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Ataraxia (ἀταραξία, literally, "unperturbedness", generally translated as "imperturbability", "equanimity", or "tranquillity") is a Greek philosophical term used to describe a lucid state of robust equanimity that was characterized by ongoing freedom from distress and worry.
Achieving the state of ataraxia was a common goal for many Ancient Greek philosophies. As a result, the term plays an important role in many different Ancient Greek philosophical schools. The use of the term ataraxia to describe a state free from mental distress is similar throughout these different schools, but the role of the state of ataraxia within a philosophical school varied depending on the school's own philosophical theory. The mental disturbances that prevented one from achieving ataraxia often varied between schools, and each school often had a different understanding as to how to achieve ataraxia. Some schools valued ataraxia more highly than others. Three schools that often employed the term ataraxia within their philosophies were Epicureanism, Pyrrhonism, and Stoicism.
Ataraxia, considered by Epicureans to be freedom from mental discomfort, was a key component of the Epicurean conception of the highest good. Ataraxia was extremely important to Epicurean ethics, since Epicurean ethics, like almost all other Greek philosophies, was concerned with determining the nature of and reaching the highest good.
Epicureans valued ataraxia so highly because of how they understood pleasure. Epicureans argued that pleasure was the highest good, and they broke pleasure down into two categories: the physical and the mental. They considered mental, not physical, pleasures to be greatest sort of pleasure because physical pleasures exist only in the present and mental pleasures exist in the past, the present, and the future.
Epicureans further separated pleasure into what they called kinetic and katastematic pleasures. Kinetic pleasures are those pleasures which come about through action or change. Such an action could be satisfying a desire or removing a pain, as that very sort of act is pleasurable in itself. Actions that feel good, even if not done to satisfy a desire or remove a pain, such as eating good-tasting food, also fall under the category of kinetic pleasures. Mental pleasures could also be kinetic in nature. Epicurus is said to have described joy as an example of a kinetic mental pleasure.
Katastematic pleasure is pleasure which comes about from the absence of pain or distress. This sort of pleasure could be physical or mental. Physical katastematic pleasures comes in freedom from physical disturbances, such as simply being in the state of not being thirsty. Comparatively, mental katastematic pleasure comes in freedom from mental disturbance. Those who achieved freedom from physical disturbance were said to be in a state of aponia, while those who achieved freedom from mental disturbances were said to be in a state of ataraxia.
Katastematic pleasures were regarded to be better than kinetic pleasures by Epicurus, believing that one could feel no more pleasure than the removal of all pain. Indeed, he is reported to have said,
"The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together."
Being both a mental and katastematic pleasure, ataraxia retained a supreme importance in Epicurean ethics and was key to a person's happiness. Under the Epicurean system, a person would experience the highest form of happiness should they ever be both in a state of aponia and ataraxia at the time.
Pyrrhonists viewed ataraxia as a state of mental tranquility, and they felt that not only could Pyrrhonism lead to ataraxia, but also that the tranquility of that ataraxia would bring about happiness for a person. Moreover, Pyrrhonists felt that this sort of happiness, one resulting from the tranquility of ataraxia, was life's ultimate purpose.
Pyrrhonists offered multiple arguments for how Pyrrhonism could lead to ataraxia. The general form of these arguments was that by refraining from all judgment, a Pyrrhonist would not be perturbed by anything and enter into a state of tranquility. The Pyrrhonist Timon supposedly pointed to the life of Pyrrho as an example of Pyrrhonism leading to ataraxia. According to Timon, because Pyrrho remained skeptical and made no judgements about the world, he was able to successfully live a peaceful and undisturbed life.
Other Pyrrhonists also gave arguments for how Pyrrhonism can lead to ataraxia. Sextus Empiricus gave a number of arguments for why Pyrrhonism leads to ataraxia. In Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Sextus Empiricus argues that by making judgments about what is good and what is bad, an individual causes themselves to be disturbed since they will be distressed when they lack the good things and will constantly worry about losing those good things should they ever come into possession of them.
"For the person who believes that something is by nature good or bad is constantly upset; when he does not possess the things that seem to be good, he thinks he is being tormented by things that are by nature bad, and he chases after the things he supposes to be good; then, when he gets these, he falls into still more torments because of irrational and immoderate exultation, and, fearing any change, he does absolutely everything in order not to lose the things that seem to him good. But the person who takes no position as to what is by nature good or bad neither avoids nor pursues intensely. As a result, he achieves ataraxia."
Sextus Empiricus offers further variations on this core argument to explain why Pyrrhonism could lead to ataraxia. Among such arguments, he claimed that even when one has good things, one would still feel troubled because the enjoyment of good things often comes from being the sole person with access to those things, and one might have anger or jealous feelings towards others who also have those same things.
In Stoic philosophy, the mental tranquility that was ataraxia was not the ultimate goal of life. Instead, a life according to nature was the goal of life. Despite this, ataraxia was still an important part of Stoic philosophy. Although ataraxia was not an explicit goal of Stoicism, stoics felt that by living in accordance with nature, one would also end up in a state of ataraxia. In essence, ataraxia was a byproduct of a virtuous life.
An important distinction to be made is the difference in Stoicism between ataraxia and the Stoic idea of apatheia. While closely related to ataraxia, the state of apatheia was the absence of unhealthy passions; a state obtained by the ideal Stoic sage. This is not the same as ataraxia. Apatheia describes the freedom from the disturbance of emotions, not tranquility of the mind. However, apatheia was integral for a Stoic sage to reach the stage of ataraxia. Since the Stoic sage does not care about matters outside of himself and is not susceptible to emotion because of his state of apatheia, the Stoic sage would be unable to be disturbed by anything at all, meaning that he was in a stage of mental tranquility and thus was in the state of ataraxia.
- O'Keefe, Tim (2010). Epicureanism. University of California Press. pp. 117–121.
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