File spoon-archives/lyotard.archive/lyotard_2001/lyotard.0111, message 84

Date: Sat, 17 Nov 2001 09:37:45 -0600
Subject: Ataraxia

Hugh, All:

Events have conspired lately to keep me from my keyboard.  I will soon
follow up with the next installment on Badiou's Ethics and post another
message on cyborgs. Today I just wanted to try and clarify a few things
about the concept of ataraxia.

In the past there has been some discussion about the issue of religion
at this site and recent events have proved the extent to which religion
still factors into public life.  

My stance on religion is a complicated one.  Paraphrasing Marianne
Moore, I believe religion at its best gives us "real toads in imaginary

What I mean by that is the following. Beyond all the dogma, myth,
illusion and superstition of religion, its core values are situated
around an understanding of happiness that goes beyond social conventions
by various names such as Satori, Enlightenment, Self-Realization, the
Kingdom of Heaven, Paradise, Atman, etc.  

What religion offers at its core is something, as Castoriadis and others
have pointed out, politics alone can't give us.  A just society would
merely set up the conditions for happiness, autonomy and
self-fulfillment.  The rest would still be up to us as individuals to
create within our own lives. 

What Marx, Freud, Nietzsche and others have pointed out is that in its
usual practice, religion acts as an opiate of the masses, the illusion
of deferred gratification, and belief in a world-behind-the-scenes that
helps us avoid dealing with this one.  Although this is all true in many
respect, it does not describe the totality of religious practice.  There
is a persistent tradition, of what I will call for convenience sake
mysticism, that attempts to know God, Atman, Nirvana etc directly and
experientially in this life.  What is at stake here is the possibility
that a condition of inherent bliss can be realized that goes beyond the
social conditions of status, wealth, power and possessions.        

What I am talking about is very different in principle from the Joseph
Campbell statement - follow your bliss.  What Campbell is referring to
is the conventional wisdom that one should live one's life with passion
and pursue one's dream.  It is the standard ideological view that
informs everything in our culture from Disney films to army commercials.
(Be all that you can be.)

Ataraxia is very different than this.  At its core is the insight that
desires are of various types both necessary and unnecessary. Those that
are necessary have limits which can be satisfied.  These needs are both
physical and mental, but once they are met, a interesting development
can then occur.  In the absence of pain in the body and anxiety in the
mind, a condition of tranquility, peace and inherent bliss can emerge
which does not require any particular object to satisfy it and which has
remains constant.  It is simply the inherent pleasure of our native
state of being, beyond the terror imposed from without and the
self-contraction imposed from within. 

I believe the great philosophical accomplishment of Epicurus is to have
deconstructed religion and to have revealed in its place that this state
of blessedness or beatitude which all religion seeks is at its core a
purely natural one. It does not require theology, the supernatural or
divine intervention, no deus ex machina. It is a state is available to
all of us, if each would only choose.

What is also interesting is that Epicureanism emerged at the time of the
Alexandrian Empire, a time when the parochial borders of the Greek
city-state had been eclipsed by the spread of globalism and
transnational bureaucraties. An age that mirrors our own in many ways.

So even though it remains true that historically Epicureanism rejected
politics, this needs to be put into context.  I would argue that
essentially he practiced a politics of exodus from the empire in order
to develop counter-structures capable of resisting it.  It is well known
his home became the center of a vibrant community, which he named the
Garden, and that people of all ranks were accepted by it, including,
controversially, women and slaves.  

There is nothing inherently anti-social about ataraxia.  Epicurus
himself presented friendship as the highest ideal (which we must
recognize was very different from our limited contemporary notion and
much closer to notions of a civil society.)  One who experiences
ataraxia does not withdraw from the world, but enters it on a different
basis.  It is a question of living from rather that living toward.  Life
is henceforth governed by fulfillment rather than by lack.

In the wake of 911, it has become obvious that our reliance, not just on
foreign oil but on oil in general, makes America act in ways that are
conducive to continued terrorism.  There is a need to maintain a great
strategic empire that assures our access to cheap and abundant oil. 
Since there is simply not enough oil available to support this level of
civilization on a global level, it creates a tiered society in which
some remain rich while others remain poor and violence becomes necessary
to maintain those divisions, just as the resentment of the poor and
dispossessed discover their own violence in terrorist forms to contest
this arbitrary hegemony of power.

To break this cycle, the only way out ultimately that I can see would be
if a new movement in the industrialized centers of the world made an
exodus from wasteful consumption and careerism towards a simpler mode of
living in which the basic transaction would be more free time and less
things.  The motivation to create such a movement would probably need to
come from something like what I have been calling Epicureanism.  

It would be a metaphysical break within Occidental culture.  It would no
longer be a question of following your bliss, that dream of Ulysses that
invented the West. Instead, it would be a question of living from bliss,
the dream of Orpheus, that alien god for whom song is existence and who
still haunts the West.  

Socially and politically, it would mean the creation of institutions
that limit the need for the experience of pain in the body and anxiety
in the mind.  It would recognize that the only way to ultimately combat
terrorism is to deal with it is at its root.  And this root is the
terror that lies within the human heart, coiled like a serpent.  This
ultimate form of terrorism can only be overcome by ataraxia, the peace
and joy that passes understanding.



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