What are Stoicism and Zen Buddhism: STOICISM [Part 3/3]

What are Stoicism and Zen 

Buddhism: STOICISM [Part 3/3] (14 min read)


By Ma Dingding

If you would like to read about Buddhism, then simply click here: What are Stoicism and Zen Buddhism: BUDDHISM [Part 2/3]


Similarities between Buddhism and Stoicism here: 

Similitudes: Stoicism and Buddhism


Stoicism

Core Concepts of Stoicism


We will have a look at the Stoic concepts below:


The Founder: Zeno of Citium

The story of how Stoicism started is a story of misfortune. 


The founder of the Stoic school was a successful Phoenician merchant whose ship had been shipwrecked. After the misadventure he ended up in an Athenian library where he discovered Socrates’ ideas in Xenophon’s book “Memorabilia.” Either legend or truth, no one will really know, Zeno asked the librarian where he could find men such as Socrates. At the same time, Crates of Thebes, a well-known Cynic of the time, passed by, and the librarian, pointing his finger at Crates referred to him as “The Man.” Diogenes Laërtius relates the stories we know about the founder of the Stoic movement in his book “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers.


Zeno of Citium (334-262 BC) was born in Citium, a Greek town in current-day Cyprus. A student of a Cynic philosopher named Crates of Thebes, who similarly to the Buddha and Jesus, gave away his fortune to live a life of material homelessness and poverty, decided to start his “own thing” around 300BC. 


The Stoic school was born under the stoa poikile in Athens, hence the name of the movement “Stoic” which literally means “portico.” The agora of Athens where the painted portico is became the starting point of the Stoic movement. Without a surprise, the Ethics of Stoicism are influenced by the teachings that Zeno of Citium was exposed to as a student of Crates of Thebes. Zeno of Citium started lecturing on the Stoa around age 34. 


The followers of the Stoic School were first named “Zenonians.” This inelegant name became “Stoics,” a reference to the poets who used to hang out in the vicinity of the Agora of Athens. 


The Historical Context

Stoicism evolved in a cluster of different philosophies in Ancient Greece, a Classical Age of Philosophy that permeated the whole region. One of the most popular philosopher of the period was Socrates (470-399BC,) who died about 65 years before Zeno of Citium was born. 


Socrates’s Socratic method was a revolution in the field of Thought that is still teach in universities and school as we currently speak. I personally had to study it in high school and when I studied Philosophy at the university. Socrates’ student, Plato (428-348BC), with his Platonist dialogues, was another heavyweight. 


Plato’s own student, Aristotle (384-322BC) had the ability to synthesize multiple complex theories like metaphysics, aesthetics, poetry, rhetoric and much more into an Aristotelian philosophy. The Fathers of Western Philosophy made the basis of what still permeates Western Though up to this day. 


It is interesting to note that Aristotle was the tutor of Alexander the Great, who went to conquer vast areas of land and cultures around the world. What few people are aware of is that Buddhism, under its reign, entered the Greek sphere of influence after conquests made in the Indian subcontinent. Even Afghanistan was a Buddhist country! The Silk Road brought a lot of Eastern culture to its Western parts. The influence of Greeks remained in the area for a few hundred years. It is referred as Greco-Buddhism, or Graeco-Buddhism and lasted from 400BC to about 400AD. Most statues of Buddha that you see, no matter how old they are, are directly inspired by the aesthetics of Greek sculptures. It is interesting to note that the anthropomorphic representations of the Buddha were rare before the arrival of the Greeks. 


This culture of Greek Thought also migrated to Rome with the raise of the Roman Empire that followed Ancient Greece’s Golden Age. Consider that even the Romans, speakers of Latin, would sometimes write their philosophy and thoughts in Koine Greek, which was the language of preference for the intelligentsia and was the lingua franca used by the educated. 


A good example of this are the 12 books composed to compiled the “Meditations” of Marcus Aurelius, the Roman Emperor who ruled on the Empire at its height, and wrote his thoughts in Koine Greek. Of course, it does not mean that all that has ever been written by the Stoics was written in Koine Greek, for example Seneca wrote in Latin. Fortunately both Latin and Greek are relatively easy to translate into Indo-European languages like English, German, French, Spanish, Italian… which means we can easily have access to their knowledge. As opposed to trying to translate a Taoist text written a few thousand years ago, in Classical Chinese, that makes use of vague and indirect aphorisms based on an intuitive understanding of the Universe. 


The Stoics were also the first to talk about the concept of “cosmopolitism,” the mingling of different communities or more literally, citizen (“polites”) of the world (“kosmos”.) In the Hellenistic Age the power was not concentrated into a single point nor in any type of Nation-state, a concept that came apparent around the 18th century. Sparta and Athens fought many wars until the power distribution went from city-state to a more centralized system. 


Laws of Nature and the Universe

Zeno of Citium put a strong emphasis on living in accordance with the Laws of Nature. We can think of it as a natural way of living: anything that is pushing the boundaries of the Laws of Nature can only create artificial conditions that lead to imbalance. 


In his treatise on the Nature of Man, Zeno was a pioneer in bringing the idea that living with the Laws of Nature was virtuous, and nature itself brings people to live a life of virtue.  In other words, living in accordance with the Laws of Nature means to live according to Virtue. One benefits from this lifestyle by gaining a peace of mind and a form of balanced harmony with the Universe. 


The emphasis on the Laws of Nature gives us further insights into what Zeno wanted to focus on: virtue rather than pleasure, balance rather than unbalance and harmony rather than disharmony. 


Zeno of Citium’s departure from this world is also interesting to have a look at: after tumbling and breaking his toe, he apparently mumbled to himself, like he was addressing God(s) “I am coming with my own free will, why push me?” He intuitively understood that he was being called upon. Wanting to avoid pushing the boundaries of the Laws of Nature, he used a rope and exited our world by committing the ultimate sacrifice. 


Zeno was a man of his words and to be consistent with his own philosophy, shared a fate similar to Socrates who drank a cup of hemlock after being judged by 500 of his peers and Seneca, who took a bowl of nightlock after having been chastised by the tyrant Nero, Emperor of Rome who even had close family members killed in his paranoia.


Living in harmony with the Laws of Nature can be split into 3 categories: 

  • Internal: living rationally, a relaxed and balanced life of self-appreciation according to our own true nature (this sounds exactly like Zen.) The keyword here is Stoic rationality
  • All Things and People: living as part of a whole system with everybody and everything, at the macro level with the Universe, considered to have its own cosmological rationality, and the micro level with other people, plants, nature, non-sentient objects, other sentient beings like animals and humans (this sounds exactly like Buddhism.)
  • External Events: accepting all that is outside of our own control, external events and conditions, without negative emotions like anger, hopelessness, fear, complaints, attachment to old situations… 

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Virtue and Wisdom

The word “philosophy” can be translated as “The Love of Wisdom.” Our logo is directly inspired by the word Wisdom which is the “philo” in “philosophy.” (The round shape in the logo comes from a Japanese Zen calligraphy)


It is then no surprise that the concept of Virtue (“aretê”) permeates Stoicism. The way to a fulfilling sense of satisfaction, sometimes translated as “happiness” (“eudamonia,”) was seen as being a life of wisdom, not a life of pleasure. As both Virtue and Wisdom go hand in hand, we can say that a life of Virtue will bring Wisdom and that Wisdom necessarily leads to Virtue. This may be difficult to grasp in our modern societies filled with overwhelming sources of stimulation that give us dopamine boosts every now and then. 


Now you may ask: What is Virtue? 

It is the positive quality of a rational sentient being that is all of the following, to higher and lesser extents, depending on the person: good, excellent, praiseworthy, just, following the Laws…


The definition is typical from Greek Thought, but we could summarize it by saying that “being good” is following the Virtue. 



There are 4 main Stoic Virtues:

  • Practical Wisdom (or Prudence, “phronêsis”) 
  • Temperance (or Moderation, “sôphrosunê”)
  • Justice (or Morality, “dikaiosunê”)
  • Courage (or Fortitude, “andreia”)



Practical Wisdom or Prudence

"The ability which by itself is productive of human happiness; the knowledge of what is good and bad; the knowledge that produces happiness; the disposition by which we judge what is to be done and what is not to be done.” -Plato, Complete Works, Hackett Publishing


Wisdom is probably the most important Stoic virtue. Wisdom is the filter that we make use of to distinguish between what should be done, and what should be not done, what should be said, and what should not be said, what should be thought, what should not be thought, what should be felt, what should not be felt… Wisdom is essential to reach a sense of fulfillment. 


Ignorance is a state where wisdom cannot be used as a filter and the end result can only be negative. Wisdom ensures that the input is positive so that we get positive outputs. We can assume that no negative input can result in a positive output. 


One key component of wisdom is rationality. Irrationality and letting emotions take over will fog our ability to think and will have a direct, negative impact, on the results of our thoughts and actions. To have a good understanding of a given situation, and to have the ability to propose a wise course of action, needs rationality to be full on, and on top of that, the moral aspect of prudence that is Wisdom. 


As we mentioned earlier, even the word “philosophy” is rooted in Wisdom: Philosophy is the Love of Wisdom. 


Temperance or Moderation

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.” -Plato, Complete Works, Hackett Publishing


Temperance is the Virtue that guides us in a world of temptation and extreme emotions (fear, anger, envy, jealousy…) Temperance is only possible if one is self-aware, detached and objective enough to have discipline and self-control. The result of that is, similarly to the Buddhists, a detachment to external things and conditions, a freedom from passions and wants, that brings a sense of freedom and liberty (“apatheia.)”


Justice or Morality

The unanimity of the soul with itself, and the good discipline of the parts of the soul with respect to each other and concerning each other; the state that distributes to each person according to what is deserved; the state on account of which its possessor chooses what appears to him to be just; the state underlying a law-abiding way of life; social equality; the state of obedience to the laws.” -Plato, Complete Works, Hackett Publishing


Justice was a common Virtue in Ancient Greece’s Classical Philosophy. Socrates talked about the subject in details and even drank poison after being condemned by 500 of his Athenians peers… to respect the concept of Justice. 


Plato, who was Socrates’ student, also cogitated on the concept of Justice with a capital “J.” Justice did not stop at the legal definition, but it reaches a conceptual peak by including Justice in the sense of being “fair, kind, benevolent, just and moral.” So do not get fooled nor intellectually limited, Justice can be thought in the sense of being “righteous” as well as in the legal sense of the term. 


For Marcus Aurelius, the Stoic Roman Emperor, Justice was the most precious virtue to follow as it relates to our dealings, in a kind and impartial manner, with other people both on the individual and societal levels. 


Courage or Fortitude

The state of the soul which is unmoved by fear; military confidence; knowledge of the facts of warfare; self-restraint in the soul about what is fearful and terrible; boldness in obedience to wisdom; being intrepid in the face of death; the state which stands on guard over correct thinking in dangerous situations; force which counterbalances danger; force of fortitude in respect of virtue; calm in the soul about what correct thinking takes to be frightening or encouraging things; the preservation of fearless beliefs about the terrors and experiences of warfare; the state which cleaves to the law.“ -Plato, Complete Works, Hackett Publishing


Courage is both mental and physical. Courage is the strength, determination and endurance that are needed to resist temptations and overcome emotions like fear, depression, hopelessness as well as mental barriers, physical pain, health issues, relationship difficulties, adversity, danger… We could say that Courage is the Power of the Will. 


Following the 4 Virtues is impossible without control over our emotions. It all starts internally from oneself. 


Emotions and Self-Control

There is only one way to happiness and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power or our will.” -Epictetus


Under Stoicism, Emotions are to be treated with great attention. 

Everybody feels emotions, but not everybody handles them differently.

One main concepts of Stoicism is that external elements are outside our control. Those external elements can be events, conditions, situations, opinions, behaviors, reputation… and to some degree, even things that affect us directly like our health, wealth, the economic and political situation of the country we live in…


Being aware that some things are out of our control is the first step. A lot of people do not even take this first step. For the Stoics, trying to control what is outside of our control can only lead to unhappiness and a life without Virtue and Wisdom. 


We should then control what we can control, the internal elements, like our thoughts, opinions, actions and emotions; and go with the flow when faced with something that we cannot control, like external events, elements and conditions. 


Self-control is then the starting point of a good Stoic. Without controlling oneself, how can one avoid the trap of overreacting to everything, being a slave to his/her own emotions or other people’s manipulations? 


It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.” -Epictetus


When we talk about Stoicism we often talk about negative emotions requiring self-control. But we rarely hear about positive emotions. John Stellar, who wrote about Stoicism, says that that there are 3 positive Stoic emotions:

  • Joy: cheerful, a balanced state of happiness
  • Caution: reverence, modesty
  • Wishing: rationality, benevolence, friendliness

So do not forget that there are also positive emotions that can bring your in the right direction!


Reflective Meditation

Stoics, and Greek philosophers, did not pray or meditate the way Sufi Islam or Buddhists do. 

The art of Stoic Reflective Meditation is an art as much as Zen meditation is a practice. 

The aim of the practice of Stoic Meditation is to concentrate the mind on a given topic or to reflect on life in general. 

This self-reflection practice is done through internal self-dialogue. 

By using the rational mind to think about our thoughts and actions. 


A good example of this would be the art of journaling. After all, Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations were personal meditations on his life as a Roman Emperor, in the midst of a military campaign. The Meditations were never supposed to be published. Luckily for us, they were, and they provide us with outstanding insights into the mind of a Stoic Roman Emperor!


A few contemporary Stoics like Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday also promote the idea of journaling. It helps them, and it also helps us, discover ourselves and align our life to virtuous endeavors.


Another concept that is attached to meditation is the practice of asceticism (“askēsis.”)

Asceticism in Ancient Greece is a bit different from the practices in Ancient India, where the emphasis was on pushing the body’s limits, almost to be on the verge of dying. In the Greek version of asceticism, the training also applies to physical training, for example in the case of athletes or the military. So asceticism in the Stoic sense is a way to improve the body and the mind, not just imposing limits to them. 


Stoics believed that a good life could be lived no matter what the external conditions are… which is pure asceticism!


God(s)

The Stoics were Pantheists. Pantheism refers to the beliefs of the Pantheon of Greek and Roman Gods under Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome. At his trial Socrates was accused of corrupting the mind of the youth and not believing in the Greek Gods. Socrates was no Stoic, but this gives us some insights about the religious belief system of the time… some people rightfully said that the accusations were trumped and they were just a way of getting rid of someone who was a bit too loud for the crowd. 


Stoics had a pragmatic approach to belief in a monotheistic God or polytheistic system believing in multiple Gods… and even concerning atheism and agnosticism. A good example is the approach that Marcus Aurelius has on the subject, which reminds us of Blaise Pascal’s Wager about God:

Live a good life. If there are gods and they are just, then they will not care how devout you have been, but will welcome you based on the virtues you have lived by. If there are gods, but unjust, then you should not want to worship them. If there are no gods, then you will be gone, but will have lived a noble life that will live on in the memories of your loved ones.” -Marcus Aurelius



Death and Memento Mori

Stoics did not believe that people accumulate good deeds during their lifetime in order to access some kind of paradise in the afterlife. They believed that life was now and now. If there is an afterlife, then we will see after we die. If there is not, then we will return to a state similar to before being born. 


For Stoics, Death is not only seen as a natural phenomenon that is part of the cycles of Nature, but it is also studied, proactively reflected upon and thought in advance. 


You probably heard the term “Memento Mori” (Remember Death or Remember that you must Die.) Memento Mori is a reflection on our own mortality and the transient nature of our lives. If you have ever seen paintings of Natures Mortes (literally “Dead Nature” sometimes translated as “Vanities” or “Still Life Paintings”) you see that from a long time ago humans have been reflecting on the big one. Still Lives where like a photograph capturing a moment of Life, while being fully aware that the Life in the painting is only transient. Memento Mori is a reminder that rich or poor, ugly or beautiful, lower and higher classes… will all face the same fate sooner or later. 


It is thought that Roman generals coming back after a victorious conquest and being exulted by the crowds would have the carriage chauffeur whisper in the general’s ear “Memento Mori remember that this is only temporary.”


Every action and every thought should take into consideration that our time is limited. This makes every small gesture of a great importance. 


Everything outside of Virtue is vain. 


In the end, we are all equal.


Memento Mori is a reflection that time and life are precious and that we should not let emotions or possessions take over the only thing we have: the Now. 


You’ve lived as a citizen in a great city. Five years or a hundred–what’s the difference? The laws make no distinction. And to be sent away from it, not by a tyrant or a dishonest judge, but by Nature, who first invited you in–why is that so terrible? Like the impresario ringing down the curtain on an actor: ‘But I’ve only gotten through three acts…!’ Yes. This will be a drama in three acts, the length fixed by the power that directed your creation, and now directs your dissolution. Neither was yours to determine. So make your exit with grace–the same grace shown to you.” -Marcus Aurelius



Amor Fati and Premeditatio Malorum

Following Death, Amor Fati is probably the most famous saying nurtured by the Stoics. If we cannot control what is outside our control, we should embrace it! Amor Fati literally means the “Love of Faith.” Faith is something uncontrollable. Thus, we should accept it no matter what, without any complaint, without any resentment… just deal with it. 


There is another concept that includes both the concept of Memento Mori and Amor Fati: Premeditatio Malorum. The “Pre-meditation of Evil or Misfortune” is another exercise where one reflects on the possibility that something or someone he or she cherishes gets taken away. It is a deep mental exercises that requires a certain level of maturity and openness. By reflecting on what could go wrong, on the worse case scenarios, when life hits us with challenges, it becomes easier to deal with and process our emotions. 


Nobody should walk into the battle of life without a plan that includes both positive and negative outcomes. 



Ethics

Greek Philosophy has always been split into 3 elements: Ethics, Logic and Physics. Those topics can easily become academic and as we are writing an introduction to Stoic Thought, we will not go too deep into those concepts. Nonetheless, they are interesting to explore on the surface for our benefit. 


The main focus of the Stoics is first and foremost Ethics. The Stoic approach to life is very pragmatic and down-to-earth when compared to other more intellectual approches of the time. It does not mean that the Stoics did not explore Logic and Physics, far from it, rather that their actual concerns were about living a day-to-day life in harmony with the Laws of Nature, more than cogitation about infinitely small atoms or our ginormous Universe. 


The central elements of the Stoic Ethics are (the list is far from being exhaustive):

  • The 4 Virtues (above)
  • Law of Nature is universal
  • Rationality
  • Self-Control 
  • Fate and Non-determinism
  • Duty (Right Reason)
  • Good and Evil
  • Passion
  • Action


The Ethics of the Stoics is highly influenced by the Founder’s training with the Cynics, especially regarding self-control, wisdom and justice. Like the Socratic school, the Stoic school believes that unhappiness and evil are the result of ignorance. 


Logic (or Reason)

A Moral, or Ethical Philosophy would not be possible without the faculty of Reason. So both Logic and Ethics go hand-in-hand, they complete each other. 


The list is not complete, but to give you an idea of the topics that fall under the umbrella of Stoic Logic:

  • Logos 
  • Propositional Logic and Grammar
  • Rhetoric
  • Thought
  • Perceptions
  • Epistemology
  • Psychology
  • Sensation and Imagination


Stoic logic is highly influenced by the Megarian school. Furthermore, the Stoics were also influenced by propositional dialectic, a traditional way in Ancient Greece, to demonstrate choice and consequences. Anyone that has read Socrates and Plato saw how dialectic was used to bring people to universally logical conclusions all by themselves… simply by guiding the thoughts with questions and interrogations. 


So the Stoics thought that Truth with a capital “T” can be found via self-exploration, training the muscles of rational reflection through dialectic, argumentation, puzzles, paradoxes… 


Here is an example of the Stoic Logic:

possible

An assertible which can become true and is not hindered by external things from becoming true

impossible

An assertible which cannot become true or which can become true but is hindered by external things from becoming true

necessary

An assertible which (when true) cannot become false or which can become false but is hindered by external things from becoming false

non-necessary

An assertible which can become false and is not hindered by external things from becoming false

Source: Stoic Logic, Wikipedia, retrieved on August 1st 2019 


Physics (or Nature)

As we have seen, Stoics believe that the Universe is an harmonious series of cycles that each have their own raison d’être. Everything that is, and everything that happens is in accordance to the Laws of Nature. 


Plants, animals, non-sentient matter and substances all have their place in the cycles of the Laws of Nature. 


Whether we call it Nature, God(s) or the Universe, Stoics believe that the Universe itself is material… it has its own way of reasoning and its own system that we can see by observing the cyclic Laws of Nature. 


Matter is seen as passive. 

Fate or Universal Reason (aka Logos) is seen as active and as a “primordial intelligence” that acts on passive matter. 


Fate is an extremely important in Stoicism. Fate is seen as a natural flow of life where external events affect us no matter what we desire or wish to avoid. 


In other words, everything happens in accordance to a set of rules made by Divine Reason (or Divine Providence) that designed those cyclical rules. 

Nothing happens outside the rules of the cycles. 

Everything happens according to the inherent nature of the Universe. 


Understanding those unwritten rules, part of the sublime Truth that we can study by using our rational and logical minds, is the way to a virtuous life. 


God or the Universe is not transcendental (e.g. in a separate reality,) but is immanent, in everything and everyone. There is not conception of a personal God in Stoicism either. 


The Universe is seen as limitless, timeless, self-creating and cyclical. 


We like to say that references to God(s) and Divinity is a way to rationalise concepts which True Nature we cannot really grasp as Human Beings with conscience, rationality and a sense of our own existence. 


Books

Reaching this point means that you are interested in knowing more.

A few Stoic books survived millennia to reach us today. There are also great books about the subject. 

We made a list here


If you would like to read about Buddhism, then simply click here: What is Zen Buddhism [Part2/3]

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