By the time I know what I wish from life it will have past me by like a train at a level crossing. I will see what I want but only from the frustrating distance . A lonely, ponderous state of ‘what ifs’ and ‘how comes’. It seems to me that Aristotle was correct when he suggested that happiness is the only thing that we choose for itself. Everything else is in the pursuit of happiness. We choose a career, and life course, an education , a car, a boat, whatever, because we are convinced that these things will make us happy.
So what is happiness? Does it even exist beyond a transient moment of ecstasy? Is that happiness? The realization of a goal. The attainment of something desired? There almost seems more happiness in something wished for and expected than in its realization. We are goal seeking animals and as such, no matter what the goal achieved is we quickly move on to other goals. It’s the hoarder in us. Its why money never seems to do it and whatever amount we have we feel if just a little more were to grace our path worry would up and leave.
The Epicureans of ancient Greece had a word to denote freedom from worry; a peaceful tranquil state of mind. Its Ataraxia. It’s a weak form of materialism. Not in the seeking after money and possession sense of the term but in the Marxist dimension of being unconcerned with anything that is not of this world. It is often just ridiculed just like in Pauls day as the pursuit of pleasure. This is way off the mark. It is however not concerned with metaphysics. There might be gods out there and their may be an afterlife but no one has ever come back to us and proved anything to us and the gods don’t seem to bother with us so why bother with them. Being controlled and measured in the face of circumstances that are out of our control is the mark of Ataraxia. A tolerant and pleasant disposition that frets not at insults; desires not his brothers possessions and dispenses goodwill to all.
Curious that the Apostle Paul practically ridicules the Epicureans and the Stoics in Acts 17. Or maybe not so surprising. What Paul was preaching was merely a subset of their own wider, tolerant and patient embrace of humanity. Pauls was a narrow and proscriptive version of what the Greeks already were practicing. The throwaway dismissal of the Epicureans and the Stoics showed little more than a fear and insecurity that marks nearly all of Pauls writings. And its no wonder either that Pauls teachings are favoured by more. The Epicureans offer no solipsistic narrative that flatters the believer into thinking that they are special and an almighty deity will reward them for their nobility. It simply says that patience, tolerance, kindness and moderation are rewards in themselves. These things bring happiness and happiness is what we want. Or more accurately – Ataraxia.
This is what I want. And I think it’s what we all want