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.