||imperturbability, freedom from disturbance, equipoise, tranquility
Ataraxia is a state of consciousness, characterized by freedom from mental agitation.
It is an important concept for several Hellenistic schools of philosophy, including the Stoics, Epicureans and Skeptics, though each school tends to have a slightly different interpretation of ataraxia. Our definition here is closest to the Skeptic school.
The derivation of the term is instructive: a is a privative, i.e. meaning 'not'; taraxia is the condition of being confused, disturbed, agitated, roiled, muddied or darkened -- qualities which unfortunately characterize the quality of waking consciousness much of the time.
It is often supposed that ataraxia implies passivity and quiet contemplation, but that is not necessarily so. Ataraxia can also be experienced during activity; this is action which is both internally and externally harmonized and in accord with Nature -- i.e., a flow state characterized by effortless action, following divine inspiration without resistance (see Example below).
Ataraxia can be distinguished from a related condition, apatheia, or freedom from disordered passions and emotions
(pathos = passion). Thus apatheia is absence of disordered passions themselves (which have other effects besides mental disturbance); while ataraxia is specifically the freedom from mental disturbance.
Hence, we achieve ataraxia in part by means of apatheia. It's important to understand that the problem here is not having passions -- passions themselves come from Nature. But rather our false opinions cause us to misconstrue or exaggerate passions. Hence we reach apatheia and ataraxia by ridding ourselves of false opinions. One principal means of this is by
epoche and other strategies related to Pyrhonnic skepticism
One of the fruits, so to speak, of ataraxia is joy (chara).
The literature of Christian mysticism emphasizes a possibly related state, called recollection (Spanish: recogimiento, or re-gathering; recollection in this sense is not to be confused with remembering or anamnesis). This subject is treated most definitively by
Francisco de Osuna,
whose writings directly influenced St. Teresa of Avila and St. John of the Cross.
Sextus Empiricus supplies an example of ataraxia::
"The Sceptic, in fact, had the same experience which is said to have befallen the painter
Once, they say, when he was painting a horse and wished to represent in the painting the horse's foam, he was so unsuccessful that he gave up the attempt and flung at the picture the sponge on which he used to wipe the paints off his brush, and the mark of the sponge produced the effect of a horse's foam. So, too, the Sceptics were in hopes of gaining quietude [ataraxia] by means of a decision regarding the disparity of the objects of sense and of thought, and being unable to effect this they suspended judgment; and they found that quietude, as if by chance, followed upon their suspense.
(Outlines of Pyrrhonism 1.28—29)
Significantly, the example involves an action -- Apelles tossing his sponge at the painting. The anecdote could be interpreted as follows: Apelles was trying too hard to paint the horses. When this didn't work, he gave up control and acted in a completely spontaneous way, the effect was achieved; hence this exemplifies what we above called active ataraxia.