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Home Newsletters Reflecting on my lecture: Buddhism and Stoicism: a comparison

Reflecting on my lecture: Buddhism and Stoicism: a comparison


Richard Gombrich

A few days ago I gave a lecture, which I began like this:

“Once many years ago I was having a conversation with my father, when he asked me to explain the Four Noble Truths to him. When I did so, he responded, “I see. It is like Stoicism.” Over the years I have read quite a few books and attended many lectures about Buddhism. Occasionally the Buddha’s teachings are compared to those of some western philosopher; in my experience the commonest such comparison is between the Buddha’s teaching of no soul and the philosophy of David Hume. But very rarely have I come across comparisons with Western classical philosophy….


“So when the Ven Dr Dhammasami and I decided to organise this lecture series, and felt that we should both contribute to it ourselves, I decided I should try to do something new. I was therefore rash enough to announce today’s topic. I am afraid I did not give myself time to acquire more than a very superficial knowledge of Stoicism. I have relied very heavily on one book, Stoicism by John Sellars; let this blanket acknowledgment stand for many.”

When I came to give the lecture, I was both flattered and apprehensive to see in the audience Professor Sir Richard Sorabji, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at King’s College London, probably the leading authority on Stoicism in Britain. It is therefore a relief to report that Prof. Sorabji, an extremely kind and polite person, was complimentary about my talk in the discussion.

As always happens nowadays, I was urged to publish my lecture on our website. I had no objection to people recording the lecture for their private use, but I do not want to publish it as it stands. Why?

I have a minor reason and a major reason. The minor reason is perhaps trite and obvious. I took on a big topic, and had to tailor my remarks so that they took just 55 minutes to deliver. When one publishes an article one nearly always has some latitude in deciding its length, so that, for example, one does not have to be too concise in making a point if one thinks that it would be clarified by a little expansion. There are also other ways in which a spoken text should be modified for reading outside its original context, but these are too obvious to mention.

What I want to stress is my major reason. In almost any context, and certainly at a university, a lecture is a form of teaching. There is no reason why a teacher should be expressing his own original thoughts or using original material in order to convey his message. If he wants, for example, to tell his audience about the structure of DNA, he is perfectly at liberty simply to tell his audience what the discoverers of that structure, Crick and Watson, said about it. But for publication to a wider audience there should be a completely different standard.

As stated above, for my lecture I relied extremely heavily on a single book by John Sellars. Since I clearly said so, I cannot be accused of plagiarism. But if I publish the text, in which I often take a phrase or sentence from his book, it is a different matter, even if I give the reference every time. I owe it to the public to think all the material through for myself. By publishing I stand as guarantor for my entire text, even if I have learnt its contents from others. To become the guarantor, I should, if I am honest, also have checked other sources, even if I decide to stay with Sellars for my interpretation. Similarly, when Sellars quotes an original source in English translation, even if I use his translation I should have checked it for myself.

I do intend in due course to publish an article based on my lecture. But I hope that it will be an improved version and based on a more thorough understanding.






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