While it may seem strange to link Buddha to the modern secular West, there are some key facets of his teachings that influenced later thinkers and which connects them from the perspective of an extended history. The first connection is to the Greek philosopher, Pyrrho.
Traveling with Alexander’s army, Pyrrho came into contact with and was influenced by the teachings of Buddha, and on his return to Greece he began teaching a philosophy that bears all the hallmarks of Early Buddhism (Beckwith, Greek Buddha). One of these tenets, was a rejection of all dogmatic forms — religious or philosophical — of certainties. Beckwith (p. 9) asserts that Buddhism was born out of the opposition to the duality (light/dark, right/wrong, good/evil) of the newly reformed monotheistic Zoroastrianism that had recently emerged from pagan Mazdaism and brought by Darius I when the Persians conquered the Indus Valley around 515 BCE. The absolutes of religion and philosophy were, to Buddha, ridiculous and only lead to disharmony. Instead, we should strive for the Middle Way to achieve peace of mind (nirvana in Buddhism, ataraxia in Greek).
Pyrrho influenced several Greek schools, such as the Stoics and most importantly for the history of secularism, the Epicureans. Epicurus speculated on how fear of religion and death lead the populace to cede power to authority. Adopting a Buddhist perspective on non-attachments and striving for peace of mind, Epicurus taught that it is worthless to waste our energy fearing religion and our deaths. This teaching did not make him attractive to the Early Church Fathers of later Christianity who disparaged his name and saw that his works disappeared from the written record.
A later Roman disciple of Epicurus, Lucretius, captured much of the teachings of Epicurus in a work titled, On the Nature of Things. This book was thought to have been lost to history until it was rediscovered in a dusty German monastery in 1417 by Poggio Bracciolini. The full history of its discovery, the impact it had, and its role in sparking the Renaissance and fueling the later Reformation and Enlightenment is covered in Stephen Greenblatt’s 2012 Pulitzer-prize-winning book, The Swerve: How the World Became Modern.
The impacts of this rediscovery were indeed enormous. Greenblatt (p. 8) notes that it impacted the:
- The scientific and technical dabblings of da Vinci
- The astronomical dialogues of Galileo
- The political strategy of Machiavelli
Machiavelli was so impressed with On the Nature of things, that he copied it out by hand. His political works, such as Discourses, were not only influenced by Epicurus and Lucretius, but are considered important political works for republicanism. Epicurus and Machiavelli (Vardoulakis, Spinoza the Epicurean) were also important influences on Spinoza.
It is to Spinoza that the secular West owes a great debt for his Theological-Political Treatise (TTP) which fired a warning shot across the bow that clerical authority needed to recede into the background. In the TTP, Spinoza laid out his devastating arguments that this was now the era of great scientific breakthroughs and unrestricted freedom of thought, unencumbered by religious suppression, needed to be the way forward and not, as the clerics wanted, to be mired in the past by superstition. Spinoza’s Ethics, the first moral philosophy to be based on humanist values instead of a theistic morality (Goldstein, Every Claim for Reason Ever Made), can also trace its influences back to Buddha.
Spinoza’s influence on Western secular democracy cannot be understated, as he inspired later Enlightenment thinkers, such as Diderot and Jefferson. French and American Enlightenment thinkers were instrumental in their respective revolutions, laying the groundwork for the republics that have influenced other Western nations to become the bastions of secular humanism we find today.
From Buddha to Pyrrho and on through Epicurus and Lucretius, the ideas on striving to achieve peace of mind and a rejection of dogmatism came to influence and inspire some of the greatest thinkers of the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In this regard, the modern secular West can trace its existence to a man living 2,500 years ago in the Indus Valley who rejected Zoroastrian absolutes.