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Inner Peace (Epicurean Ataraxia)

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Ataraxia is a Greek word that basically means freedom from worry - imperturbability. It is seen in two different forms of Greek philosophical thought, that of the Pyrrhonians and the Epicureans. This entry discusses the Epicurean philosophy and how ataraxia fits into it.

Epicurean Ataraxia

Epicurus was a Greek philosopher born in 341 BC. He lived, he moved around a bit, studied under Nausiphanes and at Plato's Academy, and finally settled down in Athens, where he established his own school called The Garden (most likely because it was set up in his garden). The philosophy he taught touched on Physical Theory, Psychology and Ethics and Social Theory. His physical philosophy consisted of the theory of atoms and how they worked, and included a theory on soul atoms, the atoms that were supposed to comprise a human's soul and provide the capacity for sensation. It is an important part of his psychological philosophy that once a body ceases to function (dies), soul atoms are too weak to hold on to each other and scatter. Epicurus taught that death was nothing to be feared because when the soul atoms scatter upon death, the person no longer has the ability to perceive senses and, thus, has nothing to fear from the Gods or the afterlife. He argued that since there is a word for "death," one often assumes that death is something that can be experienced and, therefore, feared. This is false, since the ability to experience things vanishes with death. Death, then, is nothing to us, because while we are alive, our death is not, and when our death occurs, we do not exist. For Epicurus, ataraxia is the absense of fear (including fear of death) and a continous lack of perturbation and the Epicurean goal in life was freedom from mental anxiety (ataraxia) and freedom from physical pain.

The mind cannot be relied upon to determine between good and bad because it is subject to beliefs that could be flawed and cognitive errors in judgment. Sensations, however, cannot be altered by a flawed belief, and are not subject to cognitive errors. The body, then, must be relied upon to be the determiner of good and bad - in other words, pain and pleasure. If something is pleasurable, then it is good. If something is painful, then it is bad. We must do all we can to maximize pleasure and minimize pain. This is not a carte blanche to do whatever we desires, however, because some short-term pleasures (i.e. gluttony) can lead to long-term pain (i.e. stomach pains, obesity, etc...).

To help differentiate between real pleasures and possibly painful ones, Epicurus divided human desires into three categories: necessary, natural, and empty. Necessary and natural desires are those that look to the general safety and well-being of the person. Necessary desires include the desire to eat, or have a roof over our head. Natural desires are more like luxury desires, to eat good tasting food, live in a nice smelling house, or sleep in silk sheets. Empty desires are those that do nothing to look after a person's well-being and can never truly be satisfied, for example, the desire for power, which will neither feed, cloth nor shelter us, does not relieve anxiety and will, in most likelihood, increase our anxiety. Obviously, we are to avoid the empty desires, and feel free to have at the necessary and natural ones all we please.

In his social theory, Epicurus discusses society's development from the "pre-social" ages up to his modern time. Originally, humans were solitary, and society did not exist. Humans began socializing for security (strength in numbers), and from these humble beginnings we see the evolution of agriculture, towns and villages, cities and kingdoms, and governments and laws. Committing a crime becomes a great example of a short-term pleasure that leads to long-term pain, as even if the criminal gets away with his or her deed, the knowledge that the deed is illegal and fear of getting caught will become a source of anxiety. General fear of punishment turns a pleasure into a pain. There is, therefore, no motive for an Epicurean to violate the rights of others, as such action would lead to more harm for the Epicurean then good. For Epicurus, it didn't matter whether or not a person was virtuous, only that a person behave virtuously.

Finally, Epicurus puts a special emphasis on friendship, and being a good friend. One should cherish one's friends, and be ready and willing to go to the ends of the earth for them, share in their pain, even die for them. Only by treating and loving a friend so, can one be secure in the friendships of others.

To sum it all up, obey the law, ignore empty desires, and be satisfied with fulfilling the necessary and natural ones. Do not fear death, and be secure in your ability to fulfill your desires. Become as self-sufficient as possible, to relieve anxiety about the possibility of not fulfilling necessary desires. Surround yourself with friends, and treat them well so you can be sure that they will also treat you well. Live simply, and be satisfied with the simplicity, and you will have achieved Epicurean ataraxia - inner peace.

Epicurean Ataraxia and Me

First and foremost, I feel the need to express my humor at the concept of soul atoms. While, as far as I know, there really is no better contemporary scientific way to look at a soul, I still find it funny and cute. =3

I rather like his description of necessary, natural and empty desires. I think this sort of classification for the purposes of decision making is even more applicable today. What would the world be like if, before attempting to fulfill a desire, people always stopped and thought, "Now do I really need this? And will it really make me feel better?"

I remember the moment when I learned the difference between need and want, and exercising that differentiation really did make my life a lot simpler. I no longer cared or fretted so much about not having the things I wanted and felt more satisfied in having the things I needed. Even today, my husband and I are a lot more liberal with our money than we ought to be (i.e. buying a compound bow to improve archery skills for when the zombies come, giving a friend $1000 to buy a car 'cause she needed it, etc...), and I know we ought to save more than we do, but we live in such a manner because we are secure in our ability each month to satisfy our necessary needs. Times when it gets tight, we cut down on what Epicurus called our "natural" desires, and it doesn't perturb us to sacrifice these things because we know they are desires that do not matter anyways.

Epicurus' philosophy results in a very low personal standard of living. As long as you're necessary desires are fulfilled, you are satisfied. Thus, an expensive steak meal is equivalent to a fifty cent can of microwaveable ravioli, and vic versa. Either way, the necessary desire to not be hungry is fulfilled. With this philosophy, there becomes very little that can cause anxiety in a person. If an Epicurean gets laid off from work, for example, s/he is unperturbed because s/he can simply cut back on luxuries and usually still maintain his / her standard of living.

One BIG problem I have with Epicurus' philosophy is the little-picture view it advocates. Epicurus focuses purely on the individual and what directly affects the individual. Don't worry about the world, or the big picture, just make sure you've got enough to eat and a warm place to sleep. But I DO worry about the world, and I DO worry about the big picture. I worry about socialized health care and China's growing economic influence in America. I am perturbed by the growing parent state and the laws that take the decision of wearing a helmet or buckling a seat belt out of my hands. Epicurus said that "the greatest benefit of self-sufficiency is freedom," but can self-sufficiency free me from my government? Epicurus' perfect lifestyle seems better suited for a commune of quasi-social hermits than modern society.

I feel that as much of his philosophy as can be applied to contemporary life I have already figured out. Since his philosophy has nothing new to offer me, I find myself no where closer to my personal goal of inner peace. And so in conclusion: thank you, Epicurus, for nothing.






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That was a nice review, Elys. I think your concerns are well directed: you could compare Epicurus with the sentiment in Donne's No Man is an Island and it's not so much that we worry about the world around us but that even if we didn't we would still be subject to its influences.

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Thank you, Hugo! You certainly put my thoughts into much more clear and concise words! :p Maybe this calls for a formal comparison of the two (Epicurus and Donne) somewhere down the line...

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Nice blog post, Elys! Coincidentally, in Durant's The Life of Greece, which I'm slowly wending my way through, I was reading about Democritus today and made note of his connection of these terms in living the good life: ataraxia - peace and serenity of the soul; euthumia - good cheer; metriotes - moderation; and biou symmetria - order and symmetry in life. According to Durant, Democritus thought that the "wise man will cultivate thought, will free himself from passion, superstition, and fear, and will seek in contemplation and understanding the modest happiness available to human life." Durant also provides this Democritus quote: "Good actions should be done not out of compulsion but from conviction; not from hope of reward, but for their own sake. ... A man should feel more shame in doing evil before himself than before all the world." from Owen I, 149. Thanks for the interesting review of Epicurus! I'll watch for more from you!

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