Gisela Striker: "Ataraxia: Happiness as Tranquility" in Monist, v. 73, no. 1, January 1990. p. 97-111.
The Enlightenment experiment in the pursuit of happiness has largely been abandoned by modern Western society in favor of ideological rigor, utilitarianism devoid of ethics, or commercial hedonism, the pleasure of profit and the profit of pleasure. Yet the common person pursues happiness as a goal, a fantasy devoid of controversy, an unclear and mysterious dream that people have no idea how to attain. Revisiting what the ancient philosophers thought of happiness provides insight from a more reflective culture. As the author immediately points out, the Greeks argued in terms of actions and behaviors promoting happiness but not of happiness as a state of mind, however created. Philosophers today may understand the distinction but lay people need to appreciate it, too. Importantly, the discussion enriches the context of solitude and eremitism.
First, some nuances in ancient Greek and Roman vocabulary:
cheerfulness, good spirits (from Democritus)
ataraxia: freedom from trouble or anxiety
athambia: prosaic sense of euthymia, literally a mind free of fear
hesychia: quietness (later popularized by Greek Christianity)
eustatheia: stability, evenness
aponia: absence of pain (from Epicurus)
The author finds the Roman use of tranquilitas to be the equivalent of all of these terms.
By beginning with the pre-Socratic Democritus. we allows for a genealogy of tranquility. Democritus was initially concerned about the reprehensible behavior of meddling into other people's business (polyfragmosyne) in preference to a quiet and self-contained life marked by a positive attitude and a rudimentary sense of tranquilitas. No ethics is built into this view according to the rigorous standards of Plato and Aristotle, however.
Epicurus identified tranquility as a sort of pleasure, with tranquility not an act or event but a state, a pleasant state of mind, aponia. A state of mind is not happiness itself but a characteristic of a happy person, so that, as with Democritus, no ethics or even a methodology is proposed.
In contrast, the Stoics argued that tranquility was the product of a virtuous person's lifestyle, immune to emotions and therefore immune to pleasure or pain. Tranquility was not a virtue itself but neither was it the fruit of pleasure or a state of mind. The joys of virtue, said the Stoics, were moral or spiritual pleasures. Stoics adopted the term ataraxia in its literal sense but identified it as imperturbability, a character trait rather than a mere state of mind. The Stoic elevation of imperturbability, a sage-life aspect of disposition, is a notch higher than the Epicurean sense of being unruffled or of being assuaged by expectation (or memory) of pleasant things.
Imperturbability may be indifference (apatheia) in the Eastern sense of leading to freedom, not additionally cold or uncaring. (Striker does not pursue this analogy.) The absence of wrong value-judgment places the individual seeking tranquility beyond the vicissitudes of fortune. While this theme is primarily Seneca's, for other Stoics such as Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus ataraxia remains a negative term: absence of disturbance.
Among the ancient Greek skeptics, "Pyrrho is described by ancient biographers as a living paradigm of ataraxia," notes the author. The skeptic, not able to ascertain whether anything is good or bad, became indifferent to everything, detached and subsiding in his peace of mind. Pyrrho's student Timon argued that by emulating Pyrrho, one would attain a state of tranquility, that is, happiness. The argument is elaborated by the skeptic Sextus Empiricus, who shows that anyone suggesting a hint of dogmatism -- by which he means assertions about right or wrong, good or bad -- cannot but suffer anxiety and not attain happiness. The happy person will have tranquility and also lead a tranquil life. The dogmatist will pursue actions intensely (syntonos) and hence live in anxiety, defeating the ways and means to tranquility.
These arguments of the Pyrrhonists do not dissuade the Stoics from asserting the existence of ethics and values, nor the Epicureans of the impossibility of tranquility outside of renouncing any pleasures whatsoever. Neither of them intently pursues money, fame, health, status, power, or anything that frustrates tranquility by its impermanence. The skeptic has presented a false notion of who chases after what. Even if Sextus believes that pursuing virtue creates anxiety and unhappiness, the Stoic's reply is to show that virtue does not create anxiety because it cannot be lost or exhausted.
The author pursues the skeptics' arguments thoroughly, although the telling refutation need only be a shrug. Both Stoics and Epicureans can note that the skeptics will never really attain happiness or tranquility because they lack contentment or satisfaction, the built-in notion that skeptics cannot accept that anyone can be happy or tranquil. The Pyrrhonists, notes the author roundly, should have stuck to epistemology.
But while the Stoics have a strong ethical foundation in arguing that peace of mind comes from conformity to nature and an acceptance of nature's vicissitudes and ways -- something that the Epicureans could not agree with, substituting reason -- neither Stoics nor Epicureans really invested their philosophy in presenting a system for attaining happiness. If happiness is just a state of mind that has nothing to do with one's moral character (Stoicism) nor the truth or falsity of one's convictions (Epicureanism), then neither school can be said to have proposed a firm conception of happiness. Instead, happiness remains a by-product of virtue, insight, and reasoning.
Both schools are pursuing a viable "good" and not a mere
state of mind. Even if happiness were simply the absence of pain,
pursuing Epicureanism "would not necessarily be enough to make one
happy" and philosophers would "leave this concern to psychiatrists or
pharmacologists." "If philosophical theories about happiness are to
have any interest," concludes the author, "then, it seems, we had
better assume that what we are looking for are conditions that will
produce good reasons for being content, rather than ways of reaching
peace of mind."