Category Archives: Other philosophies

Shall the truth make you free? Hinduism, Buddhism, Stoicism, Skepticism and the nature of philosophical inquiry

Sextus EmpiricusWhat is philosophy for? Is it a quest for truth? Is it really the case that the truth shall set us free, as the Bible says (John 8:32), and if so, is philosophy our way to freedom? These and other fascinating questions were asked by Ethan Mills, a philosopher at the University of Tennessee, at a special session on Stoicism and Eastern Philosophies held at the recent meeting of the American Philosophical Association—Eastern Division (Savannah, January 2018). Ethan went through a lot of material, and I only have his handouts and my few notes to attempt to provide the gist of his talk, yet the subject matter is crucial not just for Stoic practitioners, but for anyone interested in philosophy. I shall do my best here, and perhaps Ethan himself will chime in during the discussion.

The talk started with a few examples of a recently popular sport, the gratuitous denigration of philosophy, especially by scientists or science popularizers, and particularly by physicists. I have covered this territory multiple times (e.g., here, here, and here), so there is no reason to get into it again. Ethan poses himself the question of how best to respond to these charges (which may indicate he takes those people a bit too seriously, but then again the question of the value of philosophy ought to be answerable by any decent practitioner of the field). His first pass is a list that includes philosophy as “therapy” (following Martha Nussbaum), or as a way of life (in the words of Pierre Hadot).

Ethan’s thesis is then stated as follows: “While Naiyayikas [a collective term for several Hindu schools of logic and epistemology] and Stoics demonstrate that the concept of philosophy as therapy or as a way of life does not rule out also conceiving of philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise, ancient skeptics bring into focus the limitations of the truth seeking image, which may be useful today in defending philosophy from its denigrators.”

So the contrast here is between philosophy as therapy / way of life and philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. I have argued at book length, however, that — historically — the truth-seeking part of philosophy was natural philosophy, or what is today called science (see also this discussion). The rest of philosophy is more into the business of developing understanding than seeking truth — the two are definitely not the same thing. That is an additional “line of defense” (if one is really needed) against detractors of philosophy, especially of a scientistic bent: philosophy is therapy, a way of life, and a path toward understanding — that ought to be more than good enough to take it seriously. In terms of truth seeking, however, it does not (and need not to) compete with its offspring, science.

After these preliminaries, Ethan got into the meat of his talk, starting with a presentation of the Nyaya position on epistemology. I will provide a couple of quotes, though I must admit that they perfectly exemplify the reason why Eastern philosophy never spoke to me (too prone to riddles and unclear statements), which is why Stoicism felt like such a breadth of fresh air. But of course I realize that this may be in part a matter of taste and personality, and in part a question of cultural upbringing and familiarity with one approach rather than the other.

For instance, Ethan quotes Gautama’s Nyaya Sutra, from circa 200 CE:

“Attainment of the highest good is based on knowledge of the truth of the following: means of knowledge, object of knowledge, doubt, purpose, example, established position, limbs of an inference, speculative reasoning, ascertainment, friendly debate, debate for the purpose of victory, debate without establishing a counter-position, fallacies, quibbling, false rejoinders, and grounds for defeat.”

Now compare Marcus Aurelius, also cited by Ethan:

“Two things are clear: first, I am a part of the universe governed by nature, and second, I am related in some way to other parts like myself. Once I acknowledge this, I shall be content with any role the universe assigns me. … Realizing that I am part of just such a universe, I will calmly accept whatever happens.” (Meditations, X.6)

It sounds from the above like Gautama was indeed (also) in the business of finding truths about the world, and so were the Stoics. As is well known, they developed a three-fold curriculum of study, which included “physics” (i.e., natural science and metaphysics), “logic” (i.e., logic, rhetoric, and psychology), and “ethics” (i.e., the study of how to best live one’s life). The physics and the logic were in the service of the ethics, but were nonetheless respectively in the business of seeking truth about the natural world and of developing good arguments.

Which brings us to the next section of Ethan’s talk, on skepticism, in both its Eastern and Western versions. From the East, the Chinese mystic and philosopher Zhuangzi — one of the founders of Taoism in the IV century BCE — was a skeptic. Here is a quote from him, mentioned by Ethan:

“A fish trap is there for the fish. When you have got hold of the fish, you forget the trap. … Words are there for the intent. When you have got hold of the intent, you forget the words. Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can have a few words with him?”

Not crystal clear? Yeah, to me neither. Nevertheless, Ethan mentioned several other skeptics from the Eastern traditions, including Nagarjuna (an Indian Buddhist philosopher of the II century), Jayarasi (an Indian philosopher of the early IX century), and Sri Harsa (a XII century Indian poet and philosopher).

On the Western side, of course, we have Sextus Empiricus and the philosophy known as Pyrrhonism, a general approach with which the Stoics very much engaged, especially in the form that it took among the so-called Academic Skeptics (such as Cicero). Here is a taste of Sextus:

“Skepticism is an ability to set out oppositions among things which appear and are thought of in any way at all, an ability by which, because of the equipollence in the opposed object and accounts, we come first to suspension of judgment and afterwards to tranquillity. … Suspension of judgment is a standstill of the intellect, owing to which we neither reject nor posit anything. Tranquillity is freedom from disturbance and calmness of soul.” (Pyrrhōneioi hypotypōseis 1.8-10)

By the end of his talk, Ethan had reached the conclusion that both Nyaya and Stoicism demonstrate that pursuing philosophy as therapy / way of life doesn’t rule out philosophy as a truth-seeking enterprise. He asked if a similar idea could work for modern philosophy, and I have already given my negative answer above: two thousand years later, philosophy has deputized the search for truths about the world to science, and even logic is increasingly an independent discipline (though it is mostly still taught in philosophy departments). But this is no reason to deny the value of philosophy beyond therapy and as a way of life (both roles that science certainly cannot claim). That’s because of the huge contribution that philosophy continuously makes to our understanding of how things generally “hang together,” so to speak, what Wilfrid Sellars, one of the best and least known philosophers of the 20th century, conceptualized as the dynamic reconciliation of the “manifest” (i.e., the way things look like to us) and the scientific (i.e., whatever the latest science thinks its true) images of the world.

Indeed, Ethan himself comes close to this conclusion when he acknowledges that the skeptics do have a point, and that their position has survived challenges for more than two millennia. So perhaps modern philosophers should learn their lesson and avoid over-emphasizing the truth seeking aspect of their discipline. In my mind, they should simply avoid it, and leave that sort of business to science. Ethan raises the question of whether the truth seeking image of philosophy encourages the denigration of the field, and the answer is very clearly yes. The likes of physicists Lawrence Krauss and Stephen Hawking, as well as science popularizers such as Neil deGrasse Tyson, are on record as stating that philosophy is useless because it has not contributed to the advancement of scientific knowledge. A statement that is both absolutely true and entirely irrelevant. Like saying that literary criticism, or art history, are useless because they have not advanced our understanding of biology.

Ethan specifically says that he is not claiming that philosophers should give up on the truth seeking image, but I do. It serves no purpose and it distracts us from what we should be doing instead. And what is that? Ethan himself has a partial list for us:

  • Cultivation of cognitive skills (critical thinking, intellectual imagination).
  • Lessening of dogmatism (especially scientific and religious ones, I’d say).
  • Therapeutic aims (mental peace, openness to life, reducing anxiety, cognitive behavioral therapy).
  • Intellectual empathy.
  • Understanding of the history of ideas.
  • Fun! (Indeed!)

Notice, however, that the overwhelming majority of professional philosophers don’t do most of the above, and in fact often positively disdain it. That, more than anything else, may be the root cause of philosophy’s damaged reputation at the onset of the 21st century.

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Stoicism on romantic love and commitment

I often learn about Stoicism by confronting what I think is a likely Stoic position on a particular issue with what other philosophies’ take is on that same position. Hence my ongoing series on Stoicism and its alternatives. (Not to be confused with my other ongoing series, on Stoicism and its critics.) Now, if there is a topic on which both ancient and modern Stoic authors don’t write a lot is love, romantic and otherwise. So let’s get to it, by way of comparing my views with those of my friend and colleague Skye Cleary, who has written a really nice essay about relationships and commitment in the latest issue of the New Philosopher. (Not yet available online, keep an eye on the site, and while you’re at it, subscribe to the magazine)

Skye’s piece, which won the New Philosopher’s Writers’ Award, is entitled “Can we make love stay?” and is written from an Existentialist perspective. (Spoiler alert: the answer turns out to be possibly, but it’s hard…) Skye begins with the commonsense observation that when we fall in love it feels like it will last forever. And yet, both demographic statistics and human neurobiology tell us that that’s far from guaranteed. Indeed, according to research by Helen Fisher on human hormonal profiles, the “high” of romantic love lasts on average between six and 18 months. After that, either the couple breaks up, or they move to a phase of attachment (which may last several more years, or a lifetime). That latter phase is, in fact, a more mature form of love, but it is definitely not the heady hormonal and emotional cocktail of the beginnings.

(Fisher’s Anatomy of Love contains lots of interesting science, but — as usual with contemporary mixes of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology — it needs to be taken with more than a grain of salt.)

So what’s the problem? As Skye summarizes it: “We keep promising ‘till death us do part’ even when we know there’s a pretty good chance love won’t last.” That, in a nutshell, is the problem, and Skye briefly lists a number of potential solutions: “not making any commitments, making short-term commitments, commit knowing that we might have to break our word, or commit with lots of caveats.”

She further nails the issue when she reasons that the problem, ultimately, is that there seems to be a contradiction between committing to future actions (and feelings) when that future is, in fact, uncertain. Should commitment be absolute, no matter what — which would seem a rather foolish way to proceed — or should it be conditional on future developments, which begins to sound like no commitment at all?

One of the early Existentialist philosophers was Søren Kierkegaard, who thought about this matter and arrived at one possible solution: leap into marriage (and, ultimately, religion), commit not to a lover, but to love itself. Skye, however, is duly unimpressed: “the problem is that there is something insidious and zombie-like about performing loving actions without passion for the beloved.” That is, pace Kierkegaard, it makes no sense to commit to the idea of love regardless of the particular person one happens to be implementing that idea with.

But Skye rejects also what she calls the “ultra-rational” approach, i.e., pledging commitment only if one is absolutely sure that things will work out. This is in a sense the opposite of Kierkegaard’s leap of faith, and it is probably accurate to describe it as “ultra” rational. As such, it may be interpreted to be close to the Stoic position, given the emphasis of the school on reason, but I don’t think it is.

Allow me a short detour into a series of posts I have been running at my other blog, Footnotes to Plato (devoted to general philosophy). I have been writing about Julian Baggini’s The Edge of Reason: A Rational Skeptic in an Irrational World, a must-read for anyone interested in the very idea of reason, its applicability, and its limits. Julian makes a profound distinction between reason and logic. Skye’s ultra-rational individual comes across as a Spock-like figure (remember, Spock is often misunderstood as a quintessential Stoic!) who acts in life on the basis of strict evidentiary and logical reasoning. And yet, even Spock, later in his career, had to admit that “logic is the beginning of wisdom, not the end.”

Baggini’s point is that reason is far broader than formal logic, that to apply reason means to arrive at good judgments based on a combination of logic and evidence, but also personal experience and values. That’s why the Stoics thought that the study of “logic” and “physics” are both instrumental to ethics, but by themselves are insufficient to achieve wisdom. As Epictetus puts it:

“We know how to analyze arguments, and have the skill a person needs to evaluate competent logicians. But in life what do I do? What today I say is good tomorrow I will swear is bad. And the reason is that, compared to what I know about syllogisms, my knowledge and experience of life fall far behind.” (Discourses II, 3.4-5)

Let me recap so far: the Stoic position clearly cannot be Kierkegaard’s, which even Skye, as an Existentialist, rejects anyway. But it is not to be found in its opposite, “ultra-rational” extreme, either. What then?

Skye turns to another giant of Existentialism, Albert Camus, who also rejected Kierkegaard. As she summarizes it: “what’s important is being able to stand on the ‘dizzying crest’ of absurdity. Sisyphus embraces his torture of endlessly push the rock up the hill only to watch it roll back down again. Just as the absurd hero finds revolt, freedom, and passion in his lucidity, this is how we ought to approach relationships: we embrace the absurdity of love and give it our best shot.”

I never understood why Camus and the Existentialists are so fond of Sisyphus. If they actually took a look at the myth as it is usually recounted, they’ll discover that he is no hero at all. To begin with, Sisyphus was a bit of a rascal, to put it mildly. He was the king of Ephyra (Corinth) and very much devoted to self-aggrandizing and deceit. He was punished by Zeus for, among other misdeeds, performing the impious act of killing travelers passing by his city. Because of that Sisyphus was forced to eternally roll the boulder up, a constant reminder of the hubris of thinking himself cleverer than Zeus. He didn’t have a choice, he didn’t revolt, and he had no passion for the task. Indeed, he was supervised by Persephone in the Underworld, to make sure he did what he was supposed to do.

At any rate, a Stoic informed by modern science would say that there is absolutely nothing absurd about love. Its biological origins lie, of course, with the need for reproduction and the raising of a family (it may be no coincidence, as Fisher points out, that many relationships last 4-5 years, the time it took in human prehistory to get a child to be sufficiently independent as not to need both parents to stick around). But the modern concept has evolved culturally a great deal, to represent and satisfy a wide range of human needs for companionship, sharing one’s goals and projects, and so forth. The fact that it doesn’t (always) last is a fact of nature, which the Stoic would accept rather than indulge in Disney-like wishful thinking (not that that’s what Skye does in her piece). Here is Epictetus on wishing things to be different when they cannot be:

“If you long for your son or your friend [or your partner], when it is not given you to have him, know that you are longing for a fig in winter time.” (Discourses III, 24.86)

While Stoicism is most definitely not a passive philosophy (along the lines of “que sera, sera”), it is one founded on realism, meaning that we try to differentiate between the things we can actually control and change and those we cannot (as in Enchiridion 1.1, and analogously to the famous Christian Serenity Prayer). Which means what, exactly, in terms of love and commitment?

I think a more productive way to address the issue Skye (and a lot of us) is concerned with is not by asking “how do I make love last?” or “should I commit till death us do part”? Nor is the solution to think in terms of conditional commitments, commitments with caveats, or commitments until things change. Rather, we should ask ourselves what, exactly, should we commit to.

My answer is: justice, as in one of the four Stoic virtues. Yeah, I know, it doesn’t sound very romantic, but hear me out. “Justice” for the Stoics doesn’t mean (only) social justice, though it can and should also be interpreted that way. It is, rather, the idea that we ought to treat others with fairness, as human beings with their inherent moral worth. That applies to all our relations, but especially to the close ones, and therefore to love for a partner.

This means, for instance, no cheating (contra to what some modern psychologists seem to think). It also means to treat our partner kindly and lovingly, to do our best to be helpful and supportive. This is what is known as the discipline of action, which regulates all our dealings with others:

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

Seneca is talking about friendship here, but this goes a fortiori for a loving relationship. He also says, again about friendship, but mutatis mutandis:

“When friendship is settled, you must trust; before friendship is formed, you must pass judgment.” (Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

Meaning that one needs to be careful whom one commits to, but once you do commit, you have to do it wholeheartedly. And, I maintain, that is what love is, after Fisher’s initial rush of hormones: a solid relationship based on trust, compassion, and friendship. Of course there is no guarantee that it will last a lifetime. Some do, others don’t. Therefore, it is unwise to “commit” to a specific length of time, come what may. But we can, indeed ought to, commit to be as good to that person as we can. To use the old Stoic metaphor of the archer:

“If a man were to make it his purpose to take a true aim with a spear or arrow at some mark, his ultimate end, corresponding to the ultimate good as we pronounce it, would be to do all he could to aim straight: the man in this illustration would have to do everything to aim straight, yet, although he did everything to attain his purpose, his ‘ultimate end,’ so to speak, would be what corresponded to what we call the Chief Good in the conduct of life, whereas the actual hitting of the mark would be in our phrase ‘to be chosen’ but not ‘to be desired.’” (Cicero, De Finibus, III.22)

To aim for our relationship to last until death us do part is within our power. To make sure it does is not. Commitment is to the goal, not the outcome, and the commitment is difficult enough work for a mere human as it is. Let the goal come (or not) as it pleases the universe.

Is Stoicism “true”? What does that mean, anyway?

Philosopher of science Imre Lakatos

I recently wrote about the remarkable similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism, referring to a recent book by Bob Wright, Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. With all due respect to Bob, and acknowledging (from experience) that authors don’t actually have full control of the titles of their books, I maintain that to ask the question of whether a philosophy (be that Buddhism, Stoicism, or whatever) is “true” is, in part, a category mistake. But that does not, in fact, mean that modern scientific evidence is entirely irrelevant to the practice of said philosophy. Let me explain.

A category mistake is a situation where someone is attempting to apply a particular criterion to something to which that criterion is irrelevant or inappropriate. For instance, if I were to ask “what is the color of triangles?” that may sound deep, but it’s actually nonsense (what philosopher Dan Dennett calls a “deepity”). That’s because triangles are geometrical figures, and they are characterized by things like number of sides, angles, lengths, and so forth. But not colors (though individual instances of triangles may, of course, be colored).

The classic case of a category mistake is given by philosopher Gilbert Ryle, in his The Concept of Mind (1949), where he introduced the idea: consider someone who is visiting Oxford University. The guy, upon viewing the various colleges and the library, inquires “But where is the University?” The visitor’s mistake is presuming that a University is part of the category “units of physical infrastructure” rather than that of an “institution.”

So when someone asks whether Buddhism or Stoicism are “true” I think they are making a category mistake. Philosophies of life cannot be true in the sense of corresponding to some sort of reality out there, like the fact that the Sun is a star of a given type and surface temperature, or that water boils at 100C. Rather, philosophies of life are frameworks to orient one’s existence and navigate it in a way that is satisfying to the practitioner. Which means that one cannot even sensibly ask whether Buddhism or Stoicism “work.” The proper question, rather, is does Stoicism (or Buddhism) work for you?

Another proper question one can ask about a philosophy is whether it is coherent, i.e., (more or less) internally consistent. Or whether its precepts are clear, instead of being muddled. And so forth. Coherence, clarity, and individual usefulness are criteria properly applied to philosophies of life, just like number of sides, angles, and lengths are proper characteristics of geometrical figures. But truth, in this case, is not a proper category, it’s more like color for triangles.

Nevertheless, philosophies like Stoicism and Buddhism also make more limited claims about specific practices. For instance, meditation for Buddhists, keeping a philosophical diary for Stoics, and so forth. These claims are empirical in nature, and are therefore at least potentially subject to systematic or scientific inquiry. That, I surmise, is the meaning of Wright’s book title.

(For the purposes of this discussion, “empirical” is taken to be broader than scientific, since it includes personal experience, for instance, while scientific means done systematically, according to the methods of whatever science is germane, like psychology, biology, and so forth. My knowledge that I need to take the Q train to get from my apartment to Time Square is definitely empirical, but it would be a bit too much to label it “scientific.”)

Interestingly, even if one or more particular practices within a given philosophy were shown not to work, that would not invalidate the philosophy within which such practices are situated. The Dalai Lama famously said that if science comes up with something that contradicts a Buddhist doctrine, Buddhism will have to change. Notice the use of the word “change,” not “be abandoned.” How come?

Help may come here from an unlikely source: philosopher of science and mathematics Imre Lakatos, a student of Karl Popper. Allow me a brief detour into philosophy of science, I promise it will pay off.

Popper had arrived at the conclusion that scientific theories cannot possibly be proven true, because there is always a chance that — while the theory has so far withstood various empirical tests — it will fail a new one tomorrow. Indeed, the history of science tells us precisely that: Newton’s mechanics was considered true, until it failed to describe the orbit of the planet Mercury and was replaced by Einstein’s General Relativity. The latter is already known not to be true, because in certain areas of application it provides predictions that contradict those of quantum mechanics. And so forth.

Popper then thought that science makes progress not by arriving at true theories (it manifestly doesn’t), but rather by progressively eliminating false ones. If a theory fails a given test then we know it is not true, and it can safely be discarded.

Except that things don’t work that way either. For instance, the Copernican theory in astronomy abysmally failed, initially, to account for the actual positions of the planets in the sky. In fact, it wasn’t doing any better than its rival, the long established Ptolemaic system. And yet, astronomers like Galileo believed Copernicus was much closer to the truth than Ptolemy, and kept the theory alive. Until Kepler had a eureka! moment, realizing that if planetary orbits were elliptical, and not circular as assumed by Copernicus, everything would fall into place, with the theory now providing a very good approximation of observable planetary positions. But Popper would have rejected the Copernican system, because it had been falsified by observation for decades.

Okay, said Lakatos, if scientific theories — strictly speaking — cannot be shown to be true, and cannot be shown to be false, how does then science make progress? By producing research programs. A research program is a body of theory (the “core”), plus a number of ancillary notions (the “protective belt”) that bridge the gap between the theory and the empirical world. For instance, the core of the Copernican theory is the idea that the Sun, and not the Earth, is located near the center of the solar system. But the further idea that planetary orbits are circular is part of the protective belt. What Kepler did was to retain the core and change the belt, substituting ellipses for circles, and thus making the core empirical functional.

Lakatos thought that research programs aren’t “true” or “false” (that would be another category mistake), but rather “progressive” or “degenerative.” A progressive research program is one that keeps producing new results that are useful to scientists. A degenerative one, by contrast, doesn’t yield new insights, and in fact it needs constant fixing and tweaking, until eventually it is abandoned because no longer useful. That’s exactly what happened to the Ptolemaic system, where the tweaks came in the form of an increasing, embarrassingly high number of “epicycles” (basically, sub-orbits used to artificially improve the align between theory and observations). Indeed, the word epicycle nowadays has come more broadly mean the introduction of baroque and artificial notions in order to save a pet theory. If you need epicycles you are very likely on the wrong path.

Back to philosophy, then. The suggestion I want to make is that philosophies of life are, in a sense, like scientific research programs: they too are constituted of a “core” and a “protective belt.” The core is made of the fundamental precepts of that philosophy, without which it would not be recognizable as such. The protective belt is constituted of ancillary notions that are not as crucial, as well as of a series of practices. The core is not really open to empirical verification, but is rather assessed in terms of internal coherence and usefulness to the practitioner. The belt, by contrast, is open and revisable, partially in light of empirical or scientific evidence.

This means that philosophies can (and do) evolve by way of dynamically adjusting their protective belts in response to human experience and understanding. Whether they become “progressive” or “degenerate,” to use Lakatos’ terminology, depends on whether they are useful to a sufficient number of people or not.

If you have followed me so far, then the next question is: what do the core and belt of Stoicism consist of? Opinions, I’m sure, will vary, but here is a first pass:

Stoicism’s core

(i) Virtue is the chief good, i.e., the thing in life you do not trade anything with. Everything else is a preferred or dispreferred indifferent.

“The matter can be imparted quickly and in very few words: ‘Virtue is the only good; at any rate there is no good without virtue; and virtue itself is situated in our nobler part, that is, the rational part.’ And what will this virtue be? A true and never-swerving judgment.” (Seneca, Letter LXXI. On the Supreme Good, 32)

(ii) The dichotomy of control is the proper way to look at world, in order to make a distinction between what is and is not up to us, and thus focus our energy on the first and ignore the second.

“Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing.” (Epictetus, Enchiridion, 1.1)

(iii) Cosmopolitanism: regardless of social status, geographical or ethnic origin, and so forth, all human beings are to be treated fairly, and indeed the point of a human life is to be of service to society. (This is related to another famous Stoic motto: live according to nature, i.e., by applying reason to social living.)

“Labor not as one who is wretched, nor yet as one who would be pitied or admired; but direct your will to one thing only: to act or not to act as social reason requires.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.12)

(iv) Cause and Effect: while this is sometimes understood as Stoic determinism, I’ve argued that from a modern perspective talk of determinism is a bit of a red herring (because if it turns out that quantum mechanics confirms the existence of truly random events at the fundamental level, cause and effect still hold at the macroscopic level of human actions, even if the universe were strictly speaking non-deterministic). The important point is that everything happens because of previous causes. See the metaphor of Chrysippus’ cylinder:

“‘In the same way therefore,’ he says, ‘as a person who has pushed a roller forward has given it a beginning of motion, but has not given it the capacity to roll, so a sense-presentation when it impinges on the will, it is true impresses and as it were seals its appearance on the mind, but the act of assent will be in our power, and as we said in the case of the roller, though given a push from without, as to the rest will move by its own force and nature.” (Cicero, De Fato, 43)

(v) Materialism: the Stoics thought that everything is made of matter. Of course, modern science may understand something quite different by “matter” then they did, but the important point is that things are made of stuff, there are no spooky entities, no mind-matter dualism, and so forth.

“The primary matter [the Stoics] make the substratum of all things: so Chrysippus in the first book of his Physics, and Zeno. By matter is meant that out of which anything whatsoever is produced.” (Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, VII.150)

Stoicism’s protective belt

The protective belt is not as easy to define as the core, because it is both much larger and dynamic. Roughly, it can be divided into two major categories: theoretical and practical, with the theoretical component subject to critical analysis on the basis of coherence and logic, and the practical component subject to critical analysis based on usefulness and empirical evidence.

Part of the theoretical belt, for instance, is the idea of a providential universe, which the ancient Stoics believed in (they were pantheists), and yet which even they allowed was not strictly necessary for ethics:

“Either there is a fatal necessity and invincible order, or a kind Providence, or a confusion without a purpose and without a director. If then there is an invincible necessity, why do you resist? But if there is a Providence that allows itself to be propitiated, make yourself worthy of the help of the divinity. But if there is a confusion without a governor, be content that in such a tempest you have yourself a certain ruling intelligence.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, XII.14)

Some of the Stoics’ so-called “paradoxical” ideas fall into this category too: for instance, the notion that virtue is an all-or-nothing (and that, therefore, all bad actions are equally bad), as expressed in the famous drowning man metaphor:

“For just as a drowning man is no more able to breathe if he be not far from the surface of the water, so that he might at any moment emerge, than if he were actually at the bottom already. … Similarly a man that has made some progress towards the state of virtue is none the less in misery than he that has made no progress at all.” (Cicero, De Finibus, IV.48)

On the empirical side, there are all the Stoic techniques, which have been validated, modified and expanded by modern disciplines like rational emotive behavior therapy and cognitive behavioral therapy. There is a very in-depth recent article in the New York Times on how to deal with stress (really, life in general) on the basis of modern empirical evidence. It could have been written almost entirely out of quotations from Seneca, Musonius, Epictetus, and Marcus. For instance:

* Changing your perception of a stressful situation helps you cope with it, just like Epictetus said:

“It is not events that disturb people, it is their judgements concerning them.” (Enchiridion, 5)

* Practicing stress inoculates you against it, for example by reflecting on what to expect and rehashing a difficult situation ahead of time:

“Everyone approaches courageously a danger which he has prepared himself to meet long before, and withstands even hardships if he has previously practiced how to meet them. But, contrariwise, the unprepared are panic-stricken even at the most trifling things. We must see to it that nothing shall come upon us unforeseen.” (Seneca, Letter CVII. On Obedience to the Universal Will, 3)

* Practicing resilience helps coping with stress, for instance by way of exercises in self-deprivation:

“‘Bad bread!’ you say. But just wait for it; it will become good. Hunger will make even such bread delicate and of the finest flavor.” (Seneca, Letter CXXIII. On the Conflict Between Pleasure and Virtue, 2)

* Finding a role model gives you courage and inspiration:

“Choose therefore a Cato; or, if Cato seems too severe a model, choose some Laelius, a gentler spirit. Choose a master whose life, conversation, and soul-expressing face have satisfied you; picture him always to yourself as your protector or your pattern. For we must indeed have someone according to whom we may regulate our characters; you can never straighten that which is crooked unless you use a ruler.” (Letters to Lucilius, XI, On the Blush of Modesty, 10)

* Daily journaling is an empirically proven way to help you reflect on issues and better prepare to deal with them:

“The spirit ought to be brought up for examination daily. It was the custom of Sextius when the day was over, and he had betaken himself to rest, to inquire of his spirit: “What bad habit of yours have you cured to-day? What vice have you checked? In what respect are you better?” Anger will cease, and become more gentle, if it knows that every day it will have to appear before the judgment seat.” (Seneca, On Anger, III.36)

* Eating well and in a mindful way is good for your mind, not just your body:

“When it comes to food, responsible people favor what is easy to obtain over what is difficult, what involves no trouble over what does, and what is available over what isn’t.” (Musonius Rufus, Lecture 18B.8)

* Good friends and relations are an important source of support and happiness:

“Ponder for a long time whether you shall admit a given person to your friendship; but when you have decided to admit him, welcome him with all your heart and soul. Speak as boldly with him as with yourself.” (Seneca, Letter III. On True and False Friendship, 2)

* Helping other people is good for your own mental wellbeing:

“The universal nature has made rational animals for the sake of one another to help one another according to their deserts, but in no way to injure one another.” (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, IX.1)

The list could go on and on, but you get the gist. Of course, the Stoics do all the above not just because it makes their own life better (practical outcome), but because it is the right thing to do for a social animal (ethical precept). Then again, for them there is no sharp distinction between one’s own wellbeing and that of everyone else, because of universal cause and effect and the notion of cosmopolitanism. Every time I make the world better by my actions I don’t help just other people, I help myself as well.

So when people ask if Stoicism (or Buddhism, or Christianity) is “true” the answer is: it depends on what you mean. If you are referring to the core principles, then you are committing a category mistake: core doctrines are not true or false, they are coherent or incoherent, useful or not. If they are coherent and useful, the philosophy progresses, in the Lakatosian sense; if not, it degenerates. But if you are talking about the protective belt, then the theoretical components are subject to the same sort of (philosophical) analysis at the core, and the practical ones can usefully be confronted with empirical and scientific evidence. Being aware of the distinction between a philosophy’s core and belt would surely save us a lot of endless discussions about whether something or someone is “truly” Stoic (or Buddhist, or Christian) or not.

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.

Stoicism and Buddhism, a dialogue

Since the beginning of my interest in Stoicism one of the things that attracted me to it was the fact that it is compatible with a number of different metaphysical and religious positions, as well as that it has several similarities with other religions-philosophical traditions. One such tradition is Buddhism.

Which is why I was happy when Bob Wright invited me to have a video conversation with him about the similarities and differences between Stoicism and Buddhism. We started out briefly talking about our respective new books, How to Be a Stoic and Why Buddhism is True, briefly chatted about some of the more obvious similarities between the two philosophies, and then explored a little bit of the metaphysics of Stoicism.

Bob and I inquiried about whether there is a Stoic equivalent of the Buddhist discipline of “not-self” (I don’t think so, I think that’s actually one of the major differences between the two philosophies), and then explored my recurring Stoic advice column as an example of practical philosophy in action.

From there, somewhat naturally, we talked about Seneca’s advice on anger, and moved to two final topics: how to achieve a more objective awareness of your emotions (in both Stoicism and Buddhism), and how to use meditation (in the case of Buddhism) or mindfulness (in the case of Stoicism) to cope with feelings of failure.

The full video is here:

What Would a Stoic Do? Response to Jean-Paul Sartre

In 1946 Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre gave a lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism,” in which he presented an argument that neither Christian ethics nor Kantian deontology are very helpful with actual, real-life ethical dilemmas. He sketched one such dilemma for his audience, about a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother, concluding that the answer to ethical questions always depends on the details of every particular case, and that therefore we need to go the Existentialist route and “trust in our instincts.” The question I wish to explore here is that of what a Stoic would do in the scenario imagined by Sartre.

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