One of the many joys of working in an international environment is the opportunities for discussions with colleagues and friends from all over the world on diverse issues as culture, history, food, politics, philosophy or just the best way of spending a day in a city other than your own.
I especially treasure the discussions with Greek friends, which after a while often tend to gravitate to how profoundly the thinking of ancient Greek philosophers has influenced our modern views. As a practicing Buddhist, I find it intriguing to see the parallels between the Hellenistic and Buddhist thinking, and how the great philosophies of the “axial age” (the centuries around 500 BCE) still are living and guiding people’s thinking across the globe.
It was the German philosopher Karl Jaspers who in his book The Origin and Goal of History from 1949 first coined the concept axial age, acknowledging how great thinkers and new ways of seeing the world was appearing in many places around the globe within a historically very short time.
This took place in China (Confucius, Lao Tzu), in India (the Upanishads, Gautama Buddha), in Iran (Zarathustra), in Palestine (Elijah, Isaiah, Jeremiah) and not least in ancient Greece with a mass of writers (Homer, Sapfo), tragedians (Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides, Aristophanes) and philosophers (Thales, Heraclitus, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle).
The big philosophies of the axial time evolved during a period of big societal change. People were increasingly moving from the country side to large cities. Traditional beliefs and values were questioned, and the new time and the new conditions required new strategies to deal with the increasingly complex societies.
Among all these great thinkers, especially Gautama Buddha (circa 480-400 BCE) and Socrates (470-399 BCE) concerned themselves with how we should live our lives, in a way that is of relevance also to present day Western life.
Unlike other earlier philosophers, who were focussing on metaphysics and theories, both were deeply engaged in practical actions and how these were affecting the individuals and their communities. They were also both emphasising the personal responsibility of everyone to live an ethical life to the benefit of both himself and his community.
Ethics of the Buddha. The Buddhist ethics is based on the principle of pratītya-samutpāda (dependent origination), meaning that all our actions (karma) inevitably have consequences for ourselves and for others.
As in Buddhism there is no deity to act in offense of, the monotheistic concept of sin does not appear. Instead, the Buddha taught that skilful actions will have direct or indirect positive consequences leading us closer to enlightenment, and unskilful actions will likewise have negative consequences causing suffering and leading us away from enlightenment.
The principle of karma differentiates between intentional and unintentional harmful actions where only the former lead to negative karma effects.
Recognising that (unenlightened) humans are imperfect, there are no “rules” or “commandments” in Buddhism, but instead a set of precepts or “training principles” one should seek to adhere to. For lay persons these are:
- Abstention from taking life (non-violence). For many but not all practicing Buddhists this also means being a vegetarian or vegan.
The accompanying virtue is kindness and compassion
- Abstention from taking what is not given. This is not only not to steal but also not to abuse the kindness of others.
The accompanying virtue is generosity.
- Abstention from sexual misconduct. This includes all kinds of sexual abuse, harming and betrayal, but beyond that there is no morality on how people express their sexuality.
The accompanying virtues are stillness, simplicity and contentment.
- Abstention from false speech. In the Buddhist tradition speech should be truthful, kind and constructive.
The accompanying virtues are honesty and dependability.
- Abstention from intoxication (drunkenness and drug abuse) – many practicing Buddhist totally abstain from alcohol consumption.
The accompanying virtues are mindfulness and responsibility.
The Buddhist canon is very rich (many thousand of pages), and in other teachings the Buddha dwells in detail on numerous other aspects of human life, including friendship and how to live harmoniously together inside and outside the religious communities.
Teaching of Socrates. In Western philosophy, Socrates is regarded as the first thinker to go into detail how persons should live their lives in a virtuous way, what kind of actions are righteous, and how people should live together in communities and states.
Like the Buddha, Socrates realised that true happiness is promoted by doing what is right. He emphasised the personal responsibility of everyone to act ethical in a way that not only changes their personal attitudes but also their actions to produce impact and positive effects in the world.
Also Socrates recognised that people are imperfect, but his view was a more optimistic one. He believed that no person by nature chooses evil, but that we seek good but fail to achieve it due to our ignorance or lack of knowledge. As he believed that self-knowledge is a sufficient condition to the good life, Socrates identified knowledge with virtue, and as knowledge can be taught so can virtue.
Throughout his life, Socrates lived according to his own principles. He was teaching, but not in order to gain wealth. As a young man he was a courageous soldier, and in later life he was constantly using his intellect to explore what is right and what is wrong , claiming that the “unexamined life is not worth living”.
His main tool for this was the Socratic method, a dialectic method of inquiry, consisting of a series of questions to help a person determine underlying beliefs and knowledge (incidentally, also the Buddha was regularly using a similar method to prove his point).
The method has been detailed in Plato’s Socratic dialogues, and often the outcome was revealing and much embarrassing to the person being engaged in discussion with Socrates. He effectively punctured many egos, and he regarded himself as wiser than others because he was the only one “knowing that he knows nothing”.
While having many friends and followers, Socrates over time also got a growing number of powerful enemies, who eventually brought him to court on charges, including deceiving the youth by asking them to question authority.
In his defence speech (described in Plato’s The Apology of Socrates), Socrates proudly stood up for his ethical and principal values and refused to compromise his beliefs also when facing an avoidable death sentence. His refusal to seize the opportunity to escape his death sentence when given a chance (described in Plato’s Crito) further underlines his high ethical and moral standpoints. His final death through poison has over the millennia since become mythical.
Socrates thoughts have been further refined by his disciple Plato (putting the thoughts of Socrates in writing but also adding his own, e.g. in The Republic), and later by Plato’s disciple Aristotle (outlined in his Nicomachean Ethics).
There are strong reasons to believe that not only the ideas of the Greek philosophers but also those of the Buddha have greatly influenced the ethics of both Christianity and Islam, and almost 2,500 years later these ideas are as relevant as ever.