Why a philosophy professor chose Stoicism over other systems for his personal life

I’ve been reading a bit about Stoicism, which is enjoying a mild contemporary revival among non-academics. New books are coming out, one of them being “How To Be A Stoic” by Philosophy professor Massimo Pigliucci.

Relax, I am not going anywhere, but I did find his account of why he chose Stoicism for his personal life compelling. I can relate to his account and I think others here can too.

When you order a hardback off of Amazon these days, they give you a sample of the eBook in the Cloud Reader. You can’t cut and paste out of it, so any typos you find in this quote are mine :).

Something else was going on at a time that made me pause and reflect. I
have not been a religious person since my teenage years ( I was prompted
to leave Catholicism, in part, by reading Bertrand Russell’s famous
"Why I Am Not a Christian" in high school), and as such I have been on my
own in dealing with question of where my morals and the meaning in my life
come from. I take it that an increasing number of people in the United
States and across the world find themselves facing a similar conundrum.
While sympathetic to the idea that lack of religious affiliation should be
just as acceptable a choice in life as any religious one, and strongly
supportive of the constitutional separation of church and tate in the
United Sates and elsewhere, I have also grown increasingly dissatisfied
with ( make that downright irritated by) the intolerant anger of the
so-called New Atheists, represented by Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris,
among others. Although public criticism of religion ( or of any idea)
is the staple of a healthy democratic society, people don’t respond very
well to being belittled and insulted.

There are, of course, alternatives to the New Atheism if you want to
pursue a nonreligious approach to life, including secular Buddhism and
secular humanism. Yet these two paths – the two major ones on offer for
those seeking a meaningful secular existence – are somehow unsatisfactory
to me, though for opposite reasons. I find Buddhism’s currently dominant
modes a bit too mystical, and its texts opaque and hard to interpret,
especial in light of what we know bout the world and the human condition
from modern science( and despite a number of neurobiological studies that
persuasively show the mental benefits of meditation). Secular humanism,
which I have embraced for years, suffers from the opposite problem: it is
too dependent on science and a modern conception of rationality, with the
result that – despite the best efforts of its supporters – it comes
across as cold and not the sort of thing you want to bring your kids to
on a Sunday morning. Hence, I think, the spectacular lack of success (
numerically speaking) of secular humanist organizations.

By contrast, in Stoicism I have found a rational, science-friendly
philosophy that includes a metaphysics with a spiritual dimension, is
explicitly open to revision, and, most importantly is eminently practical.
The Stoics accepted the scientific principle of universal causality:
everything has a cause, and everything in the universe unfolds according to
natural processes.

Finally, one of the most attractive features of Stoicism is that the
Stoics were open to considering challenges to their doctrines and altering
them accordingly. In other words, it is an open-ended philosophy, ready
to incorporate criticism from other schools (for instance, the so-called
Skeptics of ancient times) as well as new discoveries. As Seneca
famously put it:

“Men who have made these discoveries before us are not our masters, but our
guides. Truth lies open for all; it has not yet been monopolized. And
there is plenty of it left even for posterity to discover”.

You all have heard me quibble about translations, so you all probably know I related to the author about the cryptic nature of the suttas.

Last evening I was finishing reading one of the letters from Seneca to one of his students. It was difficult to understand. Many of the passages were what would have been semi-related sentences forcibly conjoined into giant run-on sentences via multiple semicolons ( I felt that the translator could have cleared that up ). It was like reading a transcript of a Donald Trump interview with multiple subjects per sentence, switching back and forth. Coincidently, this morning another person new to Stoicism complained about that translation in a forum I read. My only thought was “Dude, try reading the Pali Canon! This is a cake walk. Just slow down and read it twice!”

Everything is mystical until knowledge has been cultivated. Patient endurance, is not mystical at all.

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It seems the author doesn’t want his religion to be mysterious but wants it to be mystical, but is put off when it is too mystical and it has to be just the right amount of mystical to make a Sunday morning trek worthwhile- know of any successful stoic churches?


I guessing that given his US academic philosophical milieu, Pigliucci’s experience of Buddhist texts is predominantly with Mahayana and Zen, since they dominate the Buddhist “scene” here in the US. Most people know the Theravada and Pali traditions, if at all, through meditation manuals. But when they look into Buddhist philosophy, they are steered toward Nagarjuna, Dogen, Tsong Kappa and a lot of other Zen and Madhyamaka thought. (See Jay Garfield’s recent book, which makes little use of the suttas.) This makes Buddhism seem much more cryptic than it appears from studying the suttas directly

That’s not to say the suttas can’t be obscure. But their obscurity is more due to the fact that they were created in a more ancient setting, and are sometimes fragmentary rememberings of events and teachings passed down an oral tradition, and translation is difficult because there are no contemporaneous texts to use for comparison. The suttas don’t revel in the kind of clever, aphoristic compression Nagarjuna employs, or the topsy-turvy paradoxes of Zen.


The news coverage of Buddhism in non Republican parts of California for some years was very off putting, about monks from various traditions in scandals and even violence. What it might have been in other parts of the US might have been worse. Just a thought, an impression, from here. It is unfortunate.

Isn’t it normal for the media to report negativity rather than anything positive. There are exceptions.


With metta

Perhaps normal… for almost anything but christianity, in america. That gets positive and negative, maybe in some placrs rarely the negative.

I can’t say i give much credit to professors that don’t understand that these teachings must be realized by direct knowing. I have forgotten how mystical it all seemed to be before one put the words into practice, and now I feel a bit puzzled over how simple it is.


I know. It almost feels like the academic path isn’t up to the task or isn’t what it used to be anymore.

With metta

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I will add, english translations available in America decades ago were dreadful.

Ah, yes translations have improved- I was thinking more about opinions of academics expressed in research papers. Ajhan Sujato was saying that some academic religious conferences have little actual Buddhism in them. I just think we should think twice about getting our cues on Buddhism from academia - better to use suttas and real practioners to understand what the Dhamma is all about. Practioner academics are far better than non-practioner one’s, IMO. The minuscule gain of subjectivity isn’t worth it.


One can experience this listening to people in daily life, or if one tries to start a meaningful conversation about reality. They hardly come up with their own thoughts, often just points to one or another “professor” or whatnot, and if one puts a little pressure on them, they often responds with sayings like: TLDR, or responds with anger.

If truth doesn’t come like a oneliner, then they just moves on to the next “thing”.

I work with mostly young and quite educated people in health care, and often I wonder about who is actually in most need of assistance …

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Eh, they are human beings too. They get busy, they get stressed, they get tired. I’m sure you’ve felt when you have had those three the last thing you want to do is pull apart some mystery text when you are looking for a reassuring mental map.

I wouldn’t be quick to say that. As far subjective anecdotal responses go it seems like everywhere I go it is “vipassana, vipassana, vipassana”. The suttas are clearer IMHO in that they are discursive. You don’t have to deal with pulling meaning out of allegories and metaphors…on TOP OFF the vagaries of translation issues. The suttas have translation issues. The suttas also have issues of uncommon concepts you can’t really understand until you have meditated for a while and seen some things yourself.

I’m guessing the Stoic writings are translated from Latin, which map over to English much better than ancient Pali. Translating Latin to English also has tremendously more resources than going from Pali to English.

Stoicism is also about ideas and practical ideas, rather than spiritual experiences, so on top of everything else the finished translated product is going to be more understandable than translated Buddhism.

Off course! If it didn’t make negative impacts/laying unnecessary suffering onto those we are supposed to be giving our best assistance. And off course do I never present them with a whole “Bible”, I just ask simple and on the spot questions/reflections. And I like to add that their detached state from what goes on around them have produced many dangerous incidents, totally unnecessary. Later when we summons up our watch together, it becomes like a clever game where all blaim is laid on “difficult patients”.

Stoicism feels quite like Buddhism, maybe seven fold path? I think it’s suitable for many, especially those inclined towards secular Buddhism. I think the main reason being Nibbana. If a teaching has the main idea of divine essence, cosmic consciousness, interconnectedness, etc etc, then there is no point in Nibbana, then there’s just one thing left to do - to restraint, be good and do good. When one doesn’t need to let go everything (including self), it is warm and comforting. :sun_with_face:

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I think if that was a factor for the author he would have mentioned it, as he mentioned the immaturity of the New Atheist movement.

It is just my opinion, but I don’t think a few isolated religious people behaving badly across the globe would off put many Americans. As a child I grew up being taught human history and a corrupt Catholic Church’s part in it. I think like most Americans I do not expect every last person associated with a religion to be a better person ( only the ones I bother to deal with ).

I couldn’t agree with this more.

Negative news sells.

To be fair, there might not be much point in reading stories “X is still working fine”. I do seek out those articles for inspiration, though the need for that inspiration comes from reading the rest of the news :slight_smile:

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There are a lot of conversations comparing Stoicism to Buddhism on the Internet these days. Usually some angry person comes along and points out how the metaphysics/mystical beliefs are incompatible.

That doesn’t bother me as I have never taken Nibanna seriously ( at least in this life time ). Buddhism has always been about how I can be happier in this life and how I can deal with the inevitabilities of this life.

Both (Theravada) Buddhism and Stoicism have a focus on not forgetting & dealing with death & disappointment. Both systems focus on adjusting yourself rather than trying to fix things you can’t fix, and hoping for things that likely will not happen. That is a huge chunk of things to have in common and a chunk very relevant to ordinary people. Hence all the comparisons.

Personally, I don’t care about metaphyiscs so much. If there is something there, it will be there when I get there. If Stoicism has techniques compatible with Buddhism and that help via being easier to understand/apply I have no problem. Interestingly, this is the inverse of Buddhism in Asia in being open to taking teachings into your life without insisting that other things be ejected.

Who could have a problem with counting breaths? Who could have a problem with acknowledging death or impermanence? Likewise, who could have a problem acknowledging there are things you can’t control or living a simple life?

I think the main belief that makes secular Buddhists secular is the belief in rebirth. That one has never bothered me and I am actually hopefully agnostic about it. It is other lesser known beliefs that I find off putting, but being lesser known, they aren’t going to be factors in outsiders choosing Secular Buddhism over Buddhism.

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Or to strong attachment to self and soul

Anybody with a little bit of energy and real interest can find _ stillness_ enough to get a direct knowledge of rebirth from moment to moment in the present. And with that simple insight, and if they dare to go further, they will find plenty enough to at least get a feeling for the pattern.

So I don’t buy into arguments like that, and that triggers me to push it a bit more, and then it always ends with the critics going silent and turning their backs