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3 Apathy (apatheia) and non-attachment (anupādisesa)

3 Apathy (apatheia) and non-attachment (anupādisesa)

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experiences such as that of fulfilling a desire shaped by discursive thought will

be infused with and in part constituted by beliefs about what one is undergoing.

Pleasure in this sense is undergone by the body-mind as ‘an irrational swelling’

or ‘elation,’ which can be described from a slightly different perspective as ‘a

fresh opinion that something good is present’ (LS 65B). In a similar fashion, pain

or distress is also treated as a pathos and hence as a kind of opinion.

As the capacity for discursive thought does not normally perfect itself in adult

humans without a great deal of personal investment and guidance from others,

most human desires and aversions, satisfactions and discomforts, are ‘disobedient

to reason.’ This is not merely because they are formed as a result of ignorance or

of inadequate reasoning; the desires and aversions as well as the satisfaction and

distress that are said to motivate humans do not always respond to improved

information or reasoning (LS 65A6–8). Insofar as these path involve false

beliefs about what is good for a person, they will tend to damage that person’s

interests. Inadequate beliefs do not always result in choices that damage one’s

interests, but insofar as such beliefs are not secured by thorough understanding,

one’s choices can easily be turned in other directions. Indeed, the Stoics regarded

pathos as co-extensive with ‘fluttering’ (LS 65A2), a state of mind that might be

translated as ‘liable to dithering.’ The exemplary person, the Stoic ‘wise man,’ will

have freed himself of all path : he will have achieved a state of apatheia.

Whereas Stoics develop their analyses of these notions by contrasting the

capacities of humans and animals to secure what will contribute to their welfare,

the corresponding Buddhist analyses attempt to spell out the meaning of a

doctrine, that of ‘dependent arising’ (pa iccasamupp da), which opens up the

possibility of identifying and rooting out the source of suffering. The doctrine is

that everything that is depends for its being on certain conditions; that is to say,

there is nothing that does not depend on something else for its being what it is,

the way it is and its continuing to be at all. This applies to human individuals, for

example, and has the consequence that we do not have permanent, indestructible

‘souls,’ although, as we have seen, we have a highly resilient tendency to sustain

through our actions a continuum of suffering associated with a series of living

bodies. This continuum the Buddha saw as dependent on what he called

attachment, which in turn is dependent on the sort of desire characterized as

‘craving,’ which in turn is dependent on feeling (including pleasure and pain),

which in turn is dependent on the sort of contact that a biologist or psychologist

would characterize as stimulus, which in turn depends on a sentient body.11

Buddhism and Stoicism, like Epicureanism, are materialist philosophies in the

sense that each insists that there is no mind or consciousness without a (sentient)

material body. The chain of dependence traced in the previous paragraph is

extended by two steps in which the Buddha insists that a sentient body is

dependent on consciousness and consciousness on a sentient body. Now if we

trace the chain of dependency from the inter-dependent pair, consciousness and

sentient body, through stimulus as far as feeling, we will locate the sort of

pleasures and pains that the Stoics allowed as a by-product of animal activity. If,


however, these activities become objects of craving, we have something closely

analogous to Stoic path . This is particularly so as craving is not possible

without a cognitive component.

This is clear from an excursus in the text,12 which traces an upward chain of

dependency on craving through searching (‘upward’: that is searching depends

on craving, etc.), [for] gain, [resulting in] decision making, [expressing] passionate

desire or greed, [giving rise to] coveting, [for] acquisition, [which generates]

avarice and [a posture of] guarding. This last appears to be something like a ‘dog

in the manger’ attitude, as it is said to produce quarrelling, strife, dispute, malice,

calumny, falsehood and a tendency to resort to deadly force (‘taking up stick,’

‘taking up sword’). One does not have to believe in rebirth to see the plausibility

of this diagnosis of the sources of human misery.

This excursus is doubtless one of many possible ways to elaborate on the link

between desire and attachment. Another text lists four general kinds of

attachment, viz. to sensual pleasure, to opinions (or ‘wayward beliefs,’ cf. Stoic

doxai), to fanatical conduct (in pursuit of virtue) and to the theory (or assertion)

that there is a (permanent) self or soul (Warren 1896:190). The second of these

makes the point that enlightenment cannot be merely a matter of receiving better

information about the true nature of things. Attachments to beliefs are as much

appetitive and affective as they are cognitive. The third reveals that without

enlightenment (or the guidance of an enlightened person), efforts toward

excellence can be as damaging as a life of sensual indulgence. The fourth is not

merely an important instance of the second; it is a misconception about oneself

reflecting a complex of concerns that stand in the way of nirvana.

These attachments eventually exert influence on the sentient-body-cumconsciousness of an individual born after an agent’s death. Another text traces

the dependency of consciousness on two factors, ignorance and sa kh r s,13 and

it is here that the effects of previous lives are supposed to be felt. As people are

predisposed to react in dysfunctional ways to the feelings that arise when their

capacities to be affected are stimulated, their ignorance (like Stoic undeveloped

rational capacities) will initially handicap them with tunnel vision, which focuses

their efforts so that they form attachments. The idea that the attachments of an

individual human being of one generation will have identifiable effects on the

life of an individual of a future generation may well be specific to traditions that

originated in India. But if sa kh r s were viewed as culturally transmitted, and

if the idea were to be modified to the claim that the actions of a group of people

have identifiable effects on the generations that inherit their culture, the doctrine

would be a truism.

In any case, Buddhists would join the Stoics in rejecting Epicureanism for

taking our desires and aversions as given and focusing concern only on the

external effects of allowing them to determine what we do. To achieve real

freedom from disturbance, real peace of mind, one has to take control of, and

reshape, one’s desires and aversions. Both Buddhists and Stoics insist that


something like the ataraxia sought by Epicureans is a concomitant of achieving

their respective goals. From the Dhammapda (94–5):

He whose senses are mastered like horses well under the charioteer’s

control, he who is purged of pride, free from passions, such a steadfast one

even the gods envy (hold dear). Calm in the thought, calm the word and

deed of him who, rightly knowing, is wholly freed, perfectly peaceful and


(Rahula 1974:128)

From Seneca:

What is a happy (beata) life? Peacefulness and constant tranquillity.

Loftiness of mind will bestow this, and consistency which holds fast to

good judgement. How are these things reached? If all of truth has been

seen, if orderliness, moderation, and seemliness are preserved in action,

and [there is] a will which is guiltless and kindly, focussed upon reason

and never departing from it, as lovable as it is admirable. To put it in a

nutshell for you, the wise man’s mind should be as befits god.

(LS 63F)

Both insist that only by mastering oneself in this way can one have freedom

worthy of the name. The arahant is free of the prospect of rebirth, free of the

fires of craving and hatred, free of ignorance (Rahula 1974:38). The Stoics

claimed that a wise man is the only person who is free in the sense of having the

power of autonomous action; everyone else is a slave (LS 67M1).

Both Buddhists and Stoics are accused of having to give up too much to

achieve peace and freedom. But a Stoic wise man is supposed to rid his soul only

of pathological states; he is not supposed to live altogether without feelings or

emotions. His apatheia achieved, his path removed, he is left with three

categories of good feeling (eupatheia): cheerfulness instead of pleasure,

circumspection instead of fear, aspirations instead of desires (LS 65F); there is

no good feeling that corresponds to pain. Arahants are sometimes thought to

have no motives to act because they are supposed to have freed themselves from

all desires (as those who have achieved what the Stoics called wisdom are

thought to have no emotions because they have freed themselves from all

‘passions’). But unless we apply a similar distinction to desires, between bad,

unhealthy cravings and benign, healthy aspiration, it will be impossible to make

sense of the Buddha’s mission, that is of the tradition that after his enlightenment

he was moved by compassion for human beings to teach others the Four Noble

Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

Because compassion or pity in ordinary mortals can influence them to act

improperly, Stoics classified this affection (what they called eleos) as one of the

path (LS 65E4). Taken in isolation, the claim that a good and wise man should


not feel pity or compassion makes the Stoic ideal sound inhuman. Again, the

doctrine that there are healthy affective and motivational states of mind has to be

applied. The healthy aspirations of the Stoic wise man were clearly intended to

include the welfare of other people. The Stoic is concerned on all occasions to do

the appropriate thing, while recognizing that humans are sometimes naturally

moved by the plight of their fellows to do the wrong thing. Offering aid instead

of encouraging self-reliance because one feels sorry for someone else, for

example, may ultimately be unhelpful to that person. To the extent that the

Buddha (because of his enlightenment) was ‘accurately motivated’ by concern

for the plight of other human beings—meaning that he understood their problem

and could offer a real solution—he was not moved by what the Stoics call eleos.

The Pali word that is translated as ‘compassion,’ karu , could be added to the

Stoic vocabulary to provide a word (which Greek appears to lack) for a necessary

aspect of a wise man’s excellence.

The two outlooks differ profoundly in their conceptions of nature, of the place

of humans in nature and hence of the self, as well as of the goal of human life

and of the appropriate means of achieving it. Stoics believed that the universe is

a single living organism, whose soul is God (in other words, they were

pantheists, LS 54A–I), and that human beings are organs of that organism who

have functions to perform just as do organs of any living body. To perform their

functions correctly, moreover, they have to use their minds to understand their

place in the world (LS 63E5–6). It is this function (necessarily involving its own

proper conception) that determines what excellence involves for individual

people and thereby what their particular happiness consists of. A person with

sufficient insight to determine that role (what the Stoics called one’s ‘fate’) will

be content to fulfill it—lack of contentment with one’s fate would be a sign of

having failed to understand oneself, indeed of being attached to an inadequate

conception of oneself. (The word ‘attachment’ here would have many, although

not all, of the connotations of the Buddhists’ word up d na.)

Buddhists, on the other hand, do not see themselves as answering to any

higher purpose than to end their own and others’ attachments. Enlightenment

does not show people their place in a larger project. Such a notion would strike a

Buddhist as an attachment to wrong views, especially as a Stoic accepted that his

fate might dictate that he should do away with himself (LS 66G, H). In general,

it would be fair to say that the account of how to live prescribed in Buddhist

precepts would be treated as a measure of ‘right view.’ People who claimed to be

right in departing from the precepts would be judged to have attached themselves

to wrong views.

On the whole, Stoics expected to conform to standards of propriety prevailing

in society around them (LS 59E2–4 on ‘proper functions,’ kath konta). Such

standards were natural means of achieving a natural end (human sociability) in

the same way that an animal’s impulses are natural means of maintaining (for its

normal life span) the natural end of its own existence (LS 59B). And just as an

animal’s impulses may sometimes lead it astray, proper functions have similar


limitations in that in some circumstances they are not the right things (LS 69F–K,

katorth mata) to do. (Stoics, who were committed to excellence and the

admirable, scandalized their contemporaries by insisting that incest or

cannibalism were not in all circumstances wrong actions.) The only thing that it

was always right to do was to act virtuously in accordance with right reason (LS

59M). On whether we have a similar cognitive capacity with the authority to do

what the precepts say should not be done or fail to do what the precepts

encourage, the two main Buddhist traditions (see note 9) differ:

The Mah y na emphasis on ‘skilful means’ entails that this tradition has a

greater tendency than Therav da to flexibly adapt the precepts to

circumstances. A sanga’s Bodhisattva-bh mi says that a Bodhisattva may

kill a person about to murder his parents or a monk, so that the assailant

avoids the evil karma of killing, which is experienced by himself instead.

He may also lie to save others, and steal the booty of thieves and unjust

rulers, so that they are hindered in their evil ways.

(Harvey 1990:201–2)

In Buddhism, as in some Western traditions, the ability to exercise judgment is

assigned different degrees of responsibility by different parts of the tradition.

The development of right reason (the excellence of the capacity for discursive

thought) is evidently crucial for Stoic fulfillment, although this is not an excellence

that one can develop without moral excellences. As in Aristotle, phron sis was

the chief virtue, but in a fashion more Socratic than Aristotelian, the moral virtues

were defined as kinds of understanding (‘sciences,’ epist mai, LS 61H).

Buddhist enlightenment is likewise simultaneously a cognitive and a motivational/

affective state. Where one of the three main subjects of the Stoics’ curriculum,14

logic, encouraged the development of discursive thought, one form of Buddhist

‘mental culture’ (‘meditation’) employed discursive thought, and some Buddhist

schools have developed logical techniques every bit as sophisticated as those

developed by the Stoics.

But the Buddha incorporated into his way a further kind of mental culture or

meditation, which through increasing the control of concentration and

mindfulness helps directly to achieve non-attachment. For example, one is taught

first of all to narrow the focus of one’s attention on a very basic bodily activity

like breathing.15 Achieving this for any length of time is by no means easy, but it

has the effect of taking one temporarily out of the nexus of attachment, and the

effect is one of helping to loosen those attachments when engaging in ordinary

activities. It may well be that Stoics who made some progress in controlling the

effects of the path on their thoughts and action did so by stumbling on

techniques similar to that taught by the Buddha but no record survives of their

using any such techniques or of their being incorporated into Stoic doctrines.



In the world but not of it

Hermits, monks and early capitalists

One further contrast between Buddhists and Stoics deserves to be explored, as it

appears elsewhere and represents an important fork in the road for ascetics.

Buddhists intent on nirvana saw the need to remove themselves from ordinary

society and create for themselves a special social environment where they could

pursue their objectives; Stoics (unlike Epicureans) did not form anything like a

monastic movement. There are a variety of possible sources of the idea that an

individual may (or even can only) live a satisfactory (or fulfilled or exemplary)

life if free of certain forms of involvement with other people. Some of these give

rise to extreme forms of renunciation. The act of removing oneself to live alone

in the deserts of Egypt or the forests of India clearly draws a line between the

individual ‘renounced and the entire sphere of human relations. Any

involvement with other people may be regarded as insignificant (if not

detrimental) when considered in the light of goals such as maximizing time spent

in prayer or meditation, purifying a soul polluted by its association with the

flesh, emptying the vessel of the self so that it may be filled with the holy spirit,

mastering the desires of a recalcitrant body or the thoughts of a haughty spirit, or

charging a psychic battery with supernatural power.

There are also individuals who without any particularly lofty motives

deliberately situate themselves on the margins of society and cultivate a sense of

personal satisfaction through standing apart from ordinary human affairs. A

loose collection of such drop-outs, who had, to be sure, their own lofty

aspirations, was first constituted as a recognized ‘school’ of philosophy in

Athens during the lifetime of Plato. They were known as ‘Cynics,’ from the

Greek word for ‘dog,’ because they lived rough like stray dogs, feeding

themselves by begging. Instead of devoting themselves to prayer or meditation

as would mendicant monks, they engaged in conversation with one another and

professed a philosophy that rejected social conventions, claiming that, through

the ascetic disciplines that their lives required, they had secured freedom and

self-mastery. Ancient Cynicism, however, does not appear to have explicitly

claimed that human fulfillment is possible without any human relationships; an

isolated Cynic would, at the very least, not have had the benefits of

conversations with like-minded individuals. Ancient Cynicism was Epicureanism

taken out of ‘the garden’ (or out of ‘the commune’) and practised in public with

the Epicurean pursuit of pleasure converted into pride in personal austerity and

the Epicurean desire to live unnoticed converted into open contempt for those

who lived in thrall to the comforts of civilization.

Hermits, on the other hand, bent on one or another form of strictly personal

fulfillment, can act, even live, co-operatively so long as their association with

one another is based on the premise that fulfillment or salvation is an individual

affair. This was the case with many of the so-called ‘Desert Fathers’ (Brown


1988: chapters 11 and 12). Nor does every effort to cultivate oneself require

withdrawing from society. Confucians pursued ‘learning’ with the intent of

becoming more accomplished social creatures. Ascetic disciplines by themselves

need not set the self against the rest of society. Spartan discipline (see

Section 3.1) and the vows of chastity on the part of the community of males that

appears in the Dead Sea Scrolls (see Section 11.1) helped to maintain group


Monastic movements, which are not founded on the premise that fulfillment or

salvation is entirely an individual matter (best pursued by hermits), may

nevertheless foster this attitude by encouraging their adherents to focus their

commitment on a super-social reality such as God, or a goal such as nirvana, in a

way that involves other individuals only incidentally. Practices of rigorous selfmortification and self-examination (‘soul searching’) direct individuals to roles

and projects that may not be seen as integral to any wider social framework.

People for whom a personal relationship to God or their achievement of a certain

state of mind is paramount will readily conceptualize themselves as standing

apart from other human beings.

Although St Augustine spent much of his life in conversation with friends, and

a fair proportion of his surviving works are letters written or dictated to friends,

his literary output includes examples of very intense self-examination. The

Confessions takes the form of an extended prayer16 to God in which Augustine

reviews his life trying to comprehend his personal history and his own nature.

The problem that Augustine’s self presents to him is the recalcitrance of his own

motivational impulses. As a young adult he had been torn between his desire to

be baptized into the Church and his reluctance to break with his dependency on

sexual gratification: ‘my state of bondage…I was a prisoner of habit’ (PineCoffin 1961:129). He is still, more than a decade after a decisive conversion

experience, facing the temptations presented to him through each of the sensory

modes or by the mind’s own self-indulgences—the satisfaction of its

inquisitiveness, indulgence in idle speculation, the gratifications of praise, the

vanity of self-complacency (see concluding chapters of Book X). Augustine’s

Confessions model a practice of self-scrutiny that searches beyond what any

person could possibly find peering into murky depths that only an omniscient

God can fathom: ‘I cannot understand all that I am…the mind is too narrow to

contain itself entirely’ (X.8, 216).

Close scrutiny of the self is also recommended in an important Buddhist text,

‘Discourse on Measuring in Accordance with’ (Anum nasutta), in which

bhikkhus are given sixteen ‘qualities’ that are to be used as ‘measures of the self

against the self (Horner 1959:124–31). The qualities are those that would

determine whether a monk was ‘easy to speak to, tractable, capable of being

instructed.’ The bhikkhu must examine himself for evil desires, a tendency to

exalt himself and disparage others, a tendency to anger (and as a consequence

find fault, take offense, utter angry words), to resent reproof (and as a

consequence disparage the reprover, answer back, sulk and decline to explain his

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3 Apathy (apatheia) and non-attachment (anupādisesa)

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