarnation, karma) as well as a personal deity, and also if we should still call it a religion (I say yes) if it DOES still believe in reincarnation.

    I also say that we should strive for consistency w/ “secular Judaism” and also w/ “secular humanism,” which, after all, is NOT called “secular Christianity.”


  22. And, I agree on free will and the Xn leftovers. I’m still trying to wrestle with how much, at all, in some ppl’s definition of “volition,” (not yours, obviously) some baggage remains.


  23. Socratic,

    “after all, is NOT called “secular Christianity.””

    Well, there is such thing as secular Christianity, i.e., people who don’t believe Jesus was a god, but rather a wise person. And secular humanism definitely has several tenets that are not Christian, like the emphasis on the rights of minorities.


  24. A lot of Quakers would regard themselves as secular Christians who don’t believe in supernatural events such as the literal incarnation, virgin conception or even an after-life! I went to a Friends’ boarding school and none of these elements was much discussed.

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