My grandmother grew up in the era of the horse and buggy, but lived to see a man set foot on the Moon. When I was a kid growing up in New York we had rotary dial telephones. Personal computers were just being introduced, with green phosphorescent screens and weird command-line interfaces. The first office Xerox machine I ever saw was the size of a refrigerator, and it was common to send telegrams to people in far-off countries (yes, telegrams still exist — barely!), since telephoning abroad was so expensive.
The world has changed a lot in the last few decades, which should come as no surprise to those of us inured with the concept of impermanence. Recently though impermanence seems only to be accelerating as our scientific and technological knowledge of the world deepens. A couple of weeks ago Justin Whitaker was kind enough to let me post an essay over at his American Buddhist Perspectives blog, “Buddhist Ethics for an Age of Technological Change”.
There I tried to make the case that what is needed now is greater human wisdom to come to terms with the increasing wealth and power that knowledge provides. Can wisdom be taught and learned? I argued that it can be, although slowly and imperfectly.
The Road to Wisdom
However, if we need wisdom to deal with the mass of information and power we are accumulating, and if wisdom can at least in some small way be taught, where is wisdom to be found? It is perhaps easiest to start by outlining where it is not to be found.
It is not to be found in any source that is in contradiction with the information provided us by reason and the sciences. But we do not need to be overly strict: all religions and all pre-modern philosophies to a certain extent contradict reason and the sciences. This does not mean we can make no use of them.
Any source that derives its values from something supernatural, such as revelation, cannot be the source of wisdom, since we have no reason to accept such a source as valid. That said, some may claim that values themselves are ‘non-natural’, in the sense that they are non-descriptive. To put it another way, amassing scientific information does not alone provide us with wisdom. Since wisdom cannot be derived from scientific information, some may say, wisdom is therefore ‘non-natural’, a kind of phantasm. In that case, however, we would have to admit there is no difference between the important and the unimportant, the skillful and unskillful, the right and the wrong, since these are values rather than claims derived purely from scientific investigation. Some may profess to such beliefs, but only a very few deeply troubled people could ever live in accord with them.
So let us instead stipulate that values — at least some values, some of the time — are real and natural. Let us also assume that wisdom is the complete, lived understanding of such values.
Back to the point at hand: if we reject the supernatural as a guide to wisdom, we therefore reject the ethical systems provided by supposed theistic commandments. We reject ethical systems that involve otherworldly punishments and rewards. In their stead we promote an ethics involving the here and now: lived, worldly lives as the basis for what is right and wrong. We are left with a form of Secular Humanism.
The problem with the standard version of Secular Humanism, as I have argued before, is that it amounts to a set of propositions to be believed rather than providing a path for practice, or a real community around that path. If we were fully rational deliberators who automatically put beliefs into practice all we would need were correct beliefs. Since we are not, it helps to provide strategies for self-improvement.
Secular Buddhism provides such strategies, in the various understandings of the path provided in the Pāli Nikāyas and elsewhere. Shorn of their outdated and frankly inessential supernatural overtones, these path elaborations are consistent with Secular Humanist ideals, and indeed should be seen as versions of Secular Humanism.
Secular Buddhism and Neo-Stoicism
There are other sorts of practice that fall under the rubric of Secular Humanism and appear to provide benefit for dealing with negative psychological states such as anger and greed. Massimo Pigliucci, recent guest on The Secular Buddhist, has ably described a version of neo-Stoicism on his blog “How to Be a Stoic”. If you have not yet been over, I highly recommend it as worthy of your time. Nearly all of his work will be of interest to those drawn by Buddhist dhamma.
Pigliucci has discussed such matters as dealing with death, social relations, insults, grief, anger, fame, and most recently luxurious living, among other topics. As what we might term a “neo”-Stoic, Pigliucci rejects the outdated or supernaturalist trappings of traditional Stoic belief, such as their theology.
Thus he picks and chooses what he finds most useful in Stoic theory, discarding the rest. This is the same process we use in constructing Secular Buddhist belief and practice.
One finds the same general approach in many modern belief systems, such as Reform Judaism, Unitarian Universalism, or even contemporary philosophical Platonism or Aristotelianism. The mistake is assuming that such changes and updates to systems of belief and practice are odd or unusual. They are instead the norm. Indeed, even contemporary theistic fundamentalism is largely a recent phenomenon, with origins in the 19th century.
Much like early Buddhism, Stoicism understands the basic ethical problem to be that of bettering one’s life through self-understanding and self-control. It sees that the popular aims of fame and fortune are not the proper ends of one’s efforts, rather one’s proper aim should be that of reducing the influence of harmful emotions such as greed and anger. To do this, one works at cultivating particular human virtues. Stoicism understands there to be four basic virtues: courage, justice, self-control, and wisdom, perfection of which are both necessary and sufficient to achieve the good life.
Early Buddhism is not best understood as a “virtue ethics”, since there is no clear indication precisely which virtues are recommended. However I do believe early Buddhism can nevertheless be translated into a rough kind of virtue ethics, for purposes of comparison. For example, we can look to late canonical, hagiographical texts such as the Buddhavaṃsa, which lists ten so-called “perfections” (pāramīs). These are generosity, (practical) ethics, renunciation, wisdom, effort, tolerance, honesty, determination, kindness, and equanimity. The point of the Buddhist ethical path is to perfect these ten “virtues”; their perfection would be nibbāna.
I will not go into a detailed comparison between Stoic and Buddhist philosophy, but we can see right away that there are some differences between them, regarding which personal characteristics are taken to be virtuous. Stoicism is perhaps somewhat more martial and ego driven in its focus on courage and self-control, while its emphasis on justice as a socio-political virtue is largely absent from early Buddhist consideration.
On the other hand Buddhist virtues are understood more in terms of personal friendliness: generosity, tolerance, and kindness. While effort and determination are virtues, these do not have quite the same martial connotation as courage does for the Stoic. And while tolerance and equanimity may play roles in political justice, in a Buddhist context usually they are not understood in political terms. Or at least they did not used to be. Nowadays things are changing, with the beneficial turn towards “engaged Buddhism“.
Buddhism is also more interested in deflating the ego. Much of the Aṭṭhakavagga, one of the early texts of the Nikāyas, deals with the Buddha’s objections to argument and dispute, as stemming from conceit and arrogance. (E.g., Sn 830). While the Buddha was not opposed to debate and discussion, his understanding of their dangers could be useful to many within the broader secular community today. Indeed, Pigliucci (2013) has argued against the overweening “scientism” of many in the “New Atheist” community, and has recently distanced himself from the “skeptic and atheist movement” due to its
ugly undertone of in-your-face confrontation and I’m-smarter-than-you-becuase-I-agree-with [insert your favorite New Atheist or equivalent]; loud proclamations about following reason and evidence wherever they may lead, accompanied by a degree of groupthink and unwillingness to change one’s mind that is trumped only by religious fundamentalists; and, lately, a willingness to engage in public shaming and other vicious social networking practices any time someone says something that doesn’t fit our own opinions, all the while of course claiming to protect “free speech” at all costs.
Much of the problem Pigliucci points to can be dealt with by a more careful attention to “right speech”, in particular abstaining from divisive and harsh speech (e.g., Aṅguttara Nikāya 10.176), but the more basic problem involves conceit and egoism, and their corollary, macho posturing. By working to distance ourselves from identification with or ownership of all things, including opinions and beliefs, we work to undermine these kinds of conceited, egoistic displays.
Stoicism wholeheartedly embraces Greek disputatiousness. While debate and argument have their place in Buddhism as well, perhaps an accompanying awareness of the key role of greed in clinging to views would be welcome today.
One can quibble about the relative merits of a Secular Buddhist, a neo-Stoic, or some other related approach to life. I would argue that it is essential to wise action that one learn particularly to loosen up around the notion of oneself so as to diminish conceit. And I believe that the Buddhist tradition provides a deeper and more extensive suite of practices, particularly meditative practices, to the ends of fomenting wisdom. That said, there is a lot to recommend in a Stoic, particularly a neo-Stoic, practice.
As the Buddha said to his aunt and stepmother Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī,
[T]hose things of which you might know: ‘These things lead (1) to dispassion, not to passion; (2) to detachment, not to bondage; (3) to dismantling, not to building up; (4) to fewness of desires, not to strong desires; (5) to contentment, not to non-contentment; (6) to solitude, not to company; (7) to the arousing of energy, not to laziness; (8) to being easy to support, not to being difficult to support,’ you should definitely recognize: ‘This is the Dhamma; this is the discipline; this is the teaching of the Teacher.’ (AN 8.53).
Forms of wise practice such as those found in Stoicism therefore should be seen as dhamma. One sticking point, at least from a Stoic perspective, is about leading “to solitude, not to company”. Stoicism and the ancient Greek paths of ethical practice tended to be more oriented towards a public life of family and societal companionship, while Buddhism tended towards renunciation, relinquishment, and at times solitary forest dwelling. However even in its earliest manifestations Buddhism was a social practice: monks were dependent upon the laity for food, and required to teach when asked. And the Buddha famously said to Ānanda that “good friendship” was “the entire holy life”. (Saṃyutta Nikāya 45.2). So it would not be correct to understand solitude too strictly. The point is to become fully satisfied without requiring the company of others. This is an essential practice on its own, but it is also true that in company one does not gain the proper mental calm to do the essential work of insight and self-understanding.
Many threats facing the world today are due to human ego, ignorance, and unskillfulness. The good news is that they are potentially correctable, given time. Two of the gravest of these are warfare and global warming, which stem from hatred and greed. Ethical practices which can help us to reduce our ordinary tendencies towards hatred of others, and towards desire for more stuff, are an integral part of these paths. Hatred can be mitigated through practices of kindness and tolerance, however greed requires not only learning generosity but renunciation as well, a virtue not often emphasized in the West.
I confess to not finding these practices particularly easy, but then if they were easy, we would not need to practice them at all. An attitude of patience, tolerance, and determination is essential.
We live in a time of accelerating technological change, where humans exert ever more profound effects on our environment. For us to survive and flourish, we must master this pattern. Therefore it is essential for us to gain wisdom over our growing knowledge and technological proficiency, so as not to have it spin out of our hands.
This wisdom is found in varieties of Secular Humanism that provide paths to personal ethical betterment through practices of self understanding and self control, while eschewing supernatural and unscientific claims. Two of the most prominent of these paths are neo-Stoicism and Secular Buddhism, each of which has many texts and practices that at least hold out the possibility of reducing our ordinary tendencies towards greed and hatred. In addition, Buddhist teachings are directed at mitigating the dangers of egoism and conceit.
Neo-Stoicism and Secular Buddhism have several key differences in emphasis, however insofar as they contain practices that are worthwhile, they should be disseminated for the benefit of all.
We may hope that research into the effectiveness of given techniques may also in time reveal which are more effective at teaching the ideals we are after. Science may not be able to tell us what to do, but it is perfectly suited to telling us how to do it.
Bhikkhu Bodhi, various Nikāyas (Wisdom).
Massimo Pigliucci, “New Atheism and the Scientistic Turn in the Atheism Movement”, Midwest Studies in Philosophy, XXXVII (2013), pp. 142-153.