I came across a review of an interesting-looking movie the other day, called ‘The Wrong Man’ (or ‘Lucky Number Slevin’ in the US). What caught my eye was that the main character (who from what I could tell from the review is mistaken for someone else and gets caught in a tricky situation) claims to have ‘ataraxia syndrome’. I’m not sure if this is a real syndrome, but in the movie (which I admit I haven't seen) it has the effect that the main character remains cool and level-headed despite the most worrying circumstances.
This idea comes from the Greek word ataraxia (often translated as ‘pleasure’, but meaning something closer to ‘serenity’), which was a central concept in Epicurean Philosophy. Epicureans are often stereotyped as being debauched, gluttonous hedonists, but in fact this is an unfair caricature.
Epicureans did indeed believe that pleasure was the highest good (summum bonum) in life, but they had a different understanding of pleasure to what we might understand today. For an Epicurean true pleasure is freedom from the pain of need or desire. True pleasures are those which satisfy the body’s needs, without developing an appetite that cannot be sustained. For example, a simple meal of bread is a more satisfying than a rich banquet, as when the banquet is over it causes pain by its absence. Likewise romantic attachments are to be avoided because of the pain they would cause if they were to end. “The apparent ‘cultivation’ of pleasure in this way only serves to diminish it, whereas the wise man (sic) will remain content with what is easily available… and will not develop appetites that cannot be satisfied… The man (sic) who can find pleasure in simple things will always be satisfied, and the fastidious bon viveur will have less pleasure and more pain than the humblest of the poor.”*
This kind of pleasure - a freedom from want and worry - is what Epicurus termed ataraxia.
* Introduction to Lucretius, On the Nature of the Universe, Penguin Classics, pp. xix-xx.