Notes for Class Twenty-Three: Stoicism, Buddhism, and the Meaning of Life

Even though Epicurean hedonists emphasize the pursuit of pleasures in moderation, they do acknowledge that people can find meaning in life by satisfying only those desires that we can be assured will not cause pain or be associated with disappointment or frustration. The hedonistic message, though, is clear: the meaning of life consists in fulfilling one's desires.

That same impulse toward the satisfaction of desire underlies the modern Western fascination with material things and individual, secular happiness. Marx's criticism of capitalism indicates how the desire for wealth, power, and private property is the result of a false consciousness, a belief that what we really want is to be distinguished from other people in terms of our material possessions. Instead of the selfish individualism that capitalists say is natural, Marxism emphasizes a concern for others and shared ownership of property.

In the ancient world, the counterpart to Epicureanism is Stoicism. Whereas the Epicureans say that, in order to live meaningful lives, people need to fulfill their moderate desires, the Stoics say that meaningful, happy lives are possible only when people restrain their inclinations to desire altogether. According to the Stoics, disappointment and frustration occur only when we don't get what we desire; so the key to happiness is to curtail our desires.

Unbeknownst to the Stoics, that theme of restricting desires had already been developed in some detail in the doctrines of Buddhism . Unlike Stoicism, though, Buddhism recommends that the meaning of life consists not in restricting desires so as to achieve happiness in this life ; rather, the Buddhist claims that life has meaning only if it is understood as a mere stepping stone to an enlightenment in which the self escapes from worldly concerns. And in contrast to Marxism, Buddhism does not suggest that the answer to possessive individualism lies in restructuring our secular economic systems. Rather, it interprets the concentration on economic matters simply as yet another distraction from the real task at hand, namely, the need to stop wanting or desiring property (individual or communal) altogether.

Epicureanism, modern Western culture, and Marxism thus address issues regarding material possessions and the satisfaction of desires in ways that differ from Stoicism and Buddhism. The former views suggest that life has meaning in terms of what we desire, the latter views suggest that life has meaning in virtue of our not desiring. How this distinction is spelled out for Stoicism and Buddhism is what we turn to now.

I. Stoicism (Epictetus , 50-130 A.D.): My life is worthwhile and meaningful to the extent that I am happy, and I am happy only when I am not frustrated or disappointed. But there are many things that I might desire (such as wealth, power, beauty, and health) over which I have little or no control; so I should refrain from such desires. Since the only things I am totally in control of are my desires, I should desire only those things I are certain to get. The easiest way to do that is to stop desiring altogether; that way, I will never be disappointed. Frustration, disappointment, and unhappiness can occur only if I fail to get what I want, so the way to avoid them is not to want anything other than what I can be guaranteed to get. Instead of pursuing happiness directly, I should pursue it indirectly by living in a way that acknowledges that some things are within my power and some are not. I can control whether I am virtuous and whether I let the things over which I have no control (e.g., death) bother me. So if I want to be happy, I should do my best to do my duty and not to be disturbed by things I have no power over.

Doing my duty is acting in accord with nature: I should will what nature wills for me. That way, I will always get what I want and thus be happy. That means committing myself to my duty, not simply passively resigning myself to accept whatever happens. I must will what happens as my own; I must become one with the will of the universe.

This last point is similar to an idea developed in the Hindu epic, the Bhagavad-Gita : We must practice self-discipline in restraining desire (this is called renunciation), and the motive of our actions should not be achieving what we desire, but doing our duty (this is called non-attachment). To renounce desire means to stop doing what one does because one desires it. To be non-attached means to abandon the effort to see our actions in terms of their fruits or products. Human beings may not be able to exist without acting, but they certainly can stop thinking that they do what they do because it is what they desire. That is what Eastern religions and philosophies such as Hinduism and Buddhism highlight.

II. Like Marxism, Buddhism claims that the pursuit of wealth, power, and fame cannot ultimately give our lives meaning. The desire of such things actually stands in the way of achieving happiness. So we should do what we can to replace the Western conception of happiness (that is, one in which life has meaning in terms of the this-worldly, secular pursuit of material things that benefit us as individuals) with one that decreases our desires for such things.

The fundamental ideas of Buddhism were developed by Siddartha Gautama (563-483 BC), "the Enlightened One" (or "Buddha"). According to Buddhist thought, the pursuit of material success or indulgence in sensual pleasures and luxury, like the ("ascetic") life of self-denial, indicates an excessive concern for the things of this world. Instead, we should recognize how such concerns characterize our existence as merely an episode in the "wheel of life." Thinking in the scientific, analytical, and logical terms of Western philosophy turns the mind toward the world, and in doing so, it emphasizes both how the world is fragmented and disconnected and how we are different from the world. Such categories provide only an abstract and misleading picture of reality by portraying things as being different from one another (when, in fact, all things are really united). Every person who defines himself or herself in this way through attention to things of this world is bound to it and is condemned to return to it in future lives (reincarnation). So Western philosophy is certainly no aid (and, indeed, is a hindrance) in the pursuit of enlightenment.

True spiritual enlightenment occurs only when, after living many lifetimes, a person can escape from the endless toil of mundane (this-worldly) existence through living in accord with the universe. The activity or life-force of the universe is called karma, according to which all events are related to one another as cause and effect and according to which all of our actions become means for determining our future lives. Whenever we act, we set in motion a train of events that will ultimately rebound on us for good or evil. Sometimes what seems to be an obstacle in one's life might actually be an opportunity to develop spiritually (that is, in ways that draw us away from concerns of this life). In this way, good karma is that which moves us along our journey toward enlightenment by sometimes pushing us to do things which we otherwise would not have attempted. Bad karma is caused by choices we make which distract us from such development. When we make bad choices, we have to live with their consequences.

No repentance erases our disruption of the order of things; we simply have to get on with the rest of our lives and try to compensate for our introduction of bad karma into the universe. Because we are free to advance spiritually in everything we do, we decide our fates: no one else is to blame. There is no God who rewards or punishes us, who controls the universe, and who saves us despite our sins. We decide through our actions how long we turn on the wheel of life and what those lives will be like. In a sense, then, Buddhism is optimistic in suggesting that we can end the cycle of rebirth through making the right choices and living in accord with Buddha's teachings; but it (like existentialism) also places on us the heavy burden of responsibility.

The guide to spiritual development is contained in the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path . According to the four noble truths, we can end suffering by recognizing how:

Happiness is achieved, therefore, not when we fullfill all of our desires for material goods. Rather, contentment is possible when we reduce our wants and needs, meditate, develop our minds, think of others, pursue wisdom, and control our desires. This does not mean that we all have to become Buddhist monks. It means that our lives become meaningful (in whatever we do) insofar as they are guided by Buddhist principles.

Objection: Buddhism overlooks the practical benefits brought about by the pursuit of (and belief in) scientific and this-worldly knowledge.