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3343Ataraxia as an existential or mystical state?

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  • John Uebersax
    Jun 2, 2010
      Thank you to everyone who kindly replied to my previous question about the heart and the One of the soul. The posts were most informative and helpful.

      Here is a different question. Perhaps the most common example used to illustrate Skeptic ataraxia comes from Sextus Empiricus: the painter Apelles, exasperated by inability to represent the foam on a horse's mouth, threw a sponge he was using at the canvas and this produced exactly the desired effect. (Sextus Empiricus, PH [Pyrrhoneioi hypotyposeis] 1.28-29)

      Ataraxia is often defined as "freedom from mental disturbance", or mental placidity. However Sextus' example suggests more. The story didn't go, "just as Apelles was about to throw a sponge, he realized his mental error and calmed down, achieving ataraxia." Instead, the example involves a synchronization of Apelles' actions with the world. It was Tao-like: he had the impulse to throw the sponge; he consented to the impulse; his nervous system and muscles operated to throw the sponge in precisely the right way; the detail on the painting was completed.

      Since Sextus intentionally chose this example, it suggests ataraxia is more than only mental tranquility. Apelles momentarily entered what might be considered a mystical state: a communion with the Tao in which everything happens providentially, where reality is numinous and sacred. This unitive or nondual state, where the person and world are harmonized, has parallels not just in Taoism, but also Buddhism and Christian Mysticism, and in the Stoic concept of an organic, Logos-directed universe. Psychologically it makes sense: get the rational, doubting ego out of the way – which is accomplished by Skeptic questioning -- and the universe becomes magical.

      Is anyone aware of attempts to understand Skepticism, and ataraxia in particular, along these lines? This seems entirely consistent with Hadot's concept of 'philosophy as a way of life', although, so far at least, I haven't located any treatments in his works of this specific topic.

      Thanks in advance

      John Uebersax
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