Thursday, 7 December 2006

Ataraxia, or: On Attaining a State of Nevermind

Pyrrho of Elis professed to believe that nothing could be known, and accordingly the only proper attitude to take towards life was that of ataraxia, a state of nevermind free from the peturbance of worry or preoccupation, to be attained through a suspension of judgement. (If any Pyrrhonist ever attained ataraxia, we must presume he suspended judgement on whether or not it was the proper attitude to take towards life.) If the old story is to be believed, poor old Pyrrho fell to his death from a cliff when showing off his lack of faith in his senses. I do not think I am too mean-spirited in harbouring the suspicion that even he would have been a little put out by this turn of events.
…..The Epicureans and the Stoics had different – and safer – ideas on how to attain ataraxia: for the Epicureans, it was to be attained through fear-allaying knowledge, temperance, friendship, and living retired; for the Stoics, it was to be reached through an heroic self-control to overcome passion and pain.
.....Whatever else one makes of these doctrines, one must concede that they require discipline, than which fewer things are more certain to scare away the modern mind.
…..To that mind fitted with all its conveniences and comforts, the thought of a disciplined life is a dreadful one. The desire to be free from care and worry is nevertheless still strong. With that mind, therefore, there is no sublime discipline so as to transcend the hardships of life, but rather a submission to whatever makes life easy and carefree. One suspects it would rather live in a joyless order than be inconvenienced or unsafe.
…..The desire to be free from care is an understandable one, but taken to extremes, it stifles life, and may bring about other consequences besides, as Schopenhauer noted:
[J]ust as our body would inevitably burst if the pressure of the atmosphere were removed from it, so if the pressure of want, hardship, disappointment, and the frustration of effort were removed from the lives of men, their arrogance would rise, though not to bursting-point, yet to manifestations of the most unbridled folly and even madness. At all times, everyone indeed needs a certain amount of care, anxiety, pain, or trouble, just as a ship requires ballast in order to proceed on a straight and steady course. [1]
If we were, after all, to view ataraxia as the greatest good, we might envy cabbages, although the perturbance caused by such envy would further bear witness to how far we fall short of such vegetables.

[1] Arthur Schopenhauer, “Additional Remarks on the Doctrine of the Suffering of the World”, Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol.2, tr. E.J.F. Payne (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2000), pp.292-3, §152.


dearieme said...

WE might fall short of cabbages, but surely the French don't?

Deogolwulf said...

Wash your mouth out with a fine claret.

James Higham said...

The desire to be freed from the discomforts of life is the softening of the underbelly of society. No one learnt from Imperial Rome, it seems.

Anonymous said...

While I was in the process of reading your very interesting assertions, I noticed that you misspelled "Parerga" in the footnote.

Christopher said...

Is it better to live life as a pig, satisfied, than as Socrates, dissatisfied?

Deogolwulf said...

Indeed so, Mr Higham. Thanks and well spotted, Mr Gregson. Better not put it to the vote, Mr I.

Cirdan said...

The desire to be freed from the discomforts of life is the softening of the underbelly of society.

Not nearly as softening as the inability to distinguish the inevitable discomforts from evitable ones.

Sky Captain said...

Fascinating.Quite fascinating.I must come here more often.
Life!But not as we know it!