Comparing Greek and Early Buddhist Thought

| March 13, 2017 | 11 Comments

For a good intro to classical Greek philosophy see the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s page.

Thanks for watching!

Tags: ,

Category: Videos

Doug Smith

About the Author ()

Doug is Study Director of the Secular Buddhist Association. He has a PhD in Philosophy, with a minor in Buddhist philosophy and Sanskrit. In 2013 he completed the year-long Integrated Study and Practice Program with the BCBS and NYIMC. A long time scientific skeptic, he pursues a naturalized approach to practice. He is also interested in scholarship about the Tipiṭaka, and the theoretical and historical origins of the dhamma. He posts videos at Doug's Secular Dharma on YouTube. Some of his writing can be found at academia.edu.

Comments (11)

Trackback URL | Comments RSS Feed

  1. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Thanks, Doug. Nice follow up the discussion around your first video.

    I wonder why the Greeks were so focussed on reason. I know that a century ago, it was enough for many writers to simply wax eloquent about the Greek “discovery of reason,” as though no other explanation was required. Not so simple, I fear!

  2. mufi says:

    I’m enjoying this video series, Doug.

    For me at least, philosophy in the Western tradition is less about specific theories (of mind, in your example) and more about critical thinking (or “rational thought over mythologizing” to quote the encyclopedia article linked above). Therein lies its value for us today.

    Also, your description of the ancient Greek dichotomy of reason and emotion reminds me of experimental psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow, whose two-system dichotomy of the mind/brain – one fast and intuitive and the other slow and deliberative – seem analogous.

  3. Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

    Thanks guys! Mufi I deleted your second comment since it was identical. (Assume you double-posted by accident).

    Yes, I’m sure someone must have discussed this difference in how cultures split up the mind, but I’m not sure where to find it. At any rate it’s worth contemplating. The western tradition of putting everything rational into one faculty is arguably particularly misleading. It’s as if one claimed that all skillful states sprang from a skillful-mental-state faculty. The tendency then becomes to denigrate all the other faculties.

    But one doesn’t become aware of this weakness in the tradition until looking at it from outside.

    Incidentally I didn’t mention Stoicism in this piece and would like to do a video on it and Buddhism in the future. But I will have to bone up on Stoicism first …! (As you may know I am a fan of Stoicism generally but nowhere near expert on it or its history).

    • mufi says:

      Agreed, although we know that the tradition of Western philosophy (at least since Hume) also developed a counter-tradition, which is critical of such hard & fast categories, often drawing upon empirical data to defend their counter-arguments. (A more recent example than Hume that comes readily to mind is Lakoff & Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh: the embodied mind and its challenge to Western thought.)

      Still, while Kahneman admits that his “fast and slow” dichotomy is a simplification, he also cites a lot of evidence in its favor. It also jibes with first-hand experience of following one’s intuition as opposed to, say, solving a difficult math problem (or, in my profession, coding an algorithm).

      Did perhaps the ancient Greeks sense a similar dichotomy and (say, as part of a eudaimonic assessment) judge in favor of the slow thinking that characterizes the examined life?

  4. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Moved by our intersting discussion here, I picked up a copy Epicurus last night for bedtime reading. I came across this:

    “For continual drinking and partying [etc.] . . . do not produce a pleasant life, but sober reasoning which both examines the basis for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which cause very great turmoil to take hold of our souls. Pleasure, wisdom, goodness, justice: Of all these things the beginning and the greatest good is practical wisdom. Hence practical wisdom is more valuable than even philosophy. From practical wisdom the other virtues spring. It teaches us that it is not possible to live a pleasant life without living a wise, good and just life, and it is not possible to live a wise, good and just life without living a pleasant life. For the virtues grow along with a pleasant life, and a pleasant life is inseparable from them.”

    It struck me that what Epicurus is recommending is rather like mindfulness. At least here, the Greek insistence that reason is the key to the good life is not so alien to Gotama. Epicurus says that the study of nature, the application of reason and observation to it, is necessary only to remove our fears — of death, of the gods etc.– which sounds a lot like Gotama’s effort to remove ignorance.

    • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

      Excellent find, Michael. It’s been awhile since I picked up a book of Stoic writings but I recall them as very allied to early Buddhist thought.

      It strikes me that practical wisdom is different from reason. (Which I think you are saying too). Reason is a kind of innate faculty while practical wisdom is learned. I think to that extent Gotama would have found more affinity with the notion of practical wisdom generally. Indeed, that is what I think he taught.

      • mufi says:

        I don’t think Epicurus qualifies as a Stoic, but Epictetus sure does (care of Pigliucci’s latest blog entry):

        People to whom such things are still denied come to imagine that everything good will be theirs if only they could acquire them. Then they get them: and their longing is unchanged, their anxiety is unchanged, their disgust is no less, and they still long for whatever is lacking. Freedom is not achieved by satisfying desire, but by eliminating it. (Discourses IV, 1.174-175)

        which jibes well with this Buddhist quote (care of Fronsdal’s translation):

        Virtuous people always let go. They don’t prattle about pleasures and desires. Touched by happiness and then by suffering, the sage shows no signs of being elated or depressed…Abandoning sensual desires, having nothing, sages should cleanse themselves of what defiles the mind.
        (Dhammapada 1:83 & 88)

        So where does this shared insight come from? While I get the historical framing of this conversation (i.e. what early Buddhists believed about the mind vs. what early Greek philosophers believed), as a modern anglophone it seems conventional to call that source “reason” – not strictly in the sense that ancient Greeks understood and used the term (or in their language logos), so much as in the sense of the “slow thinking” I referred to earlier (though I admit that that the word “experience” also deserves a mention here).

        As an empirically based thesis, slow thinking takes account of the evidence (popularized by neuroscientist Antonio Damasio) that emotion is a necessary ingredient in human decision-making, but it also accounts for the evidence that thought varies along a continuum (e.g. fast-slow, subconscious-conscious, or emotional-logical). That one end of the continuum (viz. the slow, conscious, and logical end) requires cultivation and effort is implicit in the fact that ancient Greek philosophers were also teachers, who by no means took for granted that their students were innately wise, virtuous, and logical.

        • Doug Smith Doug Smith says:

          Thanks for that, Mufi. Of course Epicurus wasn’t a Stoic, he was an Epicurean! But still, the two philosophies share many similarities, this passage being one of them.

          And yes, those passages you cite are indeed consonant with each other, and consonant with something we might term “reasoning” in the Western sense, or in the Buddhist sense “sampajañña” (clear comprehension) or “yoniso manasikara” (wise attention).

  5. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    The translator (R. Geer) of my collection of Epicurus’ works observes that “in many actual situations the true Eicurean and the Stoic would follow much the same course and make the same choices, although for quite different reasons.” He could have added “the true Buddhist.”

    But I do think the Greeks, despite the quote in my last post, placed too much emphasis on “reason” narrowly construed, failing to apprciate “that emotion is a necessary ingredient in human decision-making.” Even Epicurus set up a dichotomy between the reasoning and unreasoning aspects of the soul (animus and anima). Still, for him, reason, the life of reason, is not the goal itself. Reason is a only one tool for attaining ataraxia.

    Mufi, I’m not entirely sure what to make of the slow/fast distinction. I think it may be relevant to te extent that it underlines the fact that all decision-making is not deliberative, nor is the deliberative superior in all cases. Beyond that, Zen and the art od archery of course comes to mind. But so does my cat, who has learned useful behaviours that allow her to respond quickly and efficiently. She always goes out the back door because she has simple pre-programmed responses to threats and opportunties in that familiar context. This makes the most of her limited computing capacity and slow processor speed. Forced out the front door, she is hesitant and slow. Being less capable of assembling new routines as quickly and efficiently as humans, she avoids novel situations.

    • mufi says:

      Michael, I raise the slow/fast dichotomy here as a charitable analog to the ancient Greek reason/emotion dichotomy that Doug mentioned in his video – a dichotomy that’s still relevant in modern psychology, even if the ancient Greek version is not.

      As for our pet cats, the mental life of my cat Fred is the most mysterious to me of all my family members (and is, as far as I know, outside the scope of Kahneman’s work), but his behavioral is highly predictable. Whatever kind or degree of reasoning Fred is capable of, he is like every other cat I’ve owned, a simple creature of habit (and indeed rather zen-like).

      We humans make very poor cats. 😉

  6. Michael Finley Michael Finley says:

    Addendum:

    Doug, I should have added that I agree with you that Epicurus’ “practical reason” (another translar renders it “prudence”) is different from “reason” as Aristotle conceived it, but still I suspect even E, the philosopher of pleasure, being a Greek, remained rather fixated on deliberative, objective reason as the basis for judgement. He would not, I fear, have appreciated the higher jhanas!

Leave a Reply