Two books, selected by Nigel Warburton in his choice of the best Philosophy books of 2017, focus on the best ways to achieve inner harmony and ultimate wisdom. The first one is Buddhism is True by Robert Wright who sets out to critically analyse ‘the science and philosophy of meditation and enlightenment’. Wright who previously traced the evolution of the human brain in his acclaimed Moral Animal, combines here the lessons of psychology and philosophy of religion as well as personal anecdotes to take his reader on his own path to self discovery.
Meditation lies at the heart of Buddhism and enlightenment can only be achieved through a process of surrender of the ego to the external flow of life. The psychologist finds in the Buddhist practice of meditation the most effective cure against these toxic products of delusion which are anxiety, despair or hatred. The pursuit of endless satisfaction is a vicious circle which only generates further frustration and misery. Liberation from our self-delusions is the very aim of Buddhist meditative exercises. However, the latter is simply impossible without the necessary painful identification of what prevents the self from reaching a deep, unhampered state of happiness.
Wright sees in the Buddhist understanding of how the self suffers needlessly a confirmation of science’s insight as modern psychology has demonstrated that the conscious self is far less in charge of our behaviour than was commonly assumed. Our bodily apprehension of the external world may, after all, circumvent the guidance or even control of an all-powerful rational self. ‘The bounds of the self’, are, for Wright, a far less chartered territory than we may imagine. The dissolution of these bounds may even open the door to unknown forms of perception giving birth to a less inhibited, more altruistic self.
The second book discussed by Warburton is How to be a Stoic by Massimo Pigliucci. Like Buddhism, Stoicism recognises the central role played by suffering in human lives. Like Buddhism, it reflects on the possible methods of achieving a relative state of contentment amid all the accidental obstacles spoiling our personal journey to happiness. This is probably the stage where the two philosophies of living diverge. Buddhism recommends a healthy detachment from the negative vibes surrounding us. Stoicism, on the other hand, articulates and intellectualises the reasons behind the events causing us anxiety or pain. Moreover, it advocates a fatalistic or passive attitude towards events totally beyond our control.
A Stoical approach to life is, therefore, to focus on what we can actually control and act upon. It does not mean that Stoicism prescribes a life deprived of emotions. However, it leaves every one react according to his or her own ability to rationalise a wide range of feelings and emotions, from mere frustration to acute paranoia or suicidal despair. In this respect, Buddhism appears like a more promising therapy as it purports to cleanse the self of all unnecessary self-doubts and prepare it for a genuine state of sustainable well-being.