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.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
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  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

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