CONTENTMENT AND THE MEANINGFUL LIFE – WESTERN ANTIQUITY – PART VII (continued)

The fourth ancient Western school we looked at in our study of contentment was that of Epicurus whose governing principle is ataraxia or untroubledness. This means freedom from pain, anxiety, grief, and cravings for luxuries and pleasure, but not the complete forsaking of all goods like the Cynics. And unlike the Skeptics, the Epicurean asserts we know the following: the will is free, the soul dies with the body, and that we need not fear the gods. Given these facts, logic tells us that obstacles to contentment are  ultimately trivial. Virtue becomes essential as it frees us from the guilt and worry about the consequences of vice. Wisdom tells us that misfortune is easily born and that we should abandon envy, ambition, the lust for fame, and be satisfied with inexpensive food, simple shelter, and good friends. The Epicurean   tetrapharmakos comes down to elimination of fear of the gods and of death, and recognition of the ease of obtaining basic needs and of enduring evil.

The last ancient Western tradition is that of the Roman Stoics, a concretion of the earlier traditions, relying most heavily on Greek Stoicism and Epicureanism. Using Seneca as our guide we saw tranquility configured as euthymia or ‘well-being of the soul’ and aokhlesia or “undisturbedness.” This is achieved by a tricky mix of meaningful but limited participation in society, elimination of trivial desires and superfluous property, conquest of internal dissatisfaction, acceptance of Fortune, adaptability, the ability to laugh at humanity and ourselves, simple forms of relaxation, learning to retreat into the self, and the contemplation of Nature and the cosmos.

So what can we extract from these five traditions that is relevant today? Contentment still comes down to freedom, that is, freedom from wants and from worry and freedom to order our soul for inner peace. It is a freedom no person, government, or law can take from us. It depends only on our own resolve. The three ancient Greek terms ataraxia, apatheia, and euthymia enclose a triangle of tranquility we access when we retreat inside our mind beyond the crowd and its disquietudes and where we can contemplate the harmony of self, Nature, and the universe.

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