Comparing the Buddha to Socrates, Plato and Descartes

ID asked:

Was Siddhartha Gautama (The Buddha) more like Socrates/ Plato, or more like Rene Descartes, or neither one of these regarding the metaphysics (the reality) and epistemology (how we come to know) of THE TRUTH?

Answer by Peter Jones

Of the three philosophers you mention it seems to me that Socrates would be the most similar to the Buddha in both his approach and his worldview. Socrates’ views, as expressed by him or on his behalf, those that are available to us, would not obviously contradict the Buddha’s as recorded in the sutras, and neither would his practice-based approach to philosophy as the study of oneself. Perhaps Descartes would be most unlike the Buddha, consistent with his central role in European philosophy, for no Buddhist would agree that ‘cogito ergo sum’ would make a sound axiom, nor even a true one without some careful provisos and a decidedly non-Cartesian definition of terms. Plato I find confusing on many topics, but he and Descartes are two of the most significant philosophers in the Western tradition while Socrates seems rather too ‘mystical’ to be fully included, and this strongly suggests that the question is not too difficult to answer. Socrates seems to represent a much older and very different tradition of thought and practice, that from which the Buddha sprang.

As for metaphysics, the Buddha has very little to say about it, although here and there the odd remark can be found. Nevertheless, the sutras clearly imply a metaphysical theory even if they do not express it directly, and the worldview implied is later formalised as a metaphysical theory by Nagarjuna as the doctrine of Two Truths or Worlds, and so perhaps in metaphysics there is a sense in which Descartes have something significant in common with Nagarjuna, even if not the Buddha, in that both sought to present a systematic metaphysical argument for their worldview.

It may be in relation to epistemology that their differences are most marked. The crucial question is: How do we know things? For Russell this is the most important question in philosophy. It is central in Buddhism, and it must be answered if we are ever to have secure knowledge. How did Descartes know ‘I think’, and thus think that he must certainly exist, and know this so well that he could confidently propose it as a secure axiom for a metaphysical theory? Can we really know something when we do not know how we know it? On this question the Buddha’s view seems profoundly dissimilar to that of Plato or Descartes, neither of whom offered an explanation for knowledge, while there may be no reason to suppose that his view was not quite similar to that of Socrates.

It seems clear at least that Socrates would have approved of the Oracle’s advice and that of the Buddha to ‘know thyself’ for anyone in search of ‘THE TRUTH’, as the question puts it, and would have concurred on the question of whether such knowledge is possible. Whereas Plato and Descartes appear to have preferred a different route, one by which our ability to know things remains to this day an enduring intellectual mystery, a problem mot just unsolved but apparently unsolvable. On the little evidence we have available to us it is possible to speculate that Socrates actually was a ‘buddha’, or it is difficult to dismiss this speculation, but this would not be a plausible idea for Plato or Descartes.

Utilitarianism versus deontology

Jerica asked:

Discuss the chief advantages and disadvantages of utilitarianism and deontological theory. Think specifically about how the theories would work in a concrete situation. Provide a concrete example to support your response.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Jerica, notwithstanding the fact that this seems suspiciously like an assignment question, I believe the two theories do merit some discussion. However, while I will give some detail on the shortcomings of both theories, as we are discussing ethical theories, drawing on these examples, I suggest that you seek specific concrete examples yourself.

Utilitarianism is a moral theory that argues that an action is right if and only if it conforms to the principle of utility. Founded during the Victorian era, its founder, Jeremy Bentham, came to believe that there was a need for society to rely on reason rather than metaphysics. The central tenet of utilitarianism is what is called the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’. Because the human beings are rational self-interested creatures, says Bentham, they seek to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. Thus, a morally acceptable action is one which results in the greatest possible happiness within a given set of circumstances.

Set against utilitarianism is deontology. Deontologists are concerned with the concept of duty. That is, they are concerned with fulfilling (what they believe is) their moral duty – whether or not it makes people happy. In short, deontologists hold that right actions are defined by duty. Once we know what it is that we are duty bound to do morally, then we can carry out this ‘natural’ right action regardless of the consequences. What matters, they argue, is that we do what is right what is right, and what is right is that which conforms to moral law.

One of the leading exponents of this theory is Immanuel Kant. For Kant, right actions are those which are done purely and simply from a sense of duty and not by following impulses, inclinations, or adherence to the ‘Greatest Happiness Principle’. Human beings, says Kant, are, by nature, rational beings and as such need have a rational basis to their lives: they need to know what make right actions right. Ethics, he maintains, is concerned with identifying moral imperatives, and providing rational explanations as to why we should obey them.

Central to Kant’s duty ethics is the view that right actions are those actions that are not instigated by impulses, inclinations or desires, but by practical reason. Right action is right only if it is undertaken for the sake of fulfilling one’s duty, and fulfilling one’s duty means acting in accordance with certain moral laws or ‘imperatives’. To help us identify those laws which are morally binding Kant has provided us with the ultimate calculus: the ‘categorical imperative’ which states ‘Act only in accordance with the maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law’. To the categorical imperative, Kant offers a codicil which relates specifically to human will, ‘So act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means’.

Whilst deontology, or ‘duty ethics,’ can be said to hold considerable merit, in that it advocates that human beings should be treated as ends in themselves rather than means to ends, I would argue that, as an ethical theory, it fails in that it looks on people, not as sentient beings, but as duty automatons. Moreover, any ethical principle, such as the Greatest Happiness Principle, that advocates that the happiness of the majority takes precedence over the minority cannot be counted as a reliable ethical model.

Reading original philosophical texts

Phil asked:

How can I improve my ability to read and understand original philosophical texts?

Answer by Craig Skinner

Some thoughts after recent distance learning for a degree in philosophy.


Strictly, if you wish to read original texts and don’t want to miss out some of the greats, you have to read ancient Greek, Latin, French and German. And that’s only Western philosophy. Probably, like me, you will read English translations. What’s more they’ll be modern translations. This has the effect of making, say, Descartes, seem more modern than Locke or Hume (we read these latter in quaint, original, 17th and 18th Century English requiring translator’s footnotes alerting us to changed word meanings). A recent book about Locke’s theory of personal identity even includes the author’s modern-English version alongside Locke’s original. But, no problems from 19th century onward as most analytic philosophy is from UK, USA and latterly Australasia.


Authors typically hold many of the common views of their day, or have strong opinions about them, but don’t spell out what these are (educated readers at the time would know). Religious or scientific views for instance. Thus, in arguing about personal identity, Locke aims to show that the person rewarded/punished at the Last Judgment can be the same person that did the deeds, and thereby be justly treated, even if he has a different body (material substance) and a different soul (nonmaterial, thinking substance) from when he did the deeds. The soul argument is unfamiliar these days, and we may dismiss Locke as confused here, and conclude (wrongly) that he is simply arguing for the memory-connectedness idea of persistent personal identity.

As regards science, early modern greats were influenced by Newton. Kant goes so far as to say that Newton’s views on space and time are necessarily true and constitute one of the categories in which we must perceive the world. Of course the rug was pulled from under him when it turned out that Newton’s theory, far from being necessarily true, wasn’t even true (and neither was space Euclidean as Kant also thought necessarily true). Hume hopes to produce a science of man modelled on Newton’s science of matter and motion, and compares his own scepticism to Newton’s approach to the true nature of gravity (‘I feign no hypothesis’). Leibniz thinks the idea of gravity, acting on another body not by contact but mysteriously acting across vast distances of empty space, is a return to superstition. Berkeley is horrified by the soulless, purposeless, mechanical world picture and tries to show that matter does not exist, indeed the the idea is incoherent.


It’s not like reading a car magazine where you get the gist in 5 minutes and all you need to know in 30. It’s hard work, takes hours of reading and rereading to get full value.

Have a go at the text yourself before reading what others think.

First, read the text through only to answer two questions – what is the position being advocated or defended ? Why does the author think it important ?. Often they dont tell you clearly, and you must work it out! Write down the answers.

Next, reread to find out what argument(s) the author relies on. List these (not the details, just the number of arguments and a word or two to characterize each).

Next, close reading of text to elicit the steps in the argument(s) and the conclusions. List these as series of steps, best as premises and conclusions if you can.

Now look at the arguments. Are they valid (conclusions follow from premises). Are they sound (valid plus true premises). Do they support the position being advocated (check, you wrote this down earlier), or perhaps only some lesser conclusion, or maybe just fail.

Now reread, asking: does the author consider (and refute) arguments for a position contrary to his? Does he consider (and rebut) objections to his own arguments.

Form your own provisional view.

Now read what others think (see aids below). Did you miss things? The answer will be yes. Don’t worry. Scholars sometimes spend a career wrestling with a famous text, and after years of study, may change their mind about what it all means or what the author intended. A recent book on Locke’s theory of personal identity opens with the author saying he has been misrepresenting Locke to his his students for 15 years. Also scholars disagree about what an author means or thinks. Two recent books by noted academic philosophers give different accounts of what Hume’s views on causation really were, both accounts based on the same Hume texts.

Finally, form your own view, be prepared to defend it, but stay open to new ideas, arguments or evidence.


Best is dialogue with somebody further along the philosophical road than yourself. Easy if you are a student at University or on a Pathways module. Not so easy for the distance student or the informal learner. I recall discussions up the pub with my two (engineer) mates who argued against my contention that numbers don’t exist, or gamely responded when I asked what made it the case (if it was) that we three old boys presently drinking our pints were the same old boys that had entered the pub 20 minutes previously. In addition I signed up for Pathways tuition and found it excellent value.

Every great text has spawned a shoal of Introductions, Guides, Companions, Essentials Of, etc. and I cant deal with all that here. But you will need a selection of these for serious study.

There are two series of books explicitly designed to foster reading/ understanding texts. First, the short ‘How to Read X’ books published by Granta, described (on the blurb) as ‘a personal masterclass in reading’. They deal mostly with authors not topics, and include a few philosophers, none living, eg ‘How to Read Plato’.’ Secondly, the longer ‘Reading X’ by Blackwell Wiley, described as ‘a series that aims… to teach you a technique for reading and analysing philosophical texts’. They give general introductions to the topic, excerpts from classic texts, both ancient and modern, get you to engage with them at key points and write down your thoughts and answers to questions, and conclude with ‘interactive commentary’. I used two of the How to Read X’ series (Plato, Hume) and two of the ‘Reading X’ series (Epistemology, Ethics). They are good books. But, looking back on it, I doubt that they added much to improving my ability to read/understand texts over and above what I’ve already suggested to you.

Online Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy has good, critical, up-to-date, referenced articles on most everything. I used it a lot.

Finally, an example:

Getting started with Descartes

Text: ‘Meditations on First Philosophy’ by Descartes (English translation by Haldane and Ross, 1934)

Position advocated: a new grounding is needed for science. He doesn’t say why, but must think science, unlike say chess, needs a philosophical foundation, and that the time-honoured Aristotelian basis is unsound.

This grounding will be knowledge reached by reason alone (not observation) from what remains certain after using the Method of Doubt (to accept as true only what is presented so clearly and distinctly to the mind as to be certain)

Argument: he can doubt the existence of the external world, including his own body, but in order to doubt he must exist, so that he accepts as true ‘I think therefore I am’ (‘cogito ergo sum’, ‘je pense donc je suis’). He then argues his way back via knowledge of the existence of God to knowledge of the existence of the external world and his own body.

Steps in argument:

1. I can’t doubt my existence as a thinking thing, so I know this.

2. I know it solely by clear and distinct perception.

3. So, what I perceive very clearly and distinctly is true.

4. I have a clear and distinct idea of God

5. The idea of God includes necessary existence, so God exists

6. God, being all good, is no deceiver.

7. So I can rely on my God-given reason and senses, properly used.

8. Using them I have clear and distinct ideas of extension, size, shape, situation, movement, duration and particulars of an external world.

9. So, the external world, including my body, exists.

10. I (my soul) and my body (a kind of machine) are distinct substances but intermingled.

We now have framework for detailed appraisal – method of doubt, dreaming/evil demon arguments, res cogitans under 1/2/3, arguments for God’s existence/nature under 4/5/6/7, res extensa under 8/9, dualism under 10.

We can go on to consider sub-arguments (e.g. two for God’s existence: three for ‘real’ distinction of mind and body – here ‘real’ is a scholastic term meaning the distinction is between two substances).

Objections/ Replies: helpfully, Descartes sought objections and published them with his replies as a separate chapter.

Descartes’s text is orderly and systematic rather like a scientific paper or maths theorem (he was a noted scientist and great mathematician). With many other texts, we are not so lucky.

Aristotle’s conception of eudaimonia

Ian asked:

Eudaimonia is the feeling of perfect satisfaction with ones life?

Answer by Caterina Pangallo

I think ‘perfect satisfaction’ is a little over the top.

The word can almost be literally rendered in English as ‘good spirits’. This implies all the good things that make a person be of good spirits. Like prospering in your career, having good friends, eating well etc.

Generally we translate the word as ‘happiness’. For Aristotle this includes achieving a state of being good and generous with others. He thinks that being generous, altruistic and charitable belong also to eudaimonia.

In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that eudaimonia means ‘doing and living well and being content’. For Aristotle this implies that eudaimonia involves activity and a striving for excellence. It is human nature to strive for self-development. Therefore the best form of eudaimonia is gained by the proper development of one’s best powers and the most humane attitude. This identifies us as ‘rational animals’. It follows that eudaimonia for a human being is the attainment of excellence (arete) through the use and application of reason.

So all these issues hang together. Further, he claims this excellence cannot be isolated and so it requires social competence as well as high professional standards. From this it follows that eudaimonia, living well, consists primarily in activity. Which is to say, to be fully engaged in the activity of his/her work and in a social network of friendships in order to achieve success.

In Aristotle’s ethical theory, eudaimonia is a virtue. This is because it is a balance between two possible defects. One can be ‘too happy’, too carefree without striving for excellence. Some people on the other hand never stop complaining, even when they are successful.

Actually I believe that Aristotle discovered something really fundamental about human beings.

As a philosopher he asked himself, ‘what do humans really want out of life?’ Answer: ‘Happiness’. To achieve this you need not be the wealthiest person of your tribe. You need to strive, recognise your potential, aim for self-fulfilment and cultivate love and friendship. This is the way to eudaimonia. Just as we say, ‘money can’t buy love,’ so Aristotle would say, ‘You can’t buy eudaimonia’. It’s something you have to do.

A Theory of Justice by John Rawls

Kathy asked:

Hi! I took a philosophy course years ago. One that we studied talked about looking at ethics from an interesting standpoint and I would like to study it further but I cannot remember the name of the philosopher. The standpoint was this: imagine you and a group of people are creating the world. This committee must make up all of the rules, but none of the committee members will know his/her standing in the community. Do you know the philosopher and/or branch of study this idea is in.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Kathy, the person your question refers to is, I’m pretty certain, the American moral and political Philosopher John Rawls. In his book A Theory of Justice (1971), Rawls sets out to discover the principles which any society must embrace if it is to be just. In so doing he hoped to present an alternative to utilitarianism, which he regarded as the dominant moral philosophy, and to revive the social contract tradition in political theory.

However, before giving a synopsis of Rawls’ social theory let me give you some brief insight into the type of person Rawls was (he died in 2002). Like many people, philosophers included, the Second World War had a profound and life-changing effect on Rawls. A somewhat humble man, when, in 1990, he was asked by photographer Stephen Pyke to summarise his idea of what philosophy meant to him he answered:

"From the beginning of my study in philosophy in my late teens I have been concerned with moral questions and the religious and philosophical basis on which they might be answered. Three years spent in the US army in World War Two led me to be concerned with political questions. Around 1950 I started a book on justice, which I eventually completed."

The name of the book to which Rawls alludes is, of course, his A Theory of Justice. Rawls’ conception of justice as fairness, and his vision of a legitimate society as an overlapping consensus of peoples with different conceptions of good within a framework of basic rights and liberties, exerted a powerful effect on liberal and social democratic politicians in the 1980s and ’90s. This culminated in Rawls being awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Clinton in 1999.

As mentioned above, in his A Theory of Justice, Rawls is concerned with discovering the principles which any society must have to be just. What sets Rawls theory apart from other such theories is his concept of ‘a veil of ignorance’. Rawls begins by inviting us to imagine not only a hypothetical ‘original position’, but one in which we are all ignorant of our own particular abilities or prospects, both financially and structurally. That is, ignorant of the status we would have, in a future society. Rawls calls this state of unknowing ‘the veil of ignorance’. In such a state, ignorant of our own potential, dispositions and talents, we are all equal: each at the same starting point.

From such a position we will each be anxious to ensure that each member of society is guaranteed a level of protection, financially, socially, and physically, below which we cannot fall. From such a position, argues Rawls, we are more likely to establish principles of justice which guarantee equal liberties and equal access to the conditions of well-being.

For Rawls then, a just society is one which embraces two fundamental principles of ‘justice as fairness’: The First Principle: Each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive total system of equal liberties compatible with a similar system of liberty for all. The Second Principle: Social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that they are both: (i) to be of greatest benefit of the least advantaged, consistent with the just savings principle; and (ii) attached to offices and positions open to all under fair equality of opportunity.

The reference to the ‘just savings principle’, refers to the fact that, in addition to the liberty principle and the equality of opportunity, Rawls argues that the welfare of future generations is also an important consideration: what a society saves, and what burdens it thereby imposes, are also matters of justice.

Recommendations for an introductory book on philosophy

Helena asked:

Hi! I’ve studied fairly in depth history and English literature. I have a keen interest in philosophy, but I don’t really know where to start in terms of reading, and I don’t really want to read one of those ‘beginner’s philosophy’ books. Can you advise me on something accessible, interesting and of a beginner’s level? Thank you.

Answer by Craig Skinner

As befits a would-be philosopher you already skirt with paradox. You don’t want a ‘beginner’s philosophy’ book, but do want something ‘accessible, interesting and of a beginner’s level’ which is a fair description of a beginner’s philosophy book. I have the answer. Noting your study of history and English literature, I suggest a book on the history of Western Philosophy by an author with a Nobel Prize for literature. May I present A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell (nobellist, mathematician, philosopher, essayist, social activist and occasional jailbird). It is definitely accessible and interesting. Also big, witty, opinionated, partial, and wont confuse you. First published in 1946, it starts with the Presocratics and ends with James and Dewey. But this doesn’t matter, you can read something else if you want to know about the last 100 years (recall that modern philosophy is merely ‘footnotes to Plato’ as Russell’s colleague, Whitehead, memorably, and probably unfairly, put it.

Answer by Tony Fahey

Hi Helena, this a question that often arises on this forum. For younger students coming to philosophy for the first time, I usually I suggest a book called Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaarder. Although written as a fiction, starting with the pre-Socratics, it concerns the story of a young girl being introduced to major philosophical concepts by a somewhat mysterious mentor. However, since you do not seem to want something that is aimed specifically at beginners, it seems to me that Bryan Magee’s The Story of Philosophy or Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy may be more to your liking. D.W. Hamlyn’s The Penguin History of Western Philosophy is also a book worth considering.

Answer by Shaun Williamson

Asking for something at a beginner’s level in philosophy is like asking for a beginners introduction to higher mathematics. Not all subjects have a beginner’s level. Since you have studied history you could start with Bertrand Russell’s one volume History of Western Philosophy or if your have lots of time and enjoy reading try F. Copleston’s multi volume History of Philosophy. Both these books will give you some idea of the sorts of things philosophers have thought about. Of course being history books they both contain the bias of their authors but both are well written.

Why are we so scared of death?

Paul asked:

Why are we so scared of death?

Answer by Julian Plumley

Dear Paul, that is a good question, and one that I have not thought about for a long time. I am not sure I can give you a really satisfying answer, but I hope I can make a few points that make sense.

Firstly, there is an empirical question. When people fear death, what exactly are they fearing? It is unlikely to be the same for each and every person. One way to find out would be to interview a representative group of people. (Or maybe a death focus group!) But I don’t have time to do this, so the next best thing is to scan the web and find out what people say when they talk about their fear of death. This is not hard to do – for example, there are several discussion threads in yahoo answers which are very helpful.

The results are fascinating. There are many ways in which people are scared of death. I have tried to pull these into categories, so that we can think about them better. Here they are with some rough notes to get across the feelings associated with each category. (This is not meant to be exhaustive – there are probably more categories I did not find yet.)

Fear of the unknown: death is the ultimate unknown; it is impossible to understand or grasp; fear of the dark, of caves and tunnels; fear of the new, the untested.

Fear of being lost: rootless, with no foundation, no reference.

Fear of separation/ exile/ isolation: death separates me from people and things I like; I have to go, to leave my place; I will be separated from everyone else.

Fear of reality: being found out, revealed; facing up to things I don’t want to.

No control/ deadline: I am not in control; I don’t know when it’s going to happen; there is no defence; I am forced to go; there is no appeal; death is the ultimate deadline; time is up, I can’t change anything anymore; like an exam, or not wanting a holiday to end.

Non-existence: horror at the idea of non-existence; the idea of being gone, forgotten; perspective of our short existence vs. eternity.

The state of being dead: the thought of not being able to breathe is scary; not having any experiences.

What happens next: heaven, hell… oh dear!; not enough faith in afterlife; fear of an afterlife; what will happen to others when I am gone.

Game over: there is no more life; I am going to miss life and things in it, people I love, etc.; I am loving life and I don’t want it to end.

Fear of regret: regret for things left undone and unsaid, for life not well lived; regret for dying early.

Rationalised answers: our instinct for survival makes us fear death; if we did not fear death, we would have died out.

Process of death: fear of painful death; particular kinds of death e.g. drowning.

So what can we make of this? A lot of these categories are basic fears we have while living our lives, but projected onto death: fear of the dark; of being lost; of isolation; of being found out; of being out of control. Other categories are more specific to death itself: fear of non-existence; of how it is to be dead; of what happens next; of the end of the game. The rationalised answers are not fears at all. Lastly, there is the fear of pain before death.

As philosophers, having clarified the facts to some extent, we should ask: is it rational to fear death? Those fears that we project onto death seem to be irrational. We do not have enough information about death to justify them. But most of us know what this kind of fear is like from situations in our lives. It takes an effort of will to suppress these fears, but people can manage to do this.

The fears that are specific to death are more interesting. Probably each of these deserves an essay, so I will just discuss one of them briefly: fear of non-existence. I have seen people try to argue that this is unjustified on the basis that we do not exist before we are born, but that thought is not fearful for us, so there is no reason why the thought of non-existence after death should be scary. Does this argument work?

It doesn’t. I had a vivid counter-example when my daughter (about 7 or 8 at the time) asked me: ‘Where was I before I was born?’ When I told her she wasn’t anywhere, she was horrified. I could see that it was exactly the same fear as that of non-existence after death (which I am acquainted with). There is something peculiarly inexpressible about this fear, which makes it a horrible perspective to experience. Often children ask the best philosophical questions – the ones the adults have forgotten. I don’t think we can rationalise this fear away so easily. Is it a basic part of having a subjective viewpoint, or is it merely a psychological defect?

Fear of pain before death, and of the way we die, is entirely reasonable. We are all acquainted with pain and it is something we justly fear. But this is really a fear we attach to a part of our lives, the final part, not to death itself.

I am painfully aware that this answer is inadequate as it stands – it leaves more questions than answers. For a start, it would benefit from having input from some professionals who are used to dealing with death and with fear: nurses, psychologists and priests, for example. There is a lot more to say about each of these fears and I will keep pondering this. Thank you for raising the question.