Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Ataraxia and the Tobacco Wacko

Near the end of the 1980's I read a paper at a multi-day philosophy conference in Ancient Olympia, Greece. After one of the sessions, we repaired to a beautiful seaside spot for lunch. We sat in the open air at long tables under a canopy. Directly across from me sat a Greek woman who had read a paper on ataraxia. A concept central to the Greek Sceptics, Stoics, and Epicureans, ataraxia (from Gr. a (not) and taraktos (disturbed)) refers to unperturbedness, tranquility of soul. Thus Sextus Empiricus (circa 200 A.D.) tells us in his Outlines of Pyrrhonism, Book One, Chapter Six, that “Scepticism has its arche, its inception and cause, in the hope of attaining ataraxia, mental tranquility. (Hallie, p. 35) The goal is not truth, but eudaimonia (happiness) by way of ataraxia (tranquility of mind). A key method is the suspension (epoche) of all doxastic commitments.

As the lunch neared its end, the Greek woman lit a cigarette. Unfortunately, a politically correct young Brit was sitting directly to her right. He asked her to put out the cigarette, but she refused. So he doused her and her cigarette with a glass of water. As one might have expected, the Greek woman became quite animated at this turn of events, and an altercation ensued. After things subsided a bit, I looked into her eyes and said one word: ataraxia. She looked back and shouted: ATARAXIA!

I extract three morals from this true story.

The first is that the activities of professional philosophers are at best only loosely connected to the acquisition of wisdom. One can read a thousand books in three languages, publish a hundred articles in two, become ever so skilled in logic and dialectic -- and at the end be scarcely distinguishable, morally speaking, from the average schlep. This is not so much an argument against professional philosophy as it is an argument against human nature. Religion, too, seems to lead to little improvement in its practitioners.

The second is the arrogance of the British. This charge is not an inference from this particular case – which would be a hasty generalization – but an illustration of a point antecedently known.(People often confuse hasty generalization with illustration or exemplification: if I give an example of a general truth, that is not to say that I have arrived at the truth by generalization from that example.) Consider the situation. The Brit was a guest in a foreign country, a country whose ways diverge markedly from those of Mother England. There are different atttiudes toward work, play, relaxation, food, entertainment – and smoking. Greeks, like Turks, are fond of the noble weed. They savor, they enjoy, they take their time: I once watched a Turk smoke a cigarette as if he were making love to it. We were sitting in the open air. Oblivious to all this, the arrogant Brit sought to impose his will on one of his hosts. The Brits are right up there with the French. Their arrogance seems to vary inversely with their power and stature.

The third moral has to do with the tobacco wacko phenomenon in general. I subsume it under the rubric, misplaced moral enthusiasm. This is a big topic, one to which I shall no doubt return,time and again. At the moment, I will just say that tobacco wackism is a form of social insanity right up there with the anorexia-inducing conceit that one cannot be too skinny. The idiot Brit was willing to destroy a perfect social occasion because of an ideologically grounded hostility to a bit of sidestream smoke that he could easily have moved away from. There was a law in Mesa, AZ a while ago – it may have been since repealed – that forbade smoking in all commercial establishments including bars and tobacco shops. That’s just crazy. People go to bars to pollute their bodies with alcohol and their souls with idle talk. That is their right. Surely these forms of pollution are worse than nicotine pollution.