What is Detachment in Daoism, Buddhism and Stoicism?

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There are several schools of thought that advocate the cultivation of detachment. In his paper, "The meaning of Detachment in Daoism, Buddhism, and Stoicism", David Wong outlines how the three philosophies view detachment and what is to be gained from detachment.

Wong breaks the concept of detachment down into two types; the extirpation of special feeling or the encapsulation of special feeling. By looking at the different interpretations offered by the schools of thought aforementioned, Wong comes to the conclusion that one should try to adhere to the encapsulation method of detachment over extirpation.



Wong begins his paper with an examination of why detachment is striven for in Buddhism and Stoicism. He states that Buddhists view attachment as dangerous because it often leads to uncontrollable excess. People should detach from material goods, power, status and even the people and communities they are surrounded by. This conclusion is drawn from a strong belief within the Buddhist philosophy that all things are impermanent and hence attachment to them is an illusion causing excessive pain at their loss.

The Stoics advocate detachment for similar reasons as Buddhists. Stoicism teaches that intrinsic value should not be projected onto things dependent upon the outside world. These objects dependent upon the outside world can disappear at anytime and hence leave one with a feeling of loss or grief. It is for this reason that the Stoics advocate detachment so that one may be totally self-sufficient in one's happiness and will not have to depend on the unreliable outside world. Wong makes it clear that both schools would have you “not attach to anything or anyone that can be taken away at any moment” (208) for it will lead to sadness when it is lost.



This detachment, called for by both Buddhism and Stoicism, can be interpreted two ways. First one can “extirpate special feeling for others,” which involves the elimination of special feeling toward others (208). If one can rid oneself of special feeling for an entity, one won’t feel sadness at the loss of said entity. Secondly, one can “cultivate resilience, to ‘encapsulate’ special feeling” (208).

This entails finding a perspective of the world that allows one to remain in emotional equilibrium, even when faced with the loss of an object one harbors special feeling for. Wong makes the claim that encapsulation is preferable because extirpation denies one too much of the human experience.

Wong uses the Stoic interpretations of Nussbaum and Becker to help defend his support of encapsulation over extirpation. Nussbaum uses Chrysippus to show how Stoicism could be interpreted as a philosophy of extirpation. Nussbaum and Chrysippus both place the notion that value judgments are identical to emotional dispositions at the center of their beliefs. When one makes a value judgment of a person or object one is necessarily creating an emotional disposition to its loss. If a person was to ascribe high value to an object and that object was then lost the person would be unable to remain emotional unaffected by the loss.

The only way to avoid emotional tumult is to deny the loss or the original value judgment; either way the situation has not been fully accepted. If one values something, the loss of that something must excite an emotional reaction. Nussbaum and Chrysippus believe that human nature is defined by our ability to reason. It is this ability to reason that creates the emotional disposition out of value judgments. If one places great amounts of value on a thing, the only reasonable reaction to its loss will be grief.

To avoid such emotional upheaval one must not judge things so highly or expiate the passions of attachment. Passions in this instance are defined as “emotions that [are] excessive by rational measure” (211). These passions or excessive emotions can threaten one's control over their life. Excess in one area of a person’s life can disturb or cause negligence toward other areas of that person’s life. Nussbaum would also say that to control the passions is impossible. Once one has allowed an emotion to become excessive it tends to grow more and more so.

Love and anger both grow from an acceptable amount until they end up controlling a person. It is also noted that love often leads to negative feelings like anger, jealousy, pity; all things that in turn may also become excessive and derisive to a controlled sense of self. It is with this in mind, argues Nussbaum, that one should do away with the passions, with excess. This doesn’t lead to a life devoid of emotion; instead a different type of emotion is felt; one more conducive to control over the self.

Becker agrees that the passions are properly defined as excessive emotions. However, he uses this distinction to take Stoicism in a different direction than Nussbaum and Chrysippus. Becker would disagree with Nussbaum that the essence of human being is purely reason. Becker prefers to view humans as complex, ruled both by passion and reason. Reason should be used to limit the effects of the passions and maintain agency. Reason allows one to appropriately apportion attachment to objects based on their delicacy. If an object is particularly transient one should not form a strong attachment to it.

The goal for Becker is to avoid attachment that has maximum ramification upon loss of the object of attachment. If one can successfully do this they may experience grief but it will not be so intense and devastating as to obstruct one’s rational agency over their life. For Becker agency is the goal, and so long as it is maintained attachment can be accepted.

Wong goes on to ask if deep attachment and encapsulation are really consistent as Becker would suggest. He believes they are and defends his point with an interpretation of the Taoist text Zhuangzi. This interpretation advocates detachment but realizes the impossibility of disengagement. The idea is that anyone who lives in this world is forced to engage with certain unavoidable human emotions, but by detaching oneself from the desire to control these emotions contentedness can be found.

In the Zhuangzi, change is seen as an ultimate reality. One can have attachments, goals, desires and values but must not worry and fret over what changes they bring to life. You can enjoy them for a period but it must be remembered that things will always change and you will find yourself in new situations, with new emotions and fighting these changes is what leads to suffering. One should submit to the changes and not try to force them, for if you fail you will find yourself upset. Embrace the whole that is change.

In his conclusion Wong explains how the encapsulation that can be found in Taoism and Buddhism is better than the self protective extirpation of Stoicism. Buddhism and Taoism both embrace a view that denies the existence of the self. Buddhists see the self as an ever changing mental and physical aggregate. The Taoists have a similar belief in that they see humans as small parts of a bigger whole that is undergoing perpetual change and hence they and their surroundings are susceptible to change.

If there is no self, there is nothing to protect from the grief of loss. If you are part of something that is always changing why suffer through resistance to that change. This is different from the Stoics who place highest value in the self and seek to protect the self from grief by avoiding attachment.

The Buddhist and Taoist views, argues Wong, allow for one to love deeply something while it is there, feel and accept its loss but to place that loss in the larger context of a continually changing whole to find solace, not to simply shield oneself from the grief by denying the self deep attachment. Wong sees that Detachment in Daoism, Buddhism is more fully human than the Stoic version.

One might raise the argument that Wong, along with Buddhists and Taoists, misunderstand the self. If one believes that there is a self and that this self is an end in and of itself, as the Kantian or Stoic might, then it is hard to think that suffering could ever be acceptable.

If a happy and contented self is the end goal then it is irrational to say grief is acceptable. With such a conception of self it is hard to place that self in a context of the self as a small constituent part of a greater whole. If the self is the largest perspective, that is if the self is what matters most, then it becomes important to shield that self from any kind of grief or pain caused by loss.

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