On a number of times I have commented on the differences and similarities between Stoicism and Buddhism (insofar I understand the latter, I’m certainly no expert). But there are some interesting parallels between Stoicism and Christianity as well, parallels that were famously highlighted by Justus Lipsius, the founder of Neo-Stoicism, in the 16th century. The occasion to revisit the topic is being afforded by the fact that I’ve been reading with much interest a recent book by C. Kavin Rowe entitled One True Life: the Stoics and Early Christians as Rival Traditions.
Let me conclude my brief commentary of Christopher I. Beckwith’s intriguing (and controversial, see also here) Greek Buddha: Pyrrho’s Encounter with Early Buddhism in Central Asia, following up on yesterday’s post on the alleged relationship between Buddhism and Pyrrhonism (and, indirectly, other Hellenistic philosophies, including Stoicism).
We are now going to tackle the phenomenon of the Greek Enlightenment, to which Beckwith devotes chapter 4 of his book, and which he provocatively subtitles “what the Buddha, Pyrrho, and Hume argued against.” (On David Hume and his take on both Pyrrhonian skepticism and Stoicism, see here.)
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.
Is (or was) Stoicism a religion? I would say no, because there are substantive differences (though there is also overlap) between religions and philosophies, and Stoicism was (and is) primarily a philosophy. It is certainly the case that Stoics can be religious or not — this sort of ecumenicism is one of the main reasons I like Stoicism. It is also true that most if not all the ancient Stoics believed in a god, though they embraced a materialist, pantheistic conception of the divinity, something that moderns can somewhat easily accommodate in the guise of Spinoza’s (sometimes referred to also as Einstein’s) God.
But it wasn’t sophisticated philosophical arguments that recently reinforced in my mind the distinction between religion and philosophy. It was, rather, the simple art of traveling and paying attention to what you see around you.
I have always been a philosophical fan of David Hume. His clear writing, commonsense approach to things, rejection of abstruse philosophizing, embracing of science, and constructive skepticism have been the sort of traits I have aspired to, however imperfectly (no, I assure you this ain’t false modesty), throughout my career. Hume’s idea that a wise person proportions beliefs to evidence, later popularized (and somewhat distorted) by Carl Sagan in the motto “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence” has guided me for many years, hopefully leading me to make as sound judgments as possible, as well as to change them when the cumulative evidence requires it. Add to this that le bonne David, as he was known in the Parisian salons of the Enlightenment, had a generally mild and pleasant character, and you get the features of an intellectual role model. A Stoic, however, David Hume certainly wasn’t. Or was he?
A reader recently sent me a link to an article on Stoicism published by the Ayn Rand Institute… I know, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, but it’s true. The article in question is actually the transcript of a lecture made available through the ARI’s campus branch, and it is the quintessential mischaracterization of Stoicism. As such, it is well worth examining in some detail.
[Full disclosure: I have a very low opinion of Ayn Rand and her Objectivist “philosophy,” as can be seen here, here, here, and here. So take the following with a grain of salt. I am not an unbiased observer in this case!]
The ongoing attempts to revive and update Stoicism for the 21st century go under a number of names, usually along the lines of “Modern Stoicism” or “Stoicism Today.” But people don’t use the obvious term: neo-Stoicism.
There is a reason for that. “Neo-Stoicism” actually describes an earlier project for the revisitation of Stoicism, mostly associated with Justus Lipsius, who in 1584 published a book entitled De Constantia (“On Constancy”), which tackled the issue of how to reconcile Stoic philosophy with Christianity, and which ended up influencing a number of other important figures, including most famously Michel de Montaigne.
A reader has pointed out to me that back at the beginning of 2013 I wrote a blog post (for the now archived Rationally Speaking) comparing Stoicism, Epicureanism and Buddhism. This was well more than a year in advance of my renewed interest in, and practice of, Stoicism, so I thought it would be interesting to go back to see what I said, and ask whether I have changed my mind about it, now that I see Stoicism from the inside, so to speak.
The basic idea of that post was that there are both historical and philosophical similarities among the three approaches, and I stand by that view. As I wrote then: