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The Ultimate Tranquilizer

Maria Karvouni introduces an Epicurean state of mind.

In the fast-paced environments in which we live and work, more and more people need the help of a psychologist, a psychiatrist, or drugs to effectively face the challenges of society. But for those who want to avoid seeing a doctor or taking pills for their stress, there is something else that could be the best solution to this core mental health issue of modern humanity. It is not a medicine; it is a state of mind.

Ataraxia was a word used by the Greek philosopher Pyrrho to refer to a state of robust equanimity characterized by a freedom from worry. The Pyrrhonian Sceptic Sextus Empiricus defined it thus: “ataraxia is an untroubled and tranquil condition of the soul.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary says ataraxia is “calmness untroubled by mental or emotional disquiet”. While the Oxford English Dictionary calls it “a state of serene calmness”, and goes on to credit the term’s origin to the Greek ἀταραξία, ‘not perturbed’, from a- ‘not’ + tarassein ‘disturb’. In other words, ataraxia means that you’re not upset by whatever happens, however good or bad it may be.

sedative bottle
The Ultimate Tranquilizer. One part Greek philosophy, two parts acceptance of death. Dilute ten drops in water from a duck’s back. If symptoms persist, see your local Epicurean.
Cerebral Sedative by Science Museum, London. cc by 4.0

Sextus Empiricus declared that a person who achieves ataraxia is one who takes no position as to what is by nature good or bad, and neither avoids nor pursues something intensely. The Stoics, by contrast, thought that ataraxia is not an end to be pursued for its own sake, but rather is a natural consequence that occurs in the person who pursues virtue and is not prey to unhealthy passions.

Epicurus characterized the state of ataraxia as the absence of pain and freedom from all worry. He said that the condition in which nothing can discomfort you – whatever that thing is and however distressful it is – can be attained through philosophical contemplation. Moreover, according to Epicurus, ataraxia is the goal of life.

For Epicurus and his followers, ataraxia was the only true happiness possible. Only in this way of thinking can people be able to overcome any obstacles and follow a wise path. The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy says: “The greatest destroyer of happiness, thinks Epicurus, is anxiety about the future, especially fear of the gods and fear of death. If one can banish fear about the future, and face the future with confidence that one’s desires will be satisfied, then one will attain tranquility (ataraxia), the most exalted state.” Epicurus concludes that everything should be faced with ataraxia. He even wanted people to not be afraid of death, indeed to have no anxiety over it, for death is not experienced by the deceased. Of course, there may still be people who care about the one who dies. For these people Epicurus’s thinking may be no consolation at all, because they will suffer from no longer having their loved one in their lives. Epicurus’s approach may also be hard to comprehend for people who face a painful death process or believe in an afterlife. But it may be a general consolation for those who see death as an instant incident.

Knowing Epicurus’s thought-processes concerning death provides a good example of how a person must think to reach ataraxia. Epicurus argued that there is no point in fearing death because when death comes for you you won’t be alive to experience it, and thus you won’t suffer: death means losing your senses and your consciousness. Epicurus doesn’t believe that the soul has experience after death as because a soul needs a body to function. Good or bad exist for us through our experiences, and since being dead doesn’t involve experience, it is neither good or bad for us. So why worry? Similarily, the Stoics argued that you can’t control external circumstances. You can only control your attitude to your circumstances: so why worry? So the next time that something threatens your calmness and peacefulness, just remember to remain undisturbed and unperturbed: say to yourself, “So what?”

Ataraxia looks like a perfect remedy for stress and anxiety for those who can achieve it. If you persuade yourself that you can deal equitably with every possible incident of life, then you will be able to face life’s complexity and you will always be calm. And is there anything better than inner peace and tranquility?

© Mara Karvouni 2018

Maria Karvouni is a freelance writer focusing on creative non-fiction in both art and science, applied through life-long education.

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