Against the Stoics, Skeptics, Epicureans, and Buddhists

by Benjamin Studebaker

This is going to be an odd post about Greek philosophy and the contemporary analogues of Greek traditions. Its purpose is threefold. First, I’ll argue that the Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans had similar conceptions of the good life, that this conception closely resembles the conception preferred by Buddhists, and that this conception of the good life is mistaken. Second, I’ll argue that the Stoics and Skeptics both make similar–if opposite–errors with respect to meta-ethics, with the Stoics asserting an unrealistically ambitious epistemology and the Skeptics denying that epistemology without acknowledging less ambitious alternatives. Third, I’ll argue that many contemporary political and moral antagonisms are essentially new versions of the Stoic/Skeptic antagonism, and that there is a popular Epicurean response to this antagonism.

6 Ways the Ancient Greeks Changed the World

On the Problems with Ataraxia

The Stoics believed the good life consisted in achieving virtue, and that a virtuous life would also produce a state of “apatheia”, literally “without passion” or “without suffering”. The Stoics believed that only our virtue matters, that virtue consists in eliminating the passions, and that once we have eliminated the passions we can endure any physical experience without experiencing suffering. For the Stoics, the knowledge that only virtue matters is key–this knowledge enables us to know that our passions do not matter, and this enables us to overcome those passions and the suffering they bring about.

The Skeptics believed the good life consisted in achieving a state of “ataraxia”, literally “freedom from disturbance”. The Skeptics, following Pyrrho, believed that beliefs themselves were the source of our suffering. If we do not affirm beliefs, then we cannot be sure that we really ought to do anything in particular. This means that whatever happens to us, we cannot justify being upset or disappointed, because this would imply that we believe something else ought to have happened, that we believe something else matters.

The Epicureans believed the good life also consisted in achieving a state of ataraxia, but they believed we achieved ataraxia by experiencing a life of stable pleasure. For Epicurus, the most stable pleasure is freedom from pain. Other pleasures which must be actively pursued are too easily lost, and their loss becomes a form of pain.

All three of these schools resemble Buddhism insofar as all three argue that the good life consists in the elimination of suffering. But they disagree over the precise source of suffering. Buddhists, however, tend to adopt a more holistic approach, arguing that suffering is caused by attachments formed through passion, by attaching oneself to fixed beliefs or notions, and by pain. Some Stoics–like Seneca the Younger–use “apatheia” and “ataraxia” interchangeably, emphasising the similarity of these states of being. For our purposes, I will allege that all four of these schools are committed to a conception of the good life wherein the good life is the achievement of ataraxia.

The problem with ataraxia is that it neglects an important feature of a good life–being good to others. Pursuing our own good through the negation of forms of suffering is insufficient for a good life, because human beings are inherently social creatures who need to do good for others to value their own lives. To live good lives, we need to play social roles, and we need to play these roles well. Playing social roles often requires us to suffer for the benefit of others. Being a good parent, a good friend, or a good citizen often requires us to make decisions for children, to give advice to friends, and to perform civic duties. All of these things require us to endure suffering. Making decisions for children and giving advice to friends requires us to form beliefs about their good, opening us to the possibility of suffering if we are unable to secure good lives for our children or to help our friends to live good lives. The motivation to be good and to do good to others comes from the passions. Often performing acts of service for children, friends, and fellow citizens is arduous and painful.

If we are focused on alleviating our own suffering by changing our own internal mental states, or by carefully arranging our lives to be pain-free, this focus on our individual good will frequently conflict with the good of our community. Because we cannot live full lives without contributing to the lives of others, alleviating our own suffering is not enough–it leaves us incomplete.

Plato and Aristotle understood this much better than the Greeks who came after them. Aristotle defines us as “political animals” who cannot live better than beasts without a political community. We need other people to help us meet our basic needs, enabling us to contemplate the good and act on the basis of that contemplation. Plato held that in the best city possible for human beings, different people would perform different roles, participating in the good which is achieved by the political community as a whole, as a unity. The Stoics, Skeptics, and Epicureans all provide accounts whereby a hermit could achieve the good life. Plato and Aristotle acknowledge this as impossible. We need others to helps us, and we need to help others. We cannot do that without a community.

The Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh discusses the importance of forming a community of Buddhist practitioners, or a “sangha”. But the purpose of the sangha is to keep the individuals in the sangha committed to a practice which is principally about alleviating their own suffering through Buddhist practice. The monastery is a community which services the goal of eliminating suffering for its members, but monasteries rely on the existence of larger political communities, and because they are focused on protecting the members from outside influences, the monasteries have an exploitative relationship with the political communities whose bounds they exist within. Thich Nhat Hanh has always been bothered by this aspect of the monastic life, and argued for what he calls “engaged Buddhism”, a form of Buddhism which takes an interest in social and political questions. This political commitment is admirable, but it is not straightforwardly consistent with a doctrine which emphasises eliminating attachments to particular earthly outcomes. Political outcomes are inescapably earthly.

For Aristotle, the good is achieved both by contemplating it and by acting on the basis of that contemplation. The virtuous person must achieve a mean of contemplation and action, so that each is always informed by the other. For this reason, Aristotle argues that we must oscillate between practising the “virtue of ruling” and the “virtue of being ruled”. When we are “being ruled”, we are free to contemplate, and when we are ruling we are sharing the benefits of that contemplation with the community. We can only be ruled if we live in a political community that ensures there are plenty of people who have the virtue of ruling, who can rule for us while we contemplate. Aristotle provides a better account of why we must leave the monastery–we must act so that others can contemplate, and contemplate so that others can act. The good is therefore pursued collectively, by the whole of the political community, and never just by individuals or by small groups of individuals living in seclusion.

On the Problems with Stoic Epistemology and with the Skeptical Response

Stoicism has the added disadvantage of a needlessly demanding epistemology. The Stoic Chrysippus argued that we know something is true when we have a cognitive impression to which we stably assent. For the Stoics, we have “impressions”, or impulses that something might be true. We then have a choice over whether we “assent” to those impressions, over whether we accept them. If we assent to them stably, building them into a coherent framework that resists objections, we can then say that we have “knowledge”.

The Stoic view demands that these “impressions” really do reliably track the truth in some way, or that we have the ability to judge when they do and when they don’t, granting and withholding assent. The Skeptics could very easily just deny that these impressions are genuine or that human beings can consistently judge when to grant or withhold assent, and on this basis they could deny the possibility of moral knowledge. The Stoics argued that if we have not stably assented to an impression, we should “suspend judgement” about its truth. This means that we cannot even form provisional beliefs–we must either make a knowledge claim or suspend judgement. This opened the door to Pyrrhonian Skeptics, who argued not only that we cannot have knowledge, but that we should not form provisional beliefs.

Both the Stoics and the Pyrrhonian Skeptics left out any room for provisional belief. By making elaborate epistemic demands in a bid to ground fixed knowledge claims, the Stoics paved the way for full denial of the possibility even of provisional belief. The result is an antagonism between Stoic dogmatists–who make very specific and elaborate knowledge claims–and Pyrrhonian Skeptics, who reject even committing provisionally to beliefs.

Plato offered a superior approach. Plato frames the good as a Form, as something beyond both physical and conceptual being. For this reason, our conceptions of the good are imitations of the Form, and our actions in the physical world based on our conceptions are imitations of imitations. This means we can never dogmatically assert that we have Form in its totality. Yet Plato maintains that in trying to align our concepts and actions with Form, we can live a life in pursuit of the good. This pursuit is lifelong, and it keeps us questioning our actions and our concepts, never being so bold as to assert that we are perfectly correct. Our conceptions of the good are thus provisional imitations of Form. We continue to pursue Form, always looking to improve our concepts. In this way, we make ourselves answerable to Form. We are able to be committed to the good without committing to fixed dogmas, avoiding both Stoic excesses and the nihilism that Skepticism yields. Later religious movements would connect the Form to their conceptions of God, often attaching God to sets of moral dogmas. These religious leaders invoked Platonism but used it to advance forms of dogmatism, forgetting that the Form of the Good is inescapably beyond concept and beyond being. Their accounts of Platonism were prideful, and once they turned Platonism into a dogma, it was only a matter of time before new forms of Skepticism arose.

Stoicism and Skepticism in Contemporary Context

Today we have, on the one hand, technocrats who claim to know precisely how we ought to handle the economy, public health, racism, and all sorts of other things. They wish to depoliticise these areas, because they believe they have infallible knowledge that should not be subject to political challenges from outside their own epistemic frameworks. On the other hand, we have populists who hold that all of these claims to expertise are unjustified and that there is no truth, or that the truth is whatever they want it to be, or simply the sum of different subjective perspectives and desires. The dogmatism of the former fuels the nihilism of the latter and vice versa. Neither provides an adequate political community in which the good can be pursued. The dogmatists would create a political community in which agreement with the technocratic dogmas is a prerequisite for participation. The skeptical populists would reduce these questions to might-makes-right, imposing whatever strikes their fancy by whatever means available to them.

Unlike the Stoics and Skeptics of antiquity, neither of these contemporary views leads even to ataraxia, much less a political community in which contemplation is encouraged. There is, however, a modern response to this conflict which maintains the ancient pursuit of ataraxia. There remains a kind of modern Epicureanism in which we retreat from this exhausting conflict between dogmatists and skeptics by pursuing peaceful, uneventful family lives in quiet suburban communities. This life without much suffering is only available to those fortunate enough to have the resources to purchase these suburban mini-mansions. The suburb becomes a kind of Epicurean sangha, where the professional class is free to hide from politics, safe and secure behind white picket fences. They achieve a kind of ataraxia–at the expense of the political communities they inhabit.

And really, should that surprise us? Stoicism, Skepticism, and Epicureanism became popular during the Hellenistic period, when Greece was under Macedonian kings and when Greek kingdoms stretched into India, interacting with Buddhism. The Greek philosophers no longer had any meaningful possibility of doing any good through political action. This largely remained true after these Macedonian kingdoms became part of the Roman Empire, and it was under Rome when Stoicism in particular reached the height of its popularity. The Roman Empire promised peace and stability above all things, and what is ataraxia but a life of peace and stability? These philosophical schools fit into the imperial legitimation narrative, because they are articulated forms of the good life which were easily attainable to local elites under the Roman state. And it was those elites who learned Greek, who studied under the sages, and who adopted these philosophies as ways of finding meaning in what was otherwise a politically stagnant time. Today, as it becomes clear that political action offers only false hope, ataraxia once again becomes the only kind of good life which seems possible for the ordinary person. That most Americans never achieve even this is of course no objection–if they can be kept in pursuit of ataraxia, if they can be kept in pursuit of the suburban sangha, they will cause no trouble for the American state, just as these Greek philosophers caused no trouble for the Roman state.