Ataraxia (pronounced AT-uh-RAX-ee-yuh) is Greek for “undisturbed” or “untroubled.” It’s a kind of inner peace – the ability to remain calm despite fear, anger, sadness, or stress. A person who with strong ataraxia has mastered the emotions and can rise above the ordinary difficulties that we all encounter in life. Ataraxia is the ultimate form of “keeping an even keel.”
Ataraxia is sometimes translated as “happiness,” but that’s a bit misleading. When we talk about happiness, we usually mean a temporary state of joy or pleasure. Ataraxia isn’t necessarily pleasurable – it’s calm.
II. Ataraxia vs. Eudaimonia
In addition to ataraxia, the word “eudaimonia” is often translated as happiness. But the ideas are very different, and neither of them is quite the same as “happiness.” Eudaimonia means “good soul” or “good mind,” and refers to the ultimate goal of human life. For Greek philosophers, eudaimonia came from living a life of excellence – striving to be effective at whatever tasks we set for ourselves, from farming to fighting to parenting. A good life, for the Greeks, was like a good workout – strenuous, tiring, but ultimately satisfying.
Ataraxia was understood as one of the aspects of eudaimonia – this state of tranquility was part of the reward for living a good life, but it was also one of the methods for living a good life. The Greeks believed in strong self-discipline, and argued that ataraxia could be achieved through constant practice, so that it would ultimately become second nature to us, and we would move one step closer to achieving eudaimonia.
III. Quotes about Ataraxia
“The art of living well and the art of dying well are one.” (Epicurus)
Along with Pyrrho, Epicurus was one of the Greek philosophers who developed the idea of ataraxia. When he talks about “living well” here, he’s talking about achieving eudaimonia through practicing ataraxia. Part of ataraxia, of course, is accepting death and not being too fearful about it – but how can we do that? One way, Epicurus says, is to live a good, honest, and diligent life.
“For one whose mind is empty of desires, there can be no fear.” (Buddha)
As we’ll see in the next section, ataraxia was largely inspired by Buddhist philosophies. In this line, Buddha discusses the idea of rising above the emotions, pointing out that fear and desire go hand-in-hand, and by mastering desire we can conquer fear.
IV. The History and Importance of Ataraxia
The idea of ataraxia is strongly associated with the Greek philosopher Pyrrho. Pyrrho was a companion of Alexander the Great, and joined Alexander in his conquests throughout Persia and India. While in India, Pyrrho encountered unfamiliar philosophies like Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, and he noticed that they all shared some common elements, notably a desire for serenity and inner peace, and a belief that these goals could be achieved through intense self-discipline, meditation, and acceptance of one’s fate. Pyrrho brought these ideas back to Greece, where they spread like wildfire. Several important philosophical schools were influenced by these ideas, notably Skepticism, Cynicism, and Stoicism.
The Stoics became a particularly strong school of thought in the late Greek and early Roman worlds. Stoicism was dominant among the Roman elite for over a century as major figures like Cato and the Emperor Marcus Aurelius were devoted Stoics. Their writings developed Stoic ideas of acceptance, inner tranquility, and mastering the emotions, and the resonances with Buddhism are everywhere.
With the coming of Christianity, Stoicism went into decline and the idea of ataraxia became less and less popular. The Christians believed in original sin, which brought with it a different relation to suffering. Pyrrho, following the Buddhists and Hindus who inspired him, had seen suffering as a problem to be solved, and ataraxia was his solution; but for the Christians, suffering was a divine punishment for original sin, and therefore it was blasphemy to try and rise above it as the Stoics and Buddhists had done.
In the modern world, ataraxia is rarely discussed, but there’s more and more attention to the Indian religions that originally inspired it. Many people now are trying to escape their hectic lives and achieve nirvana, or inner peace, which is essentially the Hindu/Buddhist concept of complete ataraxia – a state of deep stillness that can overcome any pain or hardship.
V. Ataraxia in Popular Culture
Bruce Banner, also known as The Hulk, has carefully developed a sense of ataraxia. In these stories, he has to keep calm and overcome hardship through perseverance and serenity. If he fails to do that, he will lose control of his body and transform into a green wrecking-ball of destruction.
In Mass Effect, Commander Shepard manages to keep his calm under all sorts of frightening and difficult situations. In the game, several of his possible backstories highlight his sense of ataraxia – in one, for example, he manages to keep calm during an attack by Thresher Maws, giant horrifying alien worms. When the rest of his unit panics and runs away, Shepard calms his fears and keeps fighting.