Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 2: Augustine, the Stoics & Buddha


In the “Star Wars” movies, Jedi Master Yoda makes statements like these, and I paraphrase:

“Luke Skywalker is not a good candidate for Jedi training because he doesn’t focus on what he is doing right now in the present moment. He is not serious minded enough.”

“The Force surrounds and binds all things. It is real and you don’t ordinarily sense it but you can unlearn your habit of not seeing and perceive true nature with your mind’s eye.”

“Anger leads to the dark side, as does excessive attachment to those you care for. They may be helped temporarily if you turn aside from the true path. However, all you hold most dear will almost certainly be destroyed if you fail in your training and take the easy way out.”

What Yoda has done is given us an excellent encapsulation of stoic philosophy in practice. The final Yoda-ism is both essentially stoic and essentially Buddhist. Substitute the logos and pneuma for the force and you have the essence of stoic “physics.” The emphases on the current moment and objectivity are part of stoic logic and the belief that nature is itself rational and we need to live according to its reason is the foundation of stoic ethics which, along with the other two, represents the three concentric rings of knowing supported by the disciplines of perception, action and will. The result of practicing these disciplines is not happiness, but equanimity and the ability to live in accordance with virtue. Suffering for stoics is inevitable, but we can manage how we respond to it and live as our best selves even under extremely taxing or harsh conditions. The stoics had no doctrine of the afterlife and believed that they returned to logos when their fire or breath left them. Stoicism infers the duty to do right from reason, which is intelligible and guides the universe.

Unlike stoics, The Buddha taught that the world was not at base rational, but rather it was chaotic. However our job in life is similarly to acquire the ability to deal with inevitable suffering, live in a way that elevates life and other people and manage to die well with the added problem of transmigration of souls to avert. Right living means we don’t have to keep coming back to repeat our mistakes. The middle way of moderation that will release us from suffering comprises morality, wisdom and concentration (a short form of the eight-fold path). Dharma is inclusive of what Christians refer to as grace, though it doesn’t translate exactly. Sangha is like the Christian communion of saints. Like stoicism, Buddhism doesn’t deny the gods but supplies a way to get off the wheel of negative feedback for which worshipping pagan gods and conventional religiosity do not provide an answer and “philosophy” does. The Buddha achieved enlightenment and chose to come back to help others get past eternal suffering. He didn’t have to do this but like Christ felt it was his duty to make this sacrifice.

In the late 4th and early 5th Century AD, Augustine of Hippo synthesized Greek and Roman thought with an emerging consensus of orthodox, “catholic,” Christian doctrine. Augustine was educated in the Neoplatonist tradition. As it says in the New Testament Gospel of John, the logos was made man and that man dwelled among us. The logos of John is identical to the logos of the stoics and Plato, from whom the west inherited this idea. At the same time Augustine rejected what he considered academicism when it came to right living and right teaching. For Augustine, and for Christians down to the present time, what is most needful is to put Christ and the Holy Trinity at the center of one’s thought and attitude. This meant, contra academics, that we don’t withhold judgement about what is right or wrong until nature reveals all the information. Augustine held that we know right and wrong from God through the teachings of scripture, mediation of his church and the spirit which dwells within us. The goal of the individual for Augustine is to achieve happiness and everlasting life firstly as a gift from God, but next through contemplation and action on the three graces bestowed on us by God, namely faith, hope and love. The point of how much salvation is a result of what we do at all has been much debated by Christians down to the present time. At any rate, Christians are supposed to be motivated by God’s grace which impels them to do right by others. They are free to choose otherwise but do so at the risk of eternal punishment.

Though the ethical foundations of these three movements: stoicism, Buddhism and post Augustinian Christianity, are different they wind up in the same place in important ways. In each case, they teach the centrality of right living but for stoics this is basically just because. For Buddhists and Christians it is the best alternative to a hell that is almost beyond imagining, either in this life or later ones. While one can argue the relative merit of duty imposed by threat, in no case are we forced down a path. Each person can choose. Consequently, all these systems hold up the individual as having both agency and responsibility for his choices. In each case, they are deontological in that they emphasize duty rather than destiny or any way to pass the buck of responsibility up down or across. While in every case, the individual has a responsibility to others, in no way is the importance of individual conscience devalued or minimized. Another key point all three systems share is that lying, meaning intentional deceit, is not acceptable even if it is for what you believe is a good cause. There are various justifications for this view, but to use a modern metaphor, we are hard wired for truth telling and ethical behavior and turn aside from these at our peril.

Based on these systems, any ethical framework that permits intentional deception for the sake of personal gain or even national security would be corrupt and unacceptable. Additionally, there is no basis for concluding that individual moral agency is a late Western invention, or that denying it for the sake of some group ethos or collective benefit is compatible with right living as viewed by stoic, Buddhist or Augustinian (Christian) traditions.

By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

One reply on “Ethics Part 2: Augustine, the Stoics & Buddha”

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s