Stoicism and Daoism: a comparison

Since the beginning of my interest in Stoicism, about six years ago, I have maintained that one of the attractive features of this philosophy is that it is a big tent, compatible with a (not unlimited!) range of political and metaphysical positions. One can reasonably be a conservative and a liberal Stoic, and one can be an atheist or a Christian Stoic.

The other thing I find appealing about Stoicism lies in its many points of convergence with the ethics (though not the metaphysics) of a number of other philosophical traditions, particularly the big three from the East: Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism. Having recently explored the first two, I now turn to the latter.

As a reference guide, I will use the chapter on Daoism written by Prof. Robin Wang for a book that I recently co-edited (with Skye Cleary and Dan Kaufman), How to Live a Good Life: A Guide to Choosing Your Personal Philosophy. If you are interested, you can check this video, where Wang talks with Dan Kaufman about Daoism, while the other guest, Bryan Van Norden, addresses Confucianism.

The first similarity emerges immediately in terms of origin of the two philosophies: Wang explains that Daoism was formulated in response to a time of uncertainty about moral and political values, as well as of rampant inequality. Which could just as well describe the Hellenistic world that gave birth to Stoicism. Or, for that matter, the 21st century.

The second obvious point of convergence is a consequence of the first: both Stoicism and Daoism concern themselves with how to handle uncertainty, and particularly things that are not in our control. Wang writes: "Zhuangzi, a pivotal Daoist sage in the fourth century BCE, says, 'Resign yourself to what cannot be avoided and nourish what is within you -- this is the best.' ... This activation of our living root involves focusing on what is most important and what is within our control, such as our abilities, desires, plans, and daily routines." This sounds a lot like Epictetus:

"Some things are within our power, while others are not. Within our power are opinion, motivation, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever is of our own doing; not within our power are our body, our property, reputation, office, and, in a word, whatever is not of our own doing." (Enchiridion 1.1)

Wang goes on to say that an important teaching of Daoism is that we should cultivate changing our perspective. She introduces an exercise called "a phone for a stone," in which participants are asked to temporarily exchange their mobile phones for a stone. Why? "In exchanging our phones for stones, we substituted a constantly engaging, moving, and interactive electronic screen for a still object to hold in hand. We changed our focus from an artificially constructed, attention-grabbing device to a natural, silent, contemplative--and seemingly empty--earthly element." Although they did it in a significantly different fashion, the Stoics too emphasized changing perspective on things, for instance by engaging in the so-called "view from above" type of meditation to put our daily troubles in a broader context:

"In like manner view also the other epochs of time and of whole nations, and see how many after great efforts soon fell and were resolved into the elements." (Marcus Aurelius, Meditations IV.32)

Wang explains that "To see things from the perspective of Dao is to understand that the world is not an amorphous and undifferentiated flat plane but an unbounded plurality. This requires both the ability to appreciate diversified views and the capacity to see the bigger and more panoramic patterns of the world. It involves the reversal of ordinary thinking: overcoming attachments to personal viewpoints; loosening emotional reactions to events; releasing projected values and conditioned reflexes; and erasing oppositional extremism." 

The Stoics famously taught a light attachment to our opinions, because we could easily go wrong. They also, controversially, taught a loose emotional attachment to events, including the big ones:

"Whenever you grow attached to something, do not act as though it were one of those things that cannot be taken away, but as though it were something like a jar or a crystal goblet, so that when it breaks you will remember what it was like, and not be troubled. So too in life; if you kiss your child, your brother, your friend, never allow your fancy free rein, nor your exuberant spirits to go as far as they like, but hold them back, stop them, just like those who stand behind generals when they ride in triumph, and keep reminding them that they are mortal. In such fashion do you too remind yourself that the object of your love is mortal; it is not one of your own possessions; it has been given you for the present, not inseparably nor for ever, but like a fig, or a cluster of grapes, at a fixed season of the year, and that if you hanker for it in the winter, you are a fool." (Epictetus, Discourses III.24)

This is not meant to elicit a callous attitude toward human loss, but simply to remind ourselves of the fact that everything passes, including the things and people we hold most dear. We need to accept this from the onset, and use it as a constant reminder that we should never take those things or people for granted. Because eventually they will be gone.

One important difference between Daoism and Stoicism lies in the fact that perspective-taking in Daoism aims at ming, translated as the illumination of the obvious. The way one does this is by emptying one's mind and letting go of things, attempting to clear the "tangled weeds" that according to Zhuangzi clog our mind and blind us to what would otherwise be obvious features of the world. Stoic mindfulness, by contrast, focuses on things, paying particular attention to what we are doing here and now. There is no concept in Stoicism of emptying one's mind, because that would be equivalent to emptying ourselves of who we are.

The following bit by Wang presents us with some similarity, and yet some difference with Stoicism: "The Daoist way cultivates the habit of embracing experience immediately, on its own terms, and without preconceptions. Zhuangzi suggests that our mind is like the mirror in stillness and the echo in responding. It focuses on removing judgments and obstacles caused by emotions while endorsing acuity."

Stoics here agree with part but not the whole of the Daoist approach: yes, we should be wary of our own preconceptions, "impressions" as the Stoics call them. As well as of our emotional attachment to such preconceptions. But then we should very much apply our judgments to such impressions, and arrive at a rational assessment of them, to see whether they are correct or they need to be rejected. Here is Epictetus on this point:

"So make a practice at once of saying to every strong impression: 'An impression is all you are, not the source of the impression.' Then test and assess it with your criteria, but one primarily: ask, 'Is this something that is, or is not, in my control?'" (Enchiridion 1.5)

Daoism teaches the art of flowing naturally with situations and conditions. Wang writes: "A great example is the century-old story of how legendary Dayu managed a flood. Instead of using force to combat the flood -- putting up dikes to stop the water, for example -- Dayu redirected (shudao) the water. He dredged new river channels to direct the water according to its natural flow, rather than resisting the tendencies of the water. These channels served both as outlets for the torrential waters and as irrigation conduits to distant farmlands. He thus successfully controlled the floods. His method serves as a metaphor of flowing along in attunement with the terrain to get things done with excellence, ease, and sustainability. This idea now serves as a popular expression of Dao: flowing like water!" Intriguingly, we find something very similar in Marcus Aurelius:

"Our actions may be impeded ... but there can be no impeding our intentions or our dispositions. Because we can accommodate and adapt. The mind adapts and converts to its own purposes the obstacle to our acting. The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way." (Meditations V.20)

Wang then introduces the Daoist concept of shi: "Shi is a special Chinese term that can refer to power, force, influence, natural features, or the propensity of things. Everything has its own shi, and every individual contains his or her own shi. Shi is one's strength in all things and actualizes all things, goals, and destinations." She tells the story of how when she was in college she trained as a javelin thrower for the track and field team. But no matter how much she tried, she just wasn't good enough. She then realized that she was fighting her shi, which was not leading her in the direction of athletic competitions, but rather in that of reading philosophy books at the library. So she listened to her shi and thrived. Stoicism does not quite have a notion analogous to shi, but Epictetus does say that we should understand the roles we play in life and play them at our best, though Epictetus' emphasis is on duty, not as much on choice (or, to be more precise, on the duties stemming from our own choices).

Another interesting aspect of Daoism is its embracing of change. Wang says: "Uncertainty is not something that is created by human failure. It is a continuous condition that is constituted and shaped by change. Change can bring out many unexpected things or surprises. The Daoist way teaches us to experience joy in good or bad days by engaging in bodily movement, maintaining an organic lifestyle, and pursuing a natural and organic affluence." The Stoics too thought that everything is bound to change, that change is a natural and inevitable aspect of the world, and that we should not only not resist it, but in fact embrace it:

"Is any man afraid of change? What can take place without change? What then is more pleasing or more suitable to the universal nature? And can you take a hot bath unless the wood for the fire undergoes a change? And can you be nourished unless the food undergoes a change? And can anything else that is useful be accomplished without change? Do you not see then that for yourself also to change is just the same, and equally necessary for the universal nature?" (Meditations, VII.18)

Then again, here is another contrast between the two philosophies. Wang states: "The body is a central space for Daoists to occupy. Often ignored, the body is the most basic, manageable, and beneficial resource we possess. Like a garden with various plants, the body needs cultivation and nourishment in order to thrive. The body is fundamentally connected to growth and change, yet brings a wider range of uncertainties to our expectations and the way of living." The Stoics, by contrast, see the body as a preferred indifferent, as something that should be cultivated because it allows us to navigate life, but that is not who we truly are. That is our prohairesis, our conscious will, our ability to make decisions, which, accordingly, is the central focus of Epictetus' practice.

Obviously, the Stoic approach and language, on the whole, resonates better with me than the Daoist one. But I think it validating that a good number of Stoic ideas find analogs in several eastern traditions. When people come up with convergent notions of wisdom and the good life, across centuries and geographical locations, they cross-validate such notions while of course leaving room for variations and reasonable disagreements. After all, there is no single path to a life worth living for a human being, and it would be unwise to the utmost degree to pretend otherwise.

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