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Non-dualism and Hellenistic ethics

By Robert Ellis: a previously unpublished paper written in 1998. Further material on Stoicism and on Scepticism and Aristotle can also be found in 'ATheory of Moral Objectivity'.


Reading Hellenistic ethics from a Buddhist point of view reveals some striking similarities between the two approaches. Reading modern commentators on Hellenistic ethics, particularly Martha Nussbaum, both makes some of the differences clearer and shows ways in which both Buddhism and the Hellenistic philosophies have perhaps been similarly misunderstood from the dominant cultural perspective of the modern West. I shall try here to put the case for the possibility that such a misunderstanding of Hellenistic ethics has occurred, and that many of its underlying philosophical tendencies are more fully non-dualist, and therefore closer to Buddhism, than is often recognised. A Buddhist standpoint is thus perhaps a fairer one from which to assess the truth of Hellenistic ethics than that more usually employed in Western classical and philosophical studies.


Before entering into arguments which are directly about Hellenistic ethics, however, I want to establish the criteria by which I shall be assessing them. Thus I shall first consider the nature of a thoroughgoing  Buddhist non-dualism and try to present it in a philosophical form which can be easily applied to Hellenistic ethics without the need for constant clumsy cross-cultural comparisons. Such a philosophical summary of Buddhist teaching attempts to incorporate the implications of spiritual practice rather than simply leaving them behind in an inappropriate decontextualisation of  Buddhist philosophy, but at the same time to represent the core of Buddhist (especially Mahayana) thought as a whole.


Non-dualism and its application


Taken as a metaphysical fact, the non-dualism of subject and object is the ultimate justification of  Buddhist theory and practice. Taken merely as a belief, its effective application incrementally justifies the assumption of its truth through experience. From any perspective below enlightenment, then, non-dualism needs both to be effectively applied in theory and to be tried out in practice to be fully justified for any given individual. At this theoretical level I can only deal with the first of these requirements, but nevertheless these form a necessary part of the conditions for a true ethics from a Buddhist perspective.


At the level of theory, then, any non-dualist system of ethics must both promote the concept of non-duality to provide an ultimate goal and justification, and effectively apply it in relative terms. I shall now break down the application into six headings which I believe to each be necessary to its effective application, because each are themselves implied by the assumption of non-duality itself together with the practical assumption that non-duality is a focus of value and not merely an abstract metaphysical fact. I shall now list these six applications together with an attempt in each case to derive them from these two assumptions.


An effective non-dualist ethic must…

1.       Clearly distinguish absolute and conventional levels of truth

Statements of abstract or metaphysical truth must in their pure form appear nonsensical or self-contradictory, as they attempt a conceptual representation of the non-conceptual. Any attempt to represent an ethical truth and give it this metaphysical status will thus misleadingly be attempting to give absolute status to a conventional representation. Whilst abstract representations of the absolute (like the very term “absolute”) clearly have a role to play in philosophical discourse, they will thus only be ethically justified where measures are also taken to make sure that the conventionality of the terms is also understood: the use of absolute terms thus gains a provisional and pragmatic function. Since by necessity we use terms which do not represent the non-dual nature of existence, any assumption of the truth of non-duality implies a complementary recognition of the extent of our use of terms which are not non-dual.


2.       Promote the transcendence of dualistic dichotomies and give an incremental account of moral progress

An ideal state of moral understanding for a non-dualist ethic must be non-conceptual, and an ideal moral action (the spontaneous expression of that understanding) will lead to consequences which maximise the dispositional independence of concepts in oneself and others. Whilst such an ideal moral action will not necessarily involve modes of communication which are non-dual or go beyond binary logic, it must necessarily promote the capacity to use such modes where possible. In particular  a non-dualist ethic needs to promote the capacity to go beyond dichotomies in ethical thinking, since a true ground of ethical ideas for a non-dualist system must be non-dual, and an account of ethics which promotes that non-dualism needs to reflect it as far as possible. The substitution of an incremental mode of thinking about ethics, whereby motives or actions are more or less productive of good rather than clearly categorisable as good or evil, whilst not always necessarily providing the mode of expression of a non-dualist ethic, can provide an intermediate goal as a mode of thought between the assumption of dichotomous concepts and independence of all concepts whatsoever. It is therefore likely that it will usually also form the mode of expression except in exceptional circumstances (e.g. if the perversity of the audience makes the adoption of non-dichotomous modes of thinking more likely when dichotomous modes of expression are used).


3.       Avoid the confusion of non-dual ends with dualistic means

A further outworking of points 1 and 2 leads to the implication that all moral progress towards non-duality should be seen in its proper temporal context. Any given dualistic concept which may form an intermediate goal of action should be clearly seen as such, not as an ultimate end. At the same time it needs to be recognised that ultimate ends and the proper correspondence of means with those ends can only be followed from a non-dual perspective, so that any consequentialist approach within the dualistic realm must be based only on provisional ends and the cautious and provisional linking of means with those ends. Any other approach here is in violation of point 1.


4.       Challenge and extend moral intuitions beyond the status quo

Since non-duality is clearly a point beyond our current conceptions, the purpose of a non-dualist ethic is clearly not to merely confirm or justify existing moral intuitions. To state this is not to deny the naturalism of a non-dualist ethic, but to urge a proper suspicion of what we experience as moral intuitions, a large component of which may simply be the result of dualistic conditioning. If moral teaching does not challenge us and lead to a re-examination of  our lives, it cannot be to any extent non-dual. The appeal to moral intuitions alone or the argument that non-dualism is counter-intuitive are thus neither of them valid arguments against non-dualist ethics on its own terms.


5.       Transform both reason and affect

Since rationality involves merely the coherence of dualistic concepts, it is evident that no progress can be made towards non-duality purely through reason. On the other hand affect, whilst (on a naturalistic account) potentially having the force to enable a breakthrough to non-duality, is scattered and disordered without the ordering of reason to enable it to be focussed. Thus if one assumes both the fact of non-duality on the grounds of reason and its practical recognition on the grounds of affect, both need to be transformed together in order to enable progress towards non-duality. A non-dualist ethic will not only need to offer methods for the transformation of both reason and affect but promote both in a sufficiently balanced fashion to avoid the thwarting of one method through overemphasis on the other. Any particular claims about the relationship between reason and affect will need to be coherent with this criterion of balance. Any claim that reason is to be completely identified with affect will also conflict with the recognition that reason cannot be non-dual, since if affect also cannot be non-dual we have no point of contact with the non-dual at all, and thus not even a theoretical possibility of verifying the overall direction of progress.


It may be argued that we do not need any such theoretical possibility, since a non-dualist ethic could express itself purely through the promotion of a direction of moral development, and that perhaps the most that can be hoped for is a relative verification through experience. However, any such direction of moral development could still prove to be false whilst it relies purely on a relative coherence of conventionally-described experience with conventionally-described theory. Only when both the motivation for moral effort and its verification are post-conceptual can complete verification take place. An ethical theory which rules out the possibility of such verification, then, cannot effectively express non-dualism: its use of the term “non-dualism” will simply be misleading, as it will merely stand for another dualistic conception rather than an open-ended development, and the expression of such a theory will not be conducive to truly non-dualist moral practice.


6.       Recognise the significance of  embodiment

It was argued under point 2 that a non-dualist ethic must promote a movement towards non-dualist modes of thinking at all points on the moral scale, and that to do this it will be most likely to use modes of expression which themselves tend towards non-duality, particularly in substituting incrementality for dichotomies. The strongest instances of communication which is non-conceptual in its mode (though not necessarily in its intention), is however to be found in non-verbal communication. The final stretch of progress towards concept-independence as a mode of thinking can only be inspired by such non-verbal communication, through the presence and behaviour of those who themselves are motivated by post-conceptual modes of thinking, since however subtle the conceptualisations used by modes of expression which promote non-dualist ethics, they can never be so subtle as to be entirely non-conceptual. If the understanding required for the final stretch of moral development is to be in any way communicated it must therefore be embodied, and as I have argued under point 5 it is necessary for a non-dual state to at least be theoretically attainable through the completion of that final stretch, for a theory which promotes that state to accurately describe itself as non-dualist. If the true path to non-duality cannot be communicated to some extent in its entire duration up to the attainment of non-duality itself, this also seems to rule out it properly being called a non-dualist rather than a dualistic path. At a lower level of development, too, whilst it cannot be claimed that embodiment is absolutely necessary to the description of the path, it can certainly be claimed on pedagogical grounds that it is likely to be far more effectively communicated if embodied. The denial of moral hierarchy (the fact that there are others who are more morally advanced) prevents any recognition of the significance of embodiment or its use in the communication of a moral path auxiliary to theory.



Are Hellenistic philosophies non-dualistic?


It would obviously be unfair to apply the above criteria to Hellenistic ethics if the philosophies of which those ethical systems form a part made no pretensions to non-dualism.  The historical aspect of this question requires detailed scholarly investigation, so I can offer only a rough answer to it from a philosophical perspective. The rough answer I shall offer is that the Hellenistic philosophies do appear to be at least partly based on a non-dualistic approach, but that neither the theoretical understanding  nor the application of non-duality is consistent. The inconsistency may be to some extent a real historical one due to the influence of dualistic philosophical approaches and/or the practical focus of Hellenistic ethics preventing sufficient consistent consideration of its ultimate grounds, or on the other hand the inconsistency may be one which is only apparent, arisen from misapprehensions of historical texts in relation to a practice which may have actually been much more consistently non-dualistic than we take it to be.


Part of the suspicion that the Hellenistic philosophies may have been more non-dualist than we take them to be comes from their use of spiritual exercises, as detailed by Hadot (1987). Hadot takes issue with Foucault (1987) when Foucault describes these exercises as pratiques de soi or “exercises of the self”, arguing that they were not focussed upon the self at all so much as the transcendence of the self (which implies the transcendence of the subject-object division). “In my view”, Hadot writes, “the feeling of belonging to a whole is an essential element: belonging, that is, both to the whole constituted by the human community, and to that constituted by the cosmic whole.”(p.208). Hadot also stresses the Stoic practice of mindfulness – that is, of living in the present moment rather than the past or the future – on the grounds that this facilitates a universal identification: “In Stoicism, even more than in Epicureanism, the present moment takes on an infinite value: it contains within it the entire cosmos, and all the value and wealth of being.” (p.230).


The strongest approach to conceptual non-dualism appears among the Sceptics. As Flintoff (1980) argues, there are no good reasons to disbelieve the story that Pyrrho, the founder of Scepticism, visited India and was profoundly influenced by the Hindu and Buddhist “gymnosophists” he encountered there: the non-dualistic aspects of Scepticism may well have thus been adapted from Indian sources. According to Sextus Empiricus’s definition, quoted by Nussbaum (1994), scepticism is “an ability to set up an opposition of appearances and thoughts…from which we come, through the equal force of the opposing statements and states of affairs, first into suspension (epoché) and after that into freedom from disturbance (ataraxia).” (p.285).  This technique appears geared to produce a sort of cognitive non-dualism, whereby false dichotomies of belief are opposed to each other in order to transcend both polarities, though there appears to be much more emphasis on this negative process than on any positive process of experiencing non-duality.


The Sceptic account of ataraxia gives even more grounds for thinking that there is at least a conceptual idea of transcending the self involved: “Ataraxia just comes by chance, tuchikos, as a result of a process he is following out of some non-dogmatic motivation – say, because it is his trade. He does not seek it out, he does not believe in it: it just happens to him”(Nussbaum 1994 p.300). Here we have a remarkable resemblance to the idea of tariki or “other power” found in Pure Land Buddhism: a notion arising from the realisation that the non-dual may be experienced, not as the union of self and other, but as other, entirely beyond ones own efforts. As Sangharakshita explains tariki: “The compassion of all the Buddhas, though transcending all the categories of thought, including those of subject and object, appears to our ego-distorted perception as a force which acts on us externally – as the Other Power” (Sangharakshita 1957 p.378).


Scepticism, however, clearly illustrates the dangers of adopting non-dualism in a purely conceptual fashion without any belief in the positive value of working towards non-duality, or any attempt to work out its implications in the way I have tried to do above. The attempt to reject all beliefs leaves the sceptic with a conceptual nihilism and an actual ethics of conformity with social convention. As Burnyeat (1980) argues in support of Hume, the sceptic cannot live his scepticism without inconsistency.


A better example of non-dualistic practices in the Hellenistic philosophical tradition seems to be offered by the Cynics, though in a disorganised and unsystematic form. Diogenes, generally acknowledged as the first Cynic, is said to have attacked all customs and conventions, arguing that there were no universal moral standards (Dudley 1967 p.30), and to have gone out of his way to demonstrate his detachment from conventions by individualistically flouting them (ibid. p.37). At the same time he had a positive ethic of askesis or training (ibid. p.32-3). Diogenes, then, was willing to live his scepticism at least in the negative sense of flouting conventions rather than negatively going along with them, in this respect expressing a non-dualistic approach in a similar fashion to the Tantric adepts of India and Tibet, and at least to have had some positive ethical doctrines, even if it is not very clear from the existing records how these were connected with his non-dualistic outlook.


In the Stoic, Epicurean and Aristotelean schools the influence of this kind of thinking is evident, but the stronger social organisation and positive ethos in each case seems to make the non-dualistic link less clear. Even when there is obviously a strong universalist slant in the ethics of all three schools, the interpretation that this universalism is based on any idea of non-duality is denied by essentialist ontologies such as Epicurus’s atomism (Long & Sedley 1987 p.37-9).


Even when it is admitted that there is no consistent non-dualism applied to all aspects of Hellenistic thought in the main schools, there are difficulties in even claiming that it has been applied inconsistently to Hellenistic ethics. Perhaps the strongest of these is that the grounds of ethics are not described in terms of non-dualism, but consistently (even among the Sceptics) as “nature”. As Nussbaum (1994) points out, however, this notion of nature is “normative rather than simply descriptive”: in other words rather than ethics being grounded on the imitation of  natural patterns which can be observed, to talk of being natural is merely another way of talking about being ethical. Nevertheless Nussbaum takes the idea of nature to express human finitude, and claims there is a tension in Hellenistic ethics between the transcendent model of the gods and the finite one of human nature (ibid. p.497-9). This view reflects the very approach I am attempting to question in raising the possibility that Hellenistic ethics may have been misinterpreted: Nussbaum merely assumes that transcendent notions cannot be applied in a finite context and thus precludes any recognition of non-dualist thought or its application in Hellenistic ethics. If a non-dualist interpretation is applied not only does nature assume a different significance (as I have remarked above, non-dualism does not preclude naturalism), but the gods also become symbols not of escapism but of human potentiality.


The case for Hellenistic ethics being, then, at least to some extent, based on, or at least inspired by, non-dualism cannot be answered on purely historical grounds, since the available historical evidence may have conceivably been interpreted entirely in a way which is unsympathetic to it. Take the ideal of ataraxia, the goal of Scepticism and Epicureanism: this is usually translated (for example by Nussbaum) to mean “freedom from disturbance”, the disturbance being any kind of mental perturbation, and is taken to be a passive and self-absorbed state. The Greek lexicon also gives this translation, making it clear that it is primarily mental perturbation which is meant. However, freedom from mental perturbation does not necessarily mean passivity: indeed one can coherently imagine a person without such perturbation being immensely active and altruistic, perhaps enabled to be like this by the absence of perturbation. The pejorative associations relating to the idea of self-absorption are not necessary to it, if that self-absorption is temporary in nature and for the purpose of removing perturbations which would prevent effective activity. Nussbaum’s rejection of the ideal of ataraxia, then, might conceivably be merely the effect of a pervasive and self-consistent modern misunderstanding of the idea, perhaps influenced by the widespread rejection of any kind of meditative practice in Protestant culture. This attitude may permeate the whole understanding of what I have taken to be non-dualist elements in Hellenistic thought.


Without further historical evidence, of course, this can only amount to a sort of conspiracy theory. However, I put this forward to support the point that the question of non-dualism in Hellenistic ethics cannot be resolved purely at the level of whether it is theoretically present in its pure form. I think it is necessary to see whether non-dualism has been effectively applied  in Hellenistic ethics to assess the real extent of its influence. Hence I shall now turn to the application of the six criteria I have given above, one by one, to the field of Hellenistic ethics to try to see, within the limitations of a fairly superficial survey, how far the influence of non-dualist thought can be indirectly determined. In doing so I shall also be assessing the usefulness and philosophical cogency of some central features of Hellenistic ethics as a whole according to my own criteria.



Does Hellenistic ethics distinguish absolute from conventional levels of truth?


Hellenistic ethics will only meet the first criterion above if there are accompanying explanations, at least on some occasions when an ethical absolute is appealed to, that no absolute claims are being offered due to the limitations of language. Clearly in Scepticism no absolute ethical claims are made at all and thus, as I have already argued, we cannot consider its non-dualism to be effectively applied at all. In Epicureanism, though, there does seem to be some recognition of the conventionality of language (Long & Sedley 1987 p.97) and of justice (ibid. p.125). Epicurus’s view of the gods, too, as ideal thought-constructs rather than metaphysical realities (ibid. p.144-7) suggests that Epicurus both accepted the importance of embodiment as I have argued it above, and combined this with an understanding of the conventionality of the gods as expressions of Epicurean ideals.


In Stoicism the position is less clear due to the Stoic attachment to logos or reason as fully expressive of goodness. The Stoic analysis of universals, however, reveals an avoidance of any metaphysical hypostatisation like that of Plato: universals, presumably including the good, are seen as mental concepts which “are neither somethings nor qualified, but figments of the soul which are quasi-somethings and quasi-qualified” (ibid. p.179). This quasi-substantiality appears to be exactly the sort of provisional basis of belief required to maintain the non-dualist balance between the acceptance and the denial of metaphysical propositions. Although this approach was only applied to universals and not to all concepts, it is the attitude to universals, we can argue, which is most significant in relation to ethics.


But it is perhaps most on practical grounds that we can most successfully argue that absolute and conventional were properly distinguished. Nussbaum points out that the particularity of the therapeutic tradition in Stoicism as in Epicureanism prevents any rigid application of moral ideas without a proper estimation of the concrete situation (op. cit. p.344). The adoption of a therapeutic approach in itself indicates a clear differentiation between universalised theory and particularised practice which indicates that even where there are inconsistencies in theory, a practice has been adopted which is in harmony with a non-dualistic approach and may potentially give rise to it in more specific forms. The development of Buddhist non-dualism proceeded in exactly the same fashion, from a concern with overcoming the causes of human suffering in the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths (the most basic of Buddhist formulations) to a gradually more systematic philosophical expression of the grounds of this concern. As Murti (1960 ch.2) points out, the most systematic expression of non-dualism in writings of the Madhyamika school are simply developments of an approach which was already present in the Buddha’s practical teachings. This comparison perhaps shows that a consistently-applied particularisation of ethics based on a non-cognitive universalism is perhaps more important as an indicator of a truly non-dualist ethics than its full and systematic philosophical expression. The non-dualism of the Greeks may simply have been less conceptually developed than that of Buddhism due to the nature of the historical conditions which surrounded its expression.


Perhaps the strongest counter-argument arises from the physics of both Stoic and Epicurean traditions, where the prevalence of materialism suggests a metaphysical adherence to an absolute truth of the existence of defined bodies rather than any understanding of the conventionality of the limits of those bodies. However, we can see an analogous development in Buddhist philosophy during the first few centuries after the death of the Buddha, where the Abhidhamma developed as a systematic set of philosophical texts detailing an atomistic analysis of dharmas or momentary mental events. Although this analysis was phenomenalistic rather than materialistic, the subsequent Madhyamika philosophy criticised the Abhidhamma on the alleged grounds that the dharmas were taken to be absolutely existent and thus became subtle objects of conceptual attachment. This accusation might be seen as unjust in the light of the practical significance of the Abhidhamma analysis, where contemplative analysis of the atomised elements of experience became the basis for practice intended to develop non-attachment to more complex objects. Perhaps we should see the Abhidhamma as a staging-post on the development to a full philosophical systematisation of non-dualism, and in a similar fashion. We have good reason to suppose that Epicurean atomism had a similar function, since, as Nussbaum makes clear, Epicurean physics were not pursued for purely cognitive ends but entirely subordinated to an ethical purpose. Nussbaum describes it as a “fundamental Epicurean belief” that “freedom from disturbance requires having a firmly defended view about physical matters that bears on our ethical ends” (op. cit. p.124). This being the case, it would follow that had a different view of physics arisen which served Epicurean practical needs better, it should have been readily adopted, and we can coherently imagine a further systematic development of the non-dualist tendency in Epicureanism along the same lines as that from the Abhidhamma to the Madhyamika.


For the Stoics, however, physics had a slightly different function: to show that the universe functions consistently according to rational laws, which also provide the normative basis for human behaviour (Long & Sedley 1987 p. 266-8). Here the distinction between absolute and conventional truth appears much less clearly, as there appears to be scope for beliefs about the nature of the universe to assume an absolute status (false because it is still mediated by human experience) which is then applied dogmatically to human norms. In practice the Stoic respect for reason seems to have often prevented this occurring, but one example of it might be Seneca’s insistence that anger should never be expressed in any circumstances (even when the implications of this appear to conflict with Seneca’s other beliefs) as detailed by Nussbaum (op. cit. ch.11). So far, then, the Stoics appear to be less effectively influenced by non-dualism than the Epicureans: however, there may be other aspects of this analysis which give me more cause to question Epicurean approaches.


Does Hellenistic ethics promote the transcendence of dualistic dichotomies and give an incremental account of moral progress? 


The therapeutic model which Nussbaum presents as the basis of Hellenistic ethics provides grounds both for positive and negative responses to this question. On the one hand, there is evidently a conception of a spiritual path, offering an incremental account of moral progress, in all the Hellenistic schools. Extending the medical analogy, it is recognised that there are degrees of illness and that some are more seriously sunk in worldly illusions than others. On the other hand, the therapeutic model also creates a dichotomy between a normative view of moral health and those who have not achieved that state. This normative attainment, of eudaimonia or ataraxia, is seen in finite terms, and thus the goals of moral progress become limited to what can be conventionally understood. This dichotomy in its turn creates a tension between the authority of those taken to have achieved this goal and the autonomy of those merely treading the path (which worries Nussbaum [op. cit. p. 492-4]) : a tension which is capable of creative resolution when a more thoroughly non-dualist approach is taken so that the teacher’s authority becomes accepted only on a provisional basis, but not when the teacher’s authority is absolutely to be accepted or rejected as either expressing or not expressing goodness.


The Hellenistic schools have interestingly different ways of dealing with this tension, as Nussbaum relates. In Stoicism, Aristotelianism, and Scepticism, a non-authoritarian approach is taken and the task of the teacher is seen as facilitating the pupil in reaching conclusions on the basis of reason. This reflects a reliance on reason as a method of overcoming false beliefs and their associated desires. In Epicureanism, especially in Greece, on the other hand, many wrong desires are considered beyond the reach of reason, and the more authoritarian methods employed reflect a strong dependence on the teacher in the isolated setting of the Epicurean Community. In Nussbaum’s words, which clearly reflect her discomfiture: “The pupil is encouraged to mistrust herself and rely on the wisdom of the teacher, the saving power of the Epicurean doctrine. Separated from the city and its cognitive influence, subjected to a daily regimen of memorization, repetition, and confession, denied the evenhanded consideration of alternative views, the pupil does not have very much autonomy” (ibid. p.493).


To some extent the differences between these approaches, and the tension they reflect, may represent a real failure to apply non-dualism in different respects, resulting from either the acceptance (in the case of Epicureanism) or rejection (in the case of the other schools) of authority due to a limited understanding of its soteriological role. On the other hand, the historical reality in any or all of the schools may have come much closer to a non-dualist balance, and then been misrepresented either by the historical texts or modern commentators or both. I certainly think there is good reason to be suspicious of Nussbaum’s presentation of Epicurean practice, which appears to reveal an unreflective application of the liberal egalitarianism widespread in modern Western culture, used not as a political instrument of democracy but as an end in itself. Unconscious desires and deep-rooted tendencies seem most unlikely to be changed if left in their original context and merely debated with: to me it seems that Nussbaum has little idea of the extent of the human talent for rationalisation and the depth of “therapy” required for real moral change. The Aristotelian and Stoic respect for autonomy may on the other hand have been less pronounced than is evident through the veil of favour Nussbaum gives them from a modern egalitarian perspective, but closer to a critical and provisional surrender of autonomy for the purposes of enabling spiritual development. A complete maintenance of autonomy in all areas of life is not compatible with the incrementality of a non-dualist ethic because it prevents even the development of a provisional faith in an approach which challenges ones current egoistic preconceptions.


As in the other areas, the application of non-dualism into incrementality in Hellenistic ethics does not appear to be complete or consistent, but it may be more complete and consistent than Nussbaum’s interpretation suggests.


Does Hellenistic ethics avoid the confusion of non-dual ends with dualistic means?


As mentioned above, the goals of all the schools of Hellenistic ethics are described in terms either of eudaimonia or of ataraxia, both of which fall short of the identification of subject with object. Here Aristotle’s definition of eudaimonia is completely at odds with the other three main schools, as he regards an element of worldly success as essential to happiness (Nic. Ethics p.79). For the other schools, happiness and goodness cohere in a self-sufficient state of the individual in which wrong desires no longer have any hold on the mind. I have already mentioned ways in which I think the term ataraxia may have been misunderstood, but nevertheless even if this speculation is correct it is still the case that it falls short of a non-dual end because it is still seen in terms of individual fulfilment. Ataraxia, then, may or may not be correctly describable as the dualistic means to a non-dual end, but if seen as an end in itself it may be misleading. Despite the qualifications given above with regard to the above two points, Hellenistic ethics clearly falls at this hurdle due to the lack of explicitly non-dualistic doctrines.


Does Hellenistic ethics challenge and extend moral intuitions beyond the status quo?


Here Aristotle appears not to challenge very deeply, due to his reliance on building up a rational coherence in the moral intuitions that his followers already have. As Nussbaum (1994 ch.3) records, Aristotle was choosy about the disciples he accepted, which tended to come from a limited stratum of society and which were required to have a degree of maturity: all this suggests that Aristotle largely restricted his work to refining and delimiting moral intuitions which were already favourable to his approach through their previous conditioning. Though Aristotle’s view of the emotions as linked to beliefs and therefore under conscious power was similar to that of the other schools, he appears to have thought that emotional training was largely the preserve of a pre-philosophical type of education which needed to be modified appropriately by the state. This also harmonises with his view of eudaimonia as partly a matter of external conditions. The effect of this on the individual can thus not have been as profoundly challenging as the other schools which laid more responsibility at the feet of the individual.


Scepticism can also be said to be deeply challenging of ones beliefs, but it appears to have advocated the abandonment of any moral intuitions. It thus cannot be said to extend moral intuitions but merely to result in nihilism.


It seems evident that Stoicism and Epicureanism, at least, are deeply challenging to their followers’ existing moral intuitions, though at the same time they take account of them and make use of them.

Here it is interesting to consider Nussbaum’s treatment of issues of sexual passion and anger in Epicureanism as expressed by Lucretius (1994 chs. 5 & 7) and Stoicism as expressed by Seneca (ibid. chs 11 & 12). Both of these authors express the deeply challenging aspects of their respective schools’ traditions that the passions need to be brought fully under control through the achievement of a detached state of mind. Nussbaum, however, is attracted to the ways in which they appear to compromise with the realities of the worldly situation and human need for passionate expression, and convicts both writers of some inconsistency, whilst expressing a preference for the more worldly and less challenging aspects of their approach. I would suggest that here is a good example of the kind of possible misunderstanding of non-dualist elements in Hellenistic philosophy I have been  discussing (although the exact division of responsibility in this misunderstanding is impossible to apportion between the ancient tradition itself, the modern tradition of its interpretation, and Nussbaum).


To explain this more fully I will focus on the treatment of sexual passion in Lucretius (ibid. ch.5). Lucretius explains sexual passion as based on projection: the attribution to the beloved of properties that he/she does not actually have as an expression of ones own mental state. The lover aims to put an end to his/her own vulnerability and weakness through a “complete possession of the other that would put an end to all desire” (ibid. p. 174). The challenge is therefore to overcome such projections, and achieve a contentedness with ones own actual state which can form the basis of real moral development rather than this blind alley, the bad consequences of which Lucretius documents vividly. The projections are based on the false belief that we can overcome our egoistic isolation by attaining union with another human being: a belief that amounts to a kind of false non-dualism. Lucretius also provides the grounds of its falsity, presenting male idealisation of women as blind to their actual nature and thus unable to create any real harmonic union. So far, the approach is in harmony with that of a non-dualist ethics and shows marked similarities to that of Buddhism: Lucretius’ description of the unpleasant aspects of women’s bodies, for example, serves broadly the same goal of puncturing the illusions of a male reader as the similar description in Shantideva’s Bodhicaryavatara (ch.8 v.40-69).


However, Lucretius distinguishes this neurotic type of desire from a “natural” human lover who aims only at pleasure. This gives Lucretius the basis on which to continue to advocate marriage: though here he seems to have been at variance with Epicurus, who “apparently did not encourage marriage” (Nussbaum 1994 p.152) and thought that “sexual intercourse never did any good, and it’s lucky if it does no harm” (ibid. p.150-1).  Nussbaum does not question Lucretius’s approach very much, apart from seeing a general tension between it and Epicurus’s position, because she wants to advocate a still more liberal version of it which also allows for some passions as good. “Lucretius fails to ask whether there might not be intense excitement and beauty precisely in being needy and vulnerable before a person whom one loves” she writes, and claims that this is due to an inconsistency, “because he has not seen his therapeutic idea through to the end” (ibid. p.190).


Here it is Epicurus who appears to be putting the nearest thing to a purely non-dualist position in which naturalism does not result (as it does in Lucretius and Nussbaum) in the raising of dualistic ends which supplant non-dualistic ones with merely dualistic means. Both Lucretius and Nussbaum appear, to different degrees, to have ducked the profoundly challenging Epicurean goal to become, as Nussbaum expresses it “internally godlike…with no deep needs from the world or from one another”. They each seem to have felt that there were good reasons for softening and compromising this goal. In Lucretius’s case, perhaps because he was writing for people living in mainstream Roman society rather than for an isolated community like Epicurus’s, and he wanted his teachings to be sufficiently compatible with a conventional Roman lifestyle to be acceptable in this context. In Nussbaum’s case, this appears to be because she perceives the Epicurean goal to be devoid of a life-enhancing type of passion which she deeply values. In neither case is there actually any conflict between the non-dualistic ideal understood incrementally and applied practically and real emotions and situations, but in both cases it seems that a false dichotomy has been erected which prevents an incremental understanding of the issue. In Lucretius’s case this is a false dichotomy between conventional society and ideal society, and in Nussbaum’s between self-destructive and life-enhancing passions.


The basis of the difficulty here (if I have understood Epicurus correctly on non-dualist lines) is that the Epicurean method sets out to transform desire but is understood as denying it. Naturally we want our current desires to be fulfilled and we tend to react negatively the possibility of them being threatened, but the very basis of the Epicurean case, properly understood, is that our desires cannot be fulfilled in their current form and need to be transformed in order to meet with fulfilment. A non-dualist naturalism merely appeals to this transformation of desire and to our existing desires for such a transformation, but a dualistic naturalism goes further in its acceptance of our current goals based on our current understanding, underestimating the degree to which they need to be transformed in order to reach any fulfilment. Lucretius does this, having identified projection as the basis of sexual passion, by drawing a line between acceptable and unacceptable expression of sexuality, without being able to provide clear grounds for the point at which he draws that line. At what point does projection end and “natural” pleasure begin? Such a point must be merely conventional in nature, yet assumes an absolute status due to the appeal to nature. Moreover, the claim to have achieved “natural” pleasure and to have overcome projection itself may be a projection which rationalises a crude desire whose presence is being denied.


To accept a non-dualist goal here by no means rules out dualistic means of the kind Lucretius and Nussbaum both want to defend: but the understanding of marriage or of some “pure” passion as in itself good merely introduces a confusion. This confusion appears to continue to thrive because it legitimates the avoidance of the challenge to the status quo provided by non-dualism.



Does Hellenistic ethics transform both reason and affect?


Seen independently of one another, the Hellenistic schools all appear to some extent one-sided in their approach to the transformation of reason and affect: Aristotelianism, Scepticism and Stoicism all concentrate on rational methods, whilst Greek Epicureanism, as I have already mentioned, is perhaps led into some degree of authoritarianism by its greater stress on the need to transform emotions which are not necessarily easily accessed or transformed through the intellect alone. If we see the approaches of the schools as complementary rather than opposed, however, it is evident that between them they offer a variety of methods for the transformation of both beliefs and emotions.


The main difficulties here, though, relate to the scope and balance of that transformation. As I have argued above when introducing this criterion, the teachings of a non-dualist ethic need to be balanced in this respect in order to prevent an overemphasis on reason preventing the transformation of emotion and vice-versa. Hence it is important to determine a truly non-dualist understanding of the theoretical relationship between reason and emotion in order to ensure that one is not falsely reduced to the other, effectively preventing, or at least limiting, a balanced transformation. I have also argued above that any absolute identification of reason and emotion is incompatible with non-dualism since it rules out even theoretically the achievement of a non-dual state.


Nussbaum (1994 ch.10) presents the view of Chrysippus that reason and affect are identical. This view, she explains, is coherent with Stoic method which seeks to transform affect solely through reason. For the Stoics “the judgements with which the passions are identical are false” (ibid. p.390). A passion is a kind of acknowledgement that a given external thing is of value, and to acknowledge a belief in its full significance is to be passionate about it. Nussbaum is supportive of this view, giving the example of her illustrative fictional character Nikidion going through grief when her lover has died: this grief amounts to the belief that her lover was of great value.


If this point is correct, however, it only shows that affect is necessary to belief in order to provide a degree of significance for that belief. It does not show the converse, that belief is necessary to affect. The Stoics seem to be making the mistake of regarding belief/affect itself as the morally fundamental quality capable of good. However, if we understand belief as purely cognitive, it merely gives expression to affect, which is non-cognitive. It is affects which actually lead to actions and bring about consequences, and are thus capable of moral differentiation. Thus beliefs can only be regarded as capable of moral differentiation insofar as they are inextricably united with affects.


The Stoic approach (at least if based on Chrysippus) thus falls short of non-dualism because of its dependence on rational concepts and its failure to see affects as only incrementally variable rather than absolute in their dependence on concepts. The Epicureans, on the other hand, seem to have realised that affects needed addressing more directly as well as through the medium of the rational consideration of beliefs: hence the use of stinging reproofs, confessions, and repetition of dogmatic summaries in addition to philosophical argument (ibid. ch.4). I have not managed to discover any definite evidence of an understanding of affect as capable of existing beyond cognitive belief in Epicureanism, but such an idea does seem to be suggested by the practice I have already mentioned, existing in both Stoicism and Epicureanism, of attention to the present moment (prosoche)(Hadot 1987 p.84-5). The exiguous present moment has no conceptual content, and yet attention to it, as Hadot puts it,  “allows us to respond immediately to events, as if they were questions asked of us all of a sudden”. Another way of putting this is that greater non-conceptual attention allows our underlying affective mental habits to change in the way we deal with concepts, providing us with a greater amount of independence from previous patterns of response we have had to those concepts, so that the relationship between affects and beliefs becomes looser.  


Once again, then, the closer we get to the actual practices of Stoics and Epicureans, the more a non-dualism which was not clear or explicit in theory comes to the fore. This practical non-dualism is in some contrast to the theoretical rejection of belief by the Sceptics discussed above, which in practice, far from promoting post-conceptual affect, merely encourages a reliance on conventional rather than challenging beliefs.



Does Hellenistic ethics recognise the significance of embodiment?


The Hellenistic schools all appear to share what Nussbaum refers to as an “asymmetry of roles” (1994 p.46) between doctor and patient as a result of their adoption of the medical metaphor: effectively this means that all the schools accept moral hierarchy, even where they differ fundamentally about the ways in which the “doctor” should best communicate his/her understanding to the “patient”. Acceptance of moral hierarchy alone however, does not itself imply anything about the nature and degree of the authority exercised by the “doctor”, or that he/she should necessarily embody it rather than merely communicate it conceptually.


I have already discussed the question of authority in the different schools, and particularly the possibility of authoritarianism in Greek Epicureanism, speculating that the reality may well have been quite close to a non-dualist balance based on provisional authority. Even if this is the case, however, this point is distinct from that of whether authority was embodied so as to enable the non-conceptual transmission of an effective non-dualist ethics.


However, it does seem to have been the case in Epicureanism that Epicurus himself was considered an embodiment of virtue, being regarded in the light of a hero, even of a divinity (ibid. p.130-1). For this to enable the non-conceptual modelling of virtue, of course, Epicurus must also have actually embodied those virtues. The many examples existing in history of cult-leaders who deluded themselves in this respect and who abused their authority need not prejudice us in this case into believing that Epicurus necessarily did not deserve this accolade, unless we have any evidence that he abused his authority. I would conclude that in the case of Epicurus at least one of the conditions for the effective non-dualist use of embodiment (namely the belief in it) was present, even if we have insufficient evidence to judge as to the other conditions.


The other schools, however, appear to have regarded Epicurean hero-worship with some disdain. Nussbaum quotes Seneca as writing in response to it “We are not under a king. Each one claims his own freedom”(p.131). Nussbaum later presents the Stoic approach to the teacher-disciple relationship with approval as “symmetrical and anti-authoritarian” (ibid. p.344). Here again issues of embodiment appear to be being confused (by Nussbaum at least, possibly also by Seneca) with those of authority. An ultimate autonomy of the disciple, in which he/she is in control of his/her own progress, is quite compatible with a decision to accept the strict guidance of expertise or to attempt  to imitate another’s virtues, but this can only be done on the basis of the surrender of some immediate autonomy on a provisional basis. As I have already argued, without such a provisional surrender there is a danger that the challenging aspects of non-dualist ethics will simply be avoided through “autonomous” rationalisations. In this area, then, the Epicureans seem to give clearer evidence that they may have come closer to an effective application of non-dualist ethics than do the other schools.





This application of my criteria for the effective application of non-dualist ethics, though inevitably superficial, does seem to reveal more than the mere search for explicit non-dualist teachings at a theoretical level. In relation to most, though not all, of my criteria there proved to be at least some degree of applied non-dualism in at least some of the schools. Where it was lacking this was usually due to the absence of explicit theoretical non-dualism either in all or in some of the schools. I think this shows that true non-dualism (as opposed to the over-abstract non-dualism of the Sceptics) is strongly practical in nature, and, as I argued above, comparison with Buddhism suggests that perhaps Hellenistic non-dualism was simply less theoretically well-developed. Practical non-dualism, however, by its very nature is not likely to leave very clear historical records of its presence except insofar as it has achieved some theoretical expression.


The survey has also revealed varying degrees of effectiveness in the application of non-dualism between the different schools, with some suggestion of a greater degree of effectiveness in Greek Epicureanism because it was not limited so much to methods appealing only to the intellect and to rationality – even if this approach is not without its dangers, and bearing in mind the limitations of evidence that we have about what actually went on in The Garden. Stoic rationalism, though still based strongly on the therapeutic model, in this respect appears to have more in common with more modern Western versions of ethics.


Finally, I hope this will be understood not as an attempt to idealise Hellenistic ethical systems or to reduce them to Buddhist ones, but more an attempt to raise awkward questions about the way Hellenistic ethics has been interpreted. It seems that Hellenistic ethics has nearly always been examined by modern Western scholars and philosophers either purely in its classical context or “vertically” through time in comparison with modern Western philosophy. Only the Buddhist scholar Edward Conze, as far as I know, has pointed out that the “horizontal” relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and contemporary Indian philosophy (both examples of what he calls “perennial philosophy”) is much stronger in terms of its fundamental goals than the “vertical” relationship between Hellenistic philosophy and what he calls “Sciential philosophy” in the modern West (Conze 1967). However, Conze confines his comments on Hellenistic philosophy to Scepticism. A much more detailed scholarly study of the relationship is badly needed.





Aristotle  (Nicomachean) Ethics  trans. J.A.K. Thomson  (Penguin 1976)


Burnyeat, M.F.  “Can the Sceptic live his Scepticism?” from Doubt and Dogmatism ed. Schofield, Burnyeat & Barnes  (Oxford 1980)


Conze, Edward  “Buddhist Philosophy and its European Parallels”  from Thirty Years of Buddhist Studies  (Bruno Cassirer 1967)


Dudley, Donald R.  A History of Cynicism  (Georg Olms Verlagsbuchhandlung, Hildesheim 1967)


Flintoff, E   “Pyrrho and India”  from Phronesis 25:88-108 (1980)


Foucault, Michel    Histoire de la Sexualité vol.2  trans. Robert Hurley as Care of the Self  (New York 1986)


Hadot, Pierre  Exercices spirituels et philosophie antique (1987) trans. Michael Chase as Philosophy as a Way of Life  (Blackwell 1995)


Long, A.A. & Sedley, D.N. The Hellenistic Philosophers vol. 1  (Cambridge U.P. 1987)


Murti, T.R.V., The Central Philosophy of Buddhism  (Unwin 2nd Edn. 1960)


Nussbaum, Martha  The Therapy of Desire (Princeton University Press 1994)


Sangharakshita  A Survey of Buddhism  (Tharpa 1957)


Shantideva  The Bodhicaryavatara  trans. Crosby & Skilton  (Oxford 1995)


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