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Ataraxia: wonder drug?

By: James Aitchison

Not a new opioid, not a new antidepressant, not a variant of diazepam or citalopram, ataraxia can certainly be prescribed for today’s world, offering a life free of fear and worry.

Ataraxia lies at the heart of Stoicism, a philosophy not a religion, practised by the ancient Greeks and Romans.  Its most famous proponents were Seneca, Epictetus, and the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius.

As a word, ataraxia means calm, tranquility, a state of mind enjoyed by the self-possessed, immune to life’s challenges.  As the great Stoic Seneca advises, “There can be absolute bedlam without, so long as there is no commotion within.”

Stoicism addresses all the faults of modern living, the emotions of anger, distress, dealing with insults, the need to control the world around us.  The three tenets of Stoicism are that you can only control three things: your own character, the way you treat others, and the way you react to others. 

All well and good for life in ancient Rome, one might say, but today’s world is far more complex.  Not so, the Stoics would assure you.  Stoicism doesn’t mean giving up and letting the world ride over you.  Stoics equate calmness with strength.  An inner strength that equips Stoics to focus.

The three great Stoics were movers and shakers of their day.  Epictetus argued that courage is not inconsistent with caution.  “What then are the things which are heavy on us and disturb us?  What else than opinions?”  Never believe the chatter of people around you, he wrote.  “What utter foolishness it is to be afraid that those who have a bad name can rob you of a good one.”

By throwing away self-conceit, by not caring about what belongs to others, by rooting out arrogance and distrust, the Stoics sought to preserve that which is your own good in everything so that you behave consistently with reason in respect to others.  “There is only one way to happiness — the rule is not to look towards things which are out of the power of our will.”

But we are human, after all.  Anger, even rage, are commonplace emotions.  On that subject, Epictetus cautioned us to be calm.  “Any person capable of angering you becomes your master; he can anger you only when you permit yourself to be disturbed by him.”  Seneca agreed: “Anger always outlasts hurt.  Would anyone think it normal to return a kick to a mule or a bite to a dog?”

Epictetus gave us valuable advice for the present day.  “I laugh at those who think they can damage me.  They do not know who I am, they do not know what I think, they cannot even touch the things which are really mine and with which I live.” 

Seneca, ever the pragmatist, also warned against excessive pleasures.  He pointed out that an excess of so-called pleasures, when taken beyond a certain limit, are but punishments.  “You know what wine tastes like: it makes no matter whether a hundred or a thousand flagons go through your bladder — all you are is a strainer.”

The Stoics’ calmness, focused wisdom, and their overpowering of anxiety is relevant and reassuring.  Epictetus sums up thus: “You can be invincible if you enter into no contest in which it is not in your power to conquer.”

Amen to that.


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