The Problem with Ataraxia

Steven Gambardella
3 min readSep 29, 2022
Do we only see things clearly when we have words for them? Photo by Linda Xu on Unsplash

Back in July last year I was contacted by Brigid Delaney, an Australian journalist with an interest in mental health and well-being. She interviewed me for a feature about the philosophical concept of ataraxia for The Guardian, and it was great to exchange ideas with her.

That The Guardian was covering ataraxia will be encouraging for everyone who looks to the ancient Hellenistic philosophies for life guidance.

And so I jumped at the chance. It’s precisely my aim to spread as far and wide as possible the notion that happiness doesn't consist in pleasure and indulgence. I was happy to elaborate that a deeper, enduring happiness consists in the absence of distress, in peace of mind.

That’s what ataraxia really means. Its rough translation is “without perturbation” or “un-perturbed”.

The problem is that the word ataraxia itself is off-putting. At worst, it sounds like an obscure phobia to modern Western ears, at best it sounds technical and academic.

There’s no direct translation of the term either, only the rather clunky-sounding indirect one I have given. This says something about our language and the way it has conditioned our thinking. All our words for achieving happiness entail doing something, and achieving happiness by not doing something seems inconceivable at first.

This may have something to do with “linguistic determinism”, commonly known as the “Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis”. The idea is that the words we use at least partly structure or limit the ways we think about the world.

There are many sensations and things that there are no words for.

For example, there’s no word for the residual warmth we feel when we sit where somebody else has been sitting.*

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Steven Gambardella

History PhD. The lessons of history and philosophy for your life and work. Writes The Sophist: https://sophist.substack.com/