The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, By Stephen Greenblatt… is the story, of [Poggio’s] greatest discovery: the dazzling philosophical poem by Lucretius that he found hidden away in a German monastery and rescued from oblivion. It was De Rerum Natura— On the Nature of Things, written in the first century BCE.
The mysterious 15th century rediscovery of a lost manuscript from antiquity that sheds light on our understanding of the modern world?! Sounds curious. So I read on. The reference led to Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus and hence to ataraxia, the most curious of all.
Ataraxia (Ἀταραξία “tranquility”) is a Greek term for a lucid state, characterized by freedom from worry or any other preoccupation. For the Epicureans, ataraxia was synonymous with the only true happiness possible for a person. It signifies the state of robust tranquility that derives from eschewing faith in an afterlife, not fearing the gods because they are distant and unconcerned with us, avoiding politics and vexatious people, surrounding oneself with trustworthy and affectionate friends and, most importantly, being an affectionate, virtuous person, worthy of trust.
… Also n. 1. Perfect peace of mind, or calmness. Peace of mind. A state of tranquility free from anxiety and emotional disturbance. Calmness untroubled by emotional disquiet: intellectual detachment, imperturbability; A disposition free from stress or emotion — ataractic, ataraxic, adj. See also: happiness
Synonyms: comfort, composure, confidence, contentment, cool, easiness, enjoyment, equability, gratification, idleness, inactivity, inertia, law and order, leisure, order, passivity, patience, peacefulness, placidity, poise, prosperity, quietness, relaxation, repose, restfulness, satisfaction, security, sedateness, self-possession, serenity, steadiness, stillness
This all sounds good to me! And then the “fly in the ointment”.
Symptoms of Ataraxia Disorder: Not taking things too seriously. Avoid complexity. And always think they can handle anything. Complexity is one of the major things that they avoid in life. They cherish simplicity more than anything else. “Ataraxic states are relatively common in people suffering from mental disorders such as dementia and ADHD. Some particular forms of dyslexia have also been known to ’cause’ ataraxia.”
I suppose a true state of ataraxia would be like being stoned, a state I have not experienced. Would it be equally dysfunctional and destructive if achieved by self-control and meditation? Would it be healthy antidote to the existential anxiety so prevalent in our lives. Or is it a threat to the demands, the commands of our daily life in which we are constantly bombarded with advertisements that feed our greed and foster envy, insecurity, and debt.
In the course of my wanderings I also found references to the importance of stoicism in American military training. Vice Admiral James Stockdale gave this lecture at Quantico in 1995. It opens as a PDF file with a blank cover sheet, so scroll down to read it… very interesting!
So I wonder. How did Ataraxia, considered the highest state of mental and emotional bliss by the Stoics come to signify a mental illness in the modern world? Wouldn’t we all, in this stress-filled, high-anxiety, dystopic world we live in, like a little of this madness!?
What do you think?