Buddhism and Stoicism Are Closer Linked Than You'd Think

Stoicism and Buddhism are two of the oldest, and well known, schools of thought in the world. Would Marcus Aurelius, a famous Roman stoic, be a Buddhist today?

Buddhist at a temple in Nepal
PRAKASH MATHEMA/AFP/Getty Images

Two of the world's oldest systems of thought, Buddhism and Stoicism, are at first sight as different as can be. Developed within a century or two of each other on separate continents, one was developed single handedly by an former royal family member while the other was devised by various Greek and Roman intellectuals from a wide range of social classes. Buddhism is commonly considered a religion, while stoicism is not. While there are three hundred million self proclaimed Buddhists in the world, it is harder to find a person who declares themselves to be a stoic in a philosophic sense.


However, despite these differences, both philosophies share a great deal, to the point where their key ideas are fundamentally in agreement.

Those details begin with how both systems seek to reduce suffering by helping us to better understand the world and how we interact with it.

For the stoic, all happiness is internal. The ideal stoic is just as happy with great wealth as they are in poverty. As the extremely wealthy Marcus Aurelius put it, “Almost nothing material is needed for a happy life, for he who understands existence”. The “goal” of stoic teachings is to help the individual move past reaction to external events and find true peace of mind. Stoic philosopher Epictetus even laid out a guide for practicing a stoic response to tragedy, saying we should imagine tragedies, such as the death of our loved ones, long before they occur. So we are prepared for it when it happens.

Likewise, Buddhism seeks to liberate the individual from suffering. This is done in many ways, as Buddhism has so many branches, but the basic principles are the same. Understanding that all beings move towards desire and away from pain- and that this method will fail in the long run. One must, instead, overcome desire and attachment, the causes of reaction when the world doesn't go our way, and then you will find enlightenment.

In addition, both schools of thought are widely praised and practiced for their pragmatic aspects. Many athletes, including Apolo Ohno, turn to stoic ideas to help them focus on their performance rather than the outcomes. Likewise, Buddhism is often viewed as an extremely practical religion with a focus on how to live now rather than in the next world. Buddhism moreover preaches the value of meditation of various kinds. At heart one doesn't need to be a Buddhist to practice meditation, which can bring benefits that are well known.

There are a few major differences between the two schools that are worth mentioning. Many Buddhists believe in karma and reincarnation, the stoics did not; and saw acceptance of death as a key part of life. In Stoicism the solution to suffering is following reason to the end; Buddhism offers the solution of overcoming desire

Would the renowned Roman stoic Marcus Aurelius be a Buddhist today? Perhaps not, as his worldview, while similar to the Buddhist outlook, was extremely grounded in Greco-Roman thought and experience. However, the similarities between the two schools brings to mind a familiar quote, “great minds think alike”. The two royal philosophers, Siddhartha Gautama and Marcus Aurelius, would find much room for agreement and would find the other quite virtuous.

Massive 'Darth Vader' isopod found lurking in the Indian Ocean

The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.

A close up of Bathynomus raksasa

SJADE 2018
Surprising Science
  • A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
  • It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
  • The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Keep reading Show less

Is it ethical to pay people to get vaccinated?

It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.

Ian Forsyth/Getty Images
Coronavirus

A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.

Keep reading Show less

Every 27.5 million years, the Earth’s heart beats catastrophically

Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.

Credit: desertsolitaire/Adobe Stock
Surprising Science
  • It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
  • Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
  • Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Keep reading Show less
Surprising Science

Galactic wind from early universe detected

Researchers discovered a galactic wind from a supermassive black hole that sheds light on the evolution of galaxies.

Quantcast