On Ataraxia

And why it is the ultimate cool.

2050px-Equestrian_statue_Marcus_Aurelius_replica,_Capitole,_Rome,_Italy
Marcus Aurelius, Roman emperor and stoic philosopher

Prior to the advent of Christianity, there were, of course, the pagan gods, but, especially for the high-minded, there were also a number of philosophical schools.

The four major philosophical schools of Western antiquity were cynicism, stoicism, skepticism, and epicureanism.

Despite each having their own outlook and approach, all four schools emphasized the attainment of mental tranquillity and mastery, or ataraxia—making them, in my view, much more similar than different.

Probably the best way of grasping at this concept of ataraxia [Greek, ‘lack of disturbance or trouble’] is by looking at how it fitted into each of the four schools.

Cynicism

The first cynic appears to have been the Athenian philosopher Antisthenes (d. 365 BCE), who had been an ardent disciple of Socrates. Then came Diogenes (d. 323 BCE), the paradigm of the cynic, who took the simple life of Socrates to such an extreme that Plato called him ‘a Socrates gone mad’.

Diogenes held that human beings had much to learn from the simplicity and artlessness of dogs, which, unlike human beings, had not ‘complicated every simple gift of the gods’. In fact, the term ‘cynic’ derives from the Greek kynikos, which is the adjective of kyon, or ‘dog’.

Diogenes placed reason and nature firmly above custom and convention, which he held to be incompatible with happiness. Rather than pursuing wealth, renown, and other worthless things, people should have the courage to live like animals or gods, partaking in life’s pleasures without bond or fear.

The stories surrounding Diogenes, though embellished, or because embellished, help to convey his spirit. Diogenes wore a simple cloak which he doubled up in winter, begged for food, and sheltered in a tub. He made it his mission to challenge custom and convention, which he called the ‘false coins morality’. Upon being challenged for masturbating in the marketplace, he mused, ‘If only it were so easy to soothe hunger by rubbing an empty belly.’ He used to stroll about in broad daylight brandishing a lit lamp. When people gathered around him, as they inevitably did, he would say, ‘I am just looking for a human being.’

His fame spread far beyond Athens. One day, Alexander the Great came to meet him. When Alexander asked whether he could do anything for him, he replied, ‘Yes, stand out of my sunlight.’

I mean, honestly, how much cooler can you get?

Stoicism

Diogenes was followed by Crates of Thebes (d. 285 BCE), who renounced a large fortune to live the cynical life of poverty. Crates married Hipparchia of Maroneia, who, uniquely, adopted male dress and lived on equal terms with her husband.

By the first century, Cynics could be found in cities throughout the Roman Empire. At that time, cynicism vied with stoicism, a broader philosophical system that emphasized perspective, self-control, and fortitude, and that, in the second century, could count the emperor Marcus Aurelius and senator Cato the Younger among its adherents.

Zeno of Citium (d. 262 BCE), the founder of stoicism, had been a pupil of Crates, and cynicism came to be seen as an idealized form of stoicism.

Here are five thoughts on ataraxia from the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius:

  • You have power over your mind—not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.
  • If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
  • The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.
  • It is not death that a man should fear, but never beginning to live.
  • Very little is needed to make a happy life; it is all within yourself, in your way of thinking.

Skepticism

Skepticism and epicureanism also took off around the time of Alexander. Like the sophists whom he opposed, Socrates had skeptical tendencies, claiming that he knew little or nothing and cultivating a state of non-knowledge, or aporia.

Pyrrho of Elis (d. 270 BCE) travelled with Alexander across Persia and into India, where he encountered various schools of thought, such as Hinduism and Buddhism and their sects, including the ‘naked wise men’ or gymnosophists, with a common emphasis on inner peace. After all, what is the Hindu nirvana if not complete ataraxia?

Blending East and West, Pyrrho came to believe that knowledge is impossible and urged suspension of judgement with the aim of exchanging anxiety and dogmatism for ataraxia.

The Pyrrhonian skeptic Sextus Empiricus (d. 210 CE) compared Pyrrho’s prescription for ataraxia to a real or fabled episode in the life of the painter Apelles of Kos. One day, Apelles was painting a horse but failed so completely to depict its froth that he gave up and flung his sponge at the picture—thereby accidentally achieving the desired effect.

In the 16th century, the translation of the complete works of Sextus Empiricus led to a resurgence of Pyrrhonian skepticism, and the work of Descartes—’I think therefore I am’, and so on—can be read as a response to a skeptical crisis… with roots in Ancient Athens and Ancient India.

Epicureanism

Like Diogenes, Epicurus of Samos dedicated himself to attaining happiness through the exercise of reason: reason teaches that pleasure is good and pain bad, and that pleasure and pain are the ultimate good and bad. This has often been misconstrued as a call for rampant hedonism, but actually involves a kind of hedonic calculus to determine which things, over time, are likely to result in the most pleasure and least pain.

Epicurus explicitly warned against overindulgence, because overindulgence so often leads to pain; and, rather than pleasure, emphasized the avoidance of pain, the elimination of desire, and ataraxia.

‘If thou wilt make a man happy’ said Epicurus, ‘add not unto his riches but take away from his desires.’

2 thoughts on “On Ataraxia

    1. Great question! Certainly there’s quite a bit of overlap. There’s even the suggestion that ataraxia is in part based on what Pyrrho of Elis found in India when he went there with Alexander the Great. But I think ataraxia is a broader concept than mindfulness or ‘inner awareness’.

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